Healing through drama and literature: Shakespeare

Addiction is extremely stigmatised, and people who suffer from it are often misunderstood. These individuals may be called immoral or even weak by society at large. But in reality, addiction is rarely recognised for what it actually is: a sickness that requires inner strength.

Literature has long served as a powerful medium for exploring life’s darker parts and being a vehicle for this inner strength. Literature allows us to empathise with characters who grapple with addiction, offering a window into their struggles, triumphs, and transformations. It can provide valuable lessons that can be a catalyst for positive internal transformations.

The relevance of Shakespeare today

William Shakespeare’s enduring relevance can be attributed to his profound understanding of the human condition and his ability to explore universal themes that resonate with people across cultures and time periods.

One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths is his ability to capture the complexities of human emotions and relationships, including love, jealousy, ambition, and betrayal. Shakespeare delves deep into the human psyche, revealing the universal truths that bind us all. His characters are not merely archetypes but fully realised individuals whose struggles and triumphs mirror our own.

Shakespeare’s works grapple with timeless themes such as power, ambition, and the human desire for control. In plays like Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello, Shakespeare explores the corrupting, addictive influence of unchecked ambition and the devastating consequences of the relentless pursuit of power.

Exploring addiction themes: Hamlet

Shakespeare’s characters often exhibit behaviours and struggles that are similar to addiction. One of the most compelling examples of this is Hamlet, the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Hamlet grapples with overwhelming emotions, obsessive thoughts, and a severe sense of hopelessness. He is constantly consumed by grief, anger, and existential angst following his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius. His despair leads him to question the meaning of life, the nature of existence, and the morality of human actions, plunging him into a state of existential crisis.

Hamlet’s soliloquies, particularly the famous “To be, or not to be” speech, show his struggle with suicidal thoughts and his contemplation of ending his own life as a means of escaping his emotional pain. This intense internal struggle reflects the self-destructive nature of addiction, where individuals may engage in harmful behaviours as a way to numb their pain or cope with overwhelming emotions.

Hamlet’s erratic behaviour, impulsiveness, and inability to take decisive action throughout the play are symptoms of his emotional turmoil and existential despair. He vacillates between moments of intense anger and paralysing indecision, reflecting the unpredictability and instability often associated with addictive behaviours.

His obsession with avenging his father’s murder becomes a consuming fixation that dominates his thoughts and actions, leading him down a path of self-destruction. His relentless pursuit of revenge isolates him from his loved ones, erodes his mental and emotional well-being, and ultimately culminates in tragedy. This obsessive quest for vengeance can be likened to the compulsive and destructive nature of addiction, where individuals become ensnared in a cycle of craving, consumption, and regret, often at the expense of their own well-being and relationships.

Exploring addiction themes: Macbeth

The character of Macbeth embodies the tragic consequences of unchecked ambition and the burden of guilt.

Macbeth is depicted as a brave and noble warrior whose ambition is ignited by the prophecy of the witches and the encouragement of his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth. His initial reluctance to seize power through treacherous means is replaced by an insatiable desire for power and a willingness to commit heinous acts to achieve his ambitions. This relentless pursuit of power consumes Macbeth, leading him down a path of moral degradation and self-destruction, reminiscent of the compulsive and destructive behaviours associated with addiction.

Macbeth’s guilt, triggered by his ruthless actions and the betrayal of his closest allies, serves as a constant torment that gnaws at his conscience and erodes his sanity. His guilt manifests in hallucinations, sleepless nights, and a sense of paranoia, mirroring the psychological toll of his immoral deeds. This overwhelming guilt and the fear of retribution contribute to Macbeth’s downward spiral, as he becomes increasingly isolated, distrustful, and detached from reality.

At the same time, Lady Macbeth’s tragic fate is a reminder of the damage inflicted by Macbeth’s ruthless pursuit of power, highlighting the interconnectedness of our actions and the ripple effects they can have on our lives and relationships.

Exploring addiction themes: Othello

Othello, a respected and noble Moorish general, becomes consumed by jealousy, leading to a tragic chain of events that culminate in betrayal, manipulation, and, ultimately, death. Othello’s jealousy serves as a compelling representation of the corrosive nature of this emotion, paralleling the compulsive and destructive behaviours associated with addiction.

From the moment Iago plants the seed of suspicion regarding Desdemona’s fidelity, Othello’s jealousy then takes hold, eroding his trust and clouding his judgement. Despite Desdemona’s constant claims of innocence and unwavering loyalty, Othello becomes increasingly consumed by jealousy, unable to reconcile his love for her with his growing paranoia and mistrust. This intense jealousy transforms Othello from a confident and honourable leader into a tormented and vengeful figure, driven to the brink of madness by completely irrational suspicions.

Othello’s jealousy manifests in a range of destructive behaviours, including obsessive questioning, erratic mood swings, and violent outbursts, reflecting the psychological turmoil and emotional volatility associated with jealousy. His inability to control his jealousy leads him to make impulsive and tragic decisions, ultimately leading to the death of his beloved wife, Desdemona, and his own tragic end.

Iago’s manipulation and exploitation of Othello’s jealousy highlight the nature of this emotion and its potential to be weaponized to manipulate and control others. Iago’s cunning manipulation exacerbates Othello’s insecurities and fuels his jealousy, exploiting his vulnerabilities and leading him down a path of self-destruction.


Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello’s experiences offer deep insights into the human psyche, the temptation to engage in destructive behaviours (which we all face), and the moral and ethical dilemmas that individuals face when confronted with overwhelming emotions and desires.

Hamlet’s intense introspection, obsessive thoughts, and fluctuating emotions reflect the compulsive and self-destructive tendencies that characterise addiction. His struggle with his existential crisis and his contemplation of suicide as a means of escape highlights the profound psychological distress that can accompany feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and despair. His inability to take decisive action and his oscillation between paralysis and impulsivity further underscore the complexities of navigating overwhelming emotions and existential dilemmas.

Macbeth’s descent into moral degradation, driven by his insatiable ambition and guilt, reflects the corrosive effects of addiction-like behaviours on the human psyche. His inner turmoil highlights the psychological toll of his actions and the moral consequences of succumbing to temptation and moral compromise.

Othello’s descent into jealousy-induced madness, fueled by Iago’s manipulative traps, highlights the psychological fragility and emotional volatility associated with jealousy. His inability to trust, communicate, and differentiate between reality and illusion highlights the devastating impact of jealousy on his mental and emotional well-being, illustrating the profound human frailty that can be exposed when individuals are overwhelmed by powerful and irrational emotions.

Therapeutic benefits of Shakespeare

Engaging with Shakespeare’s works can offer valuable therapeutic benefits for individuals undergoing addiction recovery or participating in therapy sessions. Reading can become a powerful means of leading individuals down the road of introspection, empathy, and self-expression, traits which are extremely beneficial to have when on the road to recovery.

Reading, studying, or performing Shakespearean texts encourages people to reflect on their own experiences, emotions, and struggles, leading to deeper self-awareness and insight into the underlying causes of their addictive behaviours.

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