Literature, Evolution, and Cognition ~ Questions, Answers, Questions ~ The Example of Hamlet


An evolutionary and cognitive approach to literature needs not only an account of why we engage in stories and verse, but also a model of the literary process from composition to reception. I suggest some basic desiderata for such a model: following general evolutionary principles, (1) an evolutionary and cognitive account of human nature as represented and appealed to in literature; (2) multilevel explanations; (3) problem-solution models; (4) cost-benefit analyses; and following my evolutionary account of art, analyses of (5) attention, of (6) pattern and of (7) play. Hamlet shows Shakespeare cutting costs by availing himself of existing solutions in genre and story, but raising benefits in attention by setting himself new problems in retelling the Hamlet story. He asks new questions of human nature, questions whose depth and consistency can best be appreciated through an awareness of Theory of Mind.


Literature, Evolution, and Cognition ~ Questions, Answers, Questions ~ The Example of Hamlet

Literary studies ask two key questions. The first: how do we understand, as deeply as we can, the practices of literature? Answers to this form the basis of literary theory. The second: how do we make the most of literary works, for us as readers, and for them as works? Answers to this inform what we do as literary readers and critics. I would like to suggest how evolution and cognition can help us offer richer answers to both questions. Let us consider them both by way of a literary example known to all, Hamlet.

To expand on the first question, how can we understand the practices of literature? This includes sub-questions like: How does literature relate to other arts? How does it relate to cognate activities, from pretend play and oral storytelling to film and advertising, and to different cultural levels, from low (or mass, or popular) to high (or elite), if these distinctions remain valid? How does literature relate to life, to human nature, to human thought and feeling? To answer these questions we surely need to consider factors common across time and place as well as factors unique to specific times and places. We readily learn the language(s) of our childhood milieu but we can learn other languages later in life only with focused effort. But while we also pick up stories easily in childhood we need not learn elaborate sets of storytelling conventions when we switch to other modes like Japanese bunraku, Balinese shadow puppetry or African oral epic. David Bordwell even reports how much his American film students, none of whom knew Chinese, and only a few of whom knew Asian martial arts film conventions, could understand of an undubbed, unsubtitled Hong Kong kung fu film he showed them (Bordwell).

More generally, anthropology and psychology have realized over the last twenty years that the emphasis only on cultural difference a generation ago ignores common human nature (Brown; Buss). Individuals are a product of their particular roll of the human genomic dice and local environmental conditions. Mathematically, setting common human nature as a blank, as nothing, in the manner of extreme social constructivism, can only yield a quite meaningless individual product of zero.

To expand on the second question, how do we make the most of literary works? How do we understand works better, if some ways are better than others? How do we learn and teach how to improve understanding of works we read? How do we read with the finest and the widest discriminations, with the widest and deepest sympathies, with the most imaginative vividness in response to what’s on the page and with the most imaginative freedom, and how do these different objectives converge or conflict? These important questions I raise but will not have space to answer here in any detail.


In evolutionary approaches to the arts and to literature, the questions that have provoked most discussion have been: Why do we engage in art at all? Why is it such a widespread behavior, across cultures and life stages? Why do we tell fictions, and engage with them so obsessively? Why does a species that derives so many of its advantages from mastering information have a compulsion to spend time engaged in fiction, in stories both tellers and listeners know to be untrue?

I have proposed answers to this set of questions in On the Origin of Stories (Boyd 2009). There I suggest that art evolved from play, which is widespread in the animal kingdom. Where other animals rely on their physical advantages to occupy the niches they do—the strength of lions, the speed of gazelles, the arboreal brachiation of higher primates—humans uniquely rely most on their cognitive advantages. Where other animals have evolved to play compulsively so that they can test the physical behaviors that make crucial differences to survival, like flight or fight, humans have also evolved the cognitive play of art. Art can be explained best, in all its forms, as cognitive play with pattern.

The world is understandable because it has regularities at many levels. Information forms patterns because of these regularities in the world. Even in organisms without minds, like plants responding to lengthening or shortening days, nature has evolved ways of tracking patterns of information that happen to be relevant to particular species. Animals, mobile as they are, need to make rich rapid inferences that can guide action. Their nervous systems have evolved to detect patterns in the kinds of information most relevant to their modes of life so that they can predict what may happen next and how to react. All animals seem to prefer patterned information (symmetry, for instance, distinct colors and shapes, clear-pitched sounds) to more chaotic information arrays.

Humans especially crave information. But because we have a much more open-ended curiosity than other animals, we have a special appetite for pattern. We crave the high yield of novel kinds of pattern. So we not only chase and tussle, we not only play physically, but we also play cognitively, with patterns of the kinds of information that matter most to us: sound, sight and, in our ultrasocial species, social information. We play with the rhythm and pitch and shape of sounds, in music and song; with colors and shapes, in drawing and painting and mudpies or sandcastles; and with patterns of social information, in pretend play and story. In the social world, we see patterns of identity (who are they?), personality (what are they like?), society (who are they related to? who do they team up with? how do they rank?); in the world of events, we see patterns of cause and effect; in the world of social events, we see patterns of intention, action and outcome.


Why we engage in the arts in general and the art of fiction in particular are important questions, but equally important questions follow. Once we have an adequate account of why we engage in art and fiction, we need a model of artistic and literary composition and response. I suggest that taking evolution and cognition into account can offer richer models and richer answers to the questions how do works of art and especially literature come into being, and how do and should we respond to them?

First, we need to take into account human nature as appealed to and as represented in art, and as understood not only through literature but also through anthropology, economics, history, politics, psychology and sociology informed by evolution. The idea that there is no such thing as human nature, that to think there might be is mere “essentialism” and therefore a major intellectual mistake, was fashionable in the humanities late in the last century but has been shown to be absurd by work in many fields (Wells). In fact we could not understand one another without a reasonably accurate implicit theory of human nature. Psychologists study “Theory of Mind,” the evolved capacity to understand other humans in terms of desires, intentions and beliefs, and “folk psychology,” a species-wide understanding of human nature, which may then be overlaid by local cultural notions.

Evolution can explain both the ways we have evolved to understand one another and the limitations of our intuitive sense of human nature. It can refresh and often deepen our sense of human nature, and turn up new reasons to wonder at what we take for granted, and show the depth of what we share across times and places.

One central challenge for criticism is how to explain the greatness and the durability of the greatest works of art. Evolution—which of course can also help explain “primitive” and popular art (see, e.g., Boyd 2010)—helps such explanations by showing what appeals to and draws deeply on human nature beyond immediate circumstances and local conceptions and conventions, while often also reflecting the fascination of the local and the individual. The Japanese Shakespearean Tadashi Suzuki comments that “If the English who think Shakespeare is part of their unique heritage were right, he would be of no interest.”[i] Since its composition Hamlet has been the most successful of literary works partly because it offers a richer sense of human nature than any work of comparable size. While it can help explain why we think the greatest works the greatest, an evolutionary and cognitive perspective on literature can also help answer the question: What connects the highest works of art with the earliest or lowest and with principles of cognition that emerged to deal with life rather than art?

Thus far I agree with the pioneer of literary evolutionism, Joseph Carroll. Over the past fifteen years (1995; 2004) Carroll has argued for a common human nature and against postmodern stress only on cultural difference and on ourselves as entirely culturally constructed. Over the last decade he has especially sought to build a model of human nature. That project seems to me less close to completion than he hopes, and more likely to remain subject to substantial revision.

But for literary theory and literary practice we should also ask, what else do we need, apart from a detailed understanding of human nature, for a comprehensive and a naturalistic model of composition and reception? We can move toward this with the help of other principles borrowed both from evolutionary biology in general and from an evolutionary account of art and of fiction. Some of these principles may apply in other modes of explanation than the evolutionary; some have been abjured or minimized in the heyday of capital-T theory; all of them cut a good deal deeper, and integrate knowledge a good deal better, when allied with evolution.

We need multilevel explanations, incorporating

1) the universal or pan-human or species-wide level, the level of human nature that we have briefly considered; and

2) the local, in terms of time, place, ecology, culture, society, economy, politics, ideas, and so on. Although evolution considers the species-wide, that never means ignoring local conditions. Evolutionary behavioural ecology stresses how much behavior depends on particular environmental circumstances. Cognitive ethology places considerable stress on the power of social learning to shape individual repertoires. In a literary case, to take the example of Hamlet, we might consider, inter alia, the conditions and conventions of the Elizabethan theatre, and Elizabethan beliefs about ghosts, purgatory, and revenge. This local level will remain essential to an evolutionary approach to literature, but it will not predominate over other levels as it often has over the last forty years; and

3) the individual, or in biological terms the organism, the unique phenotype, with its autonomous nervous system. In the case of literature, the individual author (Shakespeare, in this case) or reader or playgoer: a naturalistic model will attend to all the players in the game.

Again, these levels have all been distinguished by Joseph Carroll (1995). I would add also

4) the particular, the problems that individual authors face in composing this work at this point in their literary career or that individual readers face in reading this work at this stage of their lives for this purpose.

We also need another principle from biology: a problem-solution model. Before life, problems did not exist (Popper). Problems emerge with life, from the initial problem, attaining and maintaining complexity and renewing it through reproduction, to a wide array of derived problems. The problem-solution model applies at every level, allowing biologists to understand the evolution, development, and function of species forms and behaviors, and the behavior of individual organisms trying to cope with their environment in specific situations.

Nervous systems, consciousness and intelligence allow information to be gathered rapidly to recognize new problems and manipulated flexibly to try to reach new solutions. Social learning often offers still better solutions than individual intelligence, since it enables individuals to avoid the cost of solving problems on their own. Evolution has attuned social species to understand others in terms not just of actions and expressions but also in terms of intentions, in terms of the problems they are trying to deal with and the solutions they are trying to achieve. We interpret social events not just in terms of patterns of action but especially in terms of patterns of intention (Tomasello et al.). One way we understand others is through the help of mirror neurons: neurons in our brain’s motor cortex that fire not only, say, when we grasp something, but when we see another grasp something. Mirror neurons fire more intensely at an intention than at an apparently undirected action (at a directed move toward something graspable, say, rather than a casual stretching of the arm in the same direction) (Iacoboni), or to think of this in another way, we can intuit in a flash the problems we think others’ behavior is trying to solve. Experiments show that even infants interpret actions in terms of goals, in terms of the problem that an action solves (Premack and Premack).

We understand authors and literary characters in terms of their intentions, their problems and attempted solutions. Revenge tragedy was a particularly successful—and already socially available—solution for a dramatist of Shakespeare’s time, because it establishes so early and so clearly the hero’s problem, to avenge a murderous wrong, and prefigures a solution which will be both satisfying (revenge achieved) and emotionally intense (it will cost the hero everything).

If we are not naïve spectators, we can also understand represented stories in terms of the author’s intentions (for authorial intentions, see Livingston; Swirski). I will suggest in the case of Hamlet that clarifying Shakespeare’s problems and the available partial solutions can enhance an understanding of his authorial intentions—as I hope to show in much more detail elsewhere.

Another principle we need is cost-benefit analysis. Every process in life, even a Google search or a dream, exacts costs, in time, energy and perhaps resources, and may or may not have benefits. Only by analyzing costs and benefits can biologists understand biological problems, solutions and therefore functions. In the world of academic criticism we do not normally consider the costs and benefits of works of art—indeed, in his review of On the Origin of Stories, Terry Eagleton sneered at my “accounting” mentality (Eagleton). But costs and benefits do shape the artistic process and need to be acknowledged. Art always connects with life here, whatever its relation to life elsewhere. If we want a naturalistic explanation of art, we have to consider the cost in time and effort of creating and responding to it.

All audiences who think the cost in their time or effort of persisting with a story will not reward them sufficiently can opt out or tune out. The immemorial idea of artistic economy amounts to tracking the benefits to audiences against their or the artists’ costs. Classics are works that have persuaded audiences over centuries that they are worth their time and effort, even of reading something in language—and about a world—no longer quite current. Authors will seek to keep their composition costs down and their own benefits up, whether they anticipate these in terms of money or status. Shakespeare lowers invention costs by choosing a pre-existing mode, mixed verse and prose drama; a pre-existing genre, tragedy; a pre-existing subgenre, revenge tragedy, tested by himself (in Titus Andronicus) and by audiences of his time; and even a pre-existing story (already presented in revenge tragedy form) about Hamlet the Dane. Audiences will seek to lower search time (what book, play, or film do I choose next?) and comprehension effort, unless benefits are high, and to raise their individual benefits, to seek to make a given story have the most value for them (Bordwell 2008; Boyd forthcoming).

Another factor repeatedly overlooked in academia, although not in the literary and media marketplace, is attention. Our minds and senses evolved to be continually alert to change, to new threats and opportunities in our immediate environment. But our working memory space is limited: we can hold at most seven information “chunks” at once. Since art dies without audience attention, it has to compete for our mental space against other demands in life and other options in leisure and art. In modern worlds we tend to have the conditions of security and sufficiency essential for play and for art: we need not monitor our surroundings as warily as our forebears. But as civilization has entrenched itself it has also proliferated competition for leisure time: now, the glut of choice in print, screen, and audio, but even in Shakespeare’s day the leisure marketplace was crowded with printed books, broadsheets and engravings, theaters, and spectator “sports” like bull-baiting. Academics who study works of art are paid in cash and careers to do so, and in turn pay their students in grades to digest the works they assign. Academic critics therefore tend to underestimate the high skill artists need to engage attention in their works in the face of all the other demands on or appeals to attention, and especially to earn attention across time and place.

Storytellers can choose the kind of attention they wish: immediate or enduring; of the many or the few, like the powerful, the wealthy, or the most discriminating. The greatest storytellers have learned to appeal to a wide range in their time and beyond, and they do not do so without engaging audiences immediate and remote, on first exposure and on repeat encounters (Boyd 2009).

In writing Hamlet Shakespeare reduced composition costs by drawing on a pre-existing story in a pre-existing mode, both of which had already earned much attention, but he also invested additional effort in return for the benefits of uniquely widespread and enduring attention. Minds have been shaped to attend to particulars, and to seek information—not the static but the changing, not the expected but the exceptional. Human minds have especially been shaped to track human agents. In Hamlet Shakespeare focuses intently on one extraordinary individual who attracts attention because of his status (as prince and perhaps rightful heir to the throne), his intelligence (his first single speech, a single line, makes him immediately arresting), and the intensity and complexity of his emotions, his imagination, and his predicament. In humans and other higher primates, the capacity to arouse the attention of others correlates with status, and provides a cue to still others to attend (Chance and Larsen). Everyone in Elsinore attends to Hamlet, obsessively, and therefore, so do we.

To the five principles adduced so far—human nature, multi-level explanation, a problem-solution-model, cost-benefit analysis, and attention—we can add two more. We need to consider pattern, at multiple levels, the patterns into which the mind swiftly organizes data, often unconsciously, from those of the senses to, for instance, those of cause and effect, intention and outcome, character and role, genre and structure; and play, the capacity to decouple from the here and now, from standard operational mode, into the exploratory possibilities of play. But we already have enough principles to consider aspects of Hamlet’s composition and reception a little less remotely. The analysis I offer via evolution will not lead to a drastic new reading, but can at least allow a glimpse of the comprehensiveness both of Hamlet and of an evolutionary perspective on life and literature, and highlight the problems Shakespeare faces at every point in the play in holding and maximizing attention.

I remarked earlier that Hamlet offers a richer sense of human nature than any other story of comparable size. But if you read the play’s sources, nothing in them indicates that they might yield a work of anything remotely like the artistic magnitude of Shakespeare’s play (Bullough). Saxo-Grammaticus in twelfth-century Denmark and Belleforest in sixteenth-century France tell of a prince who plays the part of a fool to outwit his wary uncle, who has killed the hero’s father and usurped the throne; in a second phase of the story, after the prince kills the king and all of his court, he becomes not just a king but almost a superhero. Presumably some of this later phase of the story was cut from the lost ur-Hamlet of the 1590s, so called because we do not know its author or title but only that it preceded Shakespeare’s play and was also presumably a revenge tragedy: we know only that it featured a ghost calling out “Hamlet, revenge,” a line cited derisively just a few years later.[ii]

Shakespeare took what the originals offered, a hero cleverly concealing his wits from others trying to figure out his character—although in the sources Amleth has almost no character, and his cleverness is puerile. He then amplified this into a character whom not only the other characters but Hamlet himself and we in the audience want to understand but cannot pin down. The intensity with which Hamlet seeks to probe his own character becomes an even ampler measure of his intelligence than the brilliance of his hiding his thoughts and feelings from others; and the extent to which he escapes not only the easy explanations of other characters but even his own analysis or ours, becomes a measure of the elusiveness and depth of human nature.

Probably the most active research area in comparative, developmental and evolutionary psychology over the last thirty years has been Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind covers the ways in which creatures develop an understanding of others of their kind—develop, that is, both at the species and the individual level: understanding others first in terms of desires, then intentions, then also, in humans, from about the age of four, of beliefs (Perner; Saxe and Baron-Cohen). In the 1980s Theory of Mind research tended to stress what was then called the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis (Byrne and Whiten). This proposed that intelligence had arisen especially out of the pressure to understand others, and above all to try to compete with, to outwit, deceive and manipulate others. Competition certainly remains a sharpener of intelligence, and Hamlet and Claudius in particular hone their wits in the back-and-forth of probe and concealment.

The struggle of one mind to read another that wants not to be read has an inherent fascination. We know these struggles from both sides, and the experience may make us more aware than anything else of the thin knife-edge between cooperation and competition, between shared understanding and our strategic hoarding of information to ourselves. No wonder the struggle of mind-reader against would-be mind-reader repeatedly provides so much of the shape and force of revenge tragedy.

The key test for a full Theory of Mind is that we can understand False Belief: that we can understand, in other words, that others can entertain false notions about what we know to be the case if, say, they have missed out on information we know to be relevant. In literature one of the major manifestations of our capacity for false belief has been the perennial fascination of dramatic irony.

All the mortals in Hamlet except the prince and Claudius think that King Hamlet died of natural causes. Everyone but these two has a false belief about Claudius, and Claudius himself has the false belief that Hamlet cannot know the truth of the murder. Claudius nevertheless knows that something troubles Hamlet deeply, and for his own security, he feels he must find it out. He seeks to discover Hamlet’s desires and intentions: he doesn’t believe, in fact, that he needs to know Hamlet’s beliefs, until the play within the play and what follows makes him anxious enough about Hamlet’s beliefs and desires and intentions to send Hamlet to England and death.

Sustained dramatic ironies and sustained tussles between disclosure and concealment shape revenge tragedy—and many other narratives. They already exist in the surviving stories of Hamlet, and presumably, and with the addition of a ghost (as in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, its likely model or mimic), in the ur-Hamlet. But Shakespeare takes the possibilities of the genre and the sources much further. He avails himself of these available solutions then uses them to pose himself new problems. He turns the story from one in which the fratricidal usurper and everyone around him want to probe Hamlet’s mind, to one in which Hamlet himself also tries to explore his inner recesses. The partial success and partial failure of Hamlet’s efforts make him uniquely fascinating.

The source Hamlet has no secret, except that he is clever, clever enough to play the fool, but far too shallow to need or want to find his own non-existent depths. A key finding of Theory of Mind research has been that an understanding of others as having minds with desires, intentions and beliefs develops in remarkably close tandem with an understanding of oneself as also driven by these inner engines (Perner). Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a vivid sense of others as individuals, from the soldiers on the watch to the first player and the adolescent actor still young enough to play female roles to the gravedigger and Osric; but he is also the most self-conscious of literary characters who’s not a self-conscious narrator. Deeply reflective by nature, he is puzzled by his new state or states of mind, his depression and mania. Although he has certainly been affected by his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage, he senses something more ineffable troubling him. He wants to understand his turmoil, and his power of expression allows him, and us, to see deeply into him, and yet to see that the light even such a bright mind shines on itself cannot quite fathom his own mystery.

When we have language to focus the beams we turn inwards, we also realize how much better we can see the depths of our own minds than those of others. We may accept in theory that comparable complexity exists in other minds, but we realize we can have no direct knowledge of them—even if we need to understand others in more than outer terms in order to interact closely with them. Hamlet’s thoughtful probing into the uncertainties of his own mind allow us to recognize something of our own depth, our own conflicts and confusions, and to recognize that others in the audience too recognize themselves reflected in Hamlet’s self-reflections.

We also know that when others try to explain our motives and thoughts, as they often need to do, they can do so in far too limited a fashion. While his sources exploit a simple irony in other characters’ failures to understand the prince’s concealed craftiness under his show of folly, only Shakespeare offers a range of explanations either ridiculously wide of the mark (Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, or his anguish at being rebuffed by her) or short of it (his ambition, his grief at his father’s death, his sense of the betrayal of his mother’s love for his father in her overhasty marriage to Claudius). Hamlet exposes both the power of Theory of Mind to probe ourselves, and its frequent limitations when others try to understand our inner amplitude.

As I noted above, we can be said to have a fully human level of Theory of Mind when we understand that others may have false beliefs about what we know to be the case. Until about their fifth year children have a very weak grasp, if any, of false belief, and make what to adults seem like extraordinary mistakes (Perner). This key step in the emergence of intelligence has momentous consequences. Once we clearly grasp false belief we can also realise that we can have false beliefs if we happen to have missed out on key information. We realize we may not know what we need to know. That recognition amplifies human curiosity far beyond that of chimpanzees, the next most curious species, but it also lays the ground of our unique human anxiety. There may be things we feel we need to know about that we know we do not know. We want to understand ultimate causes and consequences. Where do we come from? Where do we go to?

For at least scores of thousands of years, religion has helped calm these existential anxieties. Uncertainty and indecision are biologically unproductive and indeed disastrous without a good deal of social and cultural cushioning in place. Better at least to think we know, and to make a move, than to stay stalled. Because our intelligence developed most as social intelligence, because our imaginations naturally play with agents (Barrett, 2004; Boyd 2009), we have found stopgaps for the holes in our knowledge. Throughout history, our predisposition to think in terms of agency has offered a way out of the uncertainty and anxiety that arise from our grasp of the possibility of false belief. We have coped with our anxiety about not knowing enough by inventing stories involving agents who know what we don’t.

Religion invents these stories of supernatural agents. Even Shakespeare does it: the witches of Macbeth, who know the future, the Jupiter who hovers above the stage in Cymbeline, the fairies at Oberon’s or Prospero’s command. So does the tradition of Elizabethan revenge tragedy, as in the ghost of Don Andrea in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Before detectives and forensic science, before Poe’s M. Dupont and Conan Doyle and modern mystery stories, ghosts could supply the information about murder to fuel the story of punishment, in The Spanish Tragedy and in the lost ur-Hamlet. Shakespeare knew that the ghost in the original Hamlet play quickly came to seem a ridiculously creaky theatrical device. He oils its hinges, he defuses the misgivings by having the scholar Horatio confidently dismiss the possibility that Hamlet’s father ghost could walk the earth—until he too sees the ghost walk.

Shakespeare was writing Hamlet at the start of the decade that historians of science always pick, if they have to choose a decade when modern science began. At the end of the decade, John Donne could write “And new Philosophy calls all in doubt.”[iii] Horatio voices some of that doubt, at the start of the play, and neutralizes any scepticism we in the audience might have about ghosts. Hamlet too enters the play with doubts. He suspects that what Denmark believes about his father’s death may not be true. When his father’s ghost tells him of the murder, he cries: “O my prophetic soul!” (1.5.41). But despite his whole-hearted response to the ghost’s injunctions to revenge, Hamlet the intellectual recognizes the possibility that the ghost has himself inculcated in him a false belief: “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil . . . and perhaps . . . Abuses me to damn me” (2.2.594-99). He still has questions about the murder, and devises the play within the play to put them to rest.

But Hamlet’s thorough awareness of the possibility of false belief, of the limitations of what we know, raises questions far deeper than the ghost and the play within the play, crucial though these revenge tragedy mechanisms are to the plot and brilliantly though they are handled by the playwright. In the source stories, Hamlet pretends to folly. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s existential anxieties in the face of his father’s death drive him into “melancholy,” a depression that can flip into mania. Hamlet is no atheist, no doublet-and-hose Dawkins: he can refer to the Everlasting and His canon, and to Providence, and if he could not he would lose all the sympathy of his Elizabethan audience. But he expresses doubts about life in the face of death from his first soliloquy (“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ’gainst self-slaughter,” 1.2.129-32), through the suicidal broodings of his “To be or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.56ff.), to his macabre musing on death in the face of the gravedigger and Yorick’s skull. Although Hamlet is no twentyfirst-century hero, although he can say “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.215-16) and he can anticipate that for Horatio death will usher him into “felicity” (5.2.352), he has also voiced more eloquently than anyone else in literature the questions that spring from existential anxiety.

Theory of Mind inflects Hamlet everywhere, in its dramatic ironies, in the probing of Hamlet’s mind from without and within and in the probing of others’ minds by Hamlet, and in his mind’s restless probing of what as a mortal he cannot know. Let me stress that this is only one new set of questions evolutionary research has opened up that we can explore in Hamlet—and even this topic has more to yield.[iv]

In the last two decades the emphasis in Theory of Mind research has increasingly shifted from the very competitive mode of behavior normal in chimpanzees to the much more cooperative behavior typical of humans, and to the realization that cooperation places still more demands on social intelligence than does competition (Whiten and Byrne; de Waal and Tyack). Competition in a war of wits requires above all the mere concealment of one’s own thoughts while one tries to find out those of others, but cooperation requires a much fuller, more precise and more continually updated communication of beliefs and attitudes and plans. Without cooperation, it has become clear, language could not have evolved to ramp up intelligence and to offer a much finer-grained understanding of others’ thoughts and a finer tool for probing one’s own (Tomasello 2008).

Hamlet’s gift of language makes his lines the most memorable in literature, even if Shakespeare has given other facets of his own eloquence to many other characters from Falstaff and Lear to Prospero. But look how subtly the playwright shows the relation between competition and cooperation in Theory of Mind. When Hamlet sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after toying with Polonius, he greets them as they are, as long-absent friends: “My excellent good friends. . . . Good lads” (2.2.224-25). But their attempt to sound his mind, and especially to have him explain his agitation in terms of frustrated ambition, allows him to intuit their motives and their master’s. He asks them directly, were they not sent for. When Guildenstern has to admit, “My lord, we were sent for,” Hamlet explains why. Later, when they have been ready to help transport him to his death, he has no compunction about sending them to their deaths, but here, when his suspicions are fresh and mild, he is ready to proffer some help to these friends of his childhood even if they have chosen to spy on him. “I will tell you why;” he says—why they were sent for—“so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.” He then confides to them in the richest terms the depth of his melancholy: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth. . . and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory . . . ” (.2.292-99).

He helps his old friends, by not forcing them to break a confidence, and by disclosing the depth of his own troubles. Yet here he also confides some of his innermost feelings in a way that simultaneously thwarts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by also concealing what they and the king suspect (his thwarted ambition), and what they cannot even imagine (his knowledge of Claudius as murderer), and he thwarts and confuses them further, even as he cooperates, by divulging to them so rationally his recognition of his irrationality. He sees their position, and partly helps them out, but in a way that also stalls them, even as he also expresses real truths about his mental state as profound as any he has uttered only to himself. He knows himself, and he discloses himself, and he also conceals himself from people who cannot help revealing themselves to him.

He knows himself deeply, but even he does not know himself fully. He has been teasingly hostile with Polonius, and playful with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, until he infers why they have called on him, and he declares to them, quite truthfully, his loss of interest in everything—but then the players arrive, and he greets them individually and with excitement and enthusiasm. Even after he has disclosed himself frankly, he still surprises himself and us only a few minutes later. And he leaves us with still more unresolved questions about his nature and this “melancholy” or madness that is both an aberration from his usual self—once “Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state” (3.1.154)—and an expression of still deeper parts of his self. “I have of late,” he says, “but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth”: He discloses himself generously, even as he is also starting to feel contempt for those who want to probe him intrusively; he’s admitting the truth about his melancholy, even if he’s also concealing much that’s on his mind; and he’s also admitting the truth about his not knowing, despite reflecting on himself so much, what has led him into depression.

Shakespeare adapts a story form that in some ways appeals to quite unsophisticated aspects of human behavior, like our desire for revenge or punishment, a form that offers a ready-made solution to the problem of catching audience attention. But he earns enduring and repeat attention by suggesting more about human nature in Hamlet than perhaps any other writer has done. He shows much within Hamlet, and shows how much other characters fall short of what Hamlet sees and yet does not quite fully see in himself. But although Shakespeare has an extraordinary intuitive understanding of human nature and human self-reflection, we can explore his intuitions best through other means of exploring human nature that do not depend only on intuitions, however well human intuitions about human nature may have been calibrated by nature and by pre-scientific culture.


I have proposed seven answers to the question, what would an evolutionary analysis of literature focus on in ways different from current modes: human nature, understood in the light of evolution; multi-level explanation; a problem-solution-model; cost-benefit analysis; attention; pattern; and play. I have considered the first five of these, and want to stress that there are many other questions evolution could help us raise in Hamlet; but for the moment, let me just focus very briefly, as a curt promissory note, on pattern and on play.

Hamlet’s first speech—a single line, like his next speech, from this most voluble of dramatic characters—is this: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (1.2.65). This has the kind of concentration of pattern Shakespeare usually allows himself only in his sonnets: the commonplace more than/less then comparison compounded by the less frequent but far from uncommon little/less and suddenly explosively expanded by the echo and contrast in sound and sense in kin and kind. When we read the way Shakespeare makes words spring into life in the sonnets, with their taut patterns and tight sense, we think: “What an interesting mind”—as we do here, from Hamlet’s first line, because of the patterns he controls so well. By this point in the play we also think, “What an interesting character,” because of other patterns Shakespeare has set up: patterns of expectation about Hamlet raised by the title, the first scene, and the long delay on stage before he speaks in the second scene—where he alone stands in black, despite the talk of mourning, and remains aloof from the ceremonious discourse, and replies to the king’s address not with fulsome phrases but with this curt sneer. Shakespeare piles on patterns of structure, staging, costume, situation, speech levels, emotional tone and phrasing that any alert production and any alert audience can realize at once. But there are many other patterns that Shakespeare incorporated into Hamlet that weren’t explicitly noted or widely attended to until, for instance, in the 1930s repeated image patterns became a subject for critical investigation, and the pattern of poison imagery suddenly became “obvious” (Spurgeon; Clemen); or until the end of the 1950s, when Harry Levin (1959) noted that the play opens with a question, swarms with questions, and has its most famous line explicitly a question (“To be or not to be, that is the question”). There have been other patterns noted since, and I think there are still other important patterns that remain to be discussed.

It certainly does not take an evolutionary perspective for readers to notice patterns. But it does require an evolutionary and cognitive perspective to see information in terms of patterns, and to see minds as evolved for and predisposed to pattern recognition, and to see human minds as evolved for the pursuit of open-ended patterns. It also requires an evolutionary analysis to explain the arts in terms of minds’ appetites for pattern and the human appetite for open-ended pattern, and to explain fully the overlay of pattern at multiple levels in artistic works, and the different degrees of natural and cultural salience of particular kinds of patterns, and artists’ natural and acquired skills at incorporating patterns that can have effects on audiences with different degrees of conscious or unconscious, immediate or delayed recognition.

The final general answer I’d like to offer to the question what can evolution highlight in literature is play. Hamlet plays with words, in his first speech, “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” and in his next, “Not so my lord, I am too much in the sun,” and in his next, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.65-76). He plays with an antic disposition; he plays with Polonius, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with the players, with the text of the play, with Ophelia, with the performance of the play, with Polonius’s dead body, with the gravedigger, and with Osric. And we learn that as a child he played with Yorick, “a fellow,” in Hamlet’s telling words, “of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (5.1.178-79). Hamlet is the first tragic hero to be playful from first almost to last; and he strikes us as having the most expansive imagination of literary characters. That surely is no chance conjunction. Nor is it chance that Shakespeare’s great tragedies all have elements of play, and of play’s ability, like Hamlet’s, or his maker’s, or art’s in general, to turn reality around within the space of a different kind of possibility.

I have proposed seven different lines that evolution and cognition could allow us to follow further in literary theory and criticism. I would have liked to focus especially on the problem-solution model, and on Shakespeare’s successive problems and solutions as he transformed his sources into his play, but I ended up spending most time on one topic, Theory of Mind, along the single investigative line of human nature. Theory of Mind allows us to reach fresh answers to questions about human nature in life and in literature, including Hamlet, but it doesn’t foreclose the deep questions that Hamlet the character and Hamlet the play still ask. Nor does it preclude new questions and new answers about human nature and the human activity of literature possible through seeing ourselves on the macro-scale of evolution and the micro-scale of cognition.

Works Cited

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Bordwell, David. 2008. Poetics of Cinema. New York: Routledge.

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_____. 2006. “Fiction and Theory of Mind.” Philosophy and Literature 30:2, 571-581.

______. 2009. On the Origin of Stories: Literature, Evolution, and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

______. 2010. “On the Origin of Comics: New York Double-Take.” The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture. 1, 97-111.

______. forthcoming. “Evolution and Literary Response.” In Dirk Vanderbeke and Carston Gansel, eds., Telling Stories. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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Byrne, Richard W., and Andrew Whiten, eds. 1988. Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes and Humans. Oxford: Clarendon.

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______. 2004. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature. New York: Routledge.

Chance, Michael, and Ray Larsen. 1976. The Social Structure of Attention. London: Wiley.

Clemen, Wolfgang. [1936]/1977. The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. 2nd. ed. London: Methuen.

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Levin, Harry. 1959. The Question of Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Livingston, Paisley. Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005.

Mellmann, Katja. 2010. “The Multifunctionality of Idle Afternoons: Art and Fiction in Boyd’s Vision of Evolution.” Journal of Literary Theory.

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Saxe, Rebecca, and Simon Baron-Cohen. 2007. Theory of Mind. Special issue of Social Neuroscience. 2006. Hove: Psychology Press.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982.

Spurgeon, Caroline. 1936. Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What It Tells Us. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swirski, Peter. 2010. Literature, Analytically Speaking: Explorations in the Theory of Interpretation, Analytic Aesthetics, and Evolution. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28 (2005): 675–735.

Wells, Robin Headlam. 2005. Shakespeare’s Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whiten, Andrew, and Richard W. Byrne, eds. 1997. Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

[i] As reported by the then Japan-based Graham Bradshaw (private communication).

[ii] By Thomas Lodge, in Wit’s Misery (1596).

[iii]The First Anniversary: An Anatomy of the World” (1611).

[iv] I discussed Theory of Mind as central to literature in Boyd 2001. Zunshine 2006, in her book on literature and Theory of Mind, has read too little in the science and construes its relevance to fiction far too narrowly (see Boyd 2006).

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