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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Jessie W


With a focus on the character Benjamin Barker and his alter ego Sweeney Todd, this essay looks to examine the signs of the performance that demonstrate potential psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. There will be a particular focus on the 2002 staged concert version of the musical, though there will also be reference to the 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton. The character will be analysed from a psychoanalytic perspective and this examination will be done using the Freudian technique. With attention to concepts such as the unconscious, the id, ego and superego, there will be an analysis of how these models are reflected in the character’s actions. Examined will be the significance of language, music, lighting and props/staging, and how these are used to suggest a hidden meaning to an audience. This essay will analyse these signifiers from a Saussurean standpoint and look at whether they point to psychosis in the character. Another notion this essay seeks to explore is whether it is other characters, such as Mrs Lovett and Judge Turpin, which display more certain mental instability.

There are several alternatives in how the Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘Demon’. Firstly, the word can be used as a modifier to describe ‘a forceful or skilful performer of a specified activity’ (Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, 2005, p.235). The character Sweeney Todd is certainly a highly proficient barber, which is demonstrated resoundingly in the contest between Todd and Pirelli. The implication then of the title The Demon Barber of Fleet Street could simply be that the character Todd is an expert coiffeur. However, what quickly becomes apparent is that the word might actually signify to an audience something much more sinister. Disturbingly, the character Todd is exceptionally skilled, but in the way in which he chooses and disposes of his victims. Perhaps more apt would be the alternate definition ‘a powerful, often destructive compulsion or obsession’ (Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, 2005, p.235).

The word ‘demon’ is similarly associated with the devil, and the idea of demonic possession, whereby a person has no control over their own body. Ultimately, the character is possessed by rage, and it is Sweeney’s obsession for revenge against the Judge that leads him on a murderous rampage. His compulsion to kill, and the indiscriminate nature of his murders, demonstrates a person who has lost the ability to control his actions, comparable to somebody believed to be demonically possessed. However, this is also demonstrative of an addictive personality, in this case an apparent addiction to violent murders. This arguably demonstrates a character who displays some sort of mental illness, which manifests itself in extreme, amoral and antisocial behaviour. These tendencies are symptomatic of psychopathy and therefore the character could clearly be interpreted as having a psychological disorder. Act One of the musical opens with the ‘Organ Prelude’ (1979). The organ is an instrument that for centuries has been used in churches, producing a sound that is often thought to represent the metaphysical or the discarnate voice of God (according to, last accessed 28 December, [ONLINE]). However, more recently the instrument has become associated with the macabre, most strikingly the ‘Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’ which has been used as a backdrop to countless horror films, including The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931). From a Saussurean perspective, it could be interpreted that the sound of the organ now signifies an ominous sense of foreboding to a modern audience. Lovensheimer (2008) makes reference to Sondheim’s use of

Motives, or short, recognisable musical ideas that sometimes represent non musical concepts or characters and that are often used as structural cells for lengthier musical statements. (Lovensheimer, 2008, p.207)

The audience associate the sound of the organ with Todd’s character, the organ becoming the familiar motif that runs through the duration of the tale. It is interesting to note that like the ‘Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’, the opening prelude is also in the D minor key. Whether this was a conscious decision, the closeness of the two pieces of music further heightens the association between the signifier (the organ) and the signified (a sense of doom). It can therefore be concluded, without any prior knowledge, that the character of Sweeney will likely be villainous, or, as the title establishes, demonic, although this is not necessarily reflective of someone who is psychotic. Nonetheless, the motif for Todd is very distinctive, and this could be more significant, as it differentiates him from the other characters. The fact that he is specifically distinguished sets him apart from the rest, which in the correct sense of the word signifies abnormality, as he is dissimilar to the majority. A person who is psychotic displays abnormal behaviour and thus it could be concluded simply that there is a signification in the music of Todd’s apparent insanity.

Another villain, with whom the audience empathise even less, is the Judge. The musical number ‘Mea Culpa’(1979) is an exemplary model of the Freudian unconscious. This consists of the id, superego and the ego. Freud describes the id as the drooling dog that functions primarily on pleasure. The id is ‘totally unsocialized’ (Kahn, M. 2002, p.26). In the case of the Judge, the id is Turpin’s sexual attraction to Johanna, who is his adopted daughter. Indisputably, society dictates that incest is not the social norm and is thus socially unacceptable. At this point the superego comes into effect. What the superego represents is the prohibitions of parents and the public (Kahn, M. 2002, p.26). This is demonstrated quite graphically by the Judge, who physically maims himself with a whip for having such improper thoughts. This alone is perceivably abnormal, as self-harming is atypical of human behaviour, often symptomatic of guilt over unconscious impulses. Here the ‘master’ physically forbids the impulse or desire. The ego’s role then, is ‘to manage relations with the outside world’ (Kahn, M. 2002, p.27). The condition of a human’s mental health relies heavily upon the fortitude of the ego. If the ego does not regulate the superego this could lead to severe anxiety and unconscious guilt. Likewise, if the ego does not regulate the id, man will give into his primal desire (Kahn, M. 2002, pp.26-29). Upon reaching the conclusion of the song, the Judge has made the decision to marry Johanna and so, in this case, the id has won in the internal conflict.

(According to, last accessed 28 December,[ONLINE]) One symptom of psychosis is an inability to recognise what is socially acceptable, including ‘embarrassing behaviour’ (, last accessed 28 December, [ONLINE]) or specifically promiscuity. For this reason it could be argued that it is the judge, in fact, that demonstrates certain psychotic tendencies. Though he recognises that he is wrong, he convinces himself that it is normal behaviour to marry his daughter. This illustrates that the character is deluded, another symptom of psychosis. The judge abuses his position of power, his elevated status, providing leverage for amoral and antisocial behaviour, as the character feels he has a given right, which too is conjunctive with sociopathic behaviour. The definition of this being:

Impulsiveness, inability to relate to others, inability to learn or profit from experiences, lack of guilt or remorse for behaviour, insensitivity for pain of others (Shoemaker, 2009, p.80)

He exhibits this by raping Benjamin Barker’s (Todd’s alter ego’s) wife and sending the then innocent Barker to prison. This provides a motive for Todd which could be a counterargument against his insanity. Although it is obviously immoral to kill somebody, the murder is not without motive, and had the murder of the Judge been a crime of passion, then Todd’s actions could be held less accountable. Human instinct is to protect what one loves, and Todd’s compassion for his wife shows that he is not entirely disconnected from reality. However, though motivated, the fact it is premeditated and planned in gruesome detail is what makes his crime less forgivable and leads an audience to believe the character may be psychotic.

Perhaps one of the most vital signifiers in the entire musical, and what inspires Sweeney’s murderous rampage, is the razor. As discussed previously, Mr Todd is unmistakably a skilled barber. This is made apparent to the audience by the worth of his razors, which are presented in an ostentatious wooden case. In addition to this, the value is supported by careful lighting from above. The effect created causes the metal to glint in the light, again suggesting a luminescence which has come to be associated with precious metals such as gold and silver. Furthermore, Todd addresses the razors directly as ‘my Friends’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]). The humanisation of the razors gives the objects an elevated status, which in turn suggests they carry an abnormal value. The simple fact, that Todd regards these inanimate objects so highly, demonstrates a very strong emotional attachment, which could be viewed as unusual. This causes the audience to question the character’s sanity. Furthermore, there is the underlying sense of threat that the razor carries. The fact the razor is sharp is an obvious signifier of danger, though the general practice when shaving is to avoid drawing blood. Todd, however, is fixated on the idea, and displays an exceptional attraction to the prospect, evidence of which is seen in the line ‘drip precious rubies’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]).

The ruby is considered one of the most valuable gemstones on earth, its vibrant colour symbolic of power, blood and unbridled passion. Most notably, the red colour in this song is also a signifier of danger, which the audience relate to the spilling of blood. The ruby signifies Todd’s dangerous personality and obsessive devotion to achieving vengeance. This is highlighted by the preciousness of the stone. With such commitment to this dismal purpose, it is easy to see how revenge consumes the character, creating ‘a superhuman creature determined upon a course of indiscriminate bloody purgation’ (Gordon, 1992, pp.233f). There is motivation behind the murder of the Judge, although this is not the case with the murder of his other victims. Todd claims that he will practice on the ‘throats of hypocrites’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]). This clearly shows resentment towards the citizens of London, though totally unjustified, raising questions over the character’s mental state.

Freud may argue that, as a defence mechanism, the character has unconsciously projected his rage towards the judge onto another person. By doing so, the character will perceive that person as being angry at them: ‘I repress my anger and see you as being angry at me’ (Kahn, M. 2002, p.128). For this reason, it may be that the character Todd feels threatened, and therefore could be seen to be acting in defence when he murders his victims. ‘Freud’s statement that the defence mechanisms are the key to neurosis’ (Kahn, M. 2002, p.122) offers one explanation as to why the character Todd is conceivably seen as mentally unstable.

It is important to note that this killing is indiscriminate, because although it may carry the signification of a defence mechanism, it also displays a disregard, not just for the Judge’s life, but for humanity. This becomes immediately apparent in ‘There’s no place like London’ (1979), where Todd describes Londoners as ‘vermin of the world’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]). Vermin is applied to small animals collectively, but also as an insult or derogatory term for a human being. Vermin are by and large exterminated as they are considered a pest, and so immediately Todd is set up to signify an exterminator of mankind. It also demonstrates Todd’s disassociation with humanity, which is also established early on through Sondheim’s use of motif. This disassociation could be explained by the fifteen years he spent imprisoned, prior to returning back into society, but could also go some way to suggesting that the character is psychotic.

Though Todd’s superego, which takes the form of Benjamin Barker, seeks love and safety for his family, the character is unable to empathise with others. Despite the fact that he chooses his victims wisely to begin with, as the id becomes a dominant facet of Todd’s personality, little consideration is given to the background or familial situations of his victims. It is especially notable that the character takes on two personas (both Barker and Todd) which in itself could suggest a type of disassociated identity disorder (DID). Petrucelli (2010) describes DID as ‘a useful coping response to an environment which is very difficult to endure’ (Petrucelli, J. 2010, p.84). This may go some way to explaining why the character decides to re-emerge as Todd so as to ‘disassociate’ with the trauma he endured as Barker. It is when Barker rejects his name and takes on the persona of Todd that the id becomes uncontrollable, and the character’s actions become less thoughtful and more animalistic. It is somewhat ironic that in his attempt to reconstruct his family he ends up killing his own wife. The character also destroys many other families, which displays a hostile and destructive nature. He shows no empathy towards others despite the fact that the destruction of his own family has had such a dramatic effect on him. Todd is clearly unable to associate his condition with that of his victims, which this destruction demonstrates. The sweeping assumption that all humans are vermin also reiterates this.

A particularly poignant example of Todd’s perceptible madness is the reprise of ‘Johanna’ (1979). Todd merrily sings this love song whilst in the process of slitting a number of victims’ throats. The absent-mindedness of the act, together with the joyous content of the song, makes this scene particularly disturbing. It indicates to an audience that Todd is completely detached, and thus unaffected by the death he inflicts. This provides a strong case for Todd’s psychosis. Mrs Lovett’s ‘chilling disregard for human suffering’ (Simei-Barton, P, (2010)) is also cause for disturbance. It is, in fact, Lovett who suggests turning the corpses into pies, and likewise it is Lovett who returns Todd’s razors to him. The line of dialogue ‘I knew you’d need them’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]) suggests insight and affects Todd, who before this point in the story, though clearly quite bitter, did not display obvious signs of psychosis. For this reason, it could arguably be perceived that Lovett is in fact the one who wills Todd into performing the murders. There is no obvious motive for this, though there is a suggestion of jealousy when the subject of her rival pie maker is brought up. The character of Lovett is clearly quite erratic; this assumption being formed on the basis of the orchestration Sondheim chooses to represent her. She too displays a detachment from reality, and furthermore her clear delight at the prospect of serial murder, despite having no obvious motive, clearly demonstrates psychotic behaviour.

The detachment from reality that the pair displays is demonstrated in the duet ‘A Little Priest’ (1979). The song itself is whimsical, and the pair dance frivolously around the stage, whilst entertaining the notion of turning various members of the public in to pies. This suggestion of cannibalism is not instinctive, and is made remarkably sinister by the light-hearted way in which the duo discusses the idea. Todd’s swift changes in mood also suggest to an audience that the character is not entirely mentally stable. Upon mention of Turpin’s name, the atmosphere becomes sombre, which is reflected in the sobriety of the music. Todd’s aggression towards the judge becomes perceptible. It is quite possible that the character Todd could be a sociopath as having no remorse for one’s actions or lack of conscience is symptomatic of this illness (, last accessed 2 January, [ONLINE]). A sociopath also feels that they have an entitlement to certain things, for example Todd's entitlement to kill the judge. This is an overwhelming theme, ‘I’ll come again when you have Judge on the menu’ (Sweeney Todd in Concert, 2002, [DVD]), being especially demonstrative of this. The fact he says ‘when’ suggests an inevitability that the Judge will come to that gruesome end. The thought of murdering the Judge does not ever escape him, vengeance being Todd’s only salvation. The tagline of the film however, ‘Never Forget. Never Forgive’ (Burton, 2007) suggests that this is not the case, as even after he has murdered the judge, the character is not fully gratified and unable to stop his compulsive violent behaviour. The fact Todd cannot stop, even having fulfilled his dismal purpose provides a strong case for his insanity.

In conclusion, having examined the evidence and signs of performance it is clear that there are certain aspects of Todd’s personality that are symptomatic of psychological disorders such as psychosis and DID. The character also displays sociopathic tendencies, which are also apparent in the characters Judge Turpin and Mrs Lovett. Although it is unclear whether Todd is psychotic or has just experienced a psychotic episode, it is clear that as the story progresses, so does the character’s hostility towards mankind. Whether it is Mrs Lovett that drives this is debatable, although the instability of the character Todd is reiterated by various performance signs, these signifying an abnormality in his character.  


Kahn, M. (2002) Basic Freud Psychoanalytic Thought for the Twenty First Century. USA. Basic Books. Lovensheimer, J. (2008) Stephen Sondheim and the musical of the outsider. in W.A. Everett,. and P.R. Laird eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Elliott, J. Hawker, S. and Soanes, C. eds. (2005) Pocket Oxford English Dictionary. 10th ed. New York: Oxford University Press. Petrucelli, J. Ph.D. ed. (2010) Knowing, Not-Knowing and Sort-Of-Knowing: Psychoanalysis and the Experience of Uncertainty. London: Karnac Books Ltd. Shoemaker, D.J. (2009) Theories of Delinquency:An Examination of Explanations of Delinquent Behaviour. 6th ed. United States of America: Oxford University Press. Simei-Barton, P, (2010) Review: Sweeney Todd at Maidment Theatre. The New Zealand Herald, 09 June. (1995) The Organ: its Symbolism and Philosophy. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 28 Dec 2012]. (2012) Mental Healthcare :: Living with psychosis. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 28 Dec 2012]. (2003) Profile of the Sociopath. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 2 Jan 2013]. Sweeney Todd in Concert. (2002) Dir. Lonny Price. Image Entertainment [DVD] Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, December 21). Dir. Tim Burton.[Film series episode]. research article

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