Doubt truth to be a liar


Suppose we were to put a lawyer on retainer; and in the process of agreeing to a verbal contract with this lawyer, she were to say to us, “everything I do will be in your best legal interest; unfortunately, exactly for this reason, I may find it occasionally necessary to speak dishonestly to you in the future.” Well? Do we finalize this contract? Can we trust the lawyer will do everything in our interest, as contracted? But even so, do we not now know that any correspondence from her may be false? This is no paradox, but it is certainly a dilemma. Do we trust the lawyer’s expressed intentions? If we do, can we live thenceforth with the uncertainty concerning what she has to say?

In Hamlet, Shakespeare has the melancholy Dane send this rather odd note to the woman he supposedly loves:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

What’s odd about this verse is that the first two lines, in order to be properly comprehended, require a knowledge of the then recent debates in astronomy. We all recognize the reference to the sun’s movement, a remnant from the geocentric model of the universe. But it may be missed that the knowledge assumed in the first line depends on the assumption of the knowledge of the heliocentric model of the universe that displaced the geocentric model. (In the geocentric model the sun was not a star, and so stars needn’t be composed of the same stuff as the sun, and were frequently thought to be ice crystals in the ‘firmament.’ It was only with the coming of heliocentrism that at last it was recognized that the other objects in the sky were also suns, or planets like our earth. And if the stars were suns, they also burned.) So Shakespeare has Hamlet asking Ophelia to doubt both models, which effectively would leave her clueless as to what to justifiably believe – to know – about the heavens.

And his audience would have had good reason to think he was correct to do this. The geocentric model of the universe had actually been falling apart for some time; errors in seasonal predictions, star-charting, and naval navigation dependent on astronomy were accumulating. But although it produced fewer such practical errors (which is not to say none), the heliocentric model of the universe itself had a number of logical problems. For one, if the stars are also suns to other planets, then our own sun cannot be at the center of the universe. If our sun is the center of the universe, then the other stars cannot be suns to other planets. If the stars are not suns, then there’s no reason to assume they are composed of the same stuff as our sun; hence ‘doubt the stars are fire.’

Of course the solution is clear to us now, and forms a foundation of modern cosmology – technically, the universe has no center. So the sun can be a star, and other stars can be suns to other planets, and we’re all one big happy family of stuff. But Shakespeare’s audience wouldn’t know that . As far as they were concerned, the ‘natural philosophers’ of their day, such as astronomers, were busily demonstrating the probability that nothing could be known about earth, sun, stars, or universe.

This may be why Hamlet begins his fateful turn towards passion by reminding Ophelia that she is at liberty to suspect that everything false may yet be true:

Doubt truth to be a liar

– or is it the other way around? The grammar here seems somewhat unclear. Shakespeare may be playing on the classic ‘liar’s paradox, “I always lie,” the truth value of which is indeterminable (if true, it’s false, if false true). The liar’s paradox is in fact resolvable contextually; why is this person saying this, to whom, in what situation?

(‘Where’s that five bucks you promised?’
‘Oh, I always lie.’
‘So, we’re not going to the ball game like you said we would?’
‘There’s always an exception.’
Implication: Please forget that promise I didn’t want to make, but let’s go to the ball game anyway.)

In other words, one has to read it, not grammatically or logically, but rhetorically.

And the rhetorical usage here is clear, now. Obviously, Hamlet wants Ophelia to surrender logical judgments on what could be known. Even his grammar is a convolution making meaning difficult to read.

But Hamlet’s reassurance, expressed presumably ‘from the heart,’ certainly reads as clear, direct, final:

But never doubt I love.

Yet – why not? What assurance can Hamlet give Ophelia here? In the remainder of the letter, he says he is rather poor at verse (“number,” as he calls it, in reference to traditional metrics; but also perhaps as oblique admission that he does not himself fully trust the developments of the mathematically based new sciences) – but his logic is keen, and from that, Ophelia ought to have recognized the need for caution. (The line is clear and final – but it is not unambiguous in its application; one need not doubt Hamlet is capable of love without wondering about the object, the extent, the depth of it. It sounds deep, coming after the sweeping skepticism concerning metaphysics and truth itself, but that’s just set up. Taken by itself, it should lead to questions.)

Instead, we later find this exchange, When Ophelia is sent by her father to ascertain Hamlet’s mental state:

Hamlet: I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.

Obviously, the question, whether Hamlet actually did love Ophelia or not, has been batted about (perhaps to death) by literary critics for more than a hundred years. We will not pursue it. What concerns us here is the condition of truth as Hamlet presents it to Ophelia (and which he draws from the science, teh logic, and the approved grammar and rhetoric of his era). In his letter to Ophelia, he insists that his love is more certain than truth itself. Yet (when he suspects she is being used by her father), he renounces this previous assurance, dismissing Ophelia’s earlier acceptance of it, as the one truth she could be certain of – as no more than deluded belief. Another belief shattered, in an world filled with uncertainties.

Understandably, her confrontation with such mobile manipulation of ‘truth’ and belief contributes to her eventual madness. Hamlet has learned how to live in a world of uncertainties, how to suspend belief when presented with new knowledge claims, tentative and contingent discoveries in science, unstable social conditions. Not completely (or there would not have been any play at all), but enough to learn how to survive, to respond to possible threats and disappointments. Of course that will not protect him from the poisoned sword-point at the end; but no one lives for ever.

Ophelia, on the other, still lives in the house of later medieval scholasticism and early renaissance poetry – where knowledge was certain; love her purpose in life; eternity supposedly guaranteed.

Hamlet, despite his pretensions, remains sane, because he can distinguish between the rhetoric of what is said as separate from the logic that one knows, or even the intuitions that may “supasseth show.” For Ophelia, her trust that it is all one, prepares her to be broken into madness when confronted with the diversity and uncertainty of the world she lives in, and of the personality of the man she has come to love.

Now – as the audience to Shakespeare’s play, where do we find ourselves – 400 years later, in a world still more uncertain, still more complicated, its contingencies ever more tentative. Whose position do we find ourselves in, with respect to this play, in responding to it or learning from it, when we walk away from it into our own living in the world? Are we in Hamlet’s situation? Or Ophelia’s?


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