The sceptic’s surrender

Believing partly

Authored by: Anita Gilman Sherman

The Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138936126
eBook ISBN: 9781315677019
Adobe ISBN:


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Shakespeare’s engagements with scepticism have been extensively glossed, especially his explorations of the effects of sceptical doubt on human behavior. Many Shakespearean characters desire complete knowledge and struggle with their frustration over their limited knowledge of circumstances, situations and people. Indeed, the limitations of rationality and the subsequent propensity for self-deception are hallmarks of Shakespearean characters. Yet, while Shakespeare’s charting of forms of partial knowledge is widely recognized, his interest in forms of partial belief has been neglected. This essay argues that Shakespeare’s fascination with degrees of belief speaks to his concern with recoveries from scepticism. The essay adopts the analysis of belief put forward by the twentieth-century English philosopher, H. H. Price, who studied how gradations of belief are expressed in ordinary language. Following Price’s useful account of the emotional implications of belief statements, this essay looks at expressions of partial belief in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Sonnet 138, and Henry IV, Part 2. It discusses partial belief in supernatural phenomena, relating this to wonder as a cognitive attitude, and contrasts this with partial belief in lovers and friends, relating this to issues of intimacy and trust. As in problems of knowledge, so in problems of belief questions of evidence and interpretation arise, often eliciting moments of suspended judgement. These transitory states, poised precariously between assent and resistance, invite examination. This essay thus aims to examine disregarded aspects of Shakespeare’s life-long attraction to conditions of uncertainty, showing how experiences of intermediate belief constitute the ground for action. Because partial belief is the converse of sceptical doubt, this overview of its manifestations supplements studies of Shakespeare’s scepticism.

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