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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsHello.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsWelcome to the final week of Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. Over this course, we've looked at the ways in which literature, poetry, drama, fiction can help us and provide insight at difficult, stressful times. We began in the first week looking at the idea of stress and anxiety. And the way in which poetry might be a form of stress relief. Then in the second and third weeks, we explored how writers have dealt with two of the great traumatic events in most people's lives, heartbreak and bereavement. Over the last two weeks, we delved into the difficult territory of particular mental illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and bipolar disorder.

Skip to 1 minute and 3 secondsThis week, we're going to think about the ways in which literature might provide insight into how we can maintain mental health in later life, how writers have understood the process of ageing, and some of the challenges that it faces. And in particular, the extreme challenge of dementia, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are very much in the public eye these days. As the population ages, because health generally is improving, the consequences of memory loss and all the other things that come with dementia are very much in the public eye. But of course, people have aged ever since the beginnings of time. So writers have had to address the question of old age all through literary history.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 secondsSo in order to explore ageing and dementia this week, we're going to look at two very different texts, an old play from 400 years ago and a new novel from just the last few years. Our texts this week are King Lear by William Shakespeare and Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg. Jonathan, why King Lear? What can King Lear teach us about old age and indeed, if anything, mental health, dementia? Well, King Lear is Shakespeare's great play about old age. This is a play that begins with a king saying that he's going to retire, to hand on power, rule, to the next generation. He says he's fourscore years old. He's in his 80s.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 secondsAnd the character of King Lear is perhaps the greatest portrait of an old man in the whole of Western literature.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 secondsI've always been intrigued by the mental world of the king. This is a play about mental disintegration. We see him getting angry. We see him beginning to lose his reason. And terribly, sadly, being aware that he's losing his reason, 'Let me not go mad, sweet heavens'. He seems to know he's going mad. We then see the king stripping off his clothes and running around. We find him speaking very strange language, sometimes a language of anger, sometimes a language of sexual disgust. And then we see a kind of restoration through the good grace of his daughter. We also see his memory disappearing. There are times when he seems to forget who he is or where he is.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 secondsAnd I've often wondered whether Shakespeare witnessed symptoms that we would now call those of dementia in an old man or old men that he knew, and whether in some ways that shaped the play. Well, he oscillates between moments of great rage and anger and then moments of being like a child. And I think if anyone's been around somebody who's suffered from dementia, they might be somebody they recognise in that kind of behaviour. Is that what you're getting at? It is. But it's a question I asked.

Skip to 4 minutes and 20 secondsI mean, it seems to me that it's self-evident that King Lear is a play that explores in very interesting ways the problem of retirement, the problem of what is left to us when we hand over our work to someone else, also it's a play about the problem of dealing with quite a difficult parent from the point of view of the children. Those are things that even though Lear is a king, they're problems we all have to face. It's a domestic drama. It's a family situation. It is a family drama. A family drama. Yeah. But the question of whether using modern insights about dementia is a helpful way into the character of King Lear, I think that's an open one.

Skip to 5 minutes and 7 secondsSo I went to see the great actor Sir Ian McKellen, who played the part of King Lear. And as we'll see in the interview, he very much agreed that it's the play is tremendously powerful in dealing with issues around the stress of retirement, of moving into a later age, and with the issue of family. But he was actually sceptical of the view that dementia, Alzheimer's, was a helpful way of approaching the part. Whereas another actor, Simon Russell Beale, who played the part recently at the National Theatre in London, playing the part of the age of 52, so much younger than Ian McKellen. He, by contrast, really did think that it was helpful to do some research into dementia.

Skip to 5 minutes and 57 secondsAnd indeed, he discovered a particular form of dementia known as Lewy Body Dementia. And it seemed to him that the symptoms of that sort of ticked all the boxes as far as King Lear was concerned. Now, of course, it's part of the greatness of Shakespeare that two different actors can take very different views on how to approach a part. But in exploring King Lear ageing and dementia in the company of two great actors, I found it a fascinating journey. So that was the work I did for this week. But you've been reading Melvyn Bragg's novel, Grace and Mary, and indeed talking to Melvyn about it. So could you explain what that novel's about? Well, I can.

Skip to 6 minutes and 40 secondsAnd one of the reasons I really like this text is it's about a woman who enters dementia in the way that you've talked brilliantly about King Lear, the father, the patriarch and so much of King Lear is about actually what happens when power, the patriarch loses his power. And I was thinking as you were talking about his fragmentary sense of self. 'He hath ever but slenderly known himself' and there's lots of references to O's and having no place. And I think when I read Grace and Mary, I had these sort of similar feelings about who is this woman because she's no longer... she doesn't have the identity that she once had. So the story is...

Skip to 7 minutes and 19 secondsSo is that Grace or Mary? Which is the... So this is Mary. It's a fictionalised autobiography, so it's a sort of faction if you like. And it's Melvyn Bragg's novel, a fictionalising of his own experience of his mother's dementia. But it's a novel. And in the course of the novel, John, the narrator, has to visit his mother, who's in a home for dementia. And increasingly, it becomes more and more difficult as she gets further and further into the decline. And one of the ways that the narrator, John, is able to communicate with Mary is through poetry and indeed, through song. And this was fascinating to me, is it the rhythm? I'm fascinated by rhythm.

Skip to 8 minutes and 11 secondsMary has learned poetry by rote as a child. So one of the last things to go is her memory of certain poems that she read as a child. When we had our discussion about dementia with Simon Curtis, he talked about different parts of the brain that still remain active. And it seems that a part of the brain that might have remained active for Mary was this part that responded to poetry and song. Well, as we've done throughout this course, we've gone on two kinds of journey. We've gone to see doctors to find out about the medical aspects. And we've gone to see writers and readers to find out about the literary aspects.

Skip to 8 minutes and 54 secondsSo Paula spoke to Dr Simon Curtis about the physiology of Alzheimer's and dementia. And then I went down to see Ian McKellen to talk about King Lear.

Welcome to Week 6: Ageing and dementia

Over the past five weeks, we’ve thought about how literature can help us to cope with the stresses and difficulties of life. We’ve thought about some of the emotional challenges, like heartbreak and bereavement, that almost all of us will experience, as well as addressing some specific mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression and bipolar disorder.

In this final week of the course, we’ll be exploring the difficulties associated with later life, focusing on the experience of ageing and on the associated mental health condition, dementia.

Together, we’ll be looking at two texts, William Shakespeare’s 17th century play King Lear, and Melvyn Bragg’s autobiographical novel Grace and Mary, which was published just a few years ago. Although they are separated by almost 400 years, both texts explore the challenges of ageing, the difficulties faced by children looking after ageing parents, and the effects of ageing upon personal identity.

King Lear is one of the greatest portrayals of ageing in Western literature. It explores the sense of uncertainty that can result from retirement, and the role-reversal that often comes with ageing, as the children become the parents. Throughout the play, Lear’s behaviour is changeable. At times he grows irrationally angry, while at others he appears like a vulnerable child. Some people have suggested that Lear might actually be suffering from a form of dementia; others, however, are sceptical of the diagnosis. In the first part of this week, we’ll be exploring this debate, listening to the contrasting views of two actors who have played the part, Sir Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale.

In the second part of the week, we’ll be thinking about Melvyn Bragg’s novel Grace and Mary. Drawing upon Melvyn’s own experiences, the novel tells the story of a man, John, who is looking after his mother as she gradually succumbs to dementia. We’ll be talking to Melvyn about the events that shaped the novel, and particularly about how songs and poems helped him to connect with his mother once she had started to lose her memory. Together, we’ll be thinking about relationship between poetry and memory, and about why poems learned ‘by heart’ can so often be remembered even after other memories have been lost.


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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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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