Strong emotions in Shakespeare's plays lead to fits and fatalities

Faints, fits and fatalities from emotion in Shakespeare's characters -- a survey of the canon

Shakespearean characters experiencing strong emotions are prone to fits, faints and even death, according to research published in this week's Christmas issue of the BMJ.

A review of all 39 canonical plays and three narrative poems by Shakespeare show ten deaths from grief (three on stage), with another 29 emotionally-induced deaths also mentioned by Shakespeare's characters. Transient loss of consciousness is staged or reported in 18 cases and near-fainting in a further 13.

The author argues that whilst Shakespeare's tendency to attribute faints and death to strong emotions reflects an early modern belief system, the dramatic effects of emotions in his plays are also plausible today. For example, the author points to a group of diseases – 'ion channelopathies' which can lead to sudden death if a person is startled (Long QT syndrome) or while a person is suffering emotional stress.

The author argues that whilst Shakespeare was working at a time when it was widely believed that strong emotions could have dramatic or even fatal effects, the works of the Bard still have a relevant message for today's doctors – never underestimate the power of emotions to disturb bodily functions.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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