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Reviewed by:
  • Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man
  • Katherine R. Larson (bio)
Eric P. Levy . Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 256. US$53.50

If the human individual is characterized above all by the capacity to think, then 'what happens in Hamlet,' Eric P. Levy argues, 'concerns a redefining of what is a man, through interrogation and reinterpretation of the faculty of reason through which man is man.' Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man problematizes the play's Christian humanist and Aristotelian-Thomist contexts in order to situate Hamlet 'within the constitutive processes and principles of conceptualization.' Levy's analysis is concerned less with human cognitive patterns than with the impact that the disruption of those patterns has on the development of individual subjectivity in Hamlet. He convincingly demonstrates how a reconsideration of the faculty of reason helps to reveal the complexity of the conceptual [End Page 422] processes and the dynamic intersections among knowledge, thought, and action that inform the play.

Over the course of the book's eleven succinct chapters, Levy revisits key moments in Hamlet - the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, Hamlet's closet encounters with Gertrude and Ophelia, the stabbing of Polonius, the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, the Ghost's appearances - in order to illuminate them from multiple perspectives. Levy characterizes his approach as a version of 'tomography, which examines cross sections of tissue at varying depths, along distinct axes, and from different points of view.' While the decision to re-examine specific passages and dramatic moments over the course of a study risks repetition and redundancy, Levy succeeds in developing a 'three-dimensional representation' of the conceptual processes informing the play that becomes richer and - like Polonius's cloud shifting from camel to weasel to whale - reveals new facets with each successive reading. Uniting these case studies is a focus on the conflicts and collisions that inform the conceptualization of identity and action in Hamlet, whether between practical and speculative reason (chapters 3 and 4), passivity and opportunism (chapter 5), knowledge and ignorance (chapter 6), reason and emotion (chapter 7), reiterative and teleological time (chapter 8), subjunctive and indicative moods (chapter 9), or inward and outward manifestations of personhood (chapter 11). As the book progresses, Levy also draws attention to the broader tensions that contribute to Hamlet's epistemological trajectory; dreams, madness, death, and the 'divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will' continually threaten the sovereignty and self-control of the thinking individual. By examining how the play problematizes the 'appropriate exercise of reason' from these divergent perspectives, Levy brings Hamlet's 'urgent search for knowledge' into sharper focus and helps to unpack the cruxes of Hamlet's ambivalence and delays.

While Levy's innovative framework is a notable strength of the book, the decision to grapple with a range of conceptual collisions results in moments, especially in the later chapters, that would benefit from deeper and more sustained exploration. Levy's treatment of the 'unverifiable' depths of the inward self and 'the proper relation of the inward and outward dimensions of identity' in chapter 11 is a case in point. This section, which more than any other foregrounds the complex reciprocity between interior and exterior, mind and body, demands further contextualization alongside current debates in early modern studies concerning the passions and physiological representations of inwardness and cognition undertaken not only by Katharine Eisaman Maus, Levy's interlocutor here, but also by scholars like Mary Thomas Crane, Robert A. Erickson, Anne Ferry, Gail Kern Paster, Michael Schoenfeldt, and William W.E. Slights. The body hovers consistently behind Levy's study, exemplified [End Page 423] by his fascination with the theatricality of the visiting players, by his consideration of Hamlet's anxious ruminations on mortality, and by his analysis of reason and emotion in chapter 7. Yet, with the exception of memorable moments like his reading of thought as 'mental midwifery' and 'gestation' in chapter 6, Levy rarely dwells on the physiological nuances of thought. As a result, the conceptual processes that he examines seem at times to be strangely disembodied.

To read Hamlet as a character paralyzed by unnecessary and inordinate...


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pp. 422-424
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