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We single out and honor Shakespeare for his representation of the inner lives of his characters, for his delineation of their thoughts and feelings. What is significant about Shakespeare, however, is not what he shows us about consciousness but rather what he chooses not to show: he excludes, omits, evades, and avoids the representation of inner life. When we examine his writing attentively, we perceive that, for example, in Julius Caesar, and even more so in Hamlet, Shakespeare is not giving us a language for interiority; he is instead dramatizing the fact that there is no language for it.

I am not certain that I know what I am trying to describe or how to identify it. It is something that happens or perhaps does not happen in Shakespeare's characters, something about how they think, in particular how they think or do not think at a critical moment of decision or change. I am referring to Shakespeare's policy and practice of conspicuous omission, calculated evasion, silent avoidance—to something that Shakespeare does not give us, a reticence or restraint about the thinking of a character that we might have expected to see revealed. Sometimes I am inclined to say that what I am describing is inadvertent, inevitable. But then I am led back to concluding that what is there is [End Page 40] there because Shakespeare puts it there—structures of inclusion and exclusion in word and action that he has with full deliberateness devised.

It could be that Shakespeare is not alone—that other writers in their poems, plays, short stories, and novels share this intention and strategy when they represent the thinking and not thinking of characters: it would be interesting to know from scholars in other fields if this is the case. Or is Shakespeare unique? The answer may depend on the degree by which we think Shakespeare surpasses all other writers. "We generally acknowledge Shakespeare's poetic superiority to other candidates for greatest poet in English," says Stephen Booth, "but doing that is comparable to saying that King Kong is bigger than other monkeys."1 For now, in the context of this essay, the crucial point for me is that this "something" is in Shakespeare. It is in his operation as a writer; in his technique of psychological revelation and, even more, nonrevelation, indirection, and circumvention; in his delineation of thought and its absence, its unavailability.

I will begin with an example from Julius Caesar and then turn, at greater length, to Hamlet. Next, I will relate my approach to that of other literary critics and philosophers, and I will conclude by stating the relevance of the argument presented here to Shakespeare's career in general.

My interest in Shakespeare's orientation toward thinking and decision making, and the technique he uses for them, took shape when I was rereading a passage in Julius Caesar, Brutus's soliloquy in act 2, scene 1, and reflecting on the scholar David Daniell's claim that Brutus "is the first tragic hero with any significant interior life to appear in English drama."2 Brutus, it is often said, is a key figure in Shakespeare's development and in literary history; especially in this soliloquy, we perceive interiority, inwardness, inner life, consciousness. This character thinks like us and is recognizably a person, a human being with an interior life akin to our own. This is the prevalent view, and it is convincing to us as a tribute to Shakespeare's great achievement. But the more I teach and study Shakespeare, the more I have come to believe that this is not what Shakespeare is doing, that this is not what he is presenting in Brutus or in any of his characters.

In his soliloquy, the all-too-human Brutus ponders his decision to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar, the greatest man in Rome and his best friend: [End Page 41]

It must be by his death. And for my partI know no personal cause to spurn at him,But for the general. He would be crowned.How that might change his nature,                                            there's the question.It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,And then I grant we put a sting in himThat at his will he may do danger with. . . .                                            So Caesar may.Then lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrelWill bear no color for the thing he is,Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,Would run to these and these extremities;And therefore think him as a serpent's eggWhich, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,And kill him in the shell.3

How should we describe this rendering of an interior life? Is this a consciousness making a decision? What is Shakespeare showing us, or, rather, not showing us? Brutus is not really making a decision, because his decision is made before the soliloquy gets under way. He does not think into and through the making of a decision; he uses as his point of departure a decision he already has made. Brutus starts with his conclusion and fashions an argument for it as though he were giving a set of directions to a destination he has already reached.

Critics have rebuked Brutus for engaging in an act of self-delusion, a process that they say masquerades as careful decision making. Usually the soliloquy is termed a rationalization—Brutus's strained justification for a decision to perform an action that he knows on some level he cannot defend. According to Maurice Charney, what Brutus says "is so overtly illogical as almost to be a parody of authentic reasoning."4 Simon Palfrey concurs: "The point here for Brutus" is "simply to satisfy due process (the imitation of honesty) and to clear the decks for action."5

On first encounter, the soliloquy does seem to convey the perversity of Brutus's thinking, and the deadly precision of "kill him," coming after the slighting resonance of "mischievous," foregrounds the soliloquy's ironies at the speaker's expense. Brutus's mind functions as if he were an outside observer of it, external to his own thought. As he speaks, we watch the maneuvers by which a murder is rationalized, a murder, as Charney and Palfrey imply, made all the more unnerving because [End Page 42] of the detached, impersonal, agency-less form in which it is conceived. There is no "we must" or "we will" or "I must and will" in Brutus's final line. "Kill him" could not be more authoritative, yet the killing is not assigned to (is not to be done by) anyone.

Our eagerness to chastise Brutus for how he thinks is misplaced, and this is where the statements we make about Shakespeare's depiction of interior life become harder to preserve. Brutus has no choice but to kill Caesar: this is the nonnegotiable fact of the story that Shakespeare is working with, and he cannot contradict it. Therefore we should consider what the soliloquy might show us if we resist judging the speaker and, instead, take up the possibility that we might not know his interior life, and, furthermore, that we might not know it because it is not there.

We do not know why Brutus has decided that Caesar must be killed; his words to himself indicate that he is returning to a conclusion that he had reached earlier but that is, for us, a blank space, an inaudible zone before the scene begins. There should have been, we could maintain, a soliloquy that antedates this one, where the real decision was made. In it we would have seen the moment of choice, the thinking that precedes the thinking that Brutus now reveals when he says, in effect, "Yes, as I have already decided: it must be by his death; here are the reasons why."

If Brutus's soliloquy shows interiority, it is not the interiority we seek. It does not direct us to the inwardness that an understanding of Brutus would seem to require. The soliloquy is neither deep nor inward, not because Shakespeare is aiming to expose Brutus's shallow thinking but because this is how he portrays thinking at its most significant and momentous—the portrait of a mind where there is nothing to see, and nothing to see because there is nothing that could be shown.

We could maintain that we see through and beyond Brutus's defective thinking: we are aware (as he is not) of the absence of cogent explanation and argument. Or, instead, we could consider the possibility that his thinking is not defective or warped but typical, not exceptional: Brutus is not thinking badly; he is thinking in the form through which a decision (our own as well as his) frequently occurs. That is, we make a decision and then we explain it to ourselves. We do what Brutus does: the decision precedes the argument; the decision is not the result of any thinking we have done but rather antedates it. We might try to conceive of this lack or absence as a part of interior life, as a feature of inwardness. More to the point, we do not know how our decision, our choice, transpires or where it comes from. This is what Shakespeare is intimating, a form of showing by not showing. [End Page 43]

I am not saying that there is no difference between good and bad justifications, between good and bad self-explanations; we make these comparisons and contrasts—it is a human activity. What I am saying is that Shakespeare detaches the moment of decision from the resources of his dramatic language: his language cannot do what might be wanted here, and he knows it. There are no words that Brutus could bring to bear for stating what has happened, how he reached his decision, why he has chosen to do what he has chosen to do. None of this can be verbally photographed. There is no basis for his decision when he makes it—or, rather, when it is made. Decisions are disconnected from words, and words are only approximations of the thinking that is beyond them.

Shakespeare does present reasons, grounds, and defenses for the murder plot to which Brutus has committed himself. He gives them in earlier sections of the play—the peril, for instance, that Caesar's ambition might pose to Roman liberty. But all of this "fashioning" before and after Brutus's soliloquy is not linked to the choice that Brutus makes or accepts or succumbs to. There is no choice that he or anyone else actually catches sight of. We should not say, "He decided," but instead, "It was decided." The choice—the decision—happened.

Brutus is not an anomaly; in his thinking, he is representative—our likeness that we imagine we are unlike. What we will do and what we have done when we think toward a decision, everything before and after it, often amounts (as we know) to an effort at retrospective clarification or self-deception, or the coincidence of both. Brutus's decision to kill Caesar is a leap of faith. It might not even be a leap, an action he performs. A decision is made, a change has occurred, transporting this character's thinking from this to that. After the fact, along the lines of Brutus, we say: "I really knew all along that I would decide to___"; "I made the decision right away, and later on when I thought about it___." Brutus is not rationalizing his decision; rather, when we criticize him, we are rationalizing ourselves into thinking that he is doing something that we, more inwardly knowing than he, do not.

Shakespeare's compelling interest for us derives from this aspect of his writing—his creating and crafting in his plays of the "not-there" and not shown. His achievement is not inwardness but its opposite, which is not nameable. The human connection between his characters and us is thus surface and absence. We are at one with characters who do not know what they think, who make decisions for dubious or unpersuasive reasons, who do not know what they think when they act, or who act first and then think, as though this retroactive thinking propelled the choices [End Page 44] they have already made. Responding to Shakespeare's characters is not peering into their inner lives. It is more like looking into a mirror that shows no reflection, or into a window of a darkened room at midnight.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein uses a visual metaphor with a different sense to make a distinction: we say "of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another."6 What does it mean to say that someone is transparent? What is it that we see? A mind, a soul, someone thinking? Do we see anything or do we see through, and if so, through to what? The point that Wittgenstein is making concerns the relation between transparent and enigmatic people. He seems to imply that some people are transparent while others are enigmatic. But, Shakespeare-like, what Wittgenstein intends for us to see is that the transparent person and the enigmatic person are the same: the distinction that he gives the reader is for our intellectual exercise, so that as we work with it we perceive that it cannot be sustained. We think that we see deeply through and into something (into someone) even as, simultaneously, we are fixing (fixated) on a surface we cannot read.

Shakespeare explores this issue in an even more complex way in Hamlet. It is hard to describe what Shakespeare is doing with Hamlet, harder than with Brutus. The first and crucial thing for us to realize is that we do not know what Hamlet is thinking: throughout, we know what (or much of what) he is saying, not what he is thinking. For me, what is striking about this character is not the disclosure of his interiority. It is the exclusion of the reader and spectator from it, and perhaps the exclusion from it of Hamlet himself.

Shakespeare is not exhibiting Hamlet's inwardness: his language and organization of the action function to forestall knowledge of Hamlet's interior life. Even more, these keep us from knowing whether Hamlet has an inwardness or interiority at all. He is not a mystery, a riddle, or an enigma to us because we cannot penetrate to whom Hamlet really is, deep inside. He is a mystery because there is nothing for us to penetrate to. His words do not point us toward something inside him, nor do they express to us something emanating from him. We can interpret Hamlet's words, but this is not the same as knowing with any decisiveness how he thinks. Perhaps we have access (or imagine we do) to a mind, but it is not Hamlet's. As William Hazlitt shrewdly noted: "Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet."7 [End Page 45]

In acts 4 and 5 Shakespeare gives a carefully peculiar structure for this absenting of Hamlet. Once again, as in Julius Caesar, he does not show us the making of the main decision, the moment of significant change when this becomes that, when thought moves from here to there. In this fateful section of the play, Shakespeare does not even place the character before us as he did with Brutus. Rather, he makes Hamlet the later-on narrator of a story told to Horatio about what happened to him when, offstage, he was sailing to England. Like Horatio, we were not with Hamlet then, and we are intensely curious about what happened to him and what he was thinking. But, as his story attests, Hamlet cannot in truth tell us what he was thinking because he—this character—was not thinking anything. A choice, a decision: something happened, and at that moment it was a surprise, not explicable, without thought on his part. He has changed, or at least his perspective on life has shifted. No thought or self-willed action made this come about. The most precise form for the matter is to say that it somehow happened.

With some patience we can discern how Shakespeare prepares for and carries off Hamlet's invisible transformation. Shakespeare concludes act 4, scene 4 with Hamlet's soliloquy, "How all occasions do inform again me / And spur my dull revenge!"8 Hamlet will shortly be heading to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We know, but he does not yet know, that the king has arranged the journey to bring about "the present death of Hamlet" (4.4.66). This soliloquy is in the Second Quarto (1604–5), not in the First Folio (1623), and scholars have said that when Shakespeare revised his text he chose to cut it—that he and the members of his drama company deduced that performances would be more effective without it.9

"How all occasions" is a modern-day favorite of actors and is only rarely excised from contemporary films and productions. But the lines tell us little that is new: Hamlet continues to agonize about his failure to act against the king who has killed his father and stained his mother (4.4.57). As he has done before, he vows revenge: "O from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (4.4.65–66). This is a habitual injunction for Hamlet, but it is odd in this context since, with the journey to England imminent, he will not anytime soon be on the verge of vengeance against his enemy.

Shakespeare then turns in act 4, scene 5 to Elsinore, with the appearance of the mad Ophelia and the furious arrival of Laertes, intent on revenge for Hamlet's killing of his father—a scene of nearly 220 lines that closes with the king reaching out to Laertes for a private talk: "I must [End Page 46] commune with your grief . . . / I pray you go with me" (4.5.201, 219). Meanwhile, where is Hamlet and what is happening with and to him?

When act 4, scene 6 opens, featuring Horatio, we hear about Hamlet through the words that he has written in a letter, carried to Horatio by a gentleman who was given the letter by "seafaring men" (4.6.2). In it, Hamlet tells Horatio to give certain letters to the king, and then says (Horatio reads his words aloud) that when his ship was two days at sea, it was attacked by pirates. During the fight, Hamlet boarded their ship, which disengaged from his own, and he became their prisoner; they treated him mercifully because they realized the reward or ransom that his life could bring them. Then this: "I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter" (4.6.25–27). Something major—pivotal—has occurred, but Hamlet does not say what it is.

No information or explanation comes in act 4, scene 7, which consists of the delivery to the king and queen of Hamlet's letters (4.7.37–38), the king's enlistment of Laertes in a murder plot against Hamlet, and the queen's sorrow-laden account of Ophelia's death by drowning. This is another strong scene, almost 200 lines. The only aberrant thing about it is that it does not reveal to us anything about Hamlet, whom we have not seen since the "How all occasions" soliloquy and from whom we have heard only the lines in his letters.

Act 5 commences—the graveyard, the two gravediggers—with a scene, says Frank Kermode, that is "more delay inexplicable in commonsense terms."10 The scene does make some sense as it unfolds: we learn that these men are digging a grave for the deceased Ophelia. The writing throughout is wonderful, including the reflections about mortality spoken to the gravedigger by none other than Hamlet, who, along with Horatio, abruptly enters from somewhere, materializing in the scene. He comes onstage because Shakespeare wants him to—just as Shakespeare also wants him to be unaware for most of the scene that Ophelia is dead and that this is her grave.11 But the pertinent fact about Hamlet's entry is that it has no immediate connection to the promise (to us) that Hamlet's letter to Horatio implied. Hamlet is not telling Horatio about (and is not communicating to us) the extraordinary things that occurred during his adventure at sea. Has Hamlet forgotten what he promised in his letter? Has Horatio forgotten as well? Shakespeare has not forgotten: he is leaving out what we could contend he should be putting in.

In this scene, we also learn that "young Hamlet" is thirty years old, having aged, with marvelous inconsistency, a great deal since we last [End Page 47] saw him (5.1.134–53). Scholars tell us that we do not notice this aging of Hamlet—who is called "young Hamlet" the first time we hear of him (1.1.169)—or else they say that we do notice it but are not supposed to. But we should. When we are told that we do not notice something in Shakespeare or are urged not to notice something, the observation or question that came to us is nearly always significant: it illuminates categories and boundaries that Shakespeare either disregards or challenges and that show the confines of our thinking compared to his. The inconsistency about Hamlet's age is there to be noticed, so much so that it would not be outlandish to propose that an older actor should perform the role once Hamlet returns to Denmark. Hamlet has not changed in the sense of proceeding from a former self to a new one; he is extremely different—not the same character.

At the outset of the play, Hamlet was much younger, with the lineaments of a son and university student, and in the First Quarto it is implied at this later juncture of the play that he is eighteen.12 In the Second Quarto and First Folio texts, he is some ten years older than he was at the beginning, in name the same character but someone other. As Alastair Fowler notes, Hamlet "changes, without any corresponding lapse of fictive time, from the undergraduate age (between sixteen and twenty-three) to the politically dangerous near-maturity of thirty."13 Fowler stresses that we are not dealing here with ambiguity—something that might mean this or might mean that, or that we are unsure about. Shakespeare is giving us two Hamlets, a younger one and an older one. One is two.

It is hard to determine where Hamlet's thinking is in relation to where it was. This is not a point we should put to the side but one we should face—that he is not the same. In reply, someone could say, as a philosopher of mind might, that it is possible for a person to become different yet remain the same: much can happen during ten years to make us different from who we were, even as we think (perhaps with concurrent testimony from others) that this difference-made has occurred in a person we still recognize to be us. Hamlet could be the same but different. Yet this is not in keeping with what Shakespeare is showing us. Nothing that we might submit about Hamlet's development alters the fact that he cannot age ten years when ten years have not passed. Ten years it cannot be. It cannot be the same Hamlet. In his self-portrait there are two figures, discrete and separate but coexistent, impossibly.

This is Shakespeare's counterstatement, there on the text's surface, to any and all claims that Hamlet, while enigmatic, is nevertheless coherent, [End Page 48] has interiority, inner life, inwardness—that there is something in him that coalesces into a shape, a form, the configuration of a mind. We neglect details like this one in Hamlet and in the other plays because we know or sense that these will dismantle the story lines about interiority that we fabricate for the characters. The intrigue and appeal of Hamlet, as details large and small illustrate, is that he is unthinkable: he should strike us as both phenomenally articulate and fundamentally incoherent. It is Shakespeare's language for Hamlet, not this character's mind, that enthralls us and that generates so much commentary and analysis. Hamlet is endlessly interpretable not because his real thinking is elusive, profound, or visionary but because Shakespeare chooses not to show us what his character is thinking. The absence is the point: Hamlet has no beneath or below the surface; for Shakespeare, the surface is the matter, the texture and tissue of the character. This is all that Hamlet has—which is why we have found so much to say about him, whose interiority we make up.

That we invent Hamlet's interiority, that it is not there, may seem a radically contrarian claim to make. But the harder claim to make and substantiate is to say that it is there, to profess that we can identify a consciousness in Hamlet about which we can be articulate. We maintain that we can do this even as we concede the countless puzzles, contradictions, and bewildering details that are in the play from start to finish—Shakespeare's blithe indifference to consistency and coherence everywhere in character and story. Here is a familiar example from act 1, scene 2. Hamlet greets Horatio and asks him why he is in Elsinore (1.2.173), to which Horatio replies that he came to Elsinore to be present at "your father's funeral" (1.2.175): thus he has been in Elsinore for two months, yet he and Hamlet have not spoken to or seen one another, not even at the funeral. This is not credible, so we brush it aside. But we should not, precisely because it is not credible. It is one of many instances that dramatize the futility of imagining that in the midst of such gaps and conundrums we nevertheless can locate and define Hamlet's interiority, as though it were there for scrutiny and study as a whole while much else around it in this play is not.

The status of Hamlet—the play, the text—is itself unstable and precarious, a fact that we know is important but that we do not want to accept as affecting our generalizations about Shakespearean inwardness and interiority. Hamlet exists in the Quarto texts, in the Folio text, in a great many subsequent editions, and, in recent decades, in a host of modern print and Internet editions prepared with ample scholarship [End Page 49] and editorial acumen. The variations among all of these texts and editions number in the thousands. We are aware of this instability, the fluidity of the text (the texts), but then we proceed to write our books and articles about the character and consciousness of Hamlet as though there were a single, static text. This is our enabling fiction, and to an extent I am relying on it in this essay. But it is misleading: it really is a fiction. The exorbitantly divergent and conflicted and differentiated textual environment that is Hamlet precludes the narratives about the play's protagonist (and how he thinks) that we construct.

With its Hamlet ten years older than the one who greeted Horatio, the graveyard scene in act 5, scene 1 moves to the procession of mourners and the carrying of Ophelia's coffin. Laertes cries out in grief, jumps into the grave, and then Hamlet declares, "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane," wildly proclaiming—"I'll rant as well as thou" (5.1.283)—his own heartbreak. The queen says that her son is suffering from "mere madness" and that soon this "fit" in him will pass (5.1.284–85). Hamlet and Horatio exit, the king says a few words, and the scene ends.

Shakespeare abruptly turns next, in the opening of act 5, scene 2, to Hamlet and Horatio in the middle of a conversation: they have been talking to one another on their own, without us as an audience. Where were they? Were they, impalpable to us, thinking or not thinking? Hamlet tells of the events at sea but only tangentially refers to the pirates. The main thrust of his story is that one night he was sleepless, rashly left his cabin in the dark, and, in an act of indiscretion, read the murderous commission that the king had given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take to England. Hamlet wrote a new commission, sealed it, and the next day pirates seized him. He explains what happened:

Hamlet. Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fightingThat would not let me sleep. Methought I layWorse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly(And praised be rashness for it) let us know,Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn usThere's a divinity that shapes our ends,Rough-hew them how we will.Horatio. That is most certain.


Hamlet decided to move, or found himself moving, from where he was, because of rashness and indiscretion. It was not that he was thinking [End Page 50] but that he was not. Deep thinking, planning, plotting: Hamlet implies that sometimes it is better to act on an impulse, making a decision or choice for which there is not an evident reason or argument. This is a revelation to him: he perceives that a divinity is leading him and each of us toward a higher goal or good, however taxing it might be to interpret the overall design or plan clearly.

Horatio in turn suggests that what Hamlet is saying is a commonplace that everyone knows and takes for granted. He listens, but how attentively? Should he be more curious? Perhaps, but then again, all that Horatio has are Hamlet's words, not his mind. He cannot think his friend's thinking; he does not and cannot apprehend the significance of a conversion to a new understanding or illumination that is not his own. Hamlet's words represent something to him that they cannot for his friend; he and Horatio may be intimates but each is, finally, on the outside of the other. The hearer cannot perceive what the change is and how it came about. For his part, the speaker can feel a change but cannot give good words for it. His words do not measure up to his thinking, and this is not because his thinking is too inwardly intricate for words to capture it. Instead, it is because thinking is off to the side somewhere: thinking does not produce such a change of outlook.

Hamlet goes on to say that "heaven" was "ordinant" in ensuring that he had with him his "father's signet" to give an official seal to the letter that he composed. Hamlet made—at this moment or upon reflection later—a spiritual discovery about the role of providence in human affairs. Here we have Shakespeare's apparent dramatic and thematic point, and to reinforce it he has Hamlet allude to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus speaks of his Father's awareness even of the fall of a sparrow: "Are not two sparrowes solde for a farthing, and one of them shal not fall on the ground without your Father? Yea, and all the heeres of your heade are nombred. Feare ye not therefore, ye are of more value then many sparrowes."14

The change in Hamlet, however, is much more resistant to our understanding (and to his own) than this New Testament reference suggests. It is less that Hamlet has made a discovery than that he has made a discovery for which no language is sufficient: what he says is inadequate to himself as well as to Horatio. We know that something has happened to Hamlet, but we do not know what it is. He cannot say what it was, what it is, for Hamlet cannot reinhabit the thinking he has abandoned. He has changed: he no longer thinks as he did; he does not, he cannot, think as he thought. Before us is the ten-years-older Hamlet who cannot [End Page 51] be, giving voice to a change that we did not witness and that he does not (that is, Shakespeare does not) have words for.

We are not with Hamlet when he makes his discovery about "a divinity" (the term is both expressive and vague) that shapes the ends of human lives. The action occurred offstage and is in the past. Hamlet did something: rashly, indiscreetly, he got up and proceeded to search his shipmates. In truth he did not do anything—not something of his own accord that he, Hamlet, decided to do. He is, or was, a character upon whom a change, a decision, was made. Rashness and indiscretion do not answer but defer the question: for how do we know the difference between good rashness or indiscretion and bad?

Shakespeare knows that Hamlet does not know the answer to this question; he also knows that no aggregate of thinking could provide an answer or offer a more convincing account of how this change in Hamlet's behavior came about. Hamlet might have stayed in bed, thinking, fretting, berating himself. He did not think, "I will get up." He got up, not having thought about it, not having decided to.

Like everyone who writes about Shakespeare, I am annotating, qualifying, dissenting from, and building on philosophical, critical, scholarly, and textual work that others have done. I cannot record all of my debts: it would be impossible to detail my indebtedness to everyone from whom I have learned.15 But as I complete my argument, I should make reference to Stephen Greenblatt in some acute pages on Hamlet in his biography Will in the World, where I see the closest correspondence between my approach and someone else's. Greenblatt states,

The crucial breakthrough in Hamlet did not involve developing new themes or learning how to construct a shapelier, tighter plot; it had to do rather with an intense representation of inwardness called forth by a new technique of radical excision. He had rethought how to put a tragedy together—specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be compelling. Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous amount of [End Page 52] energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.16

I value Greenblatt's emphasis on excision—what Shakespeare takes out, eliminates—and how it makes the dramatic effect more captivating and vivid. Where I differ is with Greenblatt's highlighting of "inwardness," which implies that there is something interior or internal, an inside to the character that the excisions and exclusions set forth and with which we converge. "Opacity" is better—the condition of lacking transparency or translucence. But I would say more. The character is wholly opaque—is surface, not to be seen into or through. There is not anything on the other side (or on the inside) of the language, which means that the character calls for a literal reading: he or she can only be responded to literally.

In this respect it is misleading even to refer to a Shakespearean character, as if his or her name denoted something that holds together, consistent and fused. The vast quantity of Shakespeare criticism about, say, Hamlet, and the manifold arguments and discordant opinions about him are the consequence not of his inwardness, of a consciousness that we could, through explication, ascertain. This ever-expanding volume of criticism is the consequence of Shakespeare's structures of nonrepresentation, a not-there we fill.

The claim I am making, like the one that Greenblatt makes, is only partially new. The signs and markers are present in the long history of Shakespeare criticism; it's just that we have not quite noticed them and followed where they direct us. There is, for example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's pointed phrase about Iago—that in his speeches we see "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity."17 It is the absence of motive, the absence of explanation, which is central to Shakespearean representation. This unstated, the impossible to state, is, I would add, the defining feature of Shakespeare's other characters as well.

Writing about Shakespeare's depiction of Macbeth, the poet Robert Bridges says: "If he had any plain psychological conception, we should expect the drama to reveal it; but his method here is not so much to reveal as to confuse. . . . This veiled confusion of motive is so well managed that it must be recognized as a device intended to escape observation."18 Bridges senses that Shakespeare pursues a strategy that obscures, that does not reveal, the thinking of his characters. It is not that Shakespeare is giving us a complicated picture of how Macbeth thinks, but that he is not: there is no picturing; there is blurring and [End Page 53] veiling that disavow the possibility of access to interiority. Hence Macbeth is terrifically effective not for what Shakespeare presents to us in the protagonist, but for what he avoids. It is not that he is refusing to show us something that is there. Shakespeare's point, and my point, is that there is no there.

G. Wilson Knight, in an essay on Othello, makes an observation that for me is linked to Coleridge and that supplements Bridges: this play's "thought does not mesh with the reader's: rather it is always outside us, aloof. The aloofness is the resultant of an inward aloofness of image from image, word from word. The dominant quality is separation, not, as is more usual in Shakespeare, cohesion."19 "Aloofness": not forthcoming, conspicuously uninvolved and uninterested, perhaps with a measure of cool disregard. In contrast to Knight, however, I find separation rather than cohesion, not only in the case of Othello but in all of the plays. It is our separateness from the characters, the disjunction between them and us, the not seeing and not knowing of their thinking, that paradoxically connects us to them across an impassable distance. We connect through separation.

William Empson, commenting on Hamlet, is in the vicinity of Coleridge, Bridges, and Knight when he describes Shakespeare's solution to the problem of how "to satisfy audiences who demanded a Revenge play and then laughed when it was provided":

He thought: "The only way to shut this hole is to make it big. I shall make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and again, 'I don't know why I am delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can't help it'. What is more, I shall make it impossible for them to blame him. And then they daren't laugh." It turned out, of course, that this method, instead of reducing the old play to farce, made it thrillingly life-like and profound.20

Empson perceives that it is the absence—in this instance, turned into endlessly perplexing matter for discourse—that makes the reader or audience member enthralled by the human reality of the character. The lifelikeness is the manifestation of a blank.

For Empson, one of the remarkable features of Shakespeare is the holes in the texts, the gaps and hollows in the stories. Shakespeare could have taken the audience inside the ship with Hamlet—Kenneth Branagh planned to insert such a scene in his Hamlet film, omitting it in the end because of the cost (Thompson and Taylor, p. 433). Shakespeare could [End Page 54] have put on stage the event as it happened, thereby enabling us to view the restless Hamlet as he arose and to overhear his self-disclosing thoughts as he moved alongside Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and perused the king's commission. Climaxing the scene, Shakespeare could have written a soliloquy in which Hamlet explains to himself (and to us, listening to him) what he has realized. A divinity prompted him to do something, and this divinity is ___; his life (his conception of what life is) has changed, and he is now ___. But this is not a scene that Shakespeare would write, given how he thinks about how we think. He knows that in theory such a scene might seem essential to us but that in truth it would not be lifelike. Not showing us how Hamlet reaches his decision is more true to life, more accurate, and more dramatically effective.

In his Principles of Psychology, published three centuries later, William James considered proximate incidents of decision and change and gave a Shakespeare-like interpretation of them—their intangible how and why. For example:

We know what it is to get out of bed on a freezing morning in a room without a fire, and how the very vital principle within us protests against the ordeal. Probably most persons have lain on certain mornings for an hour at a time unable to brace themselves to the resolve. We think how late we shall be, how the duties of the day will suffer; we say, "I must get up, this is ignominious," etc., but still the warm couch feels too delicious, the cold outside too cruel, and resolution faints away and postpones itself again and again just as it seemed on the verge of bursting the resistance and passing over into the decisive act. Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances? If I may generalize from my own experience, we more often than not get up without any struggle or decision at all. We suddenly find that we have got up.21

In James's example, everything ministers to our comfort; the persistent arguments are in favor of staying where we are. But we find ourselves out of bed. What is this? If it is a decision, it is not really a decision. We were there; now we are here. We were thinking like that, now we are thinking like this. We could have remained in bed for another hour; after we got up we could have thought for an hour about what we did and why. Neither of these periods of reflection would tell us why we got up. Somehow it happened that we acted (came to act, were made to act) decisively. Shakespeare depicts this repeatedly, diversely, obliquely, and on some occasions silently. Inwardness and interiority are not there for inspection or explanation. This is why thinking is strange work: it [End Page 55] is an indispensable activity that has little to no connection to what is important.

Jacques Derrida, a great admirer of Shakespeare, states a related point about the making and nonmaking of decisions such as Hamlet's and the thinking that does and does not support them:

Not knowing what to do does not mean that we have to rely on ignorance and to give up knowledge and consciousness. A decision, of course, must be prepared as far as possible by knowledge, by information, by infinite analysis. At some point, however, for a decision to be made you have to go beyond knowledge, to do something that you don't know, something which does not belong to, or is beyond, the sphere of knowledge.22

The passive voice is exactly right: "for a decision to be made." The decision to be made is the decision to do something, and vice versa. Implicit in Derrida's statement is that we do something that we do not comprehend, and it is not apparent how and why this happens. What happens is sometimes a mental action we believe that we have performed, a choice we have made. What happens at other times is a choice that befalls us unawares, a change that passes through us unforeseen and that reorganizes and repositions us from here to there. In either case, the change had nothing to do with us, nothing to do with anything we thought, though we are in its midst and think otherwise.

There are many occurrences in Shakespeare's corpus of this nonrepresented thinking. What is Valentine thinking at the close of The Two Gentlemen of Verona when he offers to give his beloved Sylvia to Proteus, who—as Valentine saw just twenty lines earlier—has tried to rape her? What is Isabella thinking (she is silent) at the end of Measure for Measure when the duke asks her to marry him? In Troilus and Cressida Hector argues in the council scene that the Trojans should return Helen to the Greeks only to announce that he will do the opposite: what is Hector thinking? Lear and Cordelia in the love test: we hear their words; we do not know what they are thinking—is either of them thinking at all? Does Macbeth know why he says to his wife that they will proceed no further with the thought of murdering Duncan, only to decide that he will? In The Winter's Tale, what is it that propels Leontes to reckon that his wife Hermione and friend Polixenes are in a torrid sexual relationship? Prospero abruptly, startlingly, in act 5 of The Tempest, sets aside his desire for vengeance on his enemies and embraces forgiveness of them instead—why? [End Page 56]

These characters and others in such scenes tell us of their thoughts and feelings, or so it would seem. But their thoughts and feelings do not clarify or explain their decisions and actions. We do not really know how they are thinking at the most significant moments, and the little that some of them say is not enough for us to make contact with their interior lives even if they have them, which (in my view) they do not. Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Bolingbroke/Henry IV, Hal/Henry V, Rosalind, Othello, Lear, Timon, Antony, Coriolanus: Shakespeare dramatizes a noninteriority in all of them when they make decisions and when they change. Never do we come into contact with their most significant thinking, which, again, paradoxically leads us to be able to speak about it interminably. We perpetually estimate and judge that with more interpretive labor, deeper looking, and analyzing, we will finally come to discern their minds and know who they are. The irony is that we are in the same situation they are in: we invoke and deploy preliminary and retrospective terms and images that, however evocative, arresting, and memorable, are not commensurate with what we do and who we are and how we think.

Shakespeare knows that inwardness and interiority seem real to us when we feel we have turned our eyes inward. We query and converse with one another about inner lives in life and literature; above all, about those of Shakespeare's characters, who, we say, replicate our own. Deciding to do something; changing from thinking like this to thinking like that: it is what we most desire to know and put into words about his characters and about ourselves. Shakespeare believes to the contrary that there is no language for what we desire to know. His characters are unforgettable not because he endows them with inner lives but because he does not.

This is the source of Shakespeare's fascination, the reason why he is the most inscrutable writer and most brilliant entertainer ever. The absence, not the presence, of thinking in his characters makes them forever unknowable and, as a consequence, infinitely interesting. [End Page 57]

William E. Cain
Wellesley College


1. Stephen Booth, "Shakespeare's Language and the Language of Shakespeare's Time," Shakespeare Survey 50 (1998): 1–17 (1).

2. David Daniell, introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1998), pp. 1–147 (60).

3. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972), 2.1.10–17, 27–34. References are to act, scene, and line.

4. Maurice Charney, All of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 233.

5. Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2005), p. 245.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 223.

7. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817; repr., New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), p. 70.

8. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in Barnet, The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, 4.4.32–33. References are to act, scene, and line.

9. James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 312.

10. Frank Kermode, Shakespeare's Language (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), p. 124.

11. Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 268–69.

12. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), p. 141; hereafter abbreviated Thompson and Taylor.

13. Alastair Fowler, "The Case against Hamlet: Understanding the Multiple Viewpoints of Shakespeare's 'Renaissance Realism,'" Times Literary Supplement, December 22, 1995.

14. Matt. 10:29–31 (Geneva Bible, 1560).

15. These include Joel B. Altman, Sylvan Barnet, Catherine Belsey, Millicent Bell, Harry Berger Jr., Harold Bloom, Stephen Booth, Graham Bradshaw, Sharon Cameron, Stanley Cavell, Donald Davidson, Margreta de Grazia, Daniel Dennett, Jacques Derrida, William Empson, Anne Ferry, Joel Fineman, Owen Flanagan, Angus Fletcher, John J. Joughin, G. Wilson Knight, Russ McDonald, Colin McGinn, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Thomas Nagel, Stephen Orgel, A. D. Nuttall, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, Bruce R. Smith, and Paul Werstine, among others.

16. Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), pp. 323–24.

17. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism: In Two Volumes—Volume One, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2nd ed. (1960; repr. New York: Dutton, 1967), p. 44.

18. Robert Bridges, "On the Influence of the Audience" (1906), in The Works of William Shakespeare, vol. 10 (Stratford-on-Avon: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1907), pp. 321–34 (327–28). [End Page 58]

19. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930), 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 97–98.

20. William Empson, Essays on Shakespeare, ed. David B. Pirie (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 84.

21. William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), vol. 2 (New York: Henry Holt, 1916), p. 524.

22. Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality, Justice, and Responsibility," in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, ed. Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 65–83 (66). [End Page 59]

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