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How Noble in Reason: Shakespeare Reveals the Primacy of Emotions in Human Nature
Neema Parvini
Neema Parvini
is Lecturer in English at University of Surrey, and runs the ‘Shakespeare and His World’ course at Richmond, The American International University in London.

Modern cognitive psychology has found that the vast majority of human thinking relies primarily on intuition and gut instinct rather than strategic reasoning. We are routinely hubristic, overconfident in our own perceptions, and prone to confirmation bias. Rather than challenge existing beliefs and assumptions, we instead become entrenched in them, automatically filtering new information to fit in with what we already believe. In fact, the majority of our reasoning occurs as a post-hoc rationalization that is a justification of our position after the fact, having already made up our minds in a snap decision. We saw this fact of human nature play out ad nauseum in the two major political votes of last year, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – now symbolized by their respective outcomes. These were marked by near-naked partisanship on both sides on a scale we have not seen in recent history; by the primacy of emotion, gut instinct, and intuition over reasoning to the point where in its aftermath we are said to live in a post-truth society in which facts are defined more by what people feel than by empirical evidence.

Few writers in history have understood this aspect of human thinking better than William Shakespeare, who shows again and again in his plays how emotions and intuitions trump reasoning. We see it whenever one character tries to persuade another of their point of view. In Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony doesn’t win the baying crowd around by appealing to reason, he appeals to their emotions. Iago doesn’t manipulate Othello by giving him logical arguments, he plants seeds in his mind which prey on his darkest emotions and lets his intuition do the rest. Richard III does not hoodwink the populace into accepting him as king by reasoning out a case, he does it by playing on their feelings.

The one exception to this general pattern is Hamlet, who does his very best to make reason his ‘marshal’, trying at all times to put his reasoning up front. He attempts to take intuition out of the equation altogether in pursuit of a fantasy of pure reason. He resists human nature — his own nature — because he consistently tries to avoid relying on intuition by pre-meditating and reasoning through all of his decisions. He plans most of his actions; he calculates risks and weighs up benefits against costs. It is difficult to imagine how Macbeth or Othello would react if placed in Hamlet’s shoes, but one thing is for certain in either case: the play would be an awful lot shorter because Claudius would be dead before the start of Act 3. This is not only because Macbeth and Othello are military men while Hamlet is a creature of the court, but also because both of them are prone to jumping to conclusions very quickly, whereas Hamlet doubts and second-guesses himself at every turn. This is a character who has to ready himself with a rationalizing pep talk before speaking to his own mother (3.2.388-99) – Hamlet plans out the closet scene in his mind before it happens.

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In his paradoxical line to the ghost, he wants to fly ‘with wings as swift / As meditation’ (1.5.29-30). When chastising his mother, his laments the fact that ‘reason panders will’ (3.4.88) which he equates with a world turned topsy-turvy in which ‘frost … doth burn’ (3.4.87). In the normal order of things ‘reason’ does indeed ‘pander’ to will – and it is clear from his other plays that Shakespeare implicitly understood this – but in Hamlet’s reckoning, the natural order of things is precisely the other way around. His ideal vision of the world is one in which reason reigns supreme. And, of course, he fails utterly in the pursuit of that vision: for Hamlet is as subject to intuitive thinking and decision-making as any human being. In many ways, the play shows the utter futility of trying to make will ‘pander’ to reason. The reasonable rider can try to steer the intuitive elephant, but most of the time it won’t budge. Intuitions are automatic and constant, they cannot be turned off. In the aforementioned closet scene, which we watch Hamlet pre-plan before it takes shape, nothing goes to plan: he sees the ghost again, he kills Polonius, and his words to his mother are anything but ‘Soft’ (3.2.392).

Some readers may argue that my characterization of Hamlet as a sort of failed want-to-be Vulcan overlooks the fact that he spends much of the play investigating the veracity of the ghost’s claims for perfectly valid reasons. His constant need for reasoning and analytical thinking, then, could be explained simply as the by-product of the need for verification (as a justification for murdering Claudius). The point has been made by numerous critics: anyone in their right mind would be as reluctant as Hamlet is to commit the murder. And we should remember that Hamlet was training to be a lawyer. But Hamlet takes this far beyond the investigation, and seemingly tries to be the perfect lawyer in all aspects of his thinking, which we see play out in the play’s seven famous soliloquies in which the attempt at balanced and reasoned argument descends by turns into anger at others – Claudius, his mother Gertrude, the world in general – and frustration at himself which eventually becomes an existential crisis.

In many ways then the play can be read as Hamlet’s failure to be the perfect lawyer because try as he might, he cannot live up to the fantasy of pure reason even within his own mind. Taking a wider view, is it possible that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare himself was laying waste to the idea of human beings as rational agents? I’d warrant that he would have been rather less surprised than our ‘experts’ at the utter failure of algorithmic models to predict human behavior.

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  1. Liz Connor says:

    This is the most brilliant short article on Shakespeare that I’ve read in a long while (I’m a retired English language and literature teacher – not an academic). I think the author has identified a very important aspect of Shakespeare’s particular genius, and I thank him for it. I will be following his writings with great interest from my armchair.

  2. Liz Connor says:

    Eureka! I’ve discovered Neema Parvini’s podcasts here:
    link to