In his seminal philosophical treatise, Meditations, Renee Descartes asserted that man is comprised of two entities, mind and body, spirit and matter. The chief concept underlying Descartes’ mind body dualism is that the physical/ sensory world is a poor reflection of the true spiritual world. Although Descartes is credited with the first systematic account of this relationship, first in De homine and subsequently in his Meditations, the underlying idea of mind body dualism can be traced back much further. An emerging fifth century Greek philosophy viewed the soul as distinctly separate from its physical counterpart. The soul was deemed the source of moral qualities such as temperance and justice (Lorenz).
Plato, like Descartes, was considered a Dualist in that he believed man was comprised of two uniquely separate entities, the body and the soul. To this day Dualism remains one of the recurring themes in modern philosophy and, although pre-dating Descartes’ Meditations by approximately forty years, is significantly evident within Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Shakespeare, however, takes these proto-philosophical concepts one step further. Shakespeare’s protagonist will experience a “disconnect” between these entities resulting in a stalemate of physical will and moral justice. This mind body disconnect will become the source of Hamlet’s internal conflict as well as his inaction in the play.
Peter Cennamo believes that Shakespeare’s Hamlet undergoes a catharsis throughout the text. He is transformed from a grieving son to an agent of Heaven’s supreme justice, as one who exists and functions above the realm of human morality in order to cleanse Denmark and bring it into a state of purity and perfection. The purity that Hamlet aspires to is gained through his acts of hubris and finally achieved upon his death, at the moment when he sheds the “mortal coil.” Shakespeare draws upon the Hellenistic and Cartesian dualist philosophies, yet also weaves a strong conflict between the mind and body into Hamlet. Hamlet must usurp the physical and fallible part of himself to attain the purity, the perfection which he ultimately seeks. Therefore, Hamlet, who was once incapable of action, transforms throughout the text becoming a self-proclaimed agent of Heaven’s justice.