States of mind: Tom O’Bedlam and Early Modern attitudes to mental health
“Raising the Voice of Tom O’Bedlam”
A multidisciplinary reflection on the character Tom O’Bedlam in song, drama, history and lived experience.
Tom O’Bedlam appears as a character both referred to and adopted by Edgar in King Lear. The term refers to a beggar discharged from the Bethlem Hospital – someone with a mental illness and perceived to have some legitimate right to beg because of this history of misfortune. The character, Tom O’Bedlam, would have been known to Shakespeare’s audience as he features in a number of poems and popular songs of the early 17th century.
Ian Noonan, lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at King’s College London was given a copy of this song whilst working as a freelance musician and having decided to retrain as a mental health nurse. Using this song as a springboard for discussion, and including a performance of the song and excerpts from King Lear, panellists from the English Department, Mental Health Nursing and a patient educator living with a mental illness, will discuss Tom from historical, literary and personal perspectives in order to give voice to his character, the context of the character in Shakespearean London and the continued experience of stigma associated with being diagnosed with a mental illness.
We hope you will be entertained, informed and enlightened by this cross-discipline lecture-recital-performance-discussion!