Arts & Culture

The Cost of Doubt: ‘Hamlet’ and the Role of Doubt in the Destruction of Western Values

TIMEDecember 8, 2021

What was once a giant but is now a dwarf?

The answer awaits in the drama we could least do without, as English-writer Anthony Burgess once referenced “Hamlet.”

Something fell around the year 1600, the year “Hamlet” was written, something so colossal that William Shakespeare saw it fall and knew the origin of its collapse. He limned it in the story of a tragic prince of Denmark, and while the tale was fiction, the tragedy was not.

Shakespeare 1605 Hamlet
The title page of the 1605 printing of “Hamlet,” in which Shakespeare showed the destructive force of radical doubt. (Public Domain)

‘Hamlet’ in a Nutshell

To summarize the famous story, “Hamlet” tells of young prince Hamlet who encounters what seems to be the ghostly shade of his recently departed father, the elder Hamlet. The ghost tells young Hamlet that, contrary to reports of his natural demise, he had in fact been poisoned by his brother, young Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. This resonates with the fact that within two months of the elder Hamlet’s death, Claudius has wedded his widow: young Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.

Scene From Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
Hamlet sees the ghost of his father in the beginning of the play but spends the subsequent acts trying to prove what the ghost says. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Hamlet is outraged and vows vengeance. Then, almost immediately, he dulls the edge of his vow. Rather than confront Claudius with the charge of murder, Hamlet will put on an “antic disposition,” a feigned madness, the better to coax the truth out of the new king and his incestuous queen. Doubt has made its grand entrance and will not exit until blood flows.

The first victim is Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, the buffoonish adviser to the king. At first meeting with Ophelia, Hamlet pronounces, “Doubt that the sun doth move, but doubt not that I love you.” When he knows that Claudius and Polonius are spying on him, he pretends to stop loving Ophelia and pushes her away. This indeed convinces the spying pair that Hamlet is mad, but at enormous cost. A shocked Ophelia begins her descent into actual madness.

Ophelia in Hamlet
The first victim of Hamlet’s doubt is his relationship with Ophelia, which leads to her madness and death. A 1603 engraving of Ophelia from “Hamlet.” (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Hamlet arranges for a play to be performed that mimics the murder of his father. When Claudius reacts violently, Hamlet believes that he has his proof. But when he discovers Claudius alone in prayer, he hesitates, thinking that killing someone at prayer may send the deceased to heaven—and what kind of revenge would that be?

If Hamlet had killed his uncle when he had the chance, he could have prevented disaster for his kingdom. A 1844 sketch by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)

In the very next scene, Hamlet kills someone he thinks to be the king, though the person is hidden behind a tapestry. It turns out to be the hapless Polonius, eavesdropping on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother.

Disaster accelerates. Ophelia drowns herself. Her brother, Laertes, returns from France and plots with Claudius to murder Hamlet with a poisoned foil in a staged duel. Mishap after mishap results in the entire Danish court dead: Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet.

Enter Fortinbras, king of Norway, to claim the Danish throne.

What brought about this enervating doubt that destroyed a kingdom? Just after encountering the ghost, Hamlet says to his friend, Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” (The weakened change to “your” philosophy came after the First Folio.) Tradition has it that Hamlet and Horatio were fellow students at Wittenberg. What “philosophy” might they have encountered?

The Cost of Doubt

Our everyday understanding of the era might want to answer, “the scholasticism of Aquinas,” but it more likely would have been the Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus. All but unknown today, Empiricus was a Greek philosopher of the second century A.D. who drew upon the work of the earlier Greek philosopher Pyyrho, a younger contemporary of Aristotle’s.

Pyyrho had advanced a kind of skepticism open to widely spaced interpretations, of which Empiricus’s was the most extreme. Nothing, wrote Empiricus, could be known to be true. Even such a thing as sound “does not exist,” Empiricus wrote in “Against the Musicians.” Just because vibrations in the air are experienced as what we call “sound” does not demonstrate that “sound” has independent existential status. He was serious. And so were his followers. We can prove nothing; therefore, we know nothing.

Empiricus’s work might have slipped into obscurity save that it was published in Latin translation in the 1500s, precisely at the moment Europe was wrestling with the Reformation. The latter’s rejection of religious truths previously held to be absolute found philosophical support in the notion that truth itself is a lie. The universities were flooded with radical doubt, and by the time of the first production of “Hamlet’” in 1601, it was common.

René Descartes, famed for bringing radical doubt into Western consciousness, was a latecomer to the party. His famous statement “I think, therefore I am” (1637) was a failed attempt to overcome doubt by finding one thing irrefutable. But he was too late. Reason, once the all-embracing grasp of reality, was by now a mere logical gatekeeper, in charge of making sure the terms of a syllogism were properly distributed.

Shakespeare's Hamlet with Yorick's scull
Potent symbolism: In the gravediggers’ scene, Hamlet philosophizes after finding Yorick’s skull. It is his philosophizing doubt that actually leads to death. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

What We Know Is True Does Not Require Proof

The strange thing is this: Empiricus had a good point. Nothing of any importance can be logically proven. But while for Empiricus this meant that nothing can be known, it really means that what we do know does not require proof.

Prior to the collapse of reason, it was understood that logical proof was but one small part of reason, consisting of deduction from premises already known to be true. The premises were not themselves provable. And these premises were the important things: the existence of entities, the persistence of time, the nature of a human, the geometry of space, and so on. It was the role of human investigation to know what these things were.

For individuals, this meant that discerning the true from the false was a matter of attuned judgment. One did not “deduce” the truth; one obtained it through investigation. Once fundamental truths were known, it was possible to use logic to deduce other truths. It was an observable premise, for example, that men and women draw their natures from their biological roles. From this, one may deduce societal paths for men and women. It was clearly true that some objects are beautiful and others ugly, and that this is not mere random “choice.” From this, one could deduce principles that informed the beautiful. It was obvious that tyranny produced starvation and oppression. From this, one might formulate more successful forms of governance.

A Path Leading to Destruction

Today, these premises would be pushed away as “unprovable” (as indeed they are). The idea that men can be women and women men, the notion that no essential difference exists between beauty and ugliness, the belief that tyranny has its place as an enforcer of “equity”—all these premises are treated seriously, and yet all of them are patently false. Can it be so proven? Of course not. Does that legitimize the premises? In current terms, it does, because the claims of identity politics have been substituted for truth. Reason, investigation, logic—all are swept aside, and power put in their place because nothing can be “proven.” It’s hard to fight back when the last 400-plus years of Western thought have heavily favored a demand for proof where none is possible.

Hamlet saw the power of the court rising against him and acted too late to oppose it. Had he been less circumspect and more self-certain, he might have killed Claudius early on, saving many lives and fortifying Denmark against Norway. Could Hamlet prove that his uncle killed his father? No. Did he know that his uncle killed his father? That knowledge was available to him, but because he couldn’t prove it, he refused to believe it. Because of his refusal, an entire regime was lost.

We need not prove that the Western values of liberty, individual sovereignty and responsibility, observance of the laws of nature, and the traditions handed down over millennia are true. They are true without us. To doubt them is arrogance, and to indulge their opposition as having parity because we can’t “prove” our case is to tip a foil with poison and turn it against ourselves.

Let’s not be like Hamlet. Instead, we should emulate Fortinbras. When Hamlet first sees Fortinbras leading an army, he knows he is witnessing greatness and delivers these words in his final soliloquy:

“Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.”

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He's the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).