Elisha SidhuMrs. DrewEnglish 11 Honors8 January 2017Application of Skepticism in Elizabethan CrisesAristotelian philosophy establishes probability and subjectivity as a basis of their principals, and René Descartes’ book Meditations on First Philosophy and William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet challenge them by doubting their foundations. Descartes and Hamlet face their own crises where they discard probability and subjectivity to fully investigate the nature of their situations. Once they reach a new understanding of their crises, they each come up with a rational solution.
Similarities between these texts suggest rejecting medieval ways of thinking and inventing the modern self are viable possibilities in a world with religious constraints. Descartes and Hamlet both employ skepticism, investigation, and rationalism, allowing for them to be successful in solving their crises.Descartes and Hamlet both experience crises where they both doubt the nature of their situations. Descartes disagrees with the scholarly community’s beliefs about the idea that humans have the capability to comprehend indisputable truths created by God. Aristotelian philosophers believe probability is sufficient to qualify for philosophical fact.
Descartes, in his synopsis, “explains the sense in which it is true that the certainty even of geometrical demonstrations depends on the knowledge of God” (11). Skepticism exists in the nature of his method as he searches for indisputable truths. He begins with doubting God’s nature, going strictly against it’s accepted benevolent connotation.
Descartes suspects God is “some malicious demon of the utmost power … that has employed all his energies in order to deceive me” (15). Crossing the aforementioned forbidden theological boundary allows Descartes to discover that deception lies in both accepted and rejected perspectives. Descartes’ discovery applies to Hamlet’s life within his internal struggle of understanding the truth about his father’s death, ultimately leading him to lose trust in the people around him. Hamlet grieves his father’s death, thinking he died in battle fighting Fortinbras of Norway.
When the ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him, he becomes doubtful of the ghost’s credibility. After Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, he suspects it may be the devil, an idea Descartes entertains, that “assumes a pleasing shape; … and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, … / Abuses me to damn me” (2.
2.628-632). Also, out of doubt, Hamlet questions Gertrude alongside Claudius because they are one in the same: he says “My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, / Man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother.” (4.3.60-61).
Hamlet’s suspicions leave him to trust nobody above him in his kingdom. A lack of trust leads both Descartes, with the Aristotelian philosophical community, and Hamlet, with his royal community, to delve into their darkest fears when they doubt the nature of their crises, and it sets them up to thoroughly further investigate them.The doubt Hamlet and Descartes use lead them to scrutinize every detail when they investigate the nature of their crises with their own perspective.
Descartes gathers knowledge to prove the possibility of absolute certainty by doubting everything and questioning the essence of God and his existence. Descartes now weighs all possible scenarios and concludes this is something he cannot determine without indisputable truths to support it: “How do I know that he has not brought it about that all things perceived through the senses … appear to me to exist just exactly as they do now?” (14). Descartes then comments on the possibility of established indisputable truths having a deceptive nature: “How do I know that God has not brought about that I too go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square…?” (14). By investigating the nature of indisputable truths, he understands their credibility lies with the constraints of the human mind, and none of them are necessarily God’s truths. He can rationalize his thoughts to prove humans are capable of understanding truths created by God.
Hamlet gathers knowledge to find out if Claudius did kill his father by setting up the play to see Claudius’s reaction. Hamlet says “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Shakespeare, 2.2.633-634). The significance of his intent to catch Claudius’s conscience is that it adds a religious degree to Hamlet’s investigation. In Elizabethan Denmark, conscience implies a voice for contrition rather than only outer guilt.
shown through Hamlet’s reaction to the Player-Queen saying “None wed the second but who killed the first” when he says “That’s wormwood!” in the mousetrap scene (3.2.168-169). The theological connotation of wormwood refers to “salutary contrition and confession,” a concept Hamlet yearns for from Gertrude. (Hassell, 151). Hamlet would only be able to know the truth if Claudius’ reaction was deeper than a sorrowful look- it would have to cause pain from within and suggests why he waits to kill Claudius right after the Mousetrap scene until he finds more evidence suggesting his uncle’s wrongdoing.
Furthermore, Hamlet’s skepticism delays him assassinating Claudius, as he was the King of Denmark, and it results in Polonius and Gertrude dying. Polonius’s death was a result of Hamlet’s skepticism towards Gertrude because he saw her in the same light he saw Claudius. He saw it as a way to hurt Gertrude without permeating the boundaries to the ghost’s protestation to “Leave her to heaven ” (Shakespeare, 1.5.
93). However, she dies because Hamlet hesitates enough to allow Laertes and Claudius to create a backup plan to kill him with the poisoned drink.Descartes and Hamlet use their knowledge attained through doubt and investigation to solve their crises by drawing their own conclusions with a rationalistic approach. Descartes arrives at the conclusion that because he can think about the nature of God and his existence, his thoughts are real, proving he exists. Descartes says: “Cogito ergo sum– I am, I exist” (17). This revelation allows for Descartes to understand the true meaning of his existence, and it is the one indisputable truth he can hold onto in order to challenge Aristotelian philosophy. Hamlet concludes revenge is most valuable where it will cause Claudius the most pain, and he decides this after he hears him confess to his sin. Hamlet says “And am I then revenged / To take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? / No” (Shakespeare, 3.
3.89-92). He understands the nature of his situation as a religious matter where God’s punishment brings his father the most justice. The use of doubt, investigation, and rationalism are what lead Hamlet and Descartes to see their crises come to pass. In the Act 5, Hamlet sees Claudius die and knows he has done well by the dead King Hamlet. Hamlet’s theologically-influenced thoughts do not reap the benefits he sought to achieve because he leaves his kingdom to Fortinbras as he dies.
It does, however, leave Horatio to expose the corruption and consequences of sinning. With time, Descartes’ meditations lead him to successfully challenge the Aristotelian philosophers, and his work becomes the basis of Western philosophy. Their methods serve to inspire people in crises to use modern methods to solve their problems.
Works CitedDescartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Edited by John Cottingham, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Wormwood, Wormwood.” Deutsche Shakespeare—Gesellschaft West: Jahrbuch 1993: 150-62.Shakespeare, William.
Hamlet. Edited by Dr. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 2003.