Academic journal article Criticism

The Ghost in the Machine: Emotion and Mind-Body Union in Hamlet and Descartes

Academic journal article Criticism

The Ghost in the Machine: Emotion and Mind-Body Union in Hamlet and Descartes

Article excerpt

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Juliet famously protests.1 For the love-stricken teen, names are insignificant; only things matter. But the play that bears her name maintains no similar illusions about the importance of signs. Juliet's declaration of the arbitrary character of names seems, in fact, to be as much about the arbitrary character of things. It is true that a rose might just as well have been called a tulip, but Juliet's statement also inadvertently implies that one rose might serve just as well as another-or, more to the point, one "Rosa-line" {rosa, Latin for rose). Although she may not realize it herself, Juliet is the "Rose" by any other name.2 And, as Benvolio has insisted from the beginning, to Romeo she smells just as sweet.

For Shakespeare, if not for Juliet, names matter a great deal, perhaps just as much as things. This essay is about their relation in Shakespeare's world. Specifically, it is about two words, both emerging in the early years of the seventeenth century, and their corresponding things. The first word is emotion, not used in its modern capacity to designate certain affective states until sometime around 1602T Its appearance, I will argue, coincides with substantial transformations in the thing signified by that name. Emotion has other connotations than passion, and it entails a different conceptual framework. If only subtly, it marks a transition from the well-established humoral model of affectivity to a nascent mechanical model, a shift consistent with broader changes in philosophy that characterize the seventeenth century. Arising from the same mechanical inclination, the second word is machine, especially as used in connection with the human body. Although machine circulated in English by the middle of the sixteenth century, it did not refer to the body specifically until the second quarto of Hamlet was printed in 1604.4 Its use in that play is hardly incidental. Hamlet designates his body a machine precisely because his conception of its physiological operations is, by and large, mechanical. Perhaps as much as any text before it,Hamlet reveals an emergent relation between a mechanical explanation for the emotions and a sense of the body as an immensely complex machine.

At least since Gail Kern Paster's The Body Embarrassed (1993), humoralism has dominated studies of the passions in early modern England. Such studies have produced an invaluable body of scholarship, enriching our understanding of embodiment and subjectivity as historically contingent (not universal) notions. But this dominance also exemplifies what Carolyn Porter describes as the overarching danger inherent to new historicism, which consists "in being limited to one set of discourses- those which form the site of a dominant ideology-and then reifying that limit as if it were coterminous with the limits of discourse in general."5 As pervasive as it may have been, humoralism by no means exhausted the possibilities for explaining the passions in early modern England. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, humoralism had encountered a significant philosophical challenge, which required substantial revisions to its operative principles. By the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, it was contending with a fundamentally new model of causality.

Hamlet's portrait of the passionate subject thus develops in the interstices between two discursive paradigms-no longer purely humoral, not yet fully mechanical. Wildly divergent interpretations of the play's vision of subjectivity might be seen as partly symptomatic of this transition. Whereas many critics have argued that Hamlet was "the first modern man," a Cartesian "thing of mind and mechanism," the more recent materialist trend in early modern studies has emphatically challenged Hamlet's modernity by stressing the anachronism of reading his character through the lens of René Descartes.6 As David Hillman claims, "[T]he period's resolutely materialist habits of thought were in many ways closer to that of the ancients than to our modern, post-Cartesian divisions of experience. …

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