Madness in Greek Tragedy

by christos1

Madness in Greek Tragedy

In this essay I plan to investigate the madness which is described in the Tragedies Herakles, Orestes and Hippolytus written by Euripides, and see whether it is possible to link it with any mental or other illnesses that we recognise today. What is evident from studying these tragedies is that the madness described in the three plays forms part of the central theme in each tragedy, as the main character is driven by this madness to carry out his or her killings. Another factor we have to consider when trying to decide what these illnesses are that we are being presented with is the fact that in every tragedy the illness or madness is sent by the Gods, and the madness lasts until the character has performed his deed. Therefore what we have to consider when posing this question is whether the writer is simply throwing together a number of illnesses to create dramatic effect or whether the symptoms which the writer is describing are what he actually observed by witnessing patients suffering from the illness. This will be the aim of my essay.

From studying Herakles we can see that the madness is sent by a God, “Send madness on this man, confound his mind, and make him kill his sons, Madden his feet, drive him, goad him and shake out the sails of death ”. Then almost immediately the madness comes to him and is described as such “Head writhing, eyeballs bulge and pupils roll, groans and shouts ”. Euripides then gives a further detailed description “He stood, not moving, while the children stared. Suddenly he changed, his eyes rolled and bulged from their sockets and the veins stood out, gorged with blood and froth trickled down his bearded chin, spoke laughing like a maniac ”. While Herakles is seized by this madness he imagines that he is at a feast, strips and wrestles with no one. It is while he is in this condition that he believes that he is killing Eurystheus’ children but in actual fact it is his own. After he has committed this deed Iris puts him into a deep sleep and when he awakes he says that his senses are muddled, then is fine and remembers nothing of the incident .

The next tragedy I will look at is Orestes. The madness is once again seen as being sent by a God, and Euripides in his description provides a very detailed observation of the symptoms Orestes suffered from. His symptoms are described as such “He lies raging in fever, for 6 days he hasn’t eaten, drunk or washed, when fever lifts, he turns lucid and cries ”. After this initial attack from the illness, Euripides tells us that he can’t remember anything , next he wipes away the crust of froth around his mouth and eyes , as well as his body being limp after the fever . Euripides then tells us that he stands wildly up, cowers back and his eyes roll with terror . After this Euripides reports that Orestes thinks that the Furies want to kill him and then says that his sister is one of them . Finally he says that he is seeing demons of three women . When he returns to sanity, he cannot remember any of the things he has just done .

The final tragedy I will look at is Hippolytus. In this tragedy Euripides once again says the madness was sent by the Gods, and again gives a detailed account of her symptoms “Fever wracks her; this is the 3rd day; she has eaten no bread and her body is pure and fasting ”. Euripides gives further analysis of her symptoms “Muscles are slack and useless, she is rambling words of madness. ” and finally Euripides describes her as “being irrational and in a confused state, and not eating ”.

From looking at these three plays, we can clearly see that Euripides has given a detailed account of the symptoms that the individuals had, showing I believe that he must have had some medical knowledge to be able to recognise some of the symptoms. From Euripides’ descriptions I think it is possible to link the symptoms that he describes with three illnesses that occur today, Depression, Epilepsy and Schizophrenia. The diagnosis of Depression is as follows; a mental state characterised by excessive sadness. Activity can be agitated, restless, slow or retarded. The individual’s behaviour is governed by pessimistic or despairing beliefs and sleep, appetite and concentration are disturbed. Manic-depressive psychosis causes severe depression, delusions of being worthless, ill, wicked or impoverished and hallucinations of accusing voices. Epilepsy is characterized by the suddenness of its attack. At the onset the patient falls to the ground unconscious with his muscles in a state of spasm. The movements die away and the patient may rouse in a state of confusion, complaining of a headache or may fall asleep, and may froth at the mouth. Finally Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder, characterised by a disintegration of the process of thinking, of contact with reality and of emotional responsiveness. The patient may suffer from delusions and hallucinations (especially voices) and the patient usually feels that his thoughts, sensations and actions are controlled/shared with others. Patients will also become socially withdrawn and lose energy and initiative.

If we compare these modern day diagnoses with Euripides’ description, we can clearly see that Herakles is suffering from a mental disorder. Dodds has argued that Herakles’ insanity is clearly marked as belonging to the manic-depressive type . However I am not convinced by his argument. If we compare Herakles’ symptoms with those of illnesses today, I would argue that whilst there are certainly symptoms of depression in his description, I believe that there are also traces of epilepsy in his description as is evident by the froth on his beard, his eyeballs bulging and his pupils rolling. Therefore I would argue that Herakles’ madness is probably a combination of manic depression which is responsible for his hallucinations and epilepsy. Therefore I think that Dodds is wrong in his description of Herakles’ illness. Consequently it is evident that with regards to Herakles, Euripides did have some knowledge of the illnesses that he presented to us in his plays, as his descriptions of the symptoms are similar to those diagnosed today. However, I would argue that the fact that Euripides has combined two very different illnesses together suggests that in doing so he was attempting to add extra dramatic tension to the play. Consequently this would show the audience that the illness which Herakles had was so terrible that it caused him to do the terrible deed of killing his own children by mistake. The fact that Euripides also attributes the madness as being sent by a God, is also meant to add dramatic effect. By so doing Euripides is suggesting that no natural illness could be that catastrophic, and so to enhance the madness and show that it is not a natural illness but one sent by the Gods, he has thrown together symptoms of different illnesses to enhance the madness. Therefore I would argue that Euripides’ main purpose for describing the symptoms is in order to add dramatic effect to the play, rather than to give a detailed medical account which others would be able to refer to later if they encountered the symptoms.

Next if we compare the symptoms of Euripides’ “Orestes” with the modern diagnoses as presented above, we can see that his description of Orestes’ madness again seems to be all thrown together as from the play the symptoms appear to resemble those of manic-depression, Schizophrenia, and epilepsy. This is evident as Euripides in his description, recounts how Orestes, in his period of madness, had symptoms of froth around his eyes and mouth, would not eat or drink and was hallucinating and seeing demons. Therefore just as with Herakles, it is evident that Euripides has thrown together the symptoms of all three illnesses and combined them into one terrible illness. In doing so he is able to present to the audience and the reader an illness which is so terrible and uncontrollable that when the patient is under its influence he is unable to think rationally and is prone to evil deeds. Therefore I would again argue that Euripides has given a description of the madness not for medical purposes, but in order to justify why the main character of the play carried out his evil deed. Consequently Euripides purpose for giving a description of the madness was to add dramatic effect to the play, but showing how horrible the symptoms were.

Finally if we look at Hippolytus, by comparing Euripides’ description with today’s medical diagnoses it would appear that the symptoms Euripides describes fit best with that of epilepsy and a fever. Euripides describes how she was suffering from a fever and was unable to eat. Euripides also tells us that her muscles were slack and she was irrational and in a confused state which is very similar to the symptoms of epilepsy. However it would appear that Euripides has once again linked the two together to create a super illness that leaves her helpless and unable to think. I think that this is apparent as to begin with Hippolytus’s illness starts off as a fever, but by the end of the passage it has manifested into a cross breed of fever and epilepsy. This to me shows how Euripides would quite happily combine the symptoms of any known illness which he thought was in itself severe enough and then combine it with another severe illness. The aim of this would be to show the audience that the patient was suffering from no ordinary illness, but was suffering from an illness unknown to man. In doing so Euripides was showing that the illness was so horrific that it could be not a natural illness, therefore it must have been sent by the Gods as only they would be able to produce an illness that severe.

In conclusion, I think I have shown that Euripides aim in these tragedies when describing the symptoms of the illnesses was not to produce an accurate account or diagnosis which could be valuable later if anybody else should suffer from it. Instead I would argue that the purpose of Euripides’ description was to add dramatic effect to the plays by cataloguing the symptoms. However, I believe that Euripides must have had some medical knowledge because if he had simply described the symptoms of depression, epilepsy and schizophrenia on their own merits without combining them with other illnesses his diagnosis of them would be quite accurate. I would also suggest that the fact that Euripides in his tragedies attributes the illnesses as belonging to the Gods was because in Greece at that time all natural disasters such as the Plague of Athens were seen as coming from the Gods. Individuals did not understand at that time that illnesses were a result of either natural phenomena or were caused by the individual that they affected. Consequently Euripides in his plays has linked the illnesses as descending from the Gods, in keeping with the common belief at that time. In doing so it would also have enabled him to combine various illnesses together to make a super-illness which he could then directly attribute to the Gods, showing that it was divine intervention that had caused the patients to do the killings. This would have meant that the audience might be in ignorance as to what type of illness it was that the patient suffered from, as it was not a natural illness but a divine illness, and therefore they could not challenge him about it.

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