Madness and Melancholy in Early Modern English Drama (RSA Dublin, April 7-10, 2021)

deadline for submissions: 
August 10, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Avi Mendelson / RSA Conference, Dublin, 2021
contact email: 

Few people know about Kelly Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia who, in 2011, was beaten to death in Orange County by six police officers. Thomas was unarmed. All the officers were acquitted. The way we treat those with mental illness has become of interest to humanities scholars, particularly those working in Disability Studies. Margaret Price’s brave research, in Mad at School, rallies against the exclusion of those with mental disability from academic discourse (and academic life). Scholars of early modern disability have explored various neurodiversity in theater, from figurations of wise fools to imaginings of mad revengers. Nowadays, in the midst of a global pandemic, mental health has emerged as a topic so pervasive that it ceases to startle. How does one maintain psychological composure in an unstable world?

Early modern dramatists were fascinated by mental illness – a subject described in broader, and often more metaphorical terms: madness, distraction, melancholy, and fury. From Shakespeare’s famous portrayals of authentic and phony madness in Hamlet and King Lear, to Middleton and Rowley’s raucous satire of mental institutionalization in The Changeling and Webster’s lycanthropic nightmares in The Duchess of Malfi, madness was both a dominant theme in performances and a profitable spectacle. This panel seeks papers that explore how madness and melancholy are depicted on the early modern stage, and how these theatrical representations interact with other rhetorics about mental health in early modern culture at large; one might consider reading the plays alongside medical treatises, rhetorical manuals, popular theology, travel narratives, or demonological tracts.


A list of potential questions and topics that is in no way exhaustive:

 -Reading madness through a Disability Studies lens. Is madness always a disability? Can it be an advantage?

 -Differences between “madness” and “mental illness.”  

 -Why do some characters fake madness in these plays? What’s the difference between real and spurious madness?

 -Intersections of madness and melancholy with race, class, gender, or sexuality.

 -What is the language of madness? What does it mean to sound mad?

 -Links between madness and the arts: music, theater, poetry, rhetoric, or painting.

 -Connections between madness and the supernatural or preternatural: witchcraft, demonic possession, werewolves, or lunar disturbance.

 -Reading madness through histories of medicine, disease, or emotion/affect.

 -Was madness considered immoral or suspect by church authorities?

 -How can we foster a mad or mental illness positive pedagogy? Can early modernists blend historical discussions of madness, with activism and advocacy for those with mental illness?


Please submit the following materials to Avi Mendelson, at, by August 10th to be considered for this panel: Your field of study; your paper title (15 words maximum); an abstract (150 words maximum); a one page abbreviated CV (.pdf or .doc upload); PhD completion date (past or expected); full name / current academic affiliation / email address. Please note that the RSA is very strict about word count, and will not accept entries that go beyond the maximum word limit.