Hamlet's Big Toe?
Neuropsychology and Literary Characters

Norman N Holland
Department of English
University of Florida

Discussions of the reality of literary characters polarize into two positions. One, a literary character is a tissue of words, a poetic construct. Two, we can treat literary characters as having all the attributes of real people. We can infer past, present, motives, and neuroses, whether or not these are mentioned in the text. A combination of linguistics and neuroscience offers a solution. Literary characters in books or on stage (like all perceived realities) are processed through two coacting but different pathways in the brain, a "what" and a "where" system.

"Does Hamlet have a big toe?" When I was teaching Shakespeare, if things got too quiet, I used to ask my students that. They would look at me oddly for a few seconds--what is he up to now? But then they would burst into a passionate discussion of the paradoxical nature of literary characters. "Of course he has a big toe! He's human, isn't he? Humans have big toes. If he's human, he has a big toe." "It's simple logic. If he doesn't eat, does he get hungry? Of course." Maybe someone would quote Shylock's famous line, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?"

Other, cannier students, though, would say, "How can Hamlet have a big toe? He's not real. He's just a bunch of words on a page." "Hungry? How can a tissue of words get hungry?"

Then would come the most damning comment of all. "The text never mentions his big toe." To be sure, toes are mentioned twice in Hamlet, but not, as it happens, Hamlet's big toe. And, of course, what is not mentioned in the text cannot be, as we critics say, "in" the play. If not "in" the play, then it is something we supply, and we are guilty of "reading in." If the student is a good postmodernist, he might quote Derrida's flat statement, "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte." Outside of text, there is nothing. If Hamlet's big toe is not mentioned in the language, why then it simply cannot exist.

Warring Critics

My students' debate reflects a critical controversy that has gone on for two centuries now. We could call the two sides the realists and the formalists. The realist idea that one could consider literary characters as real people began in the late eighteenth century with Maurice Morgann's influential essay of 1777, which purported to prove that Falstaff was not a coward. Morgann proceeded by assuming Falstaff was a real person. That is, he assumed that it was "fit to consider [literary characters] rather as Historical than Dramatic beings; and, when occasion requires to account for their conduct from the whole of character, from general principles, from latent motives, and form policies not avowed".1 He treated what the language says about Falstaff as though it were the history of a real person, and he concluded that Falstaff was in fact not a coward but brave. Morgann adopted--created, really--the principle that character determines actions rather than actions defining character. As writers like to say, "The character took on a life of his own." "The character himself decided what he was going to do." Morgann thus inaugurated a long period of character criticism, based on that principle, culminating in the elaborate analyses of character by A. C. Bradley at the beginning of the twentieth century2 . In general, nineteenth-century readers and critics tended to look through narratives, either fiction or drama, toward a supposed historical reality they purported to represent.

The psychoanalytic critics adopted that realist postion with enthusiasm. Ernest Jones insisted in his early study of Hamlet, "No dramatic criticism of the personae in a play is possible except under the pretence that they are living people." "In so far and in the same sense as a character in a play is taken as being a living person, to that extent must he have had a life before the action in the play began, since no one starts life as an adult."3 Hence Jones claimed he was justified in talking about Hamlet's childhood and therefore his oedipus complex Presumably he would have been equally justified had he chosen to talk about Hamlet's big toe. And psychoanalytic critics have carried on this tradition as recently as Marvin Krims' several papers for this conference and the PsyArt journal.4

A great many critics, however, and in particular writers have argued the other way, claiming that literary characters are just words. Thus Edgar Allan Poe complained of the "radical error" of trying to account for Shakespeare's characters' actions, "not as if they were the coinage of a human brain, but as if they had been actual existences on earth"5 . E. M. Forster had fun distinguishing Homo Sapiens from Homo Fictus. Homo Fictus rarely sleeps, he pointed out, only eats food for social purposes, and is much given to dying or getting married at the end of novels. As for Homo Sapiens, in real life, Forster notes, "We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way." "In the novel we can know people perfectly and . . . . in this direction fiction is truer than history"6. Proust praised that first novelist who decided to suppress real people in favor of "things . . . which the spirit can assimilate to itself." "The ingenuity of the first novelist lay in . . . the suppression, pure and simple, of `real' people"7

I have a favorite among these rejections of characters as real people. The painter Matisse answered a lady who was visiting his studio and complained, "Surely, the arm of this woman is too long." "Madame," replied Matisse, "you are mistaken. That is not a woman, that is a picture. Avant tout, je ne crée pas une femme, je fais un tableau"8

In other words, the artists were claiming a right to a creativity that goes beyond merely representing historical reality. They were pointing to the art-ness of the work of art. Art has a form that is not natural, anymore than a painting is the thing depicted. Art is not history.

The Bullying Triangle

Matisse's visitor looked at his not-very-realistic picture and saw a woman. In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel performed a famous experiment9 . To Smith College students, then all women, they showed an animated cartoon of a large black triangle, a small black triangle, and a circle, the three of them moving in various ways in and out of a rectangle, including a sequence in which the big triangle hits the smaller triangle, as the experimenters said, "relentlessly." After this short came the main feature. The psychologists told their subjects, "Write down what happened in the picture." Of the 34 subjects, all but one described the movements as actions of animate beings, in all but two cases human beings. When another group of 36 subjects were asked questions like, "What kind of a person is the big triangle?," the students responded with great uniformity (97%) with terms like, "quarrelsome," "dominating," "taking advantage of his size," and the like. Eight per cent even went so far as to assert that the big triangle had a lower I.Q. than the smaller one. The experimenters concluded that the subjects organized the movements "in terms of actions of animated beings, chiefly of persons." And "acts of persons have to be viewed in terms of motives in order that the succession of changes becomes a connected sequence."

A long line of experiments confirm Heider and Simmel's findings and indeed, extend them from students to very young children. Thus, infancy experimenters Premack and Premack report:

When shown two bouncing objects, one of which becomes trapped in a virtual hole, the infant will interpret the action of a second object that restores the motion of the first as helping and will code it positive.

We show an infant two bouncing balls. The one that bounces higher and faster is preferred by the infant. The preferred ball moves into the vicinity of the other and demonstrates its superior bounces several times, as though offering an example. It even assists the other directly, placing itself below, lifting it, helping it to bounce higher. The infant will interpret the actions in this and the previous example as helping, coding them both positive .10

I notice that these experimenters, like Heider and Simmel, cannot avoid using the language of human motivation to describe these merely physical objects (balls and triangles). None of us can escape the inference for a very good reason.

As that experiment and many others show, even as infants, we make this inference that scurrying triangles and bouncing balls have to be understood as persons. Even in the first few months of our lives, we begin to attribute to events causality, probability, and realism. Then, as infants, we draw a distinction between objects that move themselves and objects that are moved by other objects. For example, billiard balls that simply knock one another about are objects that move because they are acted upon. We adults would say they are inanimate. The infant understands these inanimate objects through a causality based in what the psychologists call "intuitive physics." By contrast, Infants explain the movements of self-moving objects (which we would call "animate") through intention. In effect, infants have an "intuitive psychology"11 .

Some observers of children attribute these skills, this "intuitive psychology" and "intuitive physics" to learning. Others, especially those who favor explanations through evolutionary psychology like Stephen Pinker, assume we are born with them. They are part of our genetic make-up One answer then to the puzzle of Hamlet's big toe is that, however we encounter Hamlet, on the pages of a book or on stage or screen, he is self-moving. We therefore interpret him as animate. We give him motions and intentions. And just as we attribute intentions to him to explain his actions, we give him the normal complement of human digits. We give him a big toe.

I Feel His Pain

One answer, then, to the question, Does Hamlet have a big toe?, is that we give him one. But this does not tell us whether Hamlet is, so to speak, "really real." Can we, as the psychoanalytic critics do, assume that he has a past and a future beyond the boundaries of the play?

Actually, we do more than merely attribute motives and intentions to Hamlet. We feel emotionally toward him. That is why he feels real to us, because we feel real emotions toward him. We feel his perplexity and frustration. We may share his craziness or his intellectuality. We may feel his disgust at Claudius, at his mother, at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at Polonius, at Ophelia--in short, at the world.. We may like him or dislike him. We may admire him or feel contempt. We may feel annoyed that he is dilly-dallying instead of getting on with the revenge of his father.

We endow Hamlet with the kind of reality that leads us to feel emotionally about him. When we feel an emotion, we generally point to some object as causing it. Not without reason.

For generations of psychological experiments, researchers have used representations to stimulate emotions. People shown a picture of dog droppings or fly-covered garbage or a decaying corpse will show disgust. People shown a movie of a chain saw killer will feel fear (as Hollywood well knows). People will feel desire when shown porn pictures. Peter Lang has created a database of hundreds of pictures calibrated for arousing-relaxing, pleasant-unpleasant, desirable-undesirable, and these are widely used in experiments on emotion .12

I have been a subject in some of these brain imaging experiments, yet, even as my head is in the brain scanner and the experimenters are showing me images of emotion-arousing objects, I know perfectly well I am seeing just ink on paper or pixels on a computer screen. The emotions come anyway. I never lose the awareness that I am seeing only a picture or pixels or a film but my emotions come willy-nilly.

We respond to representations of human situations the same way, with the emotions we would feel toward the situation if it were real. Psychiatrist Leslie Brothers, who has specialized in studying primate social cognition, writes that the emotional networks with which we respond to facial expressions are evolutionarily old and involve such deep structures as the amygdala. "These networks are set to trigger behavioral dispositions appropriate to the social situations in which primates have commonly found themselves throughout their history"13

We humans are so very social creatures, that we are wired tightly to what we see of our fellow human beings. We will feel the emotion appropriate to a situation even if we are perfectly aware that it is not happening to us but to someone else. We are looking at a representation, not the real thing, but the emotions we feel are real enough (or at least as real as anything else). We feel them in our bodies. But we also know that the representation we are being shown is just that, a representation, not the "real" thing.

We could say, then, that we feel real emotions about Hamlet and his doings, and that makes him real for us. Thus the Hungarian novelist and critic Stephen Vizinczey writes, "The only virtue a character needs to possess between hardcovers, even if he bears a real person’s name, is vitality: if he comes to life in our imaginations, he passes the test"14.

But is that so? Our very real emotions don't make the porn picture or the picture of dog droppings as real as what they were pictures of. Can our emotions make Hamlet real? Do our emotions entitle us to give him a big toe? Do they entitle us to give him a past before the play, complete with Oedipus complex? I don't think so.

Hamlet's Features

Finally, though, I think there is an answer, one that combines linguistics and neuropsychology. One day, long ago, I was discussing this ciritical puzzle with the linguist Morris Halle. He suggested a resolution to my paradox that, over the years, has seemed to me quite satisfactory. He noted that linguists (at that time) imagined as part of our language skill, a lexicon that we carry in our heads, in effect a dictionary. But this is not an ordinary dictionary. Besides the usual information about meaning and pronunciation, this dictionary contains information about usage (and even today linguists would agree that the lexicon stores information about the idiosyncrasies of words.

Halle said that the entries for verbs and nouns, including proper nouns, have markers for the various properties that can be assigned to those words. In the case of nouns, for example, there are count nouns, those which one can enumerate. "I have five straws." And there are mass nouns, to which numbers cannot attach. You can't say (in English), "I have five hay."

For example, the entry for "boy" might say that it has the syntactic features: [+ Noun], [+ Count], [+ Common], [+ Animate], and [+ Human]. "Boy" can go with verbs that require a common noun, a human noun, or a countable noun. But "boy" could not go with verbs that require a non-animate noun. Thus, you can say, "The boy died," but "The boy elapsed" is nongrammatical because "elapse" calls for a non-animate noun.15

Morris Halle suggested that a literary character is a proper noun, and, like the boy, countable, animate, and human, but the literary character lacks a feature that ordinary people have, namely, location. The straws and the hay and the boy can all be located, but the fictional character Hamlet cannot. He is not in Elsinore--to say he is, is to assume he has historical reality. Shakespeare's Hamlet is not "in" the text my students were holding. He is not even "in" the Branagh movie, since he is simultaneously "in" the Olivier movie or the Gibson movie or any number of stage productions.

The question, "Where is Hamlet?" makes no more sense than asking, "Where is literature?" We cannot say where either is, except figuratively. "Literature is in the hearts and minds of humankind." So with Hamlet. "Hamlet is in the hearts and minds of humankind."

His big toe like his appendix or his pancreas or other parts of his fictional anatomy therefore has no location, unlike your big toe or mine. He has a big toe, but you cannot, so to speak, put your finger on it. Yet surely literature is real enough and so is Hamlet's big toe, whether or not we can situate it north, south, east, or west.

That is an odd kind of reality, though. While Morris Halle's idea seems to me to solve the problem in a technical way, it also seems rather more linguistic than psychological. Hamlet's having or not having a linguistic feature doesn't really speak to me as a human being having feelings about Hamlet in a book or on the stage. What makes Hamlet real for me, big toe and all, is, I think something else.

Hamlet on My Mind

Interestingly the linguistic proposal, that Hamlet lacks a feature for location, corresponds to what goes on in our heads. With a literary character, a writer capitalizes on the way our brains are organized.

We have, roughly, three sensory systems that tell us about the world "out there" beyond our sense organs. We have sight, hearing, and sensorimotor information about movement, touch, temperature, and so on. These three systems input to three different regions of the brain: vision to the occipital lobes, sound to the temporal lobes, and touch, temperature, pain, and other sensorimotor information ro the parietal lobes across the top of your head. Our brains then put the separate information coming in from our sense organs together to make a three-dimensional world "out there" beyond our skins and senses. That is why we sense the book we are reading as though it were an object unconnected to our senses and independent of them.

Our brains use two pathways to create the world we perceive. The sensory information from our eyes and ears and body travels on two different neural systems, a "what" path and a "where" path16.

The "what" path runs from, say, the occipital lobes at the back of my head down to the bottom of the temporal lobes that run along behind my ears. That is where we keep our linguistic skills, like naming objects. That is where we decide "what" the object we are seeing is. That is where we put the name Hamlet to the figure before us on a stage.

The brain also takes that information from, say, the occipital lobes at the back of my head up through the parietal lobes, under the upper sides of my skull. There we have the systems that orient our bodies to the world around us, the "where" or dorsal system. The "where" system is quick and crude. There is, for example, no color perception in the "where" pathway. "Where" operates rapidly and uncritically so as to enable us to run around obstacles and catch baseballs and dodge SUVs bearing down on us. Having this fast "where" path considerably improves our chances of survival.

By contrast, "what" operates more judiciously. It does have color, obviously. And this ventral pathway allows us to correlate our immediate sensory data with what we already know. We identify objects and relate them to our memories and enter them into our verbal discourse.

The Paper Hamlet

Let me put the stage or screen Hamlet aside for a moment and talk only about the Hamlet we imagine from the pages of an edition of the play, the paper Hamlet. Imagining that fictional Hamlet is not quite the same as construing our sensations into a three-dimensional book with weight and separate pages.17 Philosophers debate the ontological relation between what we call "the play Hamlet" and any physical embodiment of Hamlet in a book or performance; I have no wish to go into those knotty problems.18 It may be, however, that , once we recognize that the literary character exists in our minds in these two different modes, "where" and "what," many of those problems will disappear.

Brain science tells us about the literary character that, since there are two pathways, we can separate the what of Hamlet from the where of Hamlet. That must be what we are doing when, by an act of imagination, we create a fictional Hamlet from the pages of a book. We are imagining a what-Hamlet in our minds. But there is no question of this Hamlet having a "where," a feature for location. That is happening, or, more properly, not happening, in another pathway.

In effect, Halle's linguistic features, in this instance at least, correspond to different activities in the brain. His linguistic explanation says, in effect, that as we read about Hamlet, our "what" pathway infers various things about him, but our "where" pathway doesn't locate him in any specific place.

Some neuropsychologists think that what most call a "where" pathway should really be considered a "how" pathway19. According to this conception, the brain filters or calls up sensory information from the posterior lobes according to what needs to be acted on and how it needs to be acted on. In other words, the brain selects sensory information to serve motor programs. But the literary situation rules out action. We are not going to stand up from our reading (or in the theater, for that matter) and cheer Hamlet on to his revenge. We are, in Kant's term, "disinterested." Hence a "how" pathway would be just as irrelevant to a fictional Hamlet as a "where" pathway.

I have been writing as though these two pathways were wholly separate. They are not, of course. In everyday life, the two brain systems combine their information. They talk to each other so as to coordinate actions toward what is being perceived. But in the literary situation, we are not going to move. Hence, the "where" pathway is doing less and presumably saying less to the "what" pathway. And there is little purpose in the "what" pathway combining its information with the missing information in the "where" or "how" pathway, since we are not going to move. Presumably, the interaction of the two systems matters less when we are suppressing motor impulses in order to experience literature, although the interaction is useful, indeed essential, in everyday life.

In sum, the paradoxical nature of the literary character, this centuries-old controversy among the critics, arises from the very nature of our brains. Because, when we read a story or a poem, our brains separate what from where, we can have an illusion that the literary characters we meet in books have big toes and childhoods and Oedipus complexes.

In this respect, though, how do fictional characters differ from real historical figures? Suppose I read in a book about Marco Polo and the Silk Road. Those two are a person and place of which I have not had and, so far as the man is concerned, can not have any physical experience. I have no more "where" for them than I do for Hamlet. Yet, surely Marco Polo (unlike Hamlet) had a big toe and, once upon a time, had I been staying at a caravanserai on the Silk Road with him, I could have seen and touched it. What is the difference between them?

When I read about Marco Polo, I do not acquire a "where" experience of him any more than I do when I read about Hamlet. But I do acquire semantic or "what" information about him. And part of my semantic (or my "what") memory of Marco Polo includes a real location for the man in time and space. When I read about Hamlet, though, my "what" information about him does not include a belief that he existed in real time and real locations.

We could say, then, quite simply, that the difference in our experience between fictional and non-fictional characters consists of a difference in semantic or "what" information about them. Non-fictional characters in books come with real locations in space and time, and we can believe in a "where" for them even if our brains' "where" system has not sensed them physically. Fictional characters in books lack such a believable, semantic "where" as well as "where" information from our sense organs.

The Acted Hamlet

But what happens to this peculiar relation I have to Hamlet in a book when I see Hamlet on a stage or a screen? This Hamlet, obviously, differs from the Hamlet we imagine from a page. Hamlet onstage or onscreen does have the same kind of three-dimensional location as any other aspect of physical reality, indeed, as the stage or screen itself. With an acted Hamlet, our "where" path endows the actor with location just like any other person we see in life and any piece of physical reality. He is right there, eleven rows in front of me or on the screen in the television set in the den.

But our "what" path, our inferences about what we are seeing, would tell us that this is not Hamlet, but an actor playing Hamlet.

This is the reverse of the Hamlet we create from a book. This Hamlet has already been created for us. No imagination on our part is required. This Hamlet has a where, but the minute we try to pay attention to the "what" of this Hamlet, we recognize that we are pretending that this actor really is Hamlet. And the pretense goes away.

Endowing this actor with a "what" gets us into the much more complicated question of what we believe and disbelieve when we are "rapt" or "absorbed" at a book, play, or movie. In that state, as Coleridge pointed out, we cease to disbelieve20 . We become unaware of our own bodies and our surroundings. More importantly, since we do not plan to move, we stop testing the reality of what we see.21 We simply enjoy the illusion. Hamlet exists for us as both a "where" and a "what." At least he does if we allow ourselves to be "lost," "rapt," "absorbed" in the experience of stage or screen or even radio.

The minute I begin thinking of the physical reality of the theater and the actor on the stage, however, my willing suspension of disbelief breaks off. The literary spell is broken. I know I am sitting in a theater, watching an actor pretend.22 I may lose even the emotional reality of this Hamlet.

Consider Shylock's famous question: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? " I don't doubt that if Laurence Olivier were playing Shylock (as he did in 1973), and if I were to stick a needle in him, Laurence Olivier would bleed. But it would be Laurence Olivier who is bleeding, not Shylock. If we are not talking about an actor playing Shylock, if we are talking instead about a Shylock in the pages of Merchant of Venice, how can I stick a needle in that Shylock? How can I tickle an imaginary Venetian? Paradoxically, Shylock's rhetorical question poses precisely the problem of the ontological status of whatever actor is playing him.

In short, the paradoxical nature of the literary character -- Is he real? Is he human? Does he have a big toe? Does he get hungry? -- arises from the very nature of our brains. Because our brains can separate what from where have separate what and where systems, we can have this illusion that literary characters in books or onstage are "real" people.

Some Larger Issues

There are some larger points to be made here. Notice how the critics' debate simply enacts this anomaly in our brains' processing. Prince Hamlet in a book lacks a where. If Hamlet has a where, it is a where we imagine, which is no where at all. In daily life, we never separate a what from a where. They always occur together, aspects of one perception. It is only when we imagine, as in responding to literature in writing, that we can have a what without a where. This is unnatural, and the critics are stumped. They try to decide between a Hamlet perceived as we normally perceive things and a Hamlet with a what but no where, and that, unless we talk about the brain, makes no sense. The critics are trying to deal with, not an optical illusion, but a brain illusion by coming down on one possibility or the other. Naturally, they can't settle the question.

The answer to this centuries-old conundrum for literary critics lies in understanding how our brains function normally and how they function when we are experiencing literature. I have to wonder how many other philosophical and critical controversies could be solved the same way.

In my papers for some years now, I have been progressing through various traditional questions about literature: Can we separate the text from ourselves? Why do we suspend our disbelief? Why do we feel real emotions toward characters we know are fictional? In the book that is emerging from these lucubrations, I consider other such questions. Do texts make meaning? Or do readers make meaning and, if so, how? And, as in this paper, are literary characters people?

All these questions demonstrate the importance to our ideas about literature of nowing how the brain links us to the world and to our inner selves. When we enjoy literature, we turn brain systems on and off in ways that we don't in everyday life. In this paper, we have seen one example, Hamlet's big toe. We do not, in life, separate "what" from "where." "What" and "where" come into our perceptual systems as a single object, one chunk of reality. But in literature, we can and we do.

When we experience literature, we switch brain systems on and off in odd ways. I have been finding that oddity again and again as I have bee trying to answer some of these literary questions. Reading fiction or poetry or watching a play or movie, we open up and shut down systems in our brains differently from the way we use those systems in ordinary life. Why?

Literature, I am coming to believe, is some kind of game that we play with our brains. Psychological literary critics and theorists, in order to understand how literature works, need to understand how our brains work. And we certainly need to ask, If literature is just some kind of brain game, why do people do literature at all?


1. Morgann 1777, 171-2.

2. Bradley 1905.

3. Jones 1949 [1910], 20.

4. Krims 2002, for example.

5. Poe 1902 [1845], 12: 225

6. Forster 1927, 98.

7. Proust 1981 (1913-1927), 1: 91.

8. Matisse 1939, 14.

9. Heider and Simmel 1944.

10. Premack and Premack 1995, 210-11.

11. Leslie 1987. Spelke, Phillips and Woodward 1995.

12. Lang 1993.

13. Brothers 1997, pp. 98-99.

14. Vizinczey 1986 [1968], 198.

15. I am grateful for help in this section to my colleague in Classics, D. Gary Miller.

16. Bownds 1999, 196-97. Bear 1996, 266-69. Zillmer 2001, 129-130.

17. Holland 2002.

18. "Aesthetics: The Ontology of Art," 2003.

19.Goodale et al. 1992. Goodale and Milner 1993

20. Coleridge 1907 [1817], ch. xiv. Holland 1968, ch. 3.

21. Holland 2003 and in press.

22. Holland, in press.

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