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The mind of man in Hamlet.

HAMLET grapples with his own task in its immediate context. Yet that effort entrains wider frames of reference whose signification critics have striven to clarify. In one such frame, Hamlet s agon reformulates the question, "What is a man?" (4.4.33) which he himself raises. (1) As a rational animal, a man is one who thinks. But the play problematizes the proper exercise of thought by which man sustains this identity. The role of reason in Hamlet has attracted considerable critical attention. According to one school, inaugurated by Harry Levin and extended by scholars such as Chris R. Hassel, Walter King, Eve Sanders, William Morse, Kenneth Rothwell, Lars Engle, and Ronald Shafer, Hamlet debunks the Renaissance praise of human reason, epitomized by Pico della Mirandola. (2) In contrast, Carole T. Diffey examines the role of "godlike reason" in the play. (3) According to another school, ably represented by Lily Bess Campbell, John S. Wilks, and Jennifer Low, the play elaborates the classical doctrine regarding the responsibility of reason to control passion. (4) According to a third school, forged by Herschel Baker, A.D. Nuttall, Mark Matheson, and Gordon Hartford, Hamlet foregrounds Stoic doctrines concerning the function of reason in the conduct of life. (5)

Unlike these preceding critics who have considered the play in terms of its debunking or appropriation of earlier notions of reason, I shall examine how, in Hamlet, the concept of reason, as transmitted by the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, is subjected to a radical critique which problematizes the meaning of man as the rational animal. The investigation will involve sequential uncovering of the ways in which the function of reason is questioned and reconstituted in the play. At the core of this analysis is a reinterpretation of the relation between reason and the individual exercising it.

According to Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine, "man is principally the mind of man" (Summa Theologica I-II, 29, 5, resp.). (6) That is, in so far as man is a rational animal, reason operates synonymously in all human beings endowed with it. Hence, to be a man is to be defined through common function, not uniqueness. In this context, the imperative, "to thine own self be true" (1.3.78), entails fidelity to a general principle. For here the core of selfhood is universal reason. But Hamlet has severed the bond with universal reason, which always sees the truth in the same way. For him, thought is idiosyncratic, and its defining operation, judgment, works differently in each individual, as exemplified in his opinion of Denmark: "for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison" (2.2.249-251 emphasis added).

Ironically however, in Hamlet the "nutshell" (2.2.254) of the mind is itself the ultimate prison. For here the individual is confined within his or her own "course of thought" (3.3.83), and rendered vulnerable to the products of his or her own mentality: "Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works" (3.4.114). "[B]ad dreams" (2.2.256) and hallucinations ("the very coinage of your brain" [3.4.139]) are the most obviously noxious products of the mind. More insidious is the unchecked momentum of thought itself. Hamlet is intermittently aware of this influence, as when halting his own self-castigation for inaction: "About, my brains" (2.2.584).

Thus, in so far as "man is principally the mind of man" (Summa Theologica I-II, 29, 5, resp.), his identity is problematized by the hazards pertaining respectively to universal and particular reason. The former, through emphasis on general principle, prevents awareness of distinct individuality, while the latter, through emphasis on private preoccupations, threatens to trap individuality within the limits of its own concerns. In this context, the basic terms of Hamlet's ambiguity regarding his own rationality can be succinctly formulated: (a) to think for himself is to be vulnerable to his own mentality: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams" (2.2.254-256); (b) to think for the sake of reason is to be defined by the universal preconceptions of rationality: "What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason ..." (2.2.303-304). From this point of view, man is the rational animal whose identity is problematized by recourse to thought.

The ambiguous function of thought can be clarified from another angle. On the one hand, as parodied by Polonius's formula, "What majesty should be, what duty is, / Why day is day, night night, and time is time" (2.2.87-88), thinking discloses reality or "the essence of things" (to invoke F.H. Bradley's phrase from a different context). (7) But on the other hand, as prompted by personal circumstance, thinking increases perspectival idiosyncrasy: "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world" (1.2.133-134 emphasis added). That is, under the pressure of local conditions, "godlike reason" (4.4.38), the faculty par excellence of objective insight, succumbs to what Whitehead terms an "excess of subjectivity," with the result that "the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality." (8) According to the classical schema, the function of reason is to guide life, so that the highest potential of the individual can be fulfilled. But in Hamlet, the result of life is to modify the operation of reason by directing its focus to specific concerns. That is, to adopt the terminology of the play, "course of thought" (3.3.83) is characterized by selection prompted by "circumstance" (3.3.83). This dispensation is especially true of Hamlet whose thought is shaped by the exigencies of his own life: "How all occasions do inform against me" (4.4.32). It is parodied by Polonius's project to disclose Hamlet's thought: "If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid [...]" (2.2.156-157 emphasis added).

Yet the susceptibility of reason to circumstance is itself ambiguous. On the one hand, it fosters distortion whose most extreme expressions in the play include (a) incoherence ("start not so wildly from my affair" [3.2.301]), (b) confusion ("Even while men's minds are wild [5.2.398]), and (c) madness ("it springs / All from her father's death" [4.5.75-76]). But on the other hand, the susceptibility of reason to circumstance encourages recognition that the crucial task of thought is to assume responsibility for the quality of its own operation. For in so far as individual identity ("What is a man" [4.4.33]) is determined by the rational faculty, how one thinks will modify who he or she is. Just as circumstance influences thought, so thought conditions individuality. Hence, in contrast to the Cartesian cogito, which is aware first and foremost that it thinks (I think therefore I am), Hamlet emphasizes awareness of how he thinks, as when (a) halting his rememoration of his mother's uxorial devotion prior to his father's death ("Let me not think on't" [1.2.146]), (b) observing the effect of his melancholy ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth" [2.2.295-296]), (c) adopting the disguise of madness, (d) interrupting his self-castigation in the second soliloquy, (e) berating, in the fourth soliloquy, his thought as either deficient or excessive, and (f) analyzing the reason for his eruption in Ophelia's grave, or (g) commenting on his despair aboard the ship bound for England ("Methought I lay / Worse than the mutines in the bilboes [5.2.5-6]). The obverse of Hamlet's dictum, "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," (2.2.249-50) is that thought must acknowledge the moral and psychological consequences of its own activity.

Indeed, the "To be" soliloquy suggests precisely this insight. There thought is conceived as so intrinsic to identity that it persists posthumously in the mode of dream. But in that sleep of death, thought loses all control over its own movement. By implication, the essence of life is responsible directing of thought. Brief elaboration will clarify this point. According to the risk-reward analysis unfolded in the soliloquy, thought literally makes life worth living--not intrinsically, but only because the risk posed by posthumous thought outweighs the reward of release from life. The implicit "upshot" (5.2.389) of this reasoning is that Hamlet recognizes the need to retain control over the movement of thought. The corollary of this insight is that the value of life depends on the mentality adopted during it.

As a character, Hamlet almost incarnates the act of thinking. In him, thought is so intense and vivid that it approximates physical presence: "Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow / Out of his brows" (3.3.6-7). But his insistent rationality is marked by contradictory attitudes toward its own operation. On the one hand, he recognizes that the momentum of thought must be controlled. On the other hand, he deliberately provokes obsession ("My thought be bloody or be nothing worth" [4.4.66]), and resents the way "the pale cast of thought" inhibits "enterprises of great pith and moment" (3.1.85, 86). Moreover, on the one hand he construes thought as the acme of identity ("What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason" [2.2.303-304]), while on the other hand, through the guise of false madness, he uses thought to achieve exemption from identity: "If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, / And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it" (5.2.230-231).

Hamlet does have a need not to be Hamlet: that is, to deny or escape his identity. He displays this need both before receiving the revenge imperative ("O that this too too sullied flesh would melt" [1.2.129]) and afterward: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" (1.5.196-197). In fact, on one level, Hamlet's delay can be explained as his exploitation of the revenge task as an excuse to escape himself through the ploy of false madness which, as we have seen, he explicitly associates with flight from self. In this context, Hamlet's defining alternatives are to think in order not to be himself or to think in order to fulfill his identity. The strife between them is epitomized by his remark to Horatio, regarding his predicament on shipboard, when his alternatives were to yield to despair or rise up and take action: "Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting" (5.2.4). Ironically, when first learning that the cause of his father's death was murder, Hamlet instantly associates the revenge imperative with the movement of thought: "Haste me to know't / That I with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love / May sweep to my revenge" (1.5.29-31). But he does not realize that the movement of thought which he foregrounds ultimately pertains to discrepant tendencies in his own mind.

In Hamlet, man is still the rational animal, but a revolution in understanding the operation of thought occurs. Reason is no longer construed, as in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, as a faculty whose function is determined by the inviolable principles of its own "inborn aptitude" (Summa Theologica I, Q. 84, A. 4, resp.). Instead, reason must take responsibility for its own cogitation. Where there is man, there is thought, even in madness: "Indeed would make them think there must be thought, / Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily" (4.5.12-13). Though thought must therefore not be allowed "To fust in us unus'd" (4.4.39), neither should it remain oblivious to its own effects. Hamlet dramatizes numerous examples of uncertainty concerning thought: (a) the Ghost's motive ("In what particular thought to work I know not" [1.1.70]), (b) Hamlet's intention (that "doth hourly grow / Out of his brows" [3.3.6-7]), (c) Polonius's memory lapse ("what was I about to say?" [2.1.50-51]), (d) Ophelia's madness which contains "nothing sure," (4.5.13) and (e) the inscrutability of "providence" (5.2.215) or divine plan. But in the world of the play, the most morally significant uncertainty regarding thought concerns unawareness of the consequences of thinking. Indeed, Claudius interprets Hamlet's melancholy as the unwholesome result of unchecked preoccupation: "This something settled matter in his heart, / Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus / From fashion of himself" (3.1.175-176).

Yet properly to assume responsibility for its own cogitation, reason must interrogate the very means by which it thinks. For every "course of thought" is necessarily conditioned by the concepts available for thinking. In the world of the play, the thinking of characters is embedded in a matrix of concepts without which they could not think. This situation can be epitomized by a somewhat cumbersome reformulation of Hamlet's mot regarding moral relativism: there is nothing either good or bad but the ethical concepts deployed by thought make it so. Hence, the task of controlling thought and becoming responsible for its consequences presupposes the task of problematizing the concepts on which thought depends.

The play prominently foregrounds the urge "[to] cast beyond ourselves in our opinions" (2.2.115) and achieve "thoughts beyond the reaches" (1.4.56) of current conceptual frameworks: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.174-175). But this project entails superseding the concepts on which thought has heretofore relied. Whereas in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, the "proper operation" of reason "is to understand," (Summa Theologica I, Q. 84, A. 4, resp.), in Hamlet proper understanding ultimately requires conceptual reorientation. Paradoxically however, though thought here can "burst" (1.4.46, 48) its limits only through problematizing its concepts, Hamlet does not ultimately confirm a relativism wherein truth depends on the particular perspective from which it is viewed or formulated. In the problematics of man, as developed in the play, there is an abiding reality. The "divinity that shapes our ends" (5.2.10) assures that personal purposes are subsumed in the immutably subsistent whole which is the divine plan. Moreover, just as the nature and content of that whole exceed human comprehension, so the conceptual problematics pursued in the play exceeds both the contribution and awareness of any character concerning it.

The paradoxical situation, where a problematic proceeds "beyond the reaches" of the characters enabling it, epitomizes what is a man in Hamlet. In the world of the play, man is not only the hermeneutic animal who interprets the meaning of experience; he is also the problematizing animal, who questions the basis on which interpretation is made. But this questioning needs no philosopher "come from the grave" (1.5.131)--or anywhere else; for it is implicit in the movement and growth of thought itself. Thought engenders thought: "As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" (1.2.144-145). Except in the case of logical proof or formal argument, thought does not entirely predetermine its own progress. That is, thought displays two formative characteristics which condition its own content. These two properties are structure and spontaneity. Both are represented in Hamlet's assumed madness. Spontaneity appears in the conceptual swerves of his "wild and whirling words" (1.5.139). Structure appears in the underlying purpose and cohesion: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't" (2.2.205-206).

In this context, the apprehension regarding the future, dramatized in the opening scene, gains richer significance. On the literal level, that apprehension concerns the sense of foreboding, with respect to "the fates" and "the omen coming on" (1.5.125,126). But on a deeper level, this uncertainty about the future pertains to the movement of thought whose outcome is often unforeseen. Indeed, the Ghost, whose appearance is nervously expected, vividly reifies the problematic movement of thought: "In what particular thought to work I know not" (1.1.70). The unpredictable movement of thought, in the context of rigorous structure, is nowhere more compactly dramatized than in the "To be" soliloquy, which begins with the assumption that nobility resides "in the mind," and concludes with contempt for "the pale cast of thought" (3.1.57, 85).

IN Hamlet, we can note again, "man is principally the mind of man" (Summa Theologica I-II,29,5, resp.). But that mind is distinguished by contrary tendencies. On the one hand, as we have seen, the play suggests that the mind should assume responsibility for the consequences of its thought. But on the other hand, the play emphasizes that the mind is characterized by the unexpected progeny of its thought, resulting from conceptual gestation: "How pregnant sometimes his replies are ..." (2.2.208-209). These contraries deepen the implications of what is a man. The nature of the mind is to incubate thought whose content will emerge or become evident later. But if thought is allowed thus "[t]o lust in us" (4.4.39) unchecked, then negative predispositions might overwhelm positive ones. Ophelia is a case in point. She refuses to assume responsibility for her own thought: "I do not know, my lord, what I should think" (1.3.104). Indeed, her father encourages this mental irresponsibility: "Think yourself a baby" (1.3.105). Appropriately, as observed earlier, her madness is defined in terms of the loss of the ability to direct thought: "there must be thought, / Though nothing sure ..." (4.5.12-3). Through the propensity in melancholy to "brood" (3.1.167), Hamlet runs the same risk of losing control over the gestation of thought. Indeed, he associates the devil with the tendency of negative thought to forfeit control over its consequences: "and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me" (2.2.597-599).

The contrariety in thought between control and gestation occurs on two levels: personal and metapersonal. One level concerns the psychological implications of thought (what happens to the thinker as a result of thinking his thought). Here the appropriate formula is not "I think therefore I am," but "I think therefore I am modified by my thought." The other level concerns the conceptual implications of thought (what happens to concepts as a result of thinking). The conflation of these two levels in the character of Hamlet can be most succinctly reviewed in relation to the problematics of identity. On the personal level, Hamlet labours through a process of self-questioning ("Am I a coward?" [2.2.566]), before delivering his climactic self-identification: "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane" (5.1.250-251). Yet his own interrogation participates in and enables a much more extensive and profound metapersonal inquiry than he recognizes. For in the play, the initial and fundamental focus of thought concerns the clarification of identity: "Who's there?" (1.1.1). That is, in so far as man is the rational animal, the ultimate task of his thought is to formulate the terms by which human experience is rendered meaningful.

The conflation of personal and metapersonal levels leads to a reinterpretation of Hamlet's significance. The most profound and lasting influence an agent can have is through thought, not action, if that thought contributes to a "transformation" (2.2.5) in the concepts by which man conceives his own meaning. In so far as coherent action presupposes thought, and in so far as certain feelings derive from thought, a change in mode of thinking entails a change in both action and emotion. To regard Hamlet as a character undermined by excessive thought is to ignore the ramifications of his thinking. For though Hamlet heroically thinks for himself, his thought is not bound within the nutshell of his own mind. Just as, according to the eschatology cited in the play, the meaning of life on earth is disclosed in the wider context of life after death, so the significance of Hamlet's own thought is disclosed in the wider context of conceptualization into which it is woven.

To clarify this wider context of conceptualization, we must return to the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm where, as we have incrementally repeated, man is principally the mind of man. That is, man is defined in terms of the exercise of thought which "consists properly in the search after truth" (Summa Theologica I, Q. 34, A. 1, resp.), through the "advance from one thing understood to another" (I, Q.79, A.8, resp.). Hence, in this schema, the function of the mind is to actualize itself through the achievement of knowledge which, according to Aristotle, "states reasons" (Metaphysics [ix.2.1046.sup.b]8). (9) But the drive toward knowledge is itself driven by the knowable: "intelligence is moved by the intelligible" (Metaphysics, [xii.7.1072.sup.a]30). In other words, there can be no knowing without things to know. For, in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, "actuality is prior to potentiality" (Metaphysics ix, 8, [1050.sup.b]5), and "the human intellect [...] is in potency with regard to things intelligible, and is at first `like a clean tablet on which nothing is written,' as the Philosopher says" (Summa Theologica I. Q. 79, A.2, resp. [Aristotle: Soul, III, 4 {[430.sup.a]1}]). Thus, knowledge cannot go beyond the reaches of that which is already true. Indeed, the very act of knowing entails conception ("when a thing is understood by anyone there results in the one who understands a conception of the object understood ..." [Summa Theologica I, Q. 37, A. 1, resp.]), and conception, in turn, entails adequation of the mind to that which retains its ontological integrity independent of being known: "the conception of the intellect is a likeness of the thing understood" (I, Q. 27, A. 2, resp.).

This dictum is reversed by Hamlet's pronouncement regarding the function of thought: "for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (2.2.249-250). Whereas in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, "the human intellect [...] is in potency with regard to things intelligible," here things intelligible (or knowable) are in potency to the intellect (or the knowing faculty), at least regarding their moral value. In one case, the mind can know only what already is; in other case, what already is can be modified by the way in which thought construes it.

The implications of Hamlet's mot regarding the relativity of things to thought can be briefly investigated. If everything is relative to thinking, then the thinker himself is relative to his thoughts. Aristotle refutes this proposition by a famous reductio ad absurdum: "if each thing is relative to a thinker, and each thinker to his thoughts, a thinker must be infinitely relative" (Metaphysics [iv.6.1011.sup.b] 10-15). But the proposition concerning the relativity of thinker to thought has a deeper implication, more germane to the problematics of man in the play. Just as thinking (according to Hamlet's pronouncement) determines good and bad, so the moral value of the thinker is determined by his or her thought. Indeed, in Hamlet this dispensation is frequently assumed: (a) the "To be" soliloquy, where the only nobility remaining to the individual resides "in the mind" (3.1.57); (b) Claudius's remorse at his inability to make his thoughts follow his penitential words: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below" (3.3.97); (c) Hamlet's distress at not thinking appropriately: "Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on the event" (4.4.39-41).

In Hamlet, the rectification of thought requires re-evaluation of the purpose of thought. Here the ultimate function of thought is not to disclose the truth ("If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid ..." (2.2.157-158), but to become aware of the defects and limitations in its own operation. The climactic expression of this discovery is Hamlet's praise of "rashness" (5.2.7) or unpremeditated action as the means of revealing a higher order of thought than human comprehension can grasp: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (5.2.10-11).

THE upshot of this recognition is not to devalue thought or to empower madness, but instead to construe the role of thinking in a new way. In the Christian-humanist synthesis, in so far as man is the rational animal, he is defined through the "capability" of thought (4.4.38) which, in turn, is defined as the movement from known truth to known truth:
 The discourse of reason always begins from an understanding and
 ends in understanding, because we reason by proceeding from certain
 understood principles, and the discourse of reason is perfected when
 we come to understand what we did not know before. Hence the act of
 reasoning proceeds from something previously understood. (Summa
 Theologica II-II, Q.8. A. 1, resp.)

But in the play, thought encounters difficulties that thwart its proper operation. These difficulties include "ignorance" (1.4.46), "amazement" (3.4.112), "wonder" (5.2.368), "doubt" (4.5.6), "dangerous conjectures" (4.5.15), "madness" (1.4.74), deception ("a little shuffling" [4.7.136]), confusion ("while men's minds are wild" [5.2.398]), obsession ("Whereon his brains still beating" [3.1.176]), and error ("What devil was't / That thus hath cozened you at hoodman-blind?" [3.4.76-77]). Here the "course of thought" (3.3.83) is impeded by circumstances which its unaided operation cannot overcome. Whereas in the Aristotelian-Thomist schema, reason operates in a closed circuit of certainty, proceeding from known truth to known truth, in Hamlet, the circuit of certainty, along which reason proceeds, is broken by factors, such as those just enumerated, that problematize rational inquiry, conventionally construed.

As a result of this dispensation, the very notion of thinking is changed. In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, thinking or the exercise of reason refers to "any kind of actual consideration of the intellect" (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 2, A. 1, resp.). More precisely, as Aquinas indicates, thinking pertains to investigation or deliberation undertaken by the mind for the purpose of achieving certitude, regarding the object about which it seeks knowledge: "`to think' is more strictly taken for that consideration of the intellect which is accompanied by some kind of inquiry, and which precedes the intellect's arrival at the stage of perfection that comes with the certitude of sight" (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 2, A. 1, resp.). The advance of thought toward certitude presupposes appropriate method: "each of the sciences must know how to know what it knows" (Metaphysics [xi.1064.sup.a] 20-21). Without appropriate method, reason is literally a hit or miss enterprise, as Aristotle indicates in the celebrated simile of the duel:
 as untrained swordsmen strike out in a duel, rushing about and
 occasionally making fine strokes, but making them without scientific
 expertness; so these thinkers seem to talk without knowing what they
 are saying. (Metaphysics i.4.985a12-15)

Ironically, immediately prior to the duel with Laertes, Hamlet foregrounds

this very notion of reason denied its proper operation: "Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet. / If Hamlet from himself be ta' en away, / And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it" (5.2.229-232). Moreover, the entire duel scene emphasizes the limitations of intellection. Prefaced by Hamlet's recognition of end-shaping divinity whose intentions exceed the reaches of human reason, the duel itself unfolds unpredictably, thus enabling the disclosure of noxious truths which otherwise would have remained hidden. Furthermore, Hamlet's ensuing death opens awareness onto a zone which cannot be penetrated by unaided thought: "the rest is silence" (5.2.363). Thus, just as physical training is of no relevance to the outcome of the duel ("Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice [5.2.06-207]), so intellectual training (such as that recommended by Aristotle in his dueling simile) is of no use in reaching the discoveries which the duel scene entails.

But however traumatic those discoveries, they do not resolve the problem of knowledge--or, more precisely, the problem of the exercise of reason to obtain knowledge--in the play. For there remains the task of proclaiming the discoveries to "th' yet unknowing world" (5.2.384). Even if disclosure is perfectly accurate and does not engender distortion in "ill-breeding minds" (4.5.15), nothing in the world of the play will have changed epistemologically. The designs of end-shaping divinity will remain just as obscure to the human intellect, as will the habitual recourse to "shuffling" (4.7.136) on the human level. Indeed, Horatio's summary of his impending oration foregrounds deception and miscalculation: "Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall'n on th' inventors' heads" (5.2.388-390).

In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, the function of thought is to achieve certainty or, more precisely, to extend the reaches of certainty, "from something previously understood" (Summa Theologica II-II,8,1 resp.). In the world of Hamlet, far from extending the reaches of certainty, thought becomes uncertain about its own operation, as in the example of Ophelia: "I do not know, my lord, what I should think" (1.3.104). On the one hand, this uncertainty signifies cognitive weakness, for Ophelia later literally loses her mind. But on the other hand, uncertainty regarding appropriate cognitive function is a precondition to attaining a new mentality. Prior to embarking on the ship for England, Hamlet is intensely confused about cognitive function, with respect to not knowing whether delay is due to thinking "too precisely" (4.4.41) or not at all. In consequence, he instructs himself about what to think: "My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth" (4.4.66). At bottom, as our study has shown, this concern regarding appropriate cognitive function symptomizes a profound problematizing of the principles governing and guiding the very operation of reason, and hence determining "[w]hat is a man" (4.4.33). Thus, it is appropriate that, from its inception, Hamlet associates the revenge project with the movement of thought: "Haste me to know't / That I with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love / May sweep to my revenge" (1.5.29-31). For in the course of his approach to revenge, the principles of thought are radically reconceived.

THE most profound implication of the rethinking of thought in Hamlet concerns not the content of thought, but the relation of thought to its thinker. In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, man is always man (that is, the rational animal) in virtue of his capacity to think: "man is principally the mind of man" (Summa Theologica I-II29,5, resp.). Here man thinks because it is his abiding and defining nature to do so. But in Hamlet, as exemplified by its eponymous protagonist, man thinks not because of what he is, but in virtue of what he is becoming. That is, in him thought is not merely the operation or manifestation of his intrinsic nature, but the progressive creation of it. In the classical view, man thinks in virtue of his nature as a rational animal. Thought does not make his identity, but instead is the consequence of it. But the play alters the relation between thought and the thinker, such that thought is the means by which the thinker forges or "shapes" his identity as a rational being. The distinction between the status of thought in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis and Hamlet can be clarified by interpolating, from a different context, Whitehead's succinct formulations. Whereas the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm "conceives the thinker as creating the occasional thought," the play "inverts the order, and conceives the thought as a constituent operation in the creation of the occasional thinker" (10) (Whitehead 151). Hamlet is not himself already as a subsistent subject, whose thoughts merely qualify his abiding identity. Instead, his thinking progressively determines his identity, such that who he is at the moment of death is an achievement, not the mere continuity of antecedent form. In other words, Hamlet is always both the subject thinking and the emergent consequence of those thoughts. This is perhaps the deepest implication of Claudius's reference to the cogitative process which "doth hourly grow / Out of his brows" (3.3.6-7).

Yet, this notion of self-constitution by thinking must not be confused with current poststructuralist interpretations of subjectivity. In that frame of reference, as Jonathan Dollimore indicates, "human identity is more constituted than constitutive," (54) and the constituting agent concerns external, impinging discourses. (11) There, Jacob Burckhardt's celebrated praise of the Renaissance, as the age which disclosed "the full, whole nature of man" (4.4.33) has no meaning (12) (Burckhart 303). For the notion of an abiding nature of man has been abandoned. In its place there is only, according to Richard Hillman, a "variable construct," founded on "external derivation" (13) (Hillman 6, 18). But in the view of Hamlet which the present study pursues, the older notion of the self as a "self-contained static substance" (Lynne Belaief) or "unchanging subject of change" (A.N. Whitehead) is displaced by different means. (14) Here what Emile Benveniste terms "the absence of the traditional subject" results from reference, not to ambient factors (such as language), extrinsic to the subject, but to the process of thinking by which Hamlet proceeds or evolves beyond the reaches of prior conceptions. (15)

Of course, ever since Coleridge referred to Hamlet's "great, enormous, intellectual activity," Hamlet has often been defined in terms of recourse to thought--and often in pejorative terms, as exemplified by Martin Wiggins's recycling of the critical view that Hamlet's delay results from excessive intellectualizing. (16) Thought is indisputably Hamlet's decisive attribute. Even his melancholy is construed as a mode of thought; for Claudius regards it as a symptom of "a mind impatient" (2.1.96). But far from signifying defective operation, Hamlet's use of thought is the means by which he fulfils his own identity. That is, through thought Hamlet constitutes who he is as its thinker. As Whitehead indicates, "The thinker is the final end whereby there is thought" (17) (Whitehead 151). The "transformation" (2.2.5) which Claudius detects in Hamlet is not static but continuous. It unfolds throughout the play, such that Hamlet's identity evolves with his conceptions. A striking illustration of this fact occurs in the graveyard, when Hamlet interrupts Laertes's posturing in Ophelia's grave: "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane" (5.1.250-51). Here, in declaring his identity, Hamlet rebukes Laertes for causing his grief to bear precisely "such an emphasis" (5.1.248) as that which Hamlet, in his second soliloquy, earlier deemed appropriate to his own sorrow. Indeed, failure to bear such an emphasis prompted Hamlet then to demean his own identity: "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" (2.2.544).

Yet, as our analysis has shown, the most profound implications of Hamlet's conceptual development concern not who he thinks he is, but how his thought reconceptualizes the function of thinking, and hence deepens the complexity of "[w]hat is a man," the rational animal. On this level, to interpolate Windelband's celebrated characterization of Renaissance philosophy, Hamlet "strives in obscure longing toward a goal which is an object rather of premonition than of clear conception" (18) (Wilhelm 352). His "prophetic soul" (1.5.41) anticipates more than knowledge of murder. For the ultimate consequence of his thinking is to reconstitute the dynamics of thought.


(1) Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London and New York: Methuen, 1982) 1.1.1-2. All quotations from Hamlet pertain to this edition, and will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

(2) Chris R. Hassel, Jr., "`How Infinite in Faculties': Hamlet's Confusion of God and Man," Literature and Theology 8 (1994): 127-39; Walter N. King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982) 59; Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998) 74; William R. Morse, "Shakespearean Self-knowledge: The Synthesizing Imagination and the Limits of Reason," Drama and Philosophy, ed. James Redmond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 31; Kenneth S. Rothwell, "Hamlet's `Glass of Fashion': Power, Self, and the Reformation," in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) 80-98; Lars Engle, "Discourse, Agency, and Therapy in Hamlet," Exemplaria 4:2 (1992): 441-453; Ronald G. Shafer, "Hamlet: Christian ok Humanist?" Studies in the Humanities 1 (1990): 21-25.

(3) Carole T. Diffey, "`Such Large Discourse': The Role of `Godlike Reason' in Hamlet," Hamlet Studies 11.1-2 (1989): 22-33.

(4) Lily Bess Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961); John S. Wilks, "The Discourse of Reason: Justice and the Erroneous Conscience in Hamlet," Shakespeare Studies 18 1986): 117-144; 139, 140; Jennifer Low, "Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet," The Centennial Review 43.3 1999): 501-512; 502.

(5) Herschel Baker, The Image of Man: A Study of the Idea of Human Dignity in Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance (New York: Harper, 1947) 302. For more recent evaluations, see A.D. Nuttall, "Hamlet: Conversations with the Dead," in The Stoic in Love: Selected Essays on Literature and Ideas (Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble, 1990), pp. 27-40; Mark Matheson, "Hamlet and `A Matter Tender and Dangerous,'" Shakespeare Quarterly 46.4 (1995): 383-397; and Gordon Hartford, "Stoicism in Shakespeare," English Studies in Africa 36 (1993): 1-15.

(6) St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952). All quotations from The Summa Theologica pertain to this edition, and are indicated parenthetically in my text.

(7) F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, 2nd ed. (1897; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930) 3.

(8) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected ed., Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978) 15.

(9) Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Richard Hope (1952; rpt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960). All references to the Metaphysics pertain to this translation, and are cited parenthetically in my text.

(10) Whitehead, Process and Reality 151.

(11) Jonathan Dollimore, "Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection," Renaissance Drama 17 (1986): 53-79; 54.

(12) Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.G.C. Middlemore, 2 vols. (1929; rpt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958) 2:303.

(13) Richard Hillman, Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997) 6, 18.

(14) Lynne Belaief, Toward a Whiteheadian Ethics (New York: U of America P, 1984).79; Whitehead, Process and Reality 23.

(15) Emile Benveniste, Problemes de linguistique generale, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) 1: 187.

(16) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Notes for a lecture of 1813," quoted in David Perkins ed., English Romantic Writers (New York: Harcourt, 1967) 496. Martin Wiggins, "Hamlet and the Damnation of Claudius," English Review 1.3 (1991): 2-4.

(17)Whitehead, Process and Reality 151.

(18) Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy, trans. James H. Tufts (1901; New York: Harper & Row, 1958) 2:352.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. The Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952.

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Trans. Richard Hope. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960.

Belaief, Lynne. Toward a Whiteheadian Ethics. New York: U of America P, 1984.

Benveniste, Emile. Problemes de Linguistique Generale. Pads: Gallimard, 1966.

Bradley, F.H. Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930.

Burckhardt, Jonathan. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Trans. S.G.C. Middlemore. New York: Harper, 1958.

Diffey, Carol T. "`Such Large Discourse': The Role of `Godlike Reason' in Hamlet." Hamlet Studies 11.1-2 (1989): 22-33.

Dollimore, Jonathan. "Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection." Renaissance Drama 17 (1986): 53-79; 54.

Hillman, Richard. Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama. New York: St. Martin, 1997.

Perkins, David. English Romantic Writers. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected edition. Ed, David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free, 1978.

Wiggins, Martin. "Hamlet and the Damnation of Claudius." English Review 1.3 (1991): 2-4.

Windelband, Wilhelm. A History of Philosophy. Trans. James H. Tufts. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

Eric P. Levy is Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. His publications include a book and articles on Samuel Beckett, as well as articles on Hamlet, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, Christology, and self-pity neurosis. He has completed a book entitled Hamlet and the Problematics of Man, and is near completion of another entitled Beckett Viewed From Certain Angles.
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Author:Levy, Eric P.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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