Feigned madness

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"Feigned madness" is a phrase used in popular culture to describe the assumption of a mental disorder for the purposes of evasion, deceit or the diversion of suspicion. In some cases, feigned madness may be a strategy—in the case of court jesters, an institutionalised one—by which a person acquires a privilege to violate taboos on speaking unpleasant, socially unacceptable, or dangerous truths.

Modern examples[edit]

To avoid responsibility[edit]

To examine the system from the inside[edit]

Investigative journalists and psychologists have feigned madness to study psychiatric hospitals from within:

  • American muckraker Nellie Bly; see Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887)
  • The Rosenhan experiment in the 1970s also provides a comparison of life inside several mental hospitals.
  • The Swedish artist Anna Odell created the project Okänd, kvinna 2009-349701 to examine power structures in healthcare, the society's view of mental illness and the victimhood imposed on the patient.

Historical examples[edit]

  • Lucius Junius Brutus, who feigned stupidity, causing the Tarquins to underestimate him as a threat until the time when he was able to drive the Roman people to insurrection.
  • Alhazen, who was ordered by the sixth Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim, to regulate the flooding of the Nile; he later perceived the insanity and futility of what he was attempting to do and, fearing for his life, feigned madness to avoid the Caliph's wrath. The Caliph, believing him to be insane, placed him under house arrest rather than execute him for failure. Alhazen remained there until the Caliph's death, thereby escaping punishment for his failure to accomplish a task that had been impossible from the beginning.
  • In 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys by the English, none of Phillippe VI's courtiers dared to tell him the news. It therefore fell to his jester, in his role as the "fool", to tell him that the English sailors "[didn't] even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French".[1]
  • Ion Ferguson, an Irish psychiatrist in the British Army in a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp, successfully feigned madness to get himself repatriated.[2] He also assisted two other prisoners in doing the same.[3]

In fiction and mythology[edit]

  • Shakespeare's Hamlet, who feigns madness in order to speak freely and gain revenge—possibly based on a real person; see Hamlet (legend).
  • Odysseus feigned madness by yoking a horse and an ox to his plow and sowing salt[4] or plowing the beach. Palamdedes believed that he was faking and tested it by placing his son, Telemachus right in front of the plow. When Odysseus stopped immediately, his sanity was proven.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Randle McMurphy feigns insanity in order to serve out his criminal sentence in a mental hospital rather than a prison.
  • In Henry IV, the main character feigns insanity.
  • In Goodbyeee, the last episode of BBC sitcom Blackadder, Blackadder feigns madness to try to avoid being sent into battle.[5]
  • The protagonist of the film Shock Corridor is a journalist who fakes insanity in order to gain access to an institution.
  • Another notable example is Primal Fear adapted from the William Diehl novel of the same name. In the film, Martin Vail (Richard Gere) defends a timid, young altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) accused of murdering an Archbishop. Halfway through, Vail discovers Stampler has Dissociative Identity Disorder, with one sociopathic personality called "Roy," who was responsible for killing the Archbishop. However, after Stampler is released due to plea of insanity, Vail discovers Stampler faked the disorder in order to avoid execution. The film was Edward Norton's debut, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Otto, Beatrice K (2001). Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. University of Chicago Press. p. 113. 
  2. ^ Anne Wynne-Jones, Fascinating life of doctor, Lancashire Telegraph, 16 August 2011
  3. ^ Haygood, Tamara Miner. "Malingering and Escape: Anglo-American Prisoners of War in World War II Europe" (PDF). Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  4. ^ the story does not appear in Homer, but was apparently mentioned in Sophocles' lost tragedy The Mad Ulysses: James George Frazer, ed., Apollodorus: The Library, II:176 footnote 2; Hyginus, Fabulae 95 mentions the mismatched animals but not the salt.
  5. ^ "Goodbyeee". BBC Comedy. Retrieved 28 July 2014.