In Shakespeare’s works, there are more than 450 referrences to illness (physical, psychological), handicap or simulation of illness.
Doctors (English, Scottish, French) also appear in minor roles in: The comedy of errors, The merry wives of Winsdor, Twelfth night, Macbeth, King Lear.
There are mentions of physical illnesses, such as the plague (Romeo and Juliet), malaria, syphilis (Measure for measure), puerperal fever, sciatica, migraine (Othelo), cataract (Gloucester), neuralgia or dental pain.
Psychological symptoms are also described: insomnia, sleepwalking (Lady Macbeth), fainting; visions, ecstasy, dream states; simulation of insanity (Hamlet).
Psychiatric disorders are encountered in a large number of characters, such as: Caliban with intellectual disability, Ophelia with schizophrenia, Macbeth with delusional hallucinatory disorder, Titus Andronicus, Mercutio, Jacques and The King’s madman with bipolar affective disorder, Hamlet with severe depression with psychotic symptoms (delusional melancholy according to the classical French psychiatry), Iago, Richard the 3rd, Sir Toby Belch, Tybalt – dissocial personality disorder, Othelo and Julius Caesar – epilesy, King Lear with dementia, Polonius with vascular dementia, Gloucester with senile dementia, Lady Macbeth with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Cassio with chronic alcoholic addiction with pathological intoxication, Falstaff and Malvolio with narcissistic personality disorder.
The accuracy of the descriptions of narcissistic personality traits in the aforementioned characters (Falstaff and Malvolio) is simply surprising: unrealistic self-assessment, selfidealization, implicit and explicit mentions of one’s qualities and self-worth, exaggerated expectations that personal qualities would be acknowledged by others, distant, arrogant conduct, low empathy, lack of acceptance towards different views, appetite for titles, honours and material rewards, manipulative in relationships, sensitivity to criticism and failures, hostility towards people who are insensitive to one’s personal charm.
Hans-Joachim Maaz, the author of Narcissistic society, describes the social appearance and interaction of the narcissist as follows(1):
“A cornerstone symptom of narcissism is inability to empathize. A narcissist does not love, they want to be loved; they do not think about their peers, they need them; they do not take into account what is going on with others, they just take account of how others relate to them: useful or useless, friend or foe”.
The first Shakespearian character fitting the narcissistic pattern is John Falstaff, who is featured early in William Shakespeare’s drama, since the historic plays period.
The windbag narcissist – Falstaff
The character Falstaff appears first in the historic play Henry IV (Part 1 and 2)(2,3). He is the friend of Prince Hal – the future king Henry V. He emboldens the principle of living an honourless life of party and debauchery, he claims false victories by hiding on the battlefield and appearing when the enemy is vanquished and pretending to have committed acts of bravery.
We find him again in the comedy The merry wives of Windsor(4). In this play, we see Falstaff as a conqueror – he takes it upon himself to court married women in public, therein challenging their good name and reputation. Despite the morbid obesity which grants him unappealing looks, he is sure of his erotic conquests, which he boasts at length.
“No quips now, Pistol! Indeed, I am in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife.”
However, Falstaff is also the subject of something that is obviously a prank to his company, but for him it is interpreted as the result of his undisputed male charm. He receives a life lesson in the end from the wives offended by his pretend erotic success who ridicule him in public. The main trait of his personality – narcissism, exaggerated and unhinged through senescence, has turned Falstaff into a decrepit windbag.
The covert narcissist – Malvolio
The comedy Twelfth night(4) features the character Malvolio, Countess Olivia’s butler, the embodiment of persons who sees themselves as a measure of perfection. Apparently, he is a serious, polite, puritan, even pious servant, but in fact he is an extremely fake individual.
Malvolio embodies Maaz’s description(1): “The narcissist does everything in order to get the confirmation they need for their life: persistence, endurance, perfectionism, productivity, prestige, manipulations, suggestions, gifts, bribery, promises, participation, leadership – all stemming from one need: to be loved for it. What is lacking inside must come from outside…”.
Malvolio is pranked: he is sent a love letter, which he attributes to Mistress Olivia. Lacking empathy and engulfed in love and self-admiration, he envisions himself married to his Mistress and reaching the position of Count.
Glen Gabbard(5) observes Malvolio’s narcissistic traits: “It is difficult to distinguish between healthy and pathological degrees of narcissism. A certain level of self-love is plausible, even desirable in certain contexts. In the comedy Twelfth night, however, it is obvious both for Olivia, and others, that Malvolio’s self-love has surpassed the boundary of «healthy» self-love and preservation instinct, delving deep into the context of personality disorder”. Malvolio dreams, mirroring in the self-image which he bears in his mind:
“To be Count Malvolio!... Having been three months married to her, sitting in my state, Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown; having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping, ... telling them I know my place as I would they should do theirs, ... Seven of my people, with an obedient start, make out for him: I frown the while; and perchance wind up watch, or play with my—some rich jewel... And when she went away now, ‘Let this fellow be looked to:’ fellow! not Malvolio, nor after my degree, but fellow. Why, every thing adheres together, that no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous or unsafe circumstance. What can be said? Nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes...”(4)
The narcissist in William Shakespeare’s sonnets – Sonnet LXII(6)
Sonnet LXII is one of the 154 sonnets, addressed to a young man to which Shakespeare compares himself with, through the mirror of the other one’s youth. The expressions of self-love (“self-love possesseth”, “mine own self-love”), self-adoration (“no face so gracious is as mine”, “As I all other in all worths surmount”) appear. Gheorghe Tomozei’s Romanian translation also preserves in its verse the expression of self-love and self-eroticism of the original sonnet.
Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed
Beated and chopp’d with tanned antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.
(translated into Romanian by Gheorghe Tomozei)
De dragostea de sine-i stăpânită
fiinţa mea, orice cotlon din mine,
nu-i leac s-o mântuie, e zidită
în învelişul inimii prea-pline.
Nu-i chip mai graţios, tipar mai mândru
şi nu-i ca mine nimenea mai teafăr,
eu gestu-mi preţuiesc şi-s gata întru
aceeaşi slavă să mă cred luceafăr.
Dar când oglinda adevăru-mi spune
sunt tăbăcitul de nevoi şi rele,
pe dos mi-apare-amorul, o nebun e
cel ce se crede îndrăgit de stele!
Dar eu sunt tu şi dacă te slăvesc,
cu anii tăi eu anii-mi zugrăvesc.
Interestingly, another translator, Laurean Mihai Gherman, actually used the noun narcissism in the translation of the first verse of the sonnet:
De narcisism mi-e văzul posedat,
Tot sufletul, tot trupu-i vătămat;
Nu-i leac sortit acestui greu păcat,
Mi-e înlăuntrul inimii gravat.
Nu-i chip să fie chip mai atractiv,
Nu-i trup mai zvelt, nu-s alte calităţi;
De vreme ce mă judec subiectiv,
Şi reuşesc să-i surclasez pe toţi.
Apoi oglinda mă arată drept,
Lovit, brăzdat de ani şi scorojit,
Exact pe dos, de fapt, de cum m-aştept;
Iar sentimentul mi-e nedreptăţit.
Fiindcă eşti tu, când despre mine spun,
M-am zugrăvit cu ce-ai avut mai bun.
Narcissus’ myth in psychoanalysis
Freud’s interest in literature dominated his entire career. His writings often reference Shakespeare’s plays, focusing especially on four masterpieces of the great bard: Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear. The term narcissism appeared first in Freud’s essay On Narcissism, published in 1914.
Narcissus’ attitude (suggested in the next image) was subjected to Freudian interpretation. For Freud, narcissism derives from the libido theory and is explained through the choice of the object of pleasure. Freud considered that the narcissist regards oneself as a sexual object; the idea is further developed in the book Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood (1910). Later on, Freud points out that autoerotic drives exist in the person from the very beginning, therefore there must be something else, a new psychological action added to the self-eroticism, so that the narcissism emerges.
In the article “An introduction of narcissism”(7), Freud claims: “Narcissism is not self-eroticism”. He further explains that self-eroticism is an objectual trait, while in narcissism there is ongoing self-investment. Nevertheless, Freud remained undecided in explaining the concept of narcissism, regarding it as normal sometimes and pathological some other times.
Other psychiatrists or psychoanalysts have implicitly or explicitly addressed the myth of Narcissus by using the concept of self-mirroring. The mirror as instrument for acquiring the double identity appears as core concept in Wallon and Lacan’s writings.
The term mirror stage was coined by Henri Wallon, who supported that the transformation of the individual in subject goes through the stages of natural dialectics. During this change through which the child solves his conflicts, “the mirror test is a rite of passage at the age of 6 to 8 months and allows the child to recognize themselves and unify their Ego in space”.
Winnicott’s theory actually mentions mirroring for the first time, referring to the way in which the mother mirrors the baby’s states.
The mirror stage becomes a famous concept through Jacques Marie Lacan, a famous yet controversial French psychoanalyst who appropriated the Wallonian concept, changing it completely(8). In his 17 July 1949 lecture Le stade de miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je, telle qu’elle nous est révélée dans l’expérience psychanalitique, Lacan stated that the first acknowledgment of one’s own self (first self-identification) occurs in infancy and is brought by the observation of one’s image in the mirror(9). This is a moment of primary narcissism self-identification, which will represent the cornerstone and blueprint of all future identifications. Children under 12 months do not have the complete image of their body, they just have a fragmented one. In the second stage, at 16 months of age, when looking in the mirror, the child sees an image of someone and does not know that the other is them. Only in the third phase, at 1 year and 6 months, the children acknowledge that the image in the mirror is their double. Unfortunately, Narcissus has not reached this conclusion, attributing the mirrored image to another being, ideal in its perfection, arduously desired, yet never possessed.
This initial identification, revealed by the stage of the mirror, is regarded by Lacan as “the core experience of childhood, and life as a matter of fact”, “a matrix of all later identifications of the subject”.
To conclude, we may encounter all five subtypes of the narcissistic personality in William Shakespeare’s texts, as they were described by Theodore Millon:
The unprincipled narcissist includes antisocial expression, they are scam artists, exploit others, commit frauds, and lack scrupules. This may be ecountered in the character Falstaff.
The phalic narcissist. Almost all narcissists in this group are men. They tend to be self-aggrandizing, even exhibitionists, because they enjoy showing off the beauty of their body. In Sonnet LXII, the author dedicates himself a love tyrade, based on his own body’s qualities. Even the mirror in which he gazes may be turned over, so that it will only reflect the idealized image.
The romantic narcissist includes histrionic features, is a modern Don Juan or Casanova, erotic and exhibitionist. Falstaff is recognizable in this pattern also.
The compensating narcissist includes negativistic features, is passive-aggressive, and avoids society.
The elitist narcissist. This type think of themselves as belonging to the great names of the world. The same Falstaff, with his blatant lies about bravery acts in combat, fulfills the criteria for this subtype.
The fanatic nacissist includes paranoid features and the delusion of omnipotence. These persons struggle with illusions of uniportance and lost value and try to reestablish respect through aggrandizing phantasies. Malvolio is the embodiment of this description.