Doubt thou, the stars ...

by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Doubt thou, the Starres are fire,
Doubt, that the Sunne doth moue:
Doubt Truth to be a Lier,
But neuer Doubt, I loue.

from Hamlet Act 2 scene 2, as it appears in the 1623 First Folio. In modern form:

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

(Arden Shakespeare, 1982)

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For years I remembered this poem wrongly, and thought it began Doubt that the stars are fire, rather than Doubt thou. The conviction was so strong that when I saw it printed as Doubt thou I suspected a misprint, and had to check it in a more scholarly edition. The answer was quite clear. Both the second quarto and first folio versions, which differ in so many respects, give Doubt thou, and no editor of Shakespeare, as far as I can make out, has ever suggested that it should be anything else.

I find that I am far from being the only one to make this error. An internet search with Google at the time of writing this (August 2003) reveals that the phrase

    "Doubt that the stars are fire"
has 2740 hits, while
    "Doubt thou the stars are fire"
has 832 hits. In other words it is quoted incorrectly more than three times as often as it is quoted correctly. I wonder why this is? Could it be that unconsciously we are all trying to make this poem simpler than it really is? Could it be that there are complexities here that we prefer to shy away from?

Certainly Doubt thou sounds better, with the assonance of doubt and thou, and the avoidance of the easy repetition of that across the two lines, but it leads to an ambiguity about the mood of the verb. Is the first doubt imperative, like the other three, or is it interrogative (do you doubt ...) or indicative (I know that you doubt ...)? The first of many problems.

There is a clear difficulty in reading the third line. We might suppose doubt has the same sense throughout, and we should interpret the line as meaning ‘doubt truth itself, so you may suppose truth to be a liar’, but more plausibly (as the Arden edition states), doubt means suspect here. This is how the word is used in the Midlands dialect of The Mill on the Floss. For example,

I could live on a basin o’ porridge and a crust o’ bread and cheese. But I doubt high living and high learning ’ull make it harder for you young man. (Book 3 chapter 3)
You don’t know me again, I doubt, but I’d like to talk to you by yourself a bit please. (Book 3 chapter 6)
Perhaps this was a characteristic usage for that part of the world. (George Eliot and Shakespeare both came from Warwickshire.)

Now if you doubt something, you think it may be false; while if you suspect something you think it may be true, so if doubt can mean suspect then it can mean its own opposite. I am sure I once heard a name for a word that can mean its own opposite, but I cannot recall it now. Cleave, is such a word. It can mean both stick to and split apart.

Truth, in line three, is a personification, and as in all poetry the personification has the characteristics of the attribute it personifies. So Time devours (like a cormorant), Laughter holds both his sides, and Ambition mocks the useful toil of the poor, just as, in Greek mythology, Apollo, god of poets, is himself a poet who sings on the lyre, and Hermes, god of thieves, does his own bit of thieving. (And in poetry a personification is rather like a minor deity, whose temple and worship vanish at the end of the line where it is encountered.) But all this is quite illogical, and Russell, somewhere, points out that a serious error of logic that runs through Plato is to suppose that universals have as attributes the predicates that are used to define them — to suppose that Goodness is good, Wickedness wicked, Beauty beautiful and so on. So we can make of the third line what we please, but it seems to be an invitation to doubt everything, except of course the I love of the last line.

But could the doubt of the last line also mean suspect? If so the poem, like the word doubt, can mean its own opposite. And this is especially true if we look at the first two lines again. The poem seems to be saying, ‘you may doubt these two certainties; you may doubt everything; but never doubt my love’. Its conviction is reduced if the certainties seem less certain. But what are the stars made of, and does the sun move?

Obviously the sun moves through the sky during the day, but does it really move? It is interesting to ignore the authority of astronomers, and ask ordinary people this question. I have tried this experiment. They will say that the planets move round the sun, so the sun is not really moving, but it might be moving through space. Then they might mention the expanding universe. If the universe is expanding, the sun must be moving away from something else. An astronomer would reject this last argument (because linear motion is relative and the expanding universe has no centre), but come to the conclusion of movement with different evidence: the sun rotates on its own axis, it is perturbed by gravitational attraction of the planets, it revolves as part of the galaxy to which it belongs. In Shakespeare’s own time of course the movement of the sun was of great interest, as Copernicans did battle with Ptolemaicists. (Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year.) A contemporary of Shakespeare, watching Hamlet, could well have doubted the movement of the sun. But of course the poem lies within the play, and the play is set in an earlier time. Long enough before, presumably, for no such doubts to have arisen. Shakespeare seems to be using dramatic irony, where the audience sees a meaning not available to the characters on stage.

Whether the stars are fire seems a curiously prophetic question in view of the later developments in astronomy. It was thought well into the nineteenth century that the heat from the sun came from a process of combustion. This led to a very short life-expectancy for the sun, which was contradicted by the growing geological evidence for the great antiquity of the earth. It was only with the discovery of nuclear energy, and the realisation that sun and stars are nuclear furnaces that last for hundreds of millions of years, that this discrepancy was resolved. The sun is not really a fire, even if it seems to burn. The stars, in any case, were not thought to be objects that might be like the sun until the late 17th century, at the earliest (the idea was current in the early 18th century). They seem to burn, because they twinkle, but that is an atmospheric effect. Besides, Shakespeare’s stars were more general than ours, and they could include almost any type of heavenly body, while his fire is one of the four elements, which were conceived, not as types of matter, but qualities which different types of matter might adopt. Earth was the element of the ground beneath us, water of the seas covering the earth, air of the region in which we live, and fire of the heavens above. So to doubt that the stars were fire is to doubt mediaeval physics. Again, to be expected in Shakespeare’s day.

In this short four line lyric, we might doubt that the poet loves. But the poem itself carries great conviction, and this I think is intentional. In the play, Hamlet, we do not doubt the sincerity of Hamlet’s addresses to Ophelia, if only because there would have been no advantage whatever to him in pretending to a love he did not feel. But the doubt we find in the poem prepares us for Hamlet’s later rejection of Ophelia, as well of reinforcing the sense of doubt that runs through Hamlet’s character, and through the play as a whole. More generally, we see in the poem a contrast between the conviction of the lover, and the doubts of others about the conviction the lover feels.

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