Shakespeare….the Psychotherapist?

I’m a great fan of bibliotherapy, defined in the ‘Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science’ as:

‘The use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience’.

And bibliotherapy has a long pedigree:  The ancient Greeks, for example, held strongly to the belief that literature was essential to fostering psychological and spiritually well-being.  By posting a sign above their library doors describing it as a place for “healing place for the soul”, the centrality of this notion was, and still is, clear for all to see.

In a fascinating interview with Dr. Paul Coombe, British psychiatrist Dr. Raj Persuad examines the intriguing question: ‘Was Shakespeare a Psychotherapist’?

Paul Coombe has an impressive pedigree.  He is a psychiatrist and individual and group psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. Formerly Consultant Child Psychiatrist at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Dr. Coombe was also a Senior Registrar in Psychotherapy at the Cassel Hospital, London for a number of years. He is the Immediate Past President of the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists and member of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Association of Australia.

Last year Dr. Coombe published a paper in the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies entitled ‘William Shakespeare as a Psychotherapist’. In his interview with Persaud, Coombe points out that thousands of people flocked to watch Shakespeare’s plays because they connected so deeply with their life circumstances, and they function much in the same way today.  Worries, anxieties and existential crises presented the full complexity of life’s challenges and still talk to us in contemporary society.

Moreover, Dr. Coombe reiterates the rather startling claim that Shakespeare ‘invents’ the modern human by creating characters such as Hamlet; the existential nature of their discourse, which comprises an exploration of their inner lives and conflicts. By following this line of logic, Shakespeare paves the way for us to grapple with our own issues, and in so doing, he can therefore be seen as a trailblazer for what we understand now as psychotherapy.

You can listen to Drs. Coombes and Persuad talk about this fascinating subject here:

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