Reason and Emotion in Hamlet

Shakespeare stresses the point that humans can be polarized by reason and emotion. These two poles differ in all aspects, while both are gathered in man. Hamlet, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s greatest work, is the sample of this polarization.

The emphasis in Hamlet on the control or moderation of emotion by reason is so insistent that many critics have addressed it. A seminal study is undertaken by Lily Bess Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. John S. Wilks, in a masterful of examination of conscience, explores “the subsidence in Hamlet of virulent passion,” and notes “his accession to a renewed temperance” achieved through “chastened self-control” (The Discourse of Reason: Justice and the Erroneous Conscience in Hamlet 139, 140).

Shakespeare, thorough this character, tries to introduce and show this great feature of man which had been, is, and will be with human beings.
As we shall find, though Hamlet is filled with references to the need for rational control of emotion, the play probes much deeper into the relation between reason and emotion-particularly with respect to the role of reason in provoking as opposed to controlling emotion.

In this paper, it’s going to be noted how the task of controlling emotion by reason is problematized by Hamlet and other characters in the play. The concept of the sovereignty of reason over emotion derives from the classical definition, adopted by medieval Scholasticism, of man as the rational animal whose reason has the ethical task of rationally ordering the passions or emotional disturbances of what is formally termed the sensitive appetite (referred to by the Ghost as “nature” [1.5.12]) with which man, like all other animals, is endowed: “All the passions of the soul should be regulated according to the rule of reason . . . ” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, question 39, answer 2, ad 1). Hamlet concurs, when praising Horatio “[w]hose blood and judgment are so well commeddled” (3.2.69): “Give me that man / That is not passion’s slave … 11 (3.2.71-72). Moreover, on other occasions Hamlet also emphasizes the need to control passion. For example, he censures both Gertrude and Claudius for improper surrender to the passions of concupiscence. He faults the Queen for allowing her “judgment” (3.4.70) to succumb to “compulsive ardour” (3.4.86). Through reference to “the bloat King” (3.4.184), Hamlet censures Claudius’ gluttony. Through the epithet, “bawdy villain” (2.2.576), Hamlet deplores the King’s lust. Indeed, Hamlet censures himself for succumbing, in the graveyard, to the irascible passion of anger: “But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a tow’ring passion” (5.2.78-79). Ironically, in reacting to Laertes’ excessive display of grief, Hamlet confronts a passion or emotion with which, through his own melancholy, he himself has been intimately associated, and whose influence on reason he recognizes, as when speculating whether the Ghost is “the devil” (2.2.595): “. . . and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me” 12.2.596-99).
There is a central paradox in Hamlet’s character. On the one hand, he allows emotion to provoke him to unthinkingly violent action, as when stabbing blindly at the figure hidden behind the arms or grappling with Laertes. But on the other hand, Hamlet so little trusts emotion to prod him to action that he even invokes the opposite tactic of exploiting thought as a goad of emotion: “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4.4.66). Here blood and judgment are to be commeddled not, as in Horatio’s case, by the rational control of emotion, but by the rational arousal of emotion. Instead of disciplining emotion, here the function of thought is to excite emotion so that irrational violence results.

Moreover, in Hamlet, the moral requirement to control emotion by reason is undermined in other contexts, with the result that the relation between thought and emotion is radically problematized. Levy Eric notes in Nor th’exterior nor the inward man: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet that one undermining context concerns the deliberately exaggerated display of emotion demanded by the “terms of honour” (5.2.242), dominant in the world of the play. In this context, to be worthy is to indulge in the conspicuous expression of emotion, “[w]hen honour’s at the stake” (4.4.56). Indeed, as he admires the Player’s emotionally charged recitation, Hamlet berates himself for not similarly responding to “the motive and the cue for passion” (2.2.555), with respect to the circumstances of his father’s death: “Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause” (2.2.561-62). Yet, the obligation to display emotion to which Hamlet here refers ironically requires intense rational control by which the character in question can convincingly “force his soul to his own conceit” (2.2.546), for the sake of the approval his or her performance evokes. Here the notion of rational control of emotion is reinterpreted-one might almost say parodied-to entail not the ordering or limiting of emotion, as enjoined by Christian-humanism, but the deliberately exaggerated enactment of emotion (711-716).

Recourse to “desperate appliance,” where thought conceives emergency measures to relieve emotional distress, recurs in the world of the play. The tentative suicide project in the “To be” soliloquy, designed to escape “heart-ache” (3.1.62) is an example of this issue.

The investigation of the ways in which the role of reason in controlling emotion is problematized in the world of the play can now proceed to direct consideration of relevant Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine. The purpose of the research here is first to acquire and then to apply a set of concepts which, like lenses, will allow important ideas to stand out clearly from the text so that they can be effectively analyzed.

In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, each entity or existent tends toward an end or purpose: “Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end” (1-11, q. 1, a. 2, resp.). This tending toward an end is called inclination, and it follows the nature of the being concerned. In beings with no power of apprehension or perception, inclination is governed by inherent form. Aquinas elucidates: “some inclination follows every form; for example, fire, by its form, is inclined to rise, and to generate its like” (I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.). In beings with apprehensive powers, inclination presupposes both an apprehensive or knowing power and a corresponding appetitive power or faculty of desire. In animals, the apprehensive power involves sense perception (what Aquinas terms sensitive apprehension) and the corresponding appetitive or desiring power is called the sensitive appetite, “through which the animal is able to desire what it apprehends, and not only that to which it is inclined by its natural form” (I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.; I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.). In man, the apprehensive power is reason, and the corresponding appetitive power is the will or intellectual appetite. Aquinas summarizes these distinctions compactly: “in the intellectual nature there is to be found a natural inclination coming from the will; in the sensitive nature, according to the sensitive appetite; but in a nature devoid of knowledge, only according to the tendency of the nature to something” (I, q. 60, a. 1, resp.).

Hence, in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, appetite (whether sensitive or intellectual) is moved by some mode of apprehension: “The movement of the appetitive power follows an act of the apprehensive power” (I-II, q. 46, a. 2, resp.). That is, inclination or appetitive movement toward an end presupposes prior awareness (whether through sense perception or thought) of the end to be approached. This point is crucial to understanding the relation between reason and emotion. For as we shall now clarify, in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm the task of reason to control emotion is complicated by its role in provoking emotion.

The researcher takes the first step toward understanding this dual role of reason with respect to emotion by noting that emotion or passion is here defined as a movement of the sensitive appetite: “Passion is a movement of the sensitive appetite when we imagine good or evil; in other words, passion is a movement of the irrational soul, when we think of good or evil” (Aquinas quoting Damascene in Summa Theologica I-II, q. 22, a. 3, resp.). Thus construed as a movement of the sensitive appetite respectively toward or away from “whatever is suitable” (Aquinas’ generic definition of good) or “whatever is repugnant” (Aquinas’ generic definition of evil), emotion entails an appetitive response which, to interpolate Gilson’s masterful phrasing, itself presupposes the apprehension “of an object which is of interest to the life of the body” (I-11, q. 29, a. 1, resp.; Gilson, Christian Philosophy 272).4 In the case of animals other than man, this apprehension of the appetitive object entails such faculties as sense perception and estimation (a power of rudimentary judgment). But in man, the sensitive appetite is ultimately moved by reason or the cogitative power: “the cognitive power moves the appetite by representing its object to it” (II-II, q. 158, a. 2, resp.).

In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, reason not only controls emotion but also provokes it. The role of reason in provoking emotion appears most clearly in the Aristotelian-Thomist notion of sorrow, a passion which Aquinas generically defines as “pain … which is caused by an interior apprehension” for act of mental awareness] (I-II, q. 35, a. 2, resp.). Aquinas distinguished two kinds of pain-outward and inward. The first is sensory; the second (which causes sorrow) is mental: “outward pain arises from an apprehension of sense, and especially of touch, while inward pain arises from an interior apprehension, of the imagination or of the reason” (I-II, q. 35, a. 7, resp.). Since outward pain is apprehended by the senses (a faculty which all animals possess), while inward pain is perceived by the mind (the distinguishing attribute of man), inward pain is more intense than outward: “inward pain surpasses outward pain … because the apprehension of reason and imagination is of a higher order than the apprehension of the sense of touch” (I-II, q. 35, a. 7, resp.). That is, the greater intensity of inward pain, in comparison with outward pain, results from the fact that, unlike outward pain, inward pain is not a sensory, but a mental event. Construed as a feeling, inward pain is registered in the heart: “And I am sick at heart” (1.1.9). But it is equally appropriate to locate inward pain “in the mind” (3.1.57); for without thought (i.e. the operation of reason or imagination), there is no inward pain.

In Hamlet, thought or interior apprehension not only engenders inward pain (as postulated in the Aristotelian-Thomist system), but tends also, as we have seen, to brood on the need to terminate that pain. An emphasis on the need to understand inward pain appears in Hamlet’s allusion to his melancholy: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth . . .” (2.2.295-96). In contrast to the AristotelianThomist dispensation where inward pain results from thought, Hamlet’s inward pain provokes him to focus his thought on understanding inward pain in order to eliminate it. But ironically, insofar as inward pain, by definition, derives from thought, the only way to eliminate the pain is to recognize and consequently change the mode of thinking which causes it. That is, to understand inward pain is to understand how thought contributes to it.

The implications of the relation between inward pain and thought can be deepened by reference to the “To be” soliloquy. The great irony of that speech concerns “the pale cast of thought” (3.1.85). Hamlet castigates thought for inhibiting the implementation of an enterprise (suicide) designed to eliminate inward pain. But as the examples just cited suggest, the proper means of allaying inward pain is not recourse to “desperate appliance” (Claudius’ term), conceived by thought under the influence of emotional pain, but modification of the mode of thought creating that pain. Further consideration of the “To be” soliloquy will clarify this point. For according to the “argument” (3.2.227) there presented, “to be” involves inevitable and varied modes of “heart-ache” (3.1.62) which problematize the value of life, and make death seem more appealing. In this context, to restore value to life-to make life worth living for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of avoiding the ills in death “we know not of (3.1.81)-is to adopt a mode of thought which does not maximize inward pain.
A further problem arises with respect to preoccupation with inward pain. In the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, inward pain seeks relief through outward expression; for without such release, inward pain intensifies:
Tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow … because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it; but if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why when men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged (I-II, q. 38, a. 2, resp.).
But recourse to outward expression for the relief of inward pain can subject its audience to tremendous strain and can moreover, if sufficiently forceful, become inflammatory. A relevant example concerns the emotional upheaval provoked by the deliberately exaggerated display of emotion demanded by the theatrical imperative dominant, as earlier noted, in the world of the play: “Make mad the guilty and appal the free, I Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.558-60). Another example concerns Hamlet’s false madness. Through it, he gives unrestrained vent to inward pain regarding moral corruption, regardless of the shattering effect of his words on his auditors.

YET, Lily Bess explaines that Hamlet’s thinking process also has positive implications. For through it, on many occasions, he moves beyond the mode of thought causing inward pain. The most remarkable expression of positive development in Hamlet’s thinking concerns his frequent association with a higher power of intellection than that which mere thinking can achieve. For example, on hearing from the Ghost the secret of Claudius’ crime, Hamlet responds: “O my prophetic soul” (1.5.41). Later, when Claudius hints of “purposes” of which Hamlet is ignorant, Hamlet responds: “I see a cherub that sees them” (4.3.50, 51). This situation implies the inverse of the Freudian notion of the unconscious. For here the crucial level of mental activity operates, not beneath conscious awareness, but above it. In other words, Hamlet’s cognitive activity recalls what the Augustinian epistemological tradition (continued in High Scholasticism by St. Bonaventure) calls illumination, wherein a higher power of rationality informs or illumines a lower one, enabling it to know that which is beyond its proper power of intellection (Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion 80-83).

According to Aquinas, inward pain which is caused by the apprehension of an unforeseeable evil or source of harm is called anxiety: “because [they] cannot be foreseen . . . future misfortunes are feared, and fear of this kind is called anxiety” (I-II, q. 42, a. 4, resp.). Another name for this type of inward pain is perplexity: “anxiety which weighs on the mind, so as to make escape seem impossible … is also called perplexity” (I-II, q. 35, a. 8, resp.). The first scene of Hamlet dramatizes a world charged with precisely this kind of anxiety or perplexity, with respect to “the omen coming on” ( 1.1126).

Here, that which is unforeseeable pertains to “future misfortunes” (to requote Aquinas’ term), which are independent of the mind, and can be neither anticipated nor deflected by it. But the most celebrated expression in the play of anxiety or perplexity regarding the inability to escape future misfortunes is the “To be” soliloquy, which concerns the inward pain caused by apprehending the inevitability of “outrageous fortune” (3.1.58). In that soliloquy, anxiety or perplexity (in the Thomist sense of these terms) regarding future misfortunes in life is compounded by anxiety or perplexity regarding future misfortunes in death: “For in sleep of death what dreams may come” (3.1.66).

Perhaps the most spectacular instance in the play of thought provoking emotion concerns Hamlet’s stratagem to “catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.601) through performance of a drama which duplicates the crime of which the Ghost has accused him. In Thomistic doctrine, conscience is construed as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and as such can provoke powerful emotion, such as remorse (I-11, q. 19, a. 6, resp.). Claudius’ reaction after watching a truncated performance of The Murder of Gonzago is a case in point: “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (3.3.36).

Insofar as thinking moves the appetite and thus provokes emotion, it is crucial that thinking itself be properly ordered. The highest task of conscience in Hamlet concerns the moral evaluation not only of the objects of thought or apprehension, but also of the act of thinking about those objects. Indeed, Hamlet foregrounds this problem when criticizing his own thinking about revenge: “Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th’event” (4.4.39-40). Thus, the relation between reason and emotion in the play cannot here be summed up in the Thomistic dictum, quoted earlier, that “[all the passions of the soul should be regulated according to the rule of reason . . .” (I-II, q. 39, a. 2, ad 1). There remains the responsibility of thought to recognize the emotional consequences of its own activity.

Works Cited
Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952.
Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Trans. W. D. Ross. New York: Random House, 1941.
Campbell, Lily Bess. Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961.
Levy, Eric P. Nor th’exterior nor the inward man: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet. University of Toronto Quarterly 68.3 (1999): 711-27.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cedric Watts. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1992.
Wilks, John S. The Discourse of Reason: Justice and the Erroneous Conscience in Hamlet. Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 117-44.