II. cTo Be or Not To Be" andthe Spectrum of Action
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II. c To Be or Not To Be" and the Spectrum of Action ι How DOES an action begin? Where doesit end? Whatmakes it an action? I sit at my desk, leafing through the newspaper. Suddenly I turnaside fromit and begin toscribble thissentence on a pad. I clip it to some notes on another sheet of paper, run my eyes over them, mutter to myself, write some more, read it aloud, type it up. The paragraph is finished. I have it printed. You read it. Where did my action begin and end? What is really teasing here is not the problem of dividing the writing process into smaller or larger units of composition. The writing of a book or a sentence, the serving of a ball in tennis, an act of murder, might well involve similar compo­ nents. What is hard to understand is how the components are joined, how each contributes to the others, what keeps them going, and where the chain stops and starts—how, in what we intuitively wish to call a single action, different pieces of inner and outer activity somehow get aligned and fused. The writing begins somewhere inside me, but with what? An idea, a wish to write, a phrase that "occurs" to me, the physical routine of sharpeningsix pencils and sittingdown to the desk, the reading of the newspaper, the need to be busy, a random stroke of the pen? And what do any of these bits of activity have to do with what happens when you read this sentence? What was I doing when I muttered? Was this part of the action, and if so how is it related to the other pieces? It is not surprising that philosophers regard action of any magnitude as a very complex process. If we think of action "To Be or Not To Be" as a movement from self to world, from inner life to outer impact, we see that any significant action involves numerous events, inner and outer, movements of desire and thought, of body and, perhaps, of voice, adjustments of self and objects and others, which mysteriously appear to fuse in a single arc of accomplishment. Toconsider actionfrom this point of view is to become aware of just how remarkable and perplexing the fusion is, how far-flung and hard to delineate are the components. Hamlet, of course, is very much concerned with theconcept of action, but it has scarcely been appreciated how sensitive the play is to the particular questions I have just described. Repeatedly, Hamlet makes us aware of how difficult it is to understand the structure of action, especially to grasp how an action is—or fails to be—constituted out of many separate human activities. At the same time, it confronts us with our own metaphysical hunger for action, that problematic long­ ing, discussed in my introduction, to see events in the world as the possession of a self, and thus to find in action a reas­ suring connection between self and world. In this essay, I wish to focus on the way Hamlet explores the process by which action issues forth from inner life and engages the world.Shakespeare's analysis isso subtle and fast moving that it is difficult to catch it on the wing, to see it, as it were,in action,as partof an emotionallycharged experience which suggests many delicate distinctions. To meet this prob­ lem, I would like to introduce a few terms which may prove helpful to the discussion by standing, in a kind of shorthand form, for various portions or features of the action process. Three of these terms have been proposed by the English phi­ losopher J. L. Austin, who observes that philosophers often fail to distinguish among what he calls the stages, phases, and stretches of an action.1 By stages he means the mental prep­ aration that goesinto the action—decision, planning,etc. Phases comprise the discrete physical doings that combine to make up an action of any size—the separate strokes of paint in the action of painting a wall. The stretches are the successions of "To Be or Not To Be" effect, ultimately very remote, that any action may have. A political assassination in Serbia involves Europe in a war which leads to a revolution in Russia without which Dr. Zhivago would never have been written, etc. In the case of a revenge play, the stages would include the revenger's becomingaware of the crime and planning his revenge...


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