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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsWelcome to week 2 of Literature and Mental Health. --Our course about how literature can help us to cope with some of the most stressful things that life throws at us. Jonathan, you're known especially for your work on Shakespeare. Why is it that Shakespeare seems to be able to teach us more about human nature than any other writer? Well, I think it's because it's partly because of his great range of work. He writes tragedies and comedies. He writes about great people and ordinary people. But in the end, it's because all the great dilemmas and conflicts that make us human.

Skip to 0 minutes and 43 secondsRelationships between men and women, parents and children, between public life and private life, between the living and the dead-- all those great fundamental human conflicts and dilemma are there in Shakespeare. Do you think there's any other writer that can begin to compare with Shakespeare? Well, I think there is just one, actually, and it's the great Russian novelist, Tolstoy. One of my favourite movies is Woody Allen's movie, Love and Death, which is a kind of parody of the whole of Russian literature. But I think what Woody Allen gets there, the idea that the two central things in life are love and death, and how we cope with them. And Tolstoy is as amazing on that.

Skip to 1 minute and 25 secondsAnna Karenina is the great novel about love. His short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the great novel about death. And then War and Peace-- it has both love and death. And love and death are the subjects we're going to look at in the next two weeks-- this week love, next week death. But I suspect, Paula, you've got a different answer to the question as to whether there's anybody else who lives up to Shakespeare, who matches up to Shakespeare. Well, I think the only other writer that can compare with Shakespeare is probably Jane Austen who is the great 18th century writer about love.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 secondsOne of the key texts will be Sense and Sensibility, which looks at two contrasting ways of dealing with love and heartbreak. I suppose one of the things about a novel is that it's an expansive form. So Jane Austen is able to give a lot of space to her characters, really to enter into the minds of these two girls. Well, she does. And where she's quite unusual is having a contrasting pair of heroines who have a very different way dealing with heartbreak so we can get inside the minds, the characters of the two heroines. She's quite pioneering in that sense of having two heroines at the centre of the romantic courtship novel.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 secondsWell, talking about those terms "romance" and "courtship," and let's just go back to Shakespeare for a moment. Because, of course, there is an enormously long history associating literature with love. Poetry is, very often, love poetry. We tend to sort of woo people with love poetry. And, of course, Shakespeare is a great example of that. Shakespeare's sonnets-- this extraordinary collection of poems that seem to explore every single dimension of the experience of falling in love, falling out of love. There's also a wonderful moment in Hamlet where Hamlet seems to have gone mad. He comes into Ophelia's room with his hair all over the place, and his socks down by his ankles, and he seems in a terrible state.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 secondsAnd Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, about this, and Polonius is convinced that Hamlet has literally been driven mad by love. Now, that idea that love is a form of madness, a form of sickness, was very widely believed in Shakespeare's time. There's a wonderful description shortly after Shakespeare's death of this idea of love as a kind of sickness, a kind of mental illness. It's written by a man called Robert Burton. He was a great scholar, and he wrote a huge book called The Anatomy of Melancholy which was an encyclopaedic account of every kind of mental illness imaginable. And Burton's sources were the great literary texts of the past.

Skip to 4 minutes and 31 secondsHe was a voracious reader, and he gutted just about every book from classical antiquity to get ideas about mental disturbances of various kinds. And love sickness, or love melancholy as he calls it, is one of the great examples of that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 49 secondsThis is what Burton wrote about the condition: "Symptoms or signs of love melancholy embody mind good, bad, et cetera. Symptoms are either of body or mind. Of body-- paleness, leanness, dryness, et cetera. As the poet describes lovers, love causeth leanness, hollow-eyed. Their eyes are hidden in their heads. They pine away and look ill with waking, cares, sighs, want of appetite. The green sickness often happeneth to young women." Then Burton speaks about a particular story in classical literature of a woman in love who was "half-distracted and spake she knew not what, sighed to herself, lay much awake, and was lean upon a sudden." We'd call that anorexia or weight loss.

Skip to 5 minutes and 50 secondsThen another one, "Euryalus, in the epistle to Lucretia, his mistress, complainst among other grievances 'Thou has taken my stomach and my sleep from me.'" The idea that being in love means you lose your appetite and you lose your sleep. And then this poet is quoted, "His sleep, his meat, his drink, in him bereft. That lean he waxeth and dry as a shaft. His eyes hollow and grizzly to behold. His hue pale and ashen to unfold and solitary, he was ever alone and waking all the night making moan." Well, I think the symptoms of that echo almost precisely the symptoms of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.

Skip to 6 minutes and 40 secondsIt's a checklist of being in love and being heartbroken-- the listlessness, the lack of appetite, not being able to sleep. One feels if Marianne went to her GP. She'd tick all of those boxes, and it's incredible that this was written all those years ago. And yet it would describe what it feels like for most of us still to be heartbroken, to be in love. That's an amazing thing, isn't it? To think that the examples Burton takes are from classical antiquity 2,000 years ago. Then as Burton, himself, and Shakespeare describing these symptoms 400 years ago, in the early 1600s. There's Jane Austen doing it 200 years after that, around about 1800.

Skip to 7 minutes and 21 secondsAnd you went to see Doctor Andrew Schuman, and he suggested that maybe those same symptoms are visible today in the GP's waiting room.

Welcome to Week 2: Heartbreak

This week, we’ll be looking at one of the most popular topics in all of literature: heartbreak.

Literature, and poetry in particular, has long been associated with love. We’ll be looking at a variety of texts this week, from 16th century sonnets, to Jane Austen’s novel of 1811 Sense and Sensibility, to a poem written just a few years ago by psychiatrist Richard M. Berlin. All of these works deal, in one way or another, with the pain of love, and with the very real suffering that can be caused by lost or unrequited love.

In 1621, the writer Robert Burton published his Anatomy of Melancholy, a medical treatise which drew on classical works of literature to describe the causes and symptoms of ‘melancholia’ - a term which, today, we might associate with depression. Among the forms of melancholy discussed by Burton is ‘Love Melancholy’, which we might call love-sickness or heartbreak. The symptoms of love melancholy described by Burton, including ‘leanness’, ‘paleness’ and sleeping difficulties, remind us that heartbreak is not just a poetic cliché, but also a real condition which can affect people emotionally, mentally and physically. We’ll be finding out more about the symptoms of heartbreak with Dr Andrew Schuman later this week.


Throughout the course we will be addressing some sensitive and potentially upsetting topics. We encourage all of you to exercise your own judgement, and to skip any material that you think may be distressing rather than helpful for you. Please also remember to be considerate of your fellow learners in the discussion areas, both when commenting and when responding to comments made by others.

If you are experiencing any of the conditions that we discuss during the course, or if you feel that you are in need of help, you should speak to a medical practitioner or counsellor, who will be able to offer professional support. You can also seek help from charities and care organisations such as the Samaritans. We’ve included a link to their website at the bottom of the page.


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This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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