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Shakespeare and the sciences of emotion

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What role should literature have in the interdisciplinary study of emotion? The dominant answer today seems to be “not much.” Scholars of literature of course write about emotion but fundamental questions about what emotion is and how it works belong elsewhere: to psychology, cognitive science, neurophysiology, philosophy of mind. In Shakespeare’s time the picture was different. What the period called “passions” were material for ethics and for that part of natural philosophy dealing with the soul; but it was rhetoric that offered the most extensive accounts of the passions. This—to us strange—disciplinary situation had ancient roots: Aristotle’s most expansive discussion of the passions appears in his Rhetoric. Since early modern literary theory was based on rhetoric, this forges a direct relationship between literature and the study of passions.What does it mean to think about passion rhetorically? One answer takes us to a famous Hamlet soliloquy:Is it not monstrous that this player here,But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,Could force his soul so to his own conceitThat from her working all his visage wann’d,Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,A broken voice, and his whole function suitingWith forms to his conceit? And all for nothing! (2.2.545–51)This is about more than effective performance: it encodes an account of the cognitive underpinnings of passion that emphasizes the rhetorical functioning of the mind. The “fiction” Hamlet is thinking of is a mental fiction: a “conceit” or phantasm, which is a fiction in the sense that it is a made thing: a product of our souls. In the sequence traced here, an imagined conceit alters the soul and that alteration in turn alters the body. All passions are fictional in the sense that all are based on “nothing”: that is, on mental images. A second sense of “fiction” is relevant as well: fiction as that kind of made thing that is an invented story. The actor describes Hecuba at the fall of Troy; in doing so, he is. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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