Professor, Department of English, Boston College
First speaker, Workshop on Literary History and the Brain
Cognitive Hamlet and the Sources of Action
Hamlet's claim to have "that within which passes show" (1.2.85) has become one of the most debated lines in early modern literature since it seems to make a definite statement about that most contested of topics, the nature of subjective interiority and its relation to the existence (or non-existence) of the human "individual." Katherine Eisaman Maus has recently summarized critical controversy over the cultural significance of Hamlet's "contrast between an authentic personal interior and derivative or secondary superficies" and takes issue with those critics who have argued that such a sense of self did not exist until the later seventeenth century. In her examination and defence of the "epistemology of inwardness" in the period, Maus rightly insists that the sometimes contiguous concepts of "privacy," "inwardness" and "individuality" were not always associated nor did their contiguity add up to a fully formed concept of modern subjectivity. However, most critics have been ready to assume that what Hamlet has within is some version of the modern subject--either
fully formed, or still in process of formation.
I want to argue that, from a cognitive perspective emerging from a focus on Shakespeare's mental lexicon, the subject of Hamlet is precisely the question of what it is that Hamlet has within and that the play imagines a number of cognitive processes which might comprise Hamlet's "that." These processes are imagined differently at different points in the play and various versions of the ways in which the inner self comes into being delineate different relationships among the self, its actions, and its environment. The words "act," "action," "actor"---and a coinage, "enacture," unique to this play--form the lexical category through which Shakespeare meditates on these questions in this play and his sense of the word "action" has been significantly inflected by his reading of a near-contemporary psychological treatise, Timothy Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie. Bright's treatise, I will argue, uses the word "action" to investigate the relationships among the soul, body, and mind and to describe the processes through which external and internal forces give rise to the
actions which both define and express the self. Hamlet is, himself, preoccupied with cognitive process, and it is this preoccupation with internal chains of action which works for most of the play to prevent decisive external action. His ultimate recognition of his ambiguous role as actor and instrument within larger cultural and dramatic plots enables him, finally, to act; however, from a cognitive perspective, Hamlet's acquiesence in his own cultural construction may be the most
tragic element of the play.