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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Senile Dementia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1093  Thursday, 25 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 May 2000 13:15:20 -0700
        Subj:   SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia

[2]     From:   David Shenk <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 May 2000 16:45:54 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia

[3]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 May 2000 18:18:15 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 May 2000 13:15:20 -0700
Subject: Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia

At the risk of embarrassing myself if Larry Weiss devastates my
rebuttal, I'll take this excuse to plug my book Alzheimer's: The Answers
You Need, co-written with Helen D. Davies - give a copy to everyone
you've ever met, and give them two copies of the new Japanese
translation.

I'll add that one other trait Polonius has consistent with Alzheimer's
dementia is obsessing on something.  For Polonius it is the notion that
Hamlet is mad for love of Ophelia.  Once the subject comes up, he does
not move on to anything else.  You should have seen my father-in-law
obsess over not being allowed to drive.  Oh boy.

Against this is the fact that lots of people obsess about things, and
not all of them have Alzheimer's.  Alas, this list is on occasion sadly
eloquent testimony that this is true.  Anyone for porn, on either side
of the issue?

Also against it is the complexity of Polonius' language.  Not all AD
patients search for the right word, but it is VERY common.  Polonius
does not have this problem.  Despite Larry's example, he does not
usually lose his way in a sentence.  He follows through on most of his
thoughts, and while he articulates them too artfully, you do understand
him.  This is not true for many AD patients.

I also don't see (this is from my book)
Personality changes
Impaired decision-making
Difficulty solving problems
Loss of ability to perform routine tasks (p. 1),
though we don't see Polonius a few years before the play begins, so it
is difficult to know if there is diminished capacity or personality
changes one way or the other.

Granted, Polonius is confused and has trouble understanding what is said
to him sometimes, but that is only when speaking to Hamlet.  There is a
better explanation for this than Alzheimer's disease since he does not
have this problem with others.  Oh, that Hamlet.  What a kidder.

I have to conclude that Shakespeare could have done a better job if he
was trying to indicate what we call Alzheimer's disease.  That does not
mean he wasn't trying to indicate it, but did a poor job.  Could be.
Larry may be right, or perhaps Shakespeare just created a comic
character.  I'd expect clearer indicators of diminished capacity, and
more relevance to the plot, if the author wanted Polonius to be
perceived as senile.  Until Polonius is given a series of memory tests,
I vote for comic character, but I'm always willing to be proved wrong,
and a comic senile character is still a possibility.  (And Larry, I
believe senile is an acceptable description for anytime before the 20th
century.)

On the other hand, what kind of diminished idiot am I for arguing with a
lawyer?

Cheers,
Mike Jensen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Shenk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 May 2000 16:45:54 -0400
Subject: 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia

Thank you, Mr. Weiss, for the Polonius pointer. That line is intriguing
--

       And then, sir, does he this--he does--what was I
       about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
       something: where did I leave?

Can anyone elaborate on why Shakespeare has Polonius lose his train of
thought here? Is it simply to establish his old age -- or distractedness
for some other reason?

As to Lear, clearly Shakespeare does not make him unambiguously senile.
He does recover at least somewhat. So it's not Alzheimer's disease as we
know it today. But there does seem to clearly be a senile component to
Lear's illness. At the very least, the question of senility is meant to
be a part of the play's plot, with the older daughters accusing him of
being senile.

It looks to me like Shakespeare wants the audience to regard
Shakespeare, who is 80, as at least starting down the road toward
senility, and that this makes him vulnerable to the more reactive
psychosis that you suggest. He acts rashly toward Cordelia near the
beginning of the play. Further, in the course of the play, he gets
frustrated with his own folly, wanders, becomes disoriented, has acute
short-term memory problems, experiences temporal confusion, and has
difficulty recognizing his close friends and family members -- all
well-known symptoms of senile dementia. Even in his recovery, he says:

       Pray, do not mock me:
       I am a very foolish fond old man,
       Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
       And, to deal plainly,
       I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
       Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
       Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant
       What place this is; and all the skill I have
       Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
       Where I did lodge last night.
        (Act 4, Scene 7)

Geoffrey Bullough points out that in the 50-some versions of the Leir
story known to exist prior to Shakespeare's, not a single one portrays
the king as a very old man and none have the kind losing his mind.
Whether or not Shakespeare got some inspiration directly from the Bryan
Annesley case of 1603-1604 (in which the oldest of Annesley's three
daughters tried to have her senile father declared a Lunatic in order to
take control of his property, only to be thwarted by Annesley's youngest
daughter Cordell), what does seem clear is that Shakespeare made his
Lear a very old man in order to make him more vulnerable to madness,
less sure of his own wits, etc.

(Regarding my use of "senile dementia" -- with all due respect, Mr.
Weiss, you're unnecessarily resorting to some medical-correctness here.
It's true that the "Dementia of the Alzheimer Type," also formally known
as "Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer Type (SDAT)," is the current
diagnostic term for the most common form of dementia (there are also
several non-Alzheimer forms). But "senile dementia" is still a highly
relevent term when used in a less clinical setting. When it comes to a
historical review -- and especially when dealing with fictional
characters -- there isn't much point to using the most contemporary
clinical term. I am using the term that most accurately, and generally,
describes the condition of elderly people slipping into a state of
dementia).

David Shenk
http://www.bigfoot.com/~dshenk

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 May 2000 18:18:15 -0400
Subject: 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        RE: SHK 11.1088 Re: Senile Dementia

How do you feel about Lady Macbeth as a candidate for OCD?

Clifford

> (DSM-IV 290.0 to 290.3...I strongly recommend that anyone
> planning to write an article diagnosing literary characters for
> dementia, or any other mental disorder, first get a copy of that book.
> represent a significant decline from a previous level of functioning.
 

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