Seventeenth Century Self Help: The Anatomy of Melancholy

With thanks to Dr Erin Sullivan of the Shakespeare Institute for writing this guest blog post.

The writer Samuel Johnson once said that Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy ‘was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise’. For those who have ever had a look at a copy of Burton’s tome, this might come as a bit of a surprise – a recent modern edition of the book clocks in at an impressive 1,424 pages, each one filled with dense references to classical philosophy, theological doctrine and now-obscure medical beliefs. Say what you like about the book, but few people we know would call it a page turner.

And yet, those who have persevered with the Anatomy have discovered within its pages an intellectual feast of both witty and moving reflections about the nature of happiness, the workings of the mind, the relationship between the body and soul, and the bizarre delights of being human. From the terror of loneliness to the frustrations of unemployment to the difficulty of finding love and keeping it, the Anatomy has a surprising amount of wisdom and relevance to offer to the modern reader.

Or indeed the modern audience member. This month, Stan’s Cafe, a Birmingham-based theatre company, is premiering its theatrical adaptation of the Anatomy at the Warwick Arts Centre (University of Warwick). For the first time ever (as far as we know!) audiences will have the chance to see and share Burton’s masterpiece on the stage, journeying through all three of its partitions in a single evening. Helped by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, Stan’s Cafe has teamed up with historians and doctors interested in mental illness to produce a show that remains faithful to Burton’s original text while also presenting audiences with a host of ideas of pressing concern to our modern age. The production runs from 12-15 March, with tickets available on the Warwick Arts Centre website.

If you’d like to learn more about Burton and his Anatomy, you can also listen to a range of audio podcasts produced during a ‘mini-conference’ hosted by Stan’s Cafe at the Warwick Arts Centre in November. Eight talks from the event, including introductions to Burton’s medical knowledge, the relationship between melancholy and utopian politics, and the connections between Burton’s advice and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy are available under Anatomy of Melancholy on itunes.

Stans Cafe Melancholy

Photograph: Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company

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