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An Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy Part 2

The Importance of Doubt


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama - to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics, whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

3. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy, Part 2

4. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty

5. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre


"Que sais-je?" Michel de Montaigne

As discussed in Part I, in Greek tragedy the truth is almost always hidden from the protagonists, and under Aristotle's prescription for the best structure in tragic drama, it ought to be denied to them until there is 'discovery' leading to a reversal of fortune.

The truth belongs to the gods and is revealed to mankind, often enigmatically, by way of an oracle, seer, or when it is too late, by the fateful unfolding of events themselves. In much the same way, the artist is inspired by the muses, and the compositions of the poets can be likened to the gods speaking through them. As Socrates says in Plato's Ion, "the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severely possessed." (Ion, 1997)

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, the truth is revealed to Hamlet himself in the first act, and it is revealed to him in explicit detail. Hamlet says he will clear his mind of everything - knowledge, observation, everything from his past - so that his father's commandment will be the one thing in his mind. He will, therefore, be entirely possessed by what his father has told him: the truth about his murder. The truth, importantly, has not been discovered by human reason but has been provided to Hamlet, supernaturally through his father's ghost - an effective parallel with Greek tragedy. Although in this instance, the truth comes neither from heaven nor hell, but from purgatory, a region unknown to the Greeks.

The consequence to Hamlet of this revelation of the truth is not only indecisiveness and inaction on his part but, intriguingly, a self-imposed denial of the truth. What becomes inevitable is not action but inaction. Even by Act III, he has devised a play that is to catch the conscience of the King, saying:

"Observe my uncle - if his occulted guilt

Do not itself unkennel in one speech

It is a damnéd ghost that we have seen,

And my imaginations are as foul

As Vulcan's stithy" (Shakespeare III.ii.78-82).

Thus, the mind that was supposed to be cleared of everything except the truth as revealed to him by his father, is now crowded with doubts and questions over the identity of the ghost. One can suggest that he cannot deal effectively with the truth. Alternatively, he deals with the truth much as the rest of mankind deals with the truth: sceptically.

Hamlet and His Father's Ghost by William Blake

Outside of faith, mankind does not encounter absolute and incontrovertible truths. The truth is perhaps not as contingent or relative as Hamlet finds it, but nevertheless, all knowledge is questionable and, inevitably, mankind questions all of its knowledge. Interestingly the ghost says that he could talk about the afterlife - which we may take as standing for an unalloyed truth - but that, "this eternal blazon must not be/ to ears of flesh and blood" (Hamlet, I v. 21). Elsewhere, Eliot has said, "human kind/ cannot bear very much reality" (Eliot, 1959, p.14), and in Hamlet, this certainly seems to be the case.

Whereas in Greek tragedy, the conflict is between protagonists, in Hamlet, it is within the central character's mind that the conflict is found. Indeed, there can be no more conflictive a question than the existential "to be, or not to be" (Shakespeare III.i.56). Furthermore, Hamlet has already made one of the most extreme expressions of contingency in human thought imaginable;, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Shakespeare II.ii.252-3). This appears to call into question not only the value of all perception but also all moral judgement. In such a mental state, the mind must struggle to identify a truth it can consistently adhere to.

It is important to note that this 'self-reflexive' battle does not necessarily involve a mind cast in the subjective-individualist post-Cartesian mould, and it is just as possible to consider it as a Renaissance mind struggling with questions of morality and agency.

Nonetheless, what is perhaps most interesting about the structure of Hamlet is that in a sense Hamlet the character could almost be seen as not being entirely a part of the tragic action of the tragedy itself. There is a tragedy in Hamlet that Aristotle would have prohibited: essentially, "an utterly worthless man...falling from prosperity into misery", prohibited because it does not "awaken pity or fear in us" (Aristotle, p48). The fall of Claudius is in many ways typical of a Greek tragedy, since although he is not ignorant of his crime, the play within the play brings home the truth of his actions to himself. It is he himself who engineers his death and the death of his queen, by organising the duel between Laertes and Hamlet in such a treacherous fashion.

Claudius at Prayer by Delacroix

Looked at in this way, Hamlet represents, insofar as the tragic action is concerned, little more than a seer such as Tiresias, who says of the truth: "I knew it well, but I put it from my mind" (Sophocles, Oedipus, 361). Hamlet inflicts the truth on others in a much more effective way than he can accept it himself. Indeed, although it disarms him, he wields the truth rather like a weapon (particularly against his mother), and he is more an agency of inevitable tragedy for others than he is for himself. Toward the end of the play, Hamlet even appears to imply that his inaction does not matter much:

"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will -" (Shakespeare V.ii.10-11)

Hamlet the character, seen superficially, appears insufficiently integrated into the play, and the tragedy almost operates as a subplot running as an undercurrent beneath his inner turmoil. However, as soon as we see Hamlet as a play about confronting reality, it is possible to see Hamlet the character as more than a play on the surface of another play. If the tragic action is subsumed within his internal drama, Hamlet becomes so much Hamlet, and vice versa, that his integration is complete. One can see his irresolute indecision as furthering the plot through a process of festering, almost of fermentation.

It is possible to find in Hamlet the idea that appearance and imitation may be more effective at promoting action than ‘real’ life:

"Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit


what would he do,

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have?" (Shakespeare II.ii.554-565)

The response to Hamlet's question of what he would do might be nothing. The intensity of his reaction might be stultified rather than intensified since the genuine motive is always more complex to respond to than a script: the actor acts because the script is an imposed reality that involves no alternatives, it is inevitable. But in reality, of course, every action is capable of being doubted, and Hamlet is presented as having no 'script'.

The Actor Antony Sher (ALAMY)

T. S. Eliot famously described Hamlet the play as being the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. In his view, Hamlet is unable to understand or objectify his own feelings - of disgust for his mother as Eliot sees it - and this feeling "therefore remains to poison his life and obstruct action" (Eliot, p.101). Eliot defined this as an objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” and which ‘evoke’ that emotion (Eliot, p.100). But perhaps this lack of an objective correlative is effective in another way; if the lack of a solid correlative is exactly what is needed to bring out the moral and decisional (or 'scriptless') impasse that Hamlet thinks himself into. Just as Hamlet has nothing solid to hold on to that might inform his decisions, nor does the audience - the correlative is precisely this indeterminacy and uncertainty.

"The artistic 'inevitability' lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion, and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet." (Eliot p.101).

Yet, if Hamlet is a character without an adequate 'script', he is immediately comprehensible to an audience who also do not possess an adequate script of their lives. Every audience member is also sceptical and indecisive, and they will often vacillate over questions of morality (especially those for whom inaction is a commonplace response to a difficult moral dilemma).

Scepticism in the theatre is, of course, problematic. Coleridge advised a willing suspension of disbelief for the appreciation of poetry, and this advice has been taken to heart as a way of experiencing a theatrical performance. Yet is the naturally sceptical spectator pretending to believe, or does a suspension of disbelief mean that they actually believe, at least in that moment? There is a corresponding relationship here to Hamlet's actor, who although acting, is feigning an emotion, seeming to genuinely feel that emotion, and he possibly feels that emotion more directly than the person whose emotions are troubled or clouded by doubts. Perhaps the spectator, freed from the doubts of everyday life, is able to believe more fully in the 'truth' of the play than in the truths of their everyday life (even if it is a dramatic 'truth' about indeterminacy and uncertainty).

Another corresponding relationship, this time between Hamlet and the audience, is that both are inactive observers. If we accept this willing suspension of disbelief then we accept that the audience has a choice as to whether they are passive or reactive observers. Of course, there are certain social conventions that often restrain the audience from participating; even in tragedy, gasps of horror or cries of alarm (in film screenings this convention is absent, and in comedy participatory laughter is positively encouraged). However, notwithstanding this, they have chosen not to react.

There is an intriguing relationship between the character who, by most norms, is under an obligation to act, but who continually defers doing so, and an audience who are 'obliged' not to react but who are observing the tortuous 'progression' of inaction. For it to work, the audience must find this indecision plausible, and furthermore, they must not find it frustrating. If the audience can find this indecision in themselves and discover a correlative in the play, not for an emotion, but for an inevitable aspect of the human condition, namely doubt and indecision, then it does have a convincing power. Through that inactive, passive contemplation, self-discovery is found - a discovery about how we, the audience, meet the demands of morality and agency.

The play within the play

Just as we felt that ignorance was an essential and necessary element for intellectual evolution, so is doubt. Doubt challenges orthodoxy, or the acceptance of truth as a donné, such as it is given to Hamlet by his father. In many ways, doubt constitutes the excitement of intellectual enquiry, precisely because it is not the reading of a script, but instead engenders discovery. Ignorance is the space into which knowledge may move. But in moving into that space, knowledge entails doubt. This augments that space since doubt calls into question that very knowledge, spurring further ignorance, demanding greater knowledge, in a virtuous, progressive circle.

At the beginning of part I of this article, we asked the question 'why haven't we learned everything?' and, at the end of this part 2, we ask the question 'how would it be if we had learned everything?' Were mankind to learn everything, the result would be stagnation. There would be nothing to doubt and therefore nothing new to learn. Mankind would be doomed, intellectually, to twiddle its thumbs for eternity. Mankind and the whole truth are inimical. We cannot bear it and in another way, we do not want it.


Plato. (1997). Complete Works. (J. M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Eds.). Hackett.

Shakespeare, W. (1967). Hamlet. (J. Dover Wilson Ed.). CUP.

Eliot, T.S. (1944). Four Quartets. Burnt Norton. Faber & Faber.

Aristotle. (1965). On the Art of Poetry. Aristotle Horace Longinus: Classical Literary Criticism. Penguin Classics.

Sophocles. (1982). Oedipus the King. The Three Theban Plays. Penguin Classics.

Eliot, T.S. (1972). Hamlet and his Problems. The Sacred Wood. Routledge.

Image references:

[William Blake Hamlet and his Father's Ghost 1806 British Museum]. (2013).

[Antony Sher as Prospero in the RSC’s The Tempest in Stratford]. (2009). ALAMY

[Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) Hamlet Play Scene] (2004)


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Oliver Nicholson

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