Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture

Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture

by Carol Thomas Neely


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In the first book to provide a feminist analysis of early modern madness, Carol Thomas Neely reveals the mobility and heterogeneity of discourses of "distraction," the most common term for the condition in late-sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Distracted Subjects shows how changing ideas of madness that circulated through medical, dramatic, and political texts transformed and gendered subjectivities. Supernatural causation is denied, new diagnoses appear, and stage representations proliferate. Drama sometimes leads and sometimes follows other cultural discourses—or forges its own prophetic figures of distraction.

The Spanish Tragedy first links madness to masculine tragic self-representation, and Hamlet invents a language to dramatize feminine somatic illness. Innovative women's melancholy is theorized in medical and witchcraft treatises and then elaborated in the extended portrait of the Jailer's Daughter's distraction in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Lovesickness, newly diagnosed in women, demands novel cures, and allows expressions of transgressive sexual desire in treatises and in plays such as As You Like It. The rituals of possession and exorcism, intensely debated off stage, are mocked and exploited on stage in reiterated comic scenes of confinement that madden men to enhance women's power.

Neely's final chapter provides a startling challenge to the critically alluring analogy between Bedlam and the early modern stage by documenting that Bethlem hospital offered care, not spectacle, whereas stage Bedlamites served metatheatrical and prophylactic, not mimetic, ends. An epilogue places this particular historical moment within the longer history of madness and shows how our own attitudes toward distraction are haunted by those earlier debates and representations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801442056
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 04/09/2004
Series: 2/25/2005
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Carol Thomas Neely is Professor of English and Women's Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana'Champaign. She is the author of Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays and coeditor of The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare.

What People are Saying About This

Gail Kern Paster

"No one working in early modern English studies today knows more about madness and the representations of madness than Carol Thomas Neely, and no one can hold a candle to her when it comes to acute readings of the plays in which the mad or those accused of madness or possession appear. Distracted Subjects contains some of the best readings of canonical Shakespeare plays that I have read in years. This is a major book, one that will become required reading for scholars and students, both advanced and undergraduate."

Mary Beth Rose

"In this interesting, well-written, and readable book, Carol Thomas Neely analyzes the mobility of discourses of madness in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Throughout the book she provides fascinating discriminations among types of madness, explaining historically the changing cultural investments in melancholia, lovesickness, madness as heroic passion, distraction, and insanity. A pleasure to read, this book makes a very important contribution to studies of Renaissance drama, to cultural studies, and to gender studies."

Michael MacDonald

"Despite two decades of historical scholarship challenging and modifying the conclusions of Michel Foucault's famous Madness and Civilization, surprisingly little of that work has focused on the English Renaissance, and there has been no adequate treatment of madness in the great literature of the era. Carol Neely's book does far more than fill in the blankest spots in our mental map: it combines the methods and sources of literary and social history to produce what is easily the best cultural history of the topic ever published. Neely's close readings of playwrights' representations of madness offer new insights into some of the greatest dramas of the age. Distracted Subjects makes a major advance in both our understanding of the history of insanity and also the theories and methodologies we use to study it. It is a book that should be read by everyone interested in the literature and culture of early modern England."

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