The Bedlam is a mentally retarded man who is around the age of 20. He dresses in rags and old thrown- out clothes and wears a silver bell around his neck. He is tall and skinny and walks with a limp, dragging his leg behind him. Whilst he is in many ways mysterious in his ability to foretell the plague, he is also a slightly comic figure who is used to bring humour to the early part of the play.
When we first meet the Bedlam, he comes to talk to Sir George Saville and William Mompesson.
Mompesson is the newly appointed rector of the village of Eyam. The Bedlam asks for a penny from the men; he claims he doesn’t buy anything with the money – he just throws them into the stream to see them shimmer as they move in the water. This suggests to the reader that the Bedlam is not a conventional man. He does not value the things others do and, in this case, money is of no importance to him.
His whole life is unconnected with material things.
In Act 1 on page 7 we see the Bedlam talking to Mompesson and Catherine who is Mompesson’s wife. The Bedlam calls Catherine ‘Rose’. This is ironic because whilst this seems almost a compliment, comparing her to a flower, I think he is predicting that Catherine is going to die as he also says, ‘all roses must be pruned at the end of summer.’ He also calls Mompesson, ‘Blackman’ – this is because black is the colour of death and Mompesson is wearing black.
Also black Africans were slaves and Mompesson is kind of a slave to God.
The Bedlam symbolises chaos and the plague. On page 40 at the beginning of Act 2 there are 3 graves but the Bedlam says that he can see many graves ‘all in a line.’ He goes on to say that he can see ‘ black buds on all the trees’ and ‘a forest of crosses’. Here he is foretelling the death of the villagers of Eyam. Crosses on graves were made of wood and ‘forest’ and ‘black buds’ are from ‘nature.’ He is saying that this is a plague from nature – from God. When Mompesson leaves the scene the Bedlam adds ‘No one listens to the mad boy.’ This shows that he knows what the villagers think of him and he is more aware than the villagers give him credit for.
One of the most significant speeches that the Bedlam makes is in Act 2 on page 56. Here he talks about building a snowman for Christmas with the stature of Marshall Howe but with other features such as Unwins’ clay pipe. The snowman represents the strong people of Eyam so we can see that even the strongest will melt or be destroyed in the heat of the plague. He says that the snowman will be all right in winter whilst it is cold but in spring and summer, when the heat rises, it will go black and it will get dirty spots on its face. This mirrors and symbolises the symptoms of the plague as victims of the plague get black boils on their face and other places on their bodies. The Bedlam goes on to say ‘and when the sun comes out, I’ll watch him melt away into a little pool of dirty water.’ Here he refers to the infected person dying of the disease. It is interesting that the Bedlam does not consider the possibility that he will die in the plague. This may be because he sees himself as part of the plague itself that will endure longer than the villagers. It may also be because he feels he is part of nature and therefore he will survive along with the rest of nature that surrounds him.
The Bedlam isn’t troubled by all the death and disease around him and he refers to the coffins holding dead victims of the plague as ‘Boxes’ and he thinks it is amusing that the people put the victims inside them.
Later on in the play the Bedlam forms a relationship with Marshall Howe. These two inhabitants of Eyam do all the dirty work, carrying people to their graves and burying them. Sometimes their conversations consist of total irrelevancies and, in the Bedlam’s case, what appears to be nonsense. Neither really listens nor understands what the other is saying. However, gradually Marshall Howe seems to feel pity for the Bedlam and sees him in a different perspective to all the other villagers of Eyam. I think this is because he is beginning to understand how the Bedlam thinks, perhaps because of the trauma that he is suffering from his wife having contracted the plague.