Hamlet's Big Toe?

by Norman N. Holland

October 17, 2012


Discussions of the reality of literary characters polarize into two positions. One, a literary character is a tissue of words, a poetic construct. Two, we can treat literary characters as having all the attributes of real people. We can infer past, present, motives, and neuroses, whether or not these are mentioned in the text. A combination of linguistics and neuroscience offers a solution. Literary characters in books or on stage (like all perceived realities) are processed through two coacting but different pathways in the brain, a "what" and a "where" system.


Hamlet's Big Toe?


Neuropsychology and Literary Character



"Does Hamlet have a big toe?"  When I was teaching Shakespeare, if discussion flagged, I used to ask my students that.  They would look at me oddly for a few seconds--what is he up to now?--but then they would burst into a passionate discussion of the paradoxical nature of literary characters.  "Of course he has a big toe!  He's human, isn't he?  Humans have big toes.  If he's human, he has a ­big toe.  It's simple logic."  Maybe someone would quote Shylock's famous line, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?   If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" 

Then other, perhaps cannier, students would chime in, "How can Hamlet have a big toe?  He's not real.  He's just a bunch of words on a page."  "Bleed?  How can a tissue of words bleed??"

Then would come the most damning comment of all.  "The text never mentions his big toe."  To be sure, toes are mentioned twice in Hamlet, but not, as it happens, Hamlet's big toe.  (The big toe is mentioned in Coriolanus.)  And, of course, what is not mentioned in the text cannot be, as we critics say, "in" the play.  If not "in" the play, then it is something we supply, and we are guilty of "reading in" or something equally heinous.

My students' debate reflects a critical controversy among Shakespeareans (and others) that has gone on for two centuries now.  We could call the two sides the realists and the formalists.

If we look just at writers about Shakespeare,  the realist idea that one could consider literary characters as real people began in the late eighteenth century with Maurice Morgann's influential essay of 1777, which purported to prove that Falstaff was not a coward.   Morgann proceeded by assuming that it was "fit to consider [literary characters] rather as Historical than Dramatic beings; and, when occasion requires to account for their conduct from the whole of character, from general principles, from latent motives, and from policies not avowed" (171-72).. 

Morgann thus inaugurated a long period of character criticism, based on that principle, culminating in the elaborate analyses of character by A. C. Bradley at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In general, nineteenth-century readers and critics tended to look through narratives, either fiction or drama, toward a supposed historical reality they purported to represent.  Certainly that was the way I was taught to look at Shakespeare in school (although I did not go to school in the nineteenth century).  We were to discuss Macbeth's ambition or Cassius' jealousy.  As writers like to say, "The character took on a life of his own."  "The character himself decided what he was going to do." 

The psychoanalytic critics adopted that realist position with enthusiasm.  Ernest Jones stated flatly in his early study of Hamlet,  "No dramatic criticism of the personae in a play is possible except under the pretence that they are living people."  "In so far and in the same sense as a character in a play is taken as being a living person, to that extent must he have had a life before the action in the play began, since no one starts life as an adult"(20).  Hence Jones claimed he was justified in talking about Hamlet's childhood and therefore his oedipus complex  Presumably he would have been equally justified had he chosen to talk about Hamlet's big toe.  And psychoanalytic critics have carried on this tradition as recently as Marvin Krims' several recent papers.

Beginning in the 1930s in Europe and somewhat later in the United States with the "New Critics," writers about Shakespeare took the "formalist" position.  What Shakespeare creates are words.   One should read his plays as long poems.  We should pay attention to his words, and not turn to some supposed reality behind the words.  I have summarized a number of the New Critics who took this position (Holland 1966, 196-302).

Writers in particular have argued for the formalist position.  Thus Edgar Allan Poe complained of the "radical error" of trying to account for Shakespeare's characters' actions, "not as if they were the coinage of a human brain, but as if they had been actual existences on earth"  (12: 225). E. M. Forster had fun distinguishing Homo Sapiens from Homo Fictus.  Homo Fictus rarely sleeps, he pointed out,  only eats food for social purposes, and is much given to dying or getting married at the end of novels (98). "The ingenuity of the first novelist," said Proust, "lay in his understanding that . . . the suppression, pure and simple, of `real' people would be a decided improvement" (1981, 1: 91).

My favorite among these artists who reject characters as real people is the painter Matisse. A  lady who was visiting his studio complained, "Surely, the arm of this woman is too long."  "Madame," replied Matisse, "you are mistaken.  That is not a woman, that is a picture.  Avant tout, je ne crée pas une femme, je fais un tableau" (14).

The artists were claiming a right to a creativity that goes beyond merely representing historical reality.  They were pointing to the art-ness of the work of art.  Art has a form that is not natural, anymore than a painting is the thing depicted.  Literature is not history.  Hamlet talks blank verse.  You don't talk in blank verse.  I don't talk in blank verse.   Hamlet is different from real human beings.

*       *       *

What can psychologists tell us about this odd phenomenon of mixing up poems and paintings with real people?  In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel performed a famous experiment..  To Smith College students, then all women, they showed an animated cartoon of a large black triangle, a small black triangle, and a circle, the three of them moving in various ways in and out of a rectangle, including a sequence in which the big triangle hits the smaller triangle, as the experimenters said, "relentlessly."  After this short came the main feature.  The psychologists told their subjects, "Write down what happened in the picture."   Of the 34 subjects, all but one described the movements as actions of animate beings, in all but two cases human beings. 

When another group of 36 subjects were asked questions like, "What kind of a person is the big triangle?," the students responded with great uniformity (97%) with terms like, "quarrelsome," "dominating," "taking advantage of his size," and the like.  Eight per cent even went so far as to assert that the big triangle had a lower I.Q. than the smaller one.  The experimenters concluded that the subjects organized the movements  "in terms of actions of animated beings, chiefly of persons."  And "acts of persons have to be viewed in terms of motives in order that the succession of changes becomes a connected sequence."

A long line of experiments confirm Heider and Simmel's findings and indeed, extend them from students to very young children.  Thus, infancy experimenters Premack and Premack report:

When shown two bouncing objects, one of which becomes trapped in a virtual hole, the infant will interpret the action of a second object that restores the motion of the first as helping and will code it positive.

*     *     *

We show an infant two bouncing balls.  The one that bounces higher and faster is preferred by the infant.  The preferred ball moves into the vicinity of the other and demonstrates its superior bounces several times, as though offering an example.  It even assists the other directly, placing itself below, lifting it, helping it to bounce higher.  The infant will interpret the actions in this and the previous example as helping, coding them both positive (1995, 210-11).

I notice that these experimenters, like Heider and Simmel, cannot avoid using the language of human motivation to describe these merely physical objects (balls and triangles).  None of us can escape this inference for a very good reason.

As that experiment and many others show, even in the first few months of our lives, we begin to attribute to events causality, probability, and realism.  Even as infants, we draw a distinction between objects that move themselves and objects that are moved by other objects.   Billiard balls that simply knock one another about are objects that move because they are acted upon.  We adults would say they are inanimate.  The infant understands these inanimate objects through a causality based in what the psychologists call "intuitive physics."  By contrast, Infants explain the movements of self-moving objects (which we would call "animate") through intention.   In effect, infants have an "intuitive psychology" (Leslie 1987; Spelke, Phillips and Woodward 1995).

Some say we are born with these skills, this "intuitive psychology" and "intuitive physics."  Others say we learn them so early in life that they seem part of ur genetic make-up.  Eitehr way, though, they offer an answer to the puzzle of Hamlet's big toe.

However we encounter Hamlet, "in" the pages of a book or on stage or screen, he is self-moving.  We therefore interpret him as animate.  We give him motions and intentions.  And just as we attribute intentions to him to explain his actions, we give him the normal complement of human digits.  We give him a big toe.

*       *       *

Actually, we do more than merely attribute motives, intentions, and digits to Hamlet.  We feel emotionally toward him.  He feels real to us, because we feel real emotions toward him.  We may share his perplexity and frustration.  We may feel his disgust at Claudius, at his mother, at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at Polonius, at Ophelia--in short, at the world.  We may like him or dislike him.  We may feel annoyed that he is dilly-dallying instead of getting on with the revenge of his father.

  When we feel an emotion, we generally point to some object as causing it.  Not without reason.  As a result, we endow Hamlet with the kind of reality that leads us to feel emotionally about things in general.  But does that justify our thinking of him intellectually and critically as a real person?

For generations of psychological experiments, researchers have used representations to stimulate emotions.  People shown a picture of dog droppings or fly-covered garbage or a decaying corpse will show disgust.  People shown a movie of a chain saw killer will feel fear (as Hollywood well knows).  People will feel desire when shown porn pictures.  Peter Lang has created a database of hundreds of pictures calibrated for arousing-relaxing, pleasant-unpleasant, desirable-undesirable, and these are widely used in experiments on emotion.

I have been a subject in some of these brain imaging experiments, yet, even as my head is in the brain scanner and the experimenters are showing me images of emotion-arousing objects, I know perfectly well I am seeing just ink on paper or pixels on a computer screen.  The emotions come anyway.  I never lose the awareness that I am seeing only a picture or pixels or a film but my emotions of disgust or fear come willy-nilly.

We respond to representations of human situations the same way, with the emotions we would feel toward the situation if it were real.  We feel fear at horror films, disgust at slasher movies, and lust at porn.  The emotional networks with which we respond to facial expressions and other visual stimuli are evolutionarily old and involve such deep structures as the amygdala.  "These networks," writes psychiatrist Leslie Brothers, "are set to trigger behavioral dispositions appropriate to the social situations in which primates have commonly found themselves throughout their history" (98-99).

We humans are such very social creatures that we are wired tightly to what we see of our fellow human beings.  We will feel the emotion appropriate to a situation even if we are perfectly aware that it is not happening to us but to someone else, a fictitious someone called Hamlet.  The sensation is real enough (or at least as real as anything else).  We feel the emotion in our bodies.  We could say, then, that we feel real emotions about Hamlet and his doings, and that makes him real for us. 

But do our feelings justify treating Hamlet in thinking about the play as if he were a real human being?  Our very real feelings of disgust don't justify thinking of the picture of dog droppings as it it were real.  Neither does a a feeling of lust at a porn picture doesn't make the woman (or the man) in the picture a fleshly being.  Do our emotions justify our giving Hamlet a big toe?  Do they entitle us to give him a past before the play, complete with Oedipus complex?  I don't think so. 

*       *       *

Finally, though, I think there is an answer, one that combines linguistics and neuropsychology.  One day, after a Shakespeare class, I was discussing this ciritical puzzle with the linguist Morris Halle.  He suggested a resolution to my paradox that, over the years, has seemed to me quite satisfactory.  He noted that linguists (at that time) imagined as part of our language skill, a lexicon that we carry in our heads, in effect a dictionary.  But this is not an ordinary dictionary.  Besides the usual information about meaning and pronunciation, this dictionary contains information about usage, and even today linguists would agree that the lexicon stores information about the idiosyncrasies of words.

Halle said that the entries for verbs and nouns, including proper nouns, have markers for the various properties that can be assigned to those words.  In the case of nouns, for example, there are count nouns, those which one can enumerate.  "I have five straws."  And there are mass nouns, to which numbers cannot attach.  You can't say (in English), "I have five hay." 

For example, the entry for “prince” might say that it has the syntactic features: [+ Noun], [+ Count], [+ Common], [+ Animate], and [+ Human].   "Prince" can go with verbs that require a common noun, a human noun, or a countable noun.  But sentences become ungrammatical if "prince" is put with verbs that require a non-animate noun.  Thus, you can say, “The prince died,” but “The prince elapsed” is ungrammatical because "elapse" calls for a non-animate noun.[1] 

Morris Halle suggested that a literary character is a proper noun, and, like the prince, countable, animate, and human, but the literary character lacks a feature that ordinary people have, namely, location.  The straws and the hay and the prince can all be located, but the fictional character Hamlet cannot.   He is not in Elsinore--to say he is, is to assume he has historical reality like the nineteenth-century and psychoanalytic critics.  Neither is Shakespeare's Hamlet is not "in" the text my students were holding.   He is not even "in" the Branagh movie, since he is simultaneously "in" the Olivier movie or the Gibson movie or any number of stage productions. 

As you can read in the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Aesthetics," philosophers call this problem the "ontology of art."  What is "the" Ninth Symphony of Beethoven?  It is not any given performance.  It is not the score.  What exactly is it?  Philosophers have spilled much ink on the matter, and I do not intend to spoil my paper by getting my typing fingers in it.

Suffice it to say that the question, "Where is Hamlet?"  makes no more sense than asking, "Where is the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven?"   We cannot say where either is, except figuratively.   "The Ninth Symphony is in the hearts and minds of humankind."  So with Hamlet.  "Hamlet is in the hearts and minds of humankind."

His big toe, like his appendix or his pancreas or other parts of his fictional anatomy, therefore has no location, unlike your big toe or mine.  He has a big toe, but you cannot, so to speak, put your finger on it.  Yet surely Beethoven's Ninth is real enough and so is Hamlet's big toe, whether or not we can situate it north, south, east, or west.

That is an odd kind of reality, though.  While Morris Halle's idea seems to me to solve the problem in a technical way, it also seems rather more linguistic than psychological.  Hamlet's having or not having a linguistic feature doesn't really speak to me as a human being having feelings about Hamlet in a book or on the stage.   What justifies my thinking Hamlet real, big toe and all, is, I think something else.

*       *       *

Interestingly, Halle's linguistic proposal, that Hamlet lacks a feature for location, corresponds to what goes on in our heads.  With a literary character, a writer capitalizes on the way our brains are organized. 

Our three sensory systems tell us about the world "out there" beyond our sense organs through sight, hearing, and sensorimotor information.  These three systems input to three different regions of the brain.  Your eyes transmit information back from the front of our faces to the occipital lobes at the back of your head.  Your ears at the sides of your head transmit sound information to the temporal lobes just inside the ears.  Nerves from all over your body transmit data about touch, the position of your limbs, and other sensorimotor inputs to the parietal lobes at the top and back of your head.  Our brains then put the separate information coming in from our sense organs together to make a three-dimensional world "out there" beyond our skins and senses.  That is why we sense the book we are reading as though it were an object unconnected to our senses and independent of them.

Our brains, however, use two different pathways to create the world we perceive.  Leslie Ungerleider and Mortimer Mishkin and their associates showed in the early 1980s that the sensory information from our eyes and ears and body travels on two different neural systems,  a "what" path and a "where" path. 

The "what" path runs from, say, the occipital lobes at the back of my head that process visual information down to the bottom of the temporal lobes that run along inside my ears and temples.  That is where we keep our linguistic skills, like naming objects.  That is where we decide "what" the object we are seeing is.  That is where we put the name Hamlet to the figure before us on a stage.

The "where" system takes that visual information from, say, the occipital lobes at the back of my head up through the parietal lobes, under the upper sides of my skull and projects it to motor systems in the frontal lobes behind my forehead.  This "where" system operates much more rapidly than the "what" system, orienting our bodies to the world around us.  This is the system that enables us to catch softballs and dodge SUVs bearing down on us.  Having this "where" path be fast  considerably improves our chances of survival and reproduction.   In order to be fast, though, this "where" system is quick and crude, rapidly activating motor systems to keep us alive in the world without necessarily identifying the objects we are responding to.  There is, for example, no color perception in the "where" system.  If you are dodging an SUV, it doesn't matter whether it is red or green. 

By contrast, the ventral "what" system operates more slowly and judiciously, allowing us to correlate our immediate sensory data with what we already know.  We identify objects and relate them to our memories and enter them into our verbal discourse.

What fascinates me about all this is that these two systems in our brains correspond to the markers for location and no-location that Morris Halle described in our language.  And they give us an answer to the question of Hamlet, to be or not to be a real person.

*       *       *

Once we recognize that the literary character exists in our minds in these two different modes, "where" and "what,"  we can take another look at that problem and others like it.  Let me put the stage or screen Hamlet aside for a moment and talk only about the Hamlet we imagine from the pages of an edition of the play, the paper Hamlet. 

Brain science tells us about the literary character that, since there are two pathways, we can separate the what of Hamlet from the where of Hamlet.  That must be what we are doing when, by an act of imagination, we create a fictional Hamlet from the pages of a book.  We are imagining a what-Hamlet in our minds.  But there is no question of this Hamlet having a "where," a feature for location.  That is happening, or, more precisely, not happening, in another pathway. 

To be sure, it is true that when we imagine a spatial event, the same brain areas light up as when we perceive such an event.  In a normal brain, there are systems that connect our thinking, planning frontal lobes to the emotion-generating limbic system, more central and evolutionarily earlier inour brains.  These systems tell us that such-and-such an apparent perception originated in us, not the outer world.  But with certain kinds of patients (amnesics, Korsakoff's syndrome, stroke), brain damage knocks out the connections.  They cannot sense the difference between what they are imagining and the reality they are seeing (Schacter, Reiman et al., 1996; Schnider and Ptak 1999).

When you and I, with our presumably undamaged brains, read about a literary character, those systems for "veridicality" act.  They tell us that, when we are imagining literary characters, we are in fact imagining them, not seeing them in the world of "wheres."   This is a literary character and, as such, he, she, or it is no where at all.  In other words, where in ordinary life, the "what" of semantic knowledge and the "where" of visuospatial knowledge confirm each other, in reading a book, the "what" and "where" pathways dissociate.  Our "what" knowledge that we are reading a book contradicts a "where" we imagine.

In effect, Halle's linguistic features, in this instance at least, correspond to different activities in the brain.  His linguistic explanation says, in effect, that as we read about Hamlet, our "what" pathway infers various things about him, but our "where" pathway doesn't locate him in any specific place.

Melvyn Goodale and associates and Heather Carnahan and associates suggest that what most call a "where" pathway should really be considered a "how" pathway, because the "where" pathway (unlike the "what") projects directly to motor regions in the frontal lobes  According to their conception, the brain filters or calls up sensory information from the posterior lobes according to what needs to be acted on and how it needs to be acted on.  In other words, the brain selects sensory information to serve motor programs.  Thus Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod can speak of a système sémantique and a système pragmatique.

But the literary situation rules out action.  We are not going to stand up, throw down our book, or (in a theater, for that matter) rush down the aisle and cheer Hamlet on to his revenge.  We are, in Kant's term, "disinterested."   Hence a "how" pathway would be just as irrelevant to a fictional Hamlet as a "where" pathway.  

I have been writing as though these two pathways were wholly separate.  They are not, of course.  In everyday life, the two brain systems combine their information.  They talk to each other so as to coordinate actions toward what is being perceived.  But, reading a book, we are not going to move.  Hence, the "where" pathway is doing less and presumably saying less to the "what" pathway.  And there is little purpose in the "what" pathway combining its information with the missing information in the "where" or "how" pathway, since we are not going to move.  Presumably, the interaction of the two systems matters less when we are suppressing motor impulses in order to experience literature, although the interaction is useful, indeed essential, in everyday life.

In sum, the paradoxical nature of the literary character, this centuries-old controversy among the critics, arises from the very nature of our brains.  Because, when we read a story or a poem, our brains separate what from where, we can have an illusion that the literary characters we meet in books have big toes and childhoods and Oedipus complexes.

In this respect, though, how do fictional characters differ from real historical figures?  Suppose I read in a newspaper about Dick Cheney.  I will be told that he is at "an undisclosed location."  Dick Cheney is a person and his undisclosed location is a place of which I have not had and will never have any physical experience.  I have no more "where" for Dick Cheney than I do for Hamlet.  Yet, surely Dick Cheney (unlike Hamlet) has a big toe and, if I knew his location, and if I could get past the Secret Service agents, I could see and touch it.  What is the difference between Dick Cheney and Hamlet?

When I read about Cheney, I do not acquire a "where" experience of him any more than I do when I read about Hamlet.  But I do acquire semantic or "what" information about him.  And part of my semantic (or my "what") information about Dick Cheney includes a real location for the man in time and space, even if I do not know where it is.  When I read about Hamlet, though, my "what" information about him does not include a belief that he existed in real time and had a real location. 

We could say, then, quite simply, that the difference in our experience between fictional and non-fictional characters in books consists of a difference in semantic or "what" information about them.  Non-fictional characters in books come with real locations in space and time, and we can believe in a "where" for them even if our brains' "where" system has not sensed them physically.  Fictional characters in books lack not only "where" information from our sense organs but a believable, semantic "where" as well.

But what about the Hamlet on stage or screen?

*       *       *

What happens to this peculiar relation I have to Hamlet in a book when I see Hamlet on a stage or a screen? This Hamlet, obviously, differs from the Hamlet we imagine from a page.  This Hamlet does have a "where."  A Hamlet onstage or onscreen has the same kind of three-dimensional location as any other aspect of physical reality, indeed, as the stage or screen itself.  With an acted Hamlet, our "where" path endows the actor with location just like any other person we see in life and any piece of physical reality.   He is right there, eleven rows in front of me or on the screen in the television set in the den. 

 For example, Lawrence Olivier did indeed play Shylock back in 1973.  If I had seen his performance I am sure I would have been completely absorbed.  I am sure that Olivier would have felt like Shylock to me.  He would have been, really been, Shylock.  What, then, of Shylock's famous question: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?   If you tickle us, do we not laugh? "  I don't doubt that if Laurence Olivier were playing Shylock, and if I were to stick a needle in him, Laurence Olivier would bleed.  But I would know it was Laurence Olivier who is bleeding, not Shylock.  If we are not talking about an actor playing Shylock, if we are talking instead about a Shylock in the pages of Merchant of Venice, how can I stick a needle in that Shylock?  How can I tickle an imaginary Venetian?  Paradoxically, Shylock's rhetorical question poses precisely the philosophers' problem of the ontological status of the work of art, in this instance, whatever actor is playing Shylock.

The staged Hamlet is the reverse of the Hamlet we create from a book.  The book Hamlet has a "what" but not a "where."  The staged Hamlet has a "where" but the "what" tells us this isn't Hamlet.  The minute we try to pay attention to the "what" of this Hamlet, we recognize that we are pretending that this actor really is Hamlet.  I begin thinking about the physical reality of the theater and Lawrence Olivier on the stage, and my willing suspension of disbelief breaks off.  The literary spell is broken.  I know I am sitting in a theater, watching an actor pretend. I may lose even the emotional reality of this Hamlet. 

Radio and other audio media give us an intermediate case.  There is a where--the performance is coming from whatever device produces the sound--but the where information is limited.  We can only hear, we cannot see, the performer and performance.  Contrasted to stage or screen performances, these aural media for drama come closer to the what-but-no-where situation of a written text.  They leave more room for our imaginations than a performance on stage or screen does.  I think that is why I have always felt that the best performances of Shakespeare, those "truest" to the play, occur in radio or recordings.  Shakespeare performed that way acquires (for me) something of the quality of music.[2]

When we are "rapt" or "absorbed" at an audiotape, play, or movie in Coleridge's classic phrase, we suspend disbelief.  Since we do not plan to move, we stop testing the reality (the "where"-ness) of what we see (Holland 2003; 2004; 2009). We simply enjoy the illusion.  In that state of mind Hamlet exists for us as both a "where" and a "what."  But the "what" is a fiction.

*       *       *

Sometimes, though, people don't pay attention to the "what." that we make from a dramatic character. For example, a recent play in Chicago showed a cold, self-serving, bureaucratic Cardinal Law, unrepentant as to the sexual abuse by Boston priests under his supervision.  Stephen Kinzer  reported for the New York Times that the play made the audience furious at the hapless actor, Jim Sherman, who played Law.  One woman swore at him after the performance, and a protester from heavily Catholic Boston told Sherman about the play's appearance there, "You're going to need bodyguards at the stage door."

We can see another failure of that "what" in a peculiar episode in recent psychiatry (as reported by Sarah Boxer for the Times).   The American Psychoanalytic Association gave a diploma-like award to the actress Lorraine Bracco who plays the psychiatrist Dr. Melfi in the Sopranos television series. Because the analysts see her as doing a credible job of psychotherapy, the Times reported, "To the analysts she is Dr. Melfi."   If the analysts had really integrated the "where" information about what they were seeing on their television screens with their "what" information,  they would not have given the award to Ms. Bracco.  They would have given it to the writers of the show for an intelligent portrayal of psychotherapy

But the analysts are not as badly off as Ms. Bracco's father.  Again, I quote the Times: "After the episode in which Dr. Melfi is raped, Ms. Bracco recalled that her father called her and pleaded with her "to tell Tony Soprano [her mobster-patient] what had happened so that he could go and whack the rapist." He yelled: `Tell him!  Tell him!'  She had to remind him that it was just a TV show --she herself had not been raped."

*       *       *

In short, the paradoxical nature of the literary character -- Is he real?  Is she human?  Does Hamlet have a big toe?  Can Shylock be tickled or pricked with a needle? -- arises from the very nature of our brains.  Because our brains have separate what and where systems, we can have this illusion that literary characters in books or onstage are "real" people.

In daily life, we never separate a what from a where.  They always occur together as part of one perception.  It is only when we imagine that we can have a what without a where or a where without a what.  And literature, written or performed, is an occasion for our imagining.  Hence literary critics cannot decide.  If a Hamlet-in-a-book who has a what also has a where, it is a where we imagine instead of perceiving, which is no where at all.  If a Hamlet-in-a-theater has a what, it is a what that tells us this is not in fact Hamlet.

There is, though, a larger point to be made here.  Notice how the critics' debate simply enacts this division in our brains' processing.  Separating what from where is not what we do in real life.  It is unnatural, and the critics are stumped.  In effect, they are trying to solve an optical illusion that has no solution.  Think, , for example, of the well-known Necker cube.  This illusion gives our brains conflicting information.  One can interpret the cube as facing us up to the left or down to the right, and as a result, the brain has no way of deciding.  For most people, the image seems to flick back and forth.  There is no point in trying to show it is one or the other--it is ineluctably both.

Similarly, there is no point in saying the literary character is a person or is a tissue of words.  It is both, and there is no rational way of deciding between them.  The theorists are trying to decide between a Hamlet perceived as we normally perceive things and a Hamlet with a what but no where.  The latter, unless we talk about the brain, makes no sense.  The critics are trying to deal with a brain illusion by choosing one of two alternatives, each of which is equally valid to our brains.  Naturally, they can't settle the question.

The answer to this two-centuries-old conundrum for literary critics lies in understanding how our brains function normally and how they function when we are experiencing literature.  The answer is that there is no answer.  The general principle is that, when we are responding to literature, our brains function differently from the way they do in everyday life.

I have to wonder how many other philosophical and critical controversies could be settled the same way.   For example, the philosophers' ontological problem, What is the relationship between any given performance or printing of Hamlet or Beethoven's Ninth and "the" original Hamlet or "the" original symphony and the original?   Is this perhaps another Necker cube?  Another artificial separation of what and where?



Boxer, Sarah. “Therapists Go Crazy for One in `Sopranos’.” New York Times, 2001, 29 December 2001, A13, 15.

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[1].  I am grateful for help in this section to my colleague in linguistics, D. Gary Miller.

[2].  A thought occurs to me about music.  When we humans were hunter-gatherers, we identified the sounds we heard both as to where they came from and what they were.  We needed to know both the "where" and the "what" of a leopard's cry, the footfalls of an animal in the brush, or the whispers of a fellow-hunter.  These sounds could save one's life.  But when we listen to, say, a Chopin étude, we identify the source, but we do not give those piano notes a what.  To be sure a music critic might identify a particular B-flat, but for someone trying to experience the music rather than analyze it, the sound of the B-flat has no what.  Perhaps, then, experiencing music resembles our absorption in a character onstage: we perceive a "where" but not a "what."  Perhaps that is why, in experiencing music, we do some of the things we do when we suspend disbelief: we ignore our bodies and environment; we do not test the reality of this "what"; and we feel stirred emotionally.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "Hamlet's Big Toe?". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/n_holland-hamlets_big_toe. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: October 11, 2012, Published: October 17, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Norman N. Holland