What Price Certainty? Four Great Playwrights on Doubt

[Editor’s note: Only a few places remain in longtime Toronto Pursuits leader Gary Schoepfel’s seminar Benefit of the Doubt. If you’ve never taken part in a discussion led by Gary, you are in for a rare treat. His questions open up new ways for participants to examine their beliefs about life, death, and everything in between.]

Certainty. It’s a rare emotional state. It’s a rare mental state. Oh, we’re certain about our name and (occasionally) the balance in our check book, about our distaste for anchovies, about the inevitability of taxes and death. But a vast portion of what we think we know marinates in a discomfiting mixture of suspicion, blindness, unsureness, desire and bias.


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio


Like Caravaggio’s remarkable painting, The Incredibility of St. Thomas, the Benefit of the Doubt seminar will poke and prod into questions of what we can know by reading, viewing, and discussing four remarkable dramas, both the texts and films. Each, in its own way, explores the role that doubt plays in the struggle to know—to know with some degree of certainty.

Suspicion and questions about fidelity power Shakespeare’s Othello:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspect, yet strongly loves!


The dangers and destruction caused by certainty drive Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:

The law, based upon the Bible, and the Bible, writ by Almighty God, forbid the practice of witchcraft, and describe death as the penalty thereof. But likewise, children, the law and Bible damn all bearers of false witness. Now then. It does not escape me that this deposition may be devised to blind us; it may well be that Mary Warren has been conquered by Satan, who sends her here to distract our sacred purpose. If so, her neck will break for it.

Stoppard’s (comedy?) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gives voice to our existential uncertainties. Who am I? What am I? Where am I?

…what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life, and, for the godly, a haven and a reward. Or look at it another way—we are little men, we don’t know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etcetera—it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we’d be well advised to leave well alone.

David Mamet’s scorching script, Oleanna, elbows us into asking: Is the lens we see through tinted or tainted?

Carol: My charges are not trivial. You see that in the haste, I think, with which they were accepted. A joke you told me, with a sexist tinge. The language you use, a verbal or physical caress, yes, yes, I know, you say that it is meaningless. I understand. I differ from you. To lay a hand on someone’s shoulder.

John: It was devoid of sexual content.

Carol: I say it was not. I SAY IT WAS NOT. Don’t you begin to see…? Don’t you begin to understand? IT’S NOT FOR YOU TO SAY.


The dramatic form, the script, brings an added dimension to our look at the Toronto Pursuits theme: What can we know? Plays are blueprints for dramatic action, for conflict. Actors, directors, and designers face the challenge of finding and bringing to life the “dramatic truth” of a script. In our seminar, we will explore the interpretive possibilities of these four extraordinary dramas.

Mamet, Miller, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Is there any doubt that this is a volatile mix of great writing and superb drama? I invite you to join us in Toronto for a delight-filled week of reading, viewing and discussion. Come with an open mind and a sense of humor and I’m certain a good time will be had by all.

– Gary





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