Shakespeare and depression

June 16, 2013

I am a freak for Shakespeare. He is wildly comic and incredibly deep. His skill with language is beyond compare. And I’m fairly certain he had depression.

When people without mental illness (people who have not been “furrowed by the plough of suffering” as I say) talk about depression, they talk about symptoms. They talk about things you need to do like “cheer up” (always helpful) or “go for a walk.” They don’t understand the black pit of despair which blots out all light.

When Shakespeare takes on that pit, he speaks like a man who has been trapped in the depths for a lifetime. He knows it inside and out. And with his consummate wordsmithing, he has left us stunning snapshots of what it’s like to be on the inside.

The most famous snapshot is of course Hamlet’s soliloquy:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This is relatively easy to grasp: Hamlet longs for death but then pauses to consider what happens after death. Since he can’t be sure “what dreams may come,” he chooses not to kill himself (“lose the name of action”).

But more telling is the famous speech from Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”  It is in Act V, Scene 5, after Macbeth’s just found out his wife is dead. I’ve heard many, many interpretations but never one so perfectly rendered as Alan Cumming’s.

Note-perfect. I just don’t see how it gets better than that.

Onward! First let’s look at the whole thing:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Now let’s break it down.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

Whenever I hear “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” I think of the many mornings where I wake up and just groan, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck” over and over. This opening sentence is exactly what it feels like to be depressed. First there’s the sensation of the expansion of time: Not just “tomorrow,” but the day after and the day after and (implied) yet another day after that after that after that. When depression strikes, every day is much like the next. It’s a constant struggle just to get up. If we didn’t have to go to the bathroom, I doubt many of us would bother. Some even use bedpans or just wet the bed rather than go upright and face the horror and, let’s face it, the tedium of yet another day.

When you’re depressed, there is no reason to do anything. People without depression don’t understand this. It’s not about “focusing on the positive”; people with depression literally can’t see the positive. There is no positive. It’s simply not there. It takes an enormous amount of energy to fight fight fight to get upright. Then there’s the swinging of the legs over the side of the bed. The setting there, feeling crushed by the weight of all those tomorrows. Struggling struggling struggling to get up on your feet. It’s Herculean. And then you’ve got to brush your teeth and maybe take a shower (if you can manage it) and take your meds and check your email and go to work and put one foot in front of the other over and over and over again and every second you’re aware of how fucking pointless it is. The feeling doesn’t go away. The awareness doesn’t go away. You have to keep fighting it every single second of every single day.

So there’s the struggle itself, the “petty pace” that creeps, not runs. Slowly. So bloody slowly. “Creeps” is actually the best word because it implies that sense of struggle one step at a time. But beyond that is what I call the “mountaintop” vision that comes with depression, when you’re aware not just of today’s struggle, but of every second’s struggle, and how that struggle will connect to the next second’s struggle, which is connected to the next second’s struggle, which just goes on and on “to the last syllable of recorded time.” Why bother?

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

The “mountaintop” vision doesn’t encompass just today and tomorrow; with depression you see a continuum of your whole life and sometimes even more than that. You may lie in bed in the morning and see all of recorded history spreading out before your paralyzed eyes. The choices people make, the traumas and triumphs that happen to them by blind chance—all leading to only one destination: Death. And anyone is a fool who thinks their life has meaning. All our yesterdays just lead to the grave. Beggar or king, we are all dust in the end.

Out, out, brief candle.

Unlike Hamlet’s wishy-washy dithering about death, Macbeth utters the warrior’s cry: “Life, end!” Shakespeare reiterates that sense of “mountaintop” time by calling life a “brief candle.” No matter how grand or small our lives seem to be, every individual life is simply a little light shining briefly in the dark. He says in The Tempest, “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” combining the idea expressed in Macbeth (the brevity of life) with the musings of Hamlet (life is ended by The Big Sleep (to throw in yet another literary reference (Raymond Chandler))).

Life’s but a walking shadow,

I mean, what else can you say? Shakespeare says it all right here. That’s exactly what it feels like. Ashes in your mouth. The sense of being not-all-there, and yet simultaneously unable to extricate yourself from the exquisite torment of every torturous second. You just keep walking but you walk in shadow, dimly aware of the light but unable to reach it. I don’t know why I keep typing; Shakespeare has summed it up perfectly and what do I really need to explain?

a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Here Shakespeare makes one of his frequent references to the theatre, drawing parallels between the stage and life. Here, life is “a poor player.” That can be read a variety of ways. It can be a “pathetic” actor, an “impoverished” actor, or a “pitiful” actor. Knowing Shakespeare, it’s all three. But life isn’t noble or grand—it’s a sham. It’s not authentic. It’s make-believe.

He again makes the “brief candle” point by saying “you get an hour to kick up a fuss and then you’re outta here,” but he adds a new idea by saying “struts and frets.” As we’ll see in the next sentence, Shakespeare says that we make a big deal out of our lives, when actually they are meaningless. We struggle and we brag and we love and we laugh and we fight and we fuck and we cry but all that is just strutting and fretting. Just an actor in histrionics. A shadow play. No actual substance.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Once again I feel it’s pointless for me to try to break this down since it’s expressed so perfectly by Himself. Life is “a tale”—it’s not real, it’s not actual, it’s the telling of a story. It’s a play, which requires suspension of disbelief. It’s what I call “consensual reality”—that reality that we all unconsciously agree on, where bills are paid and laundry done and dinner served and children begotten and on and on. Other realities are optional and you run the risk of ridicule or worse if you admit them. But consensual reality relies upon consent—it has no intrinsic fabric. It relies upon the willing cooperation of everyone in a society to say, “Yes, this is real.” It’s theatre.

But now it’s not only a play, a story, a tale—it’s one told by an idiot. Life is not only a meaningless succession of struggling incidents of torture, it has the audacity to be completely nonsensical. It not only has no meaning, it has a baffling storyline.

Can things get worse? Yes, because life’s full of “sound and fury.” Once again Shakespeare draws a parallel to the stage when he sums up high drama. Considering life from the viewpoint of your bed in the morning or your couch at night, life seems exactly this. Lots of sound. Too much sound. Whispers that drag you down, shouts that leave you numb. And the fury—oh, how we shake our fists at the sky and curse our fate! How all of us, poor players that we are, get caught up in our own dramas! It’s loud, loud, loud, loud, LOUD, and what does it mean?


{Let’s just take a moment}


When life is a play written by an idiot that creeps in a petty pace from every second of recorded time and leads only to a dusty death—when all the struggle and all the suffering and all the overcome indignities and all the small triumphs and all the come-true dreams signify nothing—remind me, why do I want to get out of bed in the morning?

Thank you, Shakespeare, for shining a light on depression for over 400 years.