Emotion in Hamlet

Good Essays
The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet
Eric Levy

Hamlet opens on a state of incipient alarum, with martial vigilance on the battlemented "platform" (act 1, scene 2, line 252) of Elsinore and conspicuous "post-haste and rummage in the land" (1.1.110).1 For the sentries, this apprehension is heightened by the entrances of the Ghost--a figure whom Horatio eventually associates with a threat to the "sovereignty of reason" (1.4.73). In the immediate context, loss of the "sovereignty of reason" entails "madness" (1.4.74). In turn, madness is here associated with the disastrous inability to control emotional impulse (exemplified in this instance as either terror induced by the Ghost 's monstrous metamorphosis at "the summit of the cliff" 1.4.70 or "desperation" 1.4.75 provoked by looking "so many fathoms to the sea" 1.4.77). Thus, as formulated on the platform, the fundamental danger posed to reason in the world of the play is that it might lose sovereignty over emotion.
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).2 Hamlet concurs, when praising Horatio "whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled" (3.2.69): "Give me that man / That is not passion 's slave ..." (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



Cited: Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952. Aristotle Campbell, Lily Bess. Shakespeare 's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961. Dadlez, E Gilson. Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Trans. L. K. Shook. New York: Octagon, 1956. Gilsonm, Etienne Jenkins, Harold, ed. Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. New York: Methuen, 1982. Lawrence, Nathaniel and Daniel O 'Connor eds 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. Low, Jennifer Shakespeare. William, Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. New York: Methuen, 1982. Wilks, John S Source:  Eric Levy, "The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet." Renascence 53, no. 2 (winter 2001).

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