Hamlet, Timothy Bright, and the Action of the Passions

Mary Thomas CRANE

Department of English, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Ma 02467, USA
Tel. 617-552-3735, Fax. 627-552-4220


In recent years, a number of critics have approached Shakespeare's Hamlet with an emphasis on its problematic representation of subjective interiority. From a cognitive perspective, the subject of Hamlet is precisely the question of what it is that Hamlet has 'within' and the play imagines a number of embodied cognitive processes which might comprise Hamlet's hidden interior self. The words "act", "action", "actor" - and a coinage, "enacture", unique to this play - form the lexical category through which Shakespeare meditates on these questions 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. It is Hamlet's preoccupation with internal chains of action which works for most of the play to prevent decisive external action. Like Bright, Hamlet focuses on the complex processes which must take place in the nervous system before emotions or willed actions can be manifested on the outside of the body. Questions about the sincerity of these external manifestations preoccupy both Bright and Hamlet, and Hamlet is finally unable to realize his belief that he can achieve something more authentic than actions that a many might play. 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.


Panel 6A   (Nervous Fluids and Innards in Early Modern Physiology and Culture)
Thursday, 16 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999