Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory

By Mary Thomas Crane | Go to book overview

4
Cognitive Hamlet and the Name 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 a highly contested topic, the nature of subjective interiority and its relation to the existence (or nonexistence) of the human “individual.” Katherine Eisaman Maus, who recently summarized critical controversy over the cultural significance of Hamlet's “contrast between an authentic personal interior and derivative or secondary superficies,” takes issue with those critics who have argued that such a sense of self did not exist until the later seventeenth century. 1 In her examination and defense 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. 2 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 the process of formation.

Like the other plays discussed so far, Hamlet asks precisely what it is that lies within the human subject; however, Hamlet is more directly concerned with early modern cognitive theory than the others and explores a number of cognitive processes that might suggest an answer to this question. 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 between the self, its actions, and its environment. 3 The words act, action, actor, and the 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 nearcontemporary cognitive treatise, Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholie.4 In my view, Bright's treatise uses the word action to investigate the relationships between the soul, the body, and the mind and to describe the processes by which external and internal forces give rise to the actions that both define and express the self.

Modern critics' sense of what Hamlet has within has proceeded, as such concepts must, from the critical perspectives that they bring to the text. Ellen Spolsky has usefully demonstrated how cognitive linguistics helps

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