Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Resounding silence: The trouble with Hamlet’s body and soul

Mary Vallo
Glastonbury, Connecticut, United States

John Barrymore as Hamlet c. 1923. James Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960). Museum of the City of New York. 46.414.1.

Central to medieval and Renaissance thought was the divide between the carnal body and the transcendent soul. As the only earthly beings to possess a soul, humans integrated the animal and the spiritual—a unique status that was both a blessing and a source of intense inner conflict.1 Shakespeare’s Hamlet addresses Renaissance anxieties about this dual nature of man. After learning that his uncle Claudius has poisoned his father, Hamlet obsessively plots revenge.2 As his own hesitation thwarts his desire to act, Hamlet gradually descends into a state of angst and self-proclaimed “madness.”3 One of literature’s most celebrated yet inscrutable characters, Hamlet finally murders Claudius but pays the price with his own untimely death. Thus, unanswered questions remain as to Hamlet’s motives, his mental state, and the status of his soul. According to Renaissance theory, this ambiguous interaction between body and soul is what makes Hamlet’s character an epitome of the human experience.

In Renaissance psychology, the “inward wits,” or higher-order mental capacities, are the mediators between the human body and the soul. The soul acts through the inward wits, allowing people to interpret their concrete sensory environment and achieve an eternal understanding of its spiritual significance.4 Avicenna writes of five inward wits, two of which are located in the front ventricle and are involved in basic perceptual functions.5 The remaining inward wits of the middle and posterior ventricles are imaginativa, memorialis, and extimativa.6 Throughout Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s highly active inward wits both torment and aid him in his struggle for revenge, thereby exemplifying the inner conflicts that accompany the human soul’s unique abilities.

Over the course of the play, Hamlet’s capacity for the vis imaginativa, or the imaginative faculty, becomes progressively stronger and more vivid.7 As early as Act One, Hamlet claims to “see” his dead father in his “mind’s eye.”8 Later, although Horatio and Marcellus do witness the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, the prince takes the visitation far more seriously and insists on chasing after the apparition despite his companions’ fearful warnings. “He waxes desperate with imagination,” remarks Horatio as they watch Hamlet leave.9 Hamlet’s behavior grows even more disturbing when the ghost continues to haunt him, but other people no longer see it. In Act Three, the ghost visits Hamlet in his mother’s room, and the son and his dead father carry on a conversation. Confused, the queen asks, “To whom do you speak this?” Taken aback, Hamlet answers, “Do you see nothing there?” She replies “Nothing at all,” and it becomes clear that the ghost is now—in the queen’s words—a “coinage of…[Hamlet’s] brain.”10 It is unsettling that Hamlet’s imagination – a celebrated inward wit with divine origins in the human soul – could actually contribute to his inner turmoil.11 Instead of helping him to overcome his more brutish urges, his imagination fuels them, driving him obsessively down the path toward revenge. By emphasizing this disconcerting flaw, Shakespeare questions the power of the inward wits.

Hamlet’s inability to part with the idea of revenge further intensifies because of his strong memorialis faculty.12 Memories of his father’s death and mother’s remarriage haunt him throughout the play. In a conversation with Ophelia in Act Three, Hamlet observes, “…look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours.”13 When Ophelia reminds Hamlet that it has been four months since his father passed, he remarks, “So long?…O heavens!…and not forgotten yet?”14 Because Hamlet’s vivid memory makes his father’s death seem so recent, he is especially horrified at his mother’s speedy remarriage. Further exaggerating Hamlet’s tendency toward retrospection, other characters staunchly resist dwelling in the past. For instance, Hamlet’s mother advises her son, “Do not for ever with thy vailèd lids / Seek for thy noble father in the dust. / …All that lives must die…”15 Given Hamlet’s exceptionally acute inward wits, he cannot move on so easily.

In addition to his overactive imagination and memory, Hamlet’s sharp extimativa faculty drives him closer to madness and exacerbates the gridlock between his hesitation and desire for vengeance. According to E. Ruth Harvey, extimativa is “a kind of natural instinct” or “judgement” that “decides whether…[an] object…is good or harmful, dangerous or useful.”16 Hamlet is so astute at reading others’ motives that he develops a heightened wariness verging on paranoia. Early on, he recognizes that the king has enlisted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what troubles him. “…[T]here is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to color,” Hamlet tells the two men.17 As Hamlet’s distrust increases in Act Three, he calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “adders fanged” and vows to “delve one yard below their mines / And blow them at the moon.”18 Hamlet’s perceptive ability to read others’ motives prolongs his hesitation and distracts him from pursuing Claudius directly.

Because the inward wits provide a window into the human soul and the divinely inspired ability to reason, Hamlet’s overactive imagination, memory, and extimativa faculties point to his greatest tragic flaw: he simply thinks too much.19 Torn between a burning desire for revenge and a nagging sense of hesitation, he “sometimes…walks four hours together / … in the lobby” of the castle, as Polonius observes in Act Two.20 By Act Three, Hamlet recognizes that his “native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” and his reluctance lingers.21 As counterintuitive as it seems, perhaps it is Hamlet’s very soul – the source of his humanity and his ability to reason – that hinders him in his quest for justice.

However, Hamlet ultimately achieves his goal despite the extensive delay: he exposes Claudius’s wrongs and kills him in front of the Elsinore court.22 Thus, in many ways, his powerful imagination, memory, and social intuition allow him to overcome inaction. Without a vivid memorialis faculty to preserve the memory of his father’s murder, Hamlet would have abandoned remorse and bitterness as quickly as does his mother. Revenge would have been impossible. Similarly, Hamlet recognizes that Claudius enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies in a plot to learn about Hamlet’s plans and, ultimately, to escort him to England to be killed.23 Given that much of the court is working against him, Hamlet’s keen social perception allows him to infer Claudius’s motives and thereby proceed cautiously. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s powerful imagination aids him in keeping the vengeful wishes of his father’s ghost alive, despite opposition from other characters and the hindrance of a languid, ailing body. In these ways, the inward wits provide Hamlet with a strong motivation for revenge tempered with the prudence to bide his time until the moment is right.

By illuminating these opposing perspectives, Shakespeare leaves us with many questions. Who is Hamlet? Is he a sickly, psychotic sinner, or is he a noble prince who seeks justice by taking advantage of his uniquely human mental faculties? Do those mental faculties hinder his ability to act, or do they ultimately overcome his bodily afflictions? Is his final act of vengeance a triumph of reason and the power of the human soul, or is it a descent into depravity and animalistic bloodlust? Rather than attempt to answer these questions, the play concludes with a chilling aura of ambiguity. Hamlet proclaims as he dies, “You that look pale and tremble at this chance, / That are but mutes or audience to this act, / Had I but time…/…O, I could tell you – / But let it be…the rest is silence.”24 The “silence” accompanying Hamlet’s death leaves us craving resolution and longing for the inspirational wisdom and powerful insight that we anticipate at such a momentous climax.25

This sense of dissatisfaction is precisely what makes Hamlet an enduring work of genius. We strive to understand Hamlet’s mind and the relationship between his body and soul, only to be met with the silence of death. “What piece of work is a man,” Hamlet remarks in Act Two, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”26 Here, Hamlet expresses the central paradox of Renaissance psychological theory: human beings possess divine gifts, yet even our powerful reason cannot comprehend death. Despite the soul’s ability to seek a “higher world of…truth,” human beings are still earthly creatures, bound by a body and limited in understanding.27 By leading us through a torturous cycle of unanswered questions, Shakespeare mirrors in the audience a timeless inner conflict. He forces us to realize our own limitations as our souls desperately seek answers that would explain Hamlet’s plight. Even more eloquently than its words, Hamlet’s silence delves deeply and perceptively into the nature of being human.


  1. Harvey, E. Ruth. The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London: The Warburg Institute, 1975), 2-3.
  2. Shakespeare, William. The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002), 1347-1391, I.5.
  3. Shakespeare, V.2.204-222.
  4. Harvey, 2-3.
  5. Ibid., 43-44.
  6. Ibid., 44-46.
  7. Ibid., 44-45.
  8. Shakespeare, I.2.184-185.
  9. Ibid., I.4.87.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Harvey, 2-3, 44-45.
  12. Ibid., 46.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Shakespeare, III.2.124-126.
  15. Ibid., I.2.70-72.
  16. Harvey, 45-46.
  17. Shakespeare, II.2.249-251.
  18. Ibid., II.2.249-251.
  19. Harvey, 2-3, 44-46.
  20. Shakespeare, II.2.160-161.
  21. Ibid., III.1.84-85.
  22. Ibid., V.2.
  23. Ibid., IV.3-4, 6.
  24. Ibid., V.2.317-321, 341.
  25. Ibid., V.2.341.
  26. Ibid., II.2.273-278.
  27. Harvey, 2.

Works cited

  1. Harvey, E. Ruth. The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. London: The Warburg Institute, 1975.
  2. Shakespeare, William. The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. The Complete  Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin   Putnam, 2002. 1347-1391.

MARY VALLO is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she double-majored in English and Neuroscience & Behavior. She received an M.A in biology from Wesleyan in 2014 and is currently working toward her secondary school teacher certification at the University of Connecticut. She is fascinated by the intersection between science and the humanities and hopes to inspire her future students with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 9, Issue 3 – Summer 2017

Fall 2016



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