Skip to content

Shakespeare Knew PTSD

April 23, 2019


The following is my annual “devotional” delivered before the Vermont House of Representatives. I always focus on elements of William Shakespeare’s language and observations and how they relate to the issues we deal with every day in our work. I came upon this monologue several years ago, and when I researched it, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of writing that had been done on it, noticing that Shakespeare was defining what we now call PTSD, hundreds of years before we had that name for it. Knowing that Shakespeare and, presumably, others of the time, described this illness in this way is, as discussed below, strangely gratifying.

Testimony two weeks ago in your House General, Housing and Military Affairs committee shook many of us to the bone, and gave focus to one of the great unknowns about the genius of William Shakespeare.

Today is considered Shakespeare’s birthday, depending on which source you read, and it may have been the day he died, 52 years later, in 1616, 403 years ago. During the years I have stood here, sharing a devotional with him, I have done so in the spirit of his poetry, and of the notion, in agreement with Harold Bloom, that Shakespeare created the artistic view of the complete human being, and, in the face of his somewhat indecipherable but beautiful words, transcribed human feelings in a way that teaches us — teaches me — that our emotional evolution is perhaps one of the slowest things we know; and that rather than imagine that Shakespeare “invented” the human in art, as Bloom describes, he perhaps merely captured, poetically, the unchanging human condition.

It’s easy to say that we’ve changed so much since the late 16th or early 17th century, and that’s true. We no longer die quite so often from plague. We have running water and we know how to get rid of human waste safely. We have electricity and phones that are computers that fit in our pocket and ways of making the whole world smaller that were barely if ever considered 400 years ago.

But when we quickly think of 400 years ago, we think people were…what? Ignorant? Not as smart as us? Like us but not as complex? But we know different. And what I love about Shakespeare is that we haven’t really changed, at least not as much as we would like to believe, and this lack of change actually grounds me in my work here in the building.

The testimony we heard was about burn pits in the Middle East, and how when we have gone overseas and built tremendous camp cities in deserts (or, for that matter, in jungles in Vietnam), we have solved for so much except for waste. Burn pits are a normal part of life in these camp cities, but they are large—some the size of three contiguous football fields—and they distribute dust and chemicals and acrid smoke across the horizon, just as it did in America before we learned how to better incinerate, dispose of, or recycle trash.

And we heard about the illnesses that we think are caused by these burn pits, and how some of our bravest servicemembers are succumbing to diseases they shouldn’t have developed in the first place. And I felt some kind of deep anger — the kind that I don’t usually exhibit, not when I am hearing testimony, and to relieve myself of that, I thought and I thought and I sought some kind of cultural solace, a lifeboat really, that would bring me back to the present, and temper my anger, if only by an acknowledgment through the art that we are who we are, for better and for worse.

And the text I grabbed on to was this one, from Henry IV, about the character Hotspur. Hotspur was a hothead. A contemporary of Prince Hal, who would become Henry the Fifth. Hotspur was bent out of shape because his family helped Henry IV take the crown from Richard II. Rather than share the spoils, Henry IV conspired to keep Hotspur’s family, the Percys, on the outside. Hotspur was a soldier, and was ready to go to war to usurp Henry. And as he prepared for the battle, he was confronted by his wife.

All of this can be considered standard Shakespearean fare — Wars and Kings and Hotheads and Wars and Kings! — but listen to what Kate said to him. Listen, and think of the men and women who fight wars everyday in our name, and are told to exist under conditions that, if examined, would prove cruel to just about anyone else.

She says:

Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

She says:

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?

What does this sound like to you? We have heard this over the years. She says:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage [horsemanship] to thy bounding steed;
Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.

We called it shell shock, or battle fatigue, and now call it PTSD. She says:

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?

We know that men and women change when they go to war, and we know that part of what they lose, at least for a time, is their humanity, their essential common connection with others. It has to be so, and it saddens me. And when I hear of the things we do in the name of war, and the things we don’t do in the name of our veterans, it seems all the same. And yet we can feel revitalized by the knowledge that it’s a deep problem of human society and we’re not somehow lesser for failing to fix it. That we grapple with the same ideals, the same problems, the same proclivities as our parents, our grandparents and so on back in time until we reach…when?

What I know is this: a human will always fight when they feel oppressed, or if they feel one down, or backed in a corner. Sometimes we will stop and give them a hand up. Sometimes we’ll blame them for their predicament. But what I find promising in our work is that we tend to ask what people need, and we are responsible for helping those we can help. So as we head to the endgame of the session, let us remember that what we do here is the best work there is, and when we do it right, no one will be happy, and no one will be hurt and, somehow, we will all be the better for it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: