Folger Theatre’s upcoming production of Macbeth, adapted by Sir William Davenant from Shakespeare’s play, frames the tale of ambition and bloody deeds within the walls of 17th-century Bedlam. In this venue, an imagined performance by inmates of the London institution fuses the rich Restoration music and spectacle of Davenant’s adaptation with historical elements. Dramaturgical intern Sarah Lind takes us on a tour of Bedlam’s history in anticipation of Macbeth’s first preview on September 4th.
Established in 1247, Bethlem Royal Hospital admitted its first recorded patients with mental illnesses in the 15th century. By Shakespeare’s time, Bedlam, as the asylum was nicknamed, primarily housed poor people with mental illnesses, supporting them through public charity, while their upperclass counterparts received private funding. To the public, however, Bedlam was not just a place to stow away society’s insane: it was, in fact, a tourist attraction where a paying visitor could see the “mad folk” of society, offering spectacle and curiosity as well as cautionary and moral lessons.
By the 17th century, the asylum was infamously known for squalid living conditions and brutal treatments of its inmates. Personal accounts of visitors and inmates report overcrowding, riotous or rebellious inmates, lack of clothing standards, beatings from staff, and the exorbitant stench and filth of the facilities. Noise was a problem too. Even inmates who received better living conditions were unable to escape the hair-raising soundscape of Bedlam. Donald Lupton’s 1632 account vividly describes the noise of Bedlam where the “cryings, screechings, roarings, brawlings, shaking of chaines, swearings, frettings, chaffings,” could make even a sane person go mad. Moveover, treatments for the incurably insane were just as unsettling as Bedlam’s abuse, filth, and noise. Most common treatments were bloodletting, hydrotherapy or cold water bathing, purging or vomiting, and confinement in harnesses, chains, or cells. Additional treatments, and perhaps more macabre, included swing chair therapy in which a rotating chair spun at 100 times per minute, causing blood to gush from the nose and ears, and even unconsciousness. As Lady Eleanor Davies, Bedlam resident in late 1630s, described her experience “as it were, to exchange the grave for hell, such were the blasphemies and the noisome scents.”
Despite these scandals, Bedlam remained a popular object of the voyeuristic public eye, to the point where visitors expected inmates to show signs of stereotypical madness. As Natsu Hattori notes, “In Bethlem hospital itself, the inmates are supposed to have ‘acted crazy’ to entertain their visitors and obtain food or money – ‘in this great age of English drama,’ one historian has said, ‘Bethlem was the longest-running show in London.’”
Visitors might also be interested in seeing famous Bedlamites such as Mary “Moll Cutpurse” Frith, Daniel, Oliver Cromwell’s clairvoyant porter, and the politico-religious dissenter Richard Stafford. These inmates had track records of questionable societal behavior such as publishing disruptive prophetic or religious tracts, attempted regicide, loose sexuality, and political offenses, all of which may have contributed to mental breakdowns or, simply, admittance into Bedlam.
Not all Bedlamites, therefore, were admitted for true mental illnesses. A person could be sent to Bedlam for unreasonable or disturbing behavior, as the legal distinctions between “idiot” or “lunatic” and “bad” or “mad” were not always clear in practice. As a result, some admitted to Bedlam were merely froward wives or vagrants cleared from the street. As playwright Nathaniel Lee famously remarked after five years in Bedlam, “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”
But Bedlamites on display were also objects of charity, not just monstrosity or intrigue. As the leaders of the asylum hoped, seeing society’s most vulnerable might invoke feelings of pity and compassion for paying visitors. Money given by visitors for admission was expressly used for the benefit of the inmates and inscriptions on poor boxes installed at the entrances of asylums encouraged a paying public to “Remember the poore Lunaticks.” Until major institutional reforms began in the late 18th century, Bedlam’s “theatre of madness” continued to entertain visitors with sights of society’s most strange.
Today, Bethlem Royal Hospital still stands as a modern psychiatric care facility. Its long legacy is recorded in archives, histories, and museums, yet Bedlam lives on in popular imagination as a choice setting for horror films and mystery novels—and the Folger’s current Macbeth. How did Bedlam’s history inspire our production? Tune in later in the run to find out more!
Further reading and listening:
- Bedlam: The asylum and beyond by Mike Jay and the Wellcome Collection (2016)
- Madmen: A social history of madhouses, mad-doctors, and lunatics by Roy Porter (2006)
- Bethlem Royal Hospital (UK)
- Bethlem Museum of the Mind (UK)
- Guts and Gore: “Bethlem Royal Hospital” (UK)
- Bedlam podcast by BBC Radio 4 for the “In Our Time” series
- Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited: “Shakespeare and Insane Asylums”
- Hattori, Natsu. “‘The pleasure of your Bedlam’: the theatre of madness in the Renaissance.” History of Psychiatry, vol. vi, 1995, 283-308.
- Andrews, Jonathan, Asa Briggs, et al. The History of Bethlem. Routledge: London. 1997. Print.
Thanks to Sarah for sharing her insights! Stay tuned for her second post on Bedlam in this production and more peeks at Folger Theatre’s Macbeth, which begins performances on Tuesday, September 4. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.