Love in the Time of Hysteria

By the time Lucia di Lammermoor premiered in 1835, mad scenes had been a staple of the operatic repertoire for more than 200 years. Some characters were driven mad by magic spells. Some were driven mad by the pain of unrequited love, the death of a lover, or love otherwise denied. During the bel canto era especially, women were typically driven mad “by grief”—a poetic designation, to be sure, but not a particularly satisfying psychological diagnosis. Lucia’s madness was different. As the scholar Mark A. Pottinger has demonstrated, a 19th-century viewer would have instantly diagnosed Lucia as a hysteric.

Since antiquity, the term “hysteria” has been applied to a wide variety of both physical and emotional ailments. What all these ailments have in common, however, was that they were diagnosed as hysteria only when they affected women. The word “hysteria” comes from the ancient Greek “hystera,” meaning “uterus,” and it was believed that the symptoms collected under hysteria’s umbrella were all caused by a misbehaving reproductive system. In some cases, the term was used to describe truly gynecological conditions, such as difficult labor or anemia associated with heavy menstruation. In other cases, the connection between a patient’s uterus and their disease was tenuous at best, and some notions—like the idea that a uterus could migrate throughout the body, causing a variety of medical complaints—are understood by modern medicine to be entirely false.

By the early 19th century, “hysteria” had coalesced into a distinct set of physical and emotional symptoms, including shortness of breath, fever, and hallucinations, as well as sharp mood swings, anger, melancholy, and grief. Numerous medical treatises were published outlining hysteria’s causes and possible treatments, and large hospital wards were dedicated to “hysterical” women. Crucially, the various expressions of the disease were well known to the public at large, and audiences would have recognized Lucia’s symptoms—including her visions of the ghost in the fountain, her terror at her brother’s abuse, her confusion during her wedding to Arturo, and the homicidal rage and ecstatic hallucinations that follow—as the hallmarks of hysteria as it was understood in the 19th century.

Examining Lucia’s story through the lens of 19th-century medical thought offers a more complete understanding of the young woman’s tragic demise. At the same time, we may want to consider how Lucia’s symptoms would be understood today. Is she suffering from schizophrenia? Depression? The ongoing effects of her brother’s gaslighting and abuse? Similarly, we might ask ourselves how Lucia’s madness would manifest if the opera were set in the 21st century. What dramatic choices might a director make to reflect modern understandings of psychology? And, finally, does Lucia’s madness reflect a diagnosable form of mental illness, or might there be more sinister forces at play?

Critical Inquiry
If you were Lucia’s therapist, what steps might you suggest she take to improve her mental health?