Crossed Opinions: The Elizabethan Years
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)
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A dozen years before Elizabeth acceded to the English throne, John Heywood’s Dialogue of Proverbs (1546) offered the following couplet as an instance of common-sense scepticism regarding inductions about human character:
Half a century later, in Hamlet, Shakespeare gave Ophelia a strikingly similar speech: ‘Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be’ (4.5.42–3). It is thus evident that English proverbial wisdom in the sixteenth century could readily cast doubt on presumptions about human identity in a mutable world. The very fact that such doubt finds transmission through proverbial expression lends support to the idea that a lay scepticism pre-dated any manifestation of philosophical scepticism in early modern Britain. One is tempted to suggest that such fundamental doubt is ahistorical — that it appears under any circumstances, in any culture. And this may be true. What we see in late Elizabethan England, however, is that common-sense doubt quickly combines with the Socratic Nihil scio, lending proverbial scepticism a philosophic inflection. Thus Marston laces his plays with such remarks as ‘I know I nothing know’ and ‘The more I learnt the more I learnt to doubt’.1
Ye knowe what he hath been (quoth he) but ywis,
Absence saieth playnely, ye knowe not what he is.
KeywordsSixteenth Century Sceptical Theory Philosophical Scepticism Frankfurt Book Merton College
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© William M. Hamlin 2005