Representing Insanity and the Crisis of Identity through Henry Purcell's 'Bess of Bedlam'

Matsumoto, Naomi. 2024. Representing Insanity and the Crisis of Identity through Henry Purcell's 'Bess of Bedlam'. Swiss Journal of Musicology, 40, pp. 11-40. ISSN 0259-3165 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article explores in detail Henry Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam (first published in 1683), which represents the personal crisis of insanity albeit clothed in the common-practice musical style in the era of its origin. Through such standard language the song conveys a meaning that can speak to many generations, and those shared meanings expand the use of the work as a metaphor for the concept of that crisis across time. Via this metaphorical force works such as Bess of Bedlam come to be taken as iconic and thought-provoking emblems of that ‘affliction’ and reveal the societal conditions through which their nature and meaning can be construed. Moreover, Bess of Bedlam has not only become a ‘popular’ exemplar (i.e. it is well-known and taken to be stereo-typical) but its moral and behavioural aspects speak of attitudes from its own time and contain traces of background ingredients from times earlier than its own. Through ‘archeological’ approaches via textual, intertextual, contextual and musical analyses, this article suggests methods for understanding the layers of representation in this song in relation to both its past and present. By way of conclusion, it examines the medical origins of the term ‘crisis’ and how our changing portrayals of madness in works and in the history of our performances of them reflect our developing notions of what kind of crisis insanity might be.

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'Keynote' article of the issue

Data Access Statement:

Open access


Henry Purcell; Bess of Bedlam; Mad Song; English ballads; Origins of ‘Crisis’ term; Early modern popular culture

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20 April 2024Published
23 May 2023Accepted

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Date Deposited:

28 May 2023 14:09

Last Modified:

30 May 2024 11:31

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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