Mental Disorder, Criminality and the Literary Imagination

19 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2014

See all articles by Herschel Prins

Herschel Prins

Loughborough University; University of Birmingham

Date Written: July 2014


This contribution attempts to explore the use of a variety of literary sources as aids or ‘prompts’ to understanding those offenders and offender‐patients whose mental states often raise considerable anxieties in those charged with their management. The word ‘prompt’ is borrowed from the work of my friend, the late doctor Murray Cox, and his co‐worker Alice Theilgaard in their seminal work Shakespeare as Prompter (1994). The author of the present article hopes that its content will enable readers to focus more clearly on why we sometimes fail our offenders and offender‐patients; in particular, through the mechanism of denial. The use of dramatic presentation when proffered with a unique blend of force and sensitivity can permit us to view puzzlement and horror from a safe distance and, at the same time, encourage us to increase our empathic understanding and professional practice. Most of the examples cited are brief allusions but, because her history is so compellingly applicable to our concerns in the present contribution, the ‘case’ of Lady Macbeth is considered in more detail. Finally, I would note some very wise words by Cox and Theilgaard (1994) in a caveat note to the reader: ‘Should the focus on therapy ever become occluded by preoccupation with poetic association, clinical skills would be diminished, distraction ensue and therapeutic contact deteriorate’ (not numbered). In the material that follows readers should bear such a cautionary note in mind.

Keywords: literature, empathy, ambiguity, uncertainty, listening, observation, Lady Macbeth

Suggested Citation

Prins, Herschel, Mental Disorder, Criminality and the Literary Imagination (July 2014). The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 53, Issue 3, pp. 290-308, 2014. Available at SSRN: or

Herschel Prins (Contact Author)

Loughborough University

Ashby Road
Nottingham NG1 4BU
United Kingdom

University of Birmingham

Birmingham B15 2TT, Birmingham B15 2TT
United Kingdom

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