Daggers of the Mind: Hallucinations, Mental Fixation and Trauma in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Early Modern Psychology

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


This chapter has two central aims. The first is to offer a new way of understanding the relationship between early modern visual disturbances and trauma in early modern literature by giving an account of mental fixation, an early modern psychological disorder related to melancholy. Mental fixation offers an explanation as to the cause of visual disturbances that differs from those found in accounts of other melancholic disorders, throwing light on early modern ideas about emotion, cognition and the imagination. Moreover, in cases where mental fixation is caused by frightening or shocking experiences, the deeply-embedded phantasm also triggers intrusive memories and repetitive behavior, symptoms now associated with trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This form of mental fixation is dramatized in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and the 1602 Additions to the play, in which Hieronimo’s grief for his murdered son manifests itself in hallucinations and a compulsive re-enactment of his painful experiences. 

A second aim of this chapter is to argue that literary texts adapt and merge the discourses of mental affliction in a manner that reinvents the meaning and trajectory of early modern psychological disorders. In the case of mental fixation, while early modern natural philosophers tend to emphasize the detrimental (even if at times also the creative and pleasant) aspects of visual disturbances, playwrights depict characters conversing with their hallucinations in a manner that renders them self-reflexive tools for thought. Macbeth’s encounter with the dagger, for example, may be a symptom of mental distress, but it also prompts self-reflection and (rightly or wrongly) spurs him to action.   Similarly, while the Additions to The Spanish Tragedy portray Hieronimo’s hallucinations as a painful and destructive consequence of trauma, Act Three Scene Thirteen of the original play depicts Hieronimo in dialogue with his visions, dramatizing how visual distortions could be both the product of a disturbed mind and a means of working through distress. Hieronimo’s mental fixation thus also throws light on the therapeutic aspect of revenge.  The enacting of revenge resembles other cures for mental fixation in that it works by manipulating the content of the phantasm through interactive performance. Like a spectral art object or waking dream, Kyd represents hallucinations as creative fictions that present the seer’s mind to itself. As the examples of Macbeth and Hieronimo make clear, hallucinations in early modern plays are more than mere illusions; they operate as a means of self-reflection and tool for thought. 
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVisions and Voice-Hearing in Medieval and Early Modern Contexts
EditorsHilary Powell, Corinne Saunders
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2020


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