views updated May 23 2018




John Patrick Shanley's drama Doubt premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club on November 23, 2004, before moving to Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, in March of the following year. It instantly became the most celebrated play of the season, taking the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; best new play awards from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, the Lucille Lortel Foundation, the Drama League, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Drama Desk; the Obie; and four Tony Awards (best play, best actress in a play, best featured actress in a play, and best director). The play was published by Theatre Communications Group in 2005.

Set at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt concerns an older nun, Sister Aloysius, who does not approve of teachers' offering friendship and compassion over the discipline she feels students need in order to face the harsh world. When she suspects a new priest of sexually abusing a student, she is faced with the prospect of charging him with unproven allegations and possibly destroying his career as well as her own. To help build her case, she asks for help from an idealistic young nun, who finds her faith in compassion challenged, and the mother of the accused boy, who is protective of her son, the first black student ever admitted to St. Nicholas.

Beginning in early 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States was embroiled in a high-profile scandal about priests who had had sexual relations with young students and parishioners, some incidents dating as far back as the time in which Shanley's play is set. Hundreds of victims came forward, and the Church, as of 2005, was facing lawsuits and undergoing reorganization, but the shock of the abuse of trust and the Catholic Church's attempts to cover up these crimes have left a scar on the public conscience. Doubt faces the unthinkable aspects of this situation with knowledge and restraint.


John Patrick Shanley was born in New York City in 1950. His father, who grew up on a farm in Ireland, was a meatpacker and his mother a telephone operator. He attended Catholic schools, but with a very unstable record: he was thrown out of kindergarten at St. Helena's, and he was banned for life from the hot-lunch program at St. Anthony's. After he was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School, a priest who knew him and believed in his intellectual ability arranged for Shanley to attend Thomas More Prep School, a private school in Harrisville, New Hampshire. It was there that he started thinking seriously of a career as a writer. After graduating, he attended New York University, left for a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, and returned to continue his studies under the GI Bill, graduating in 1977 as valedictorian.

Since then, Shanley has had a prolific career writing for the stage and screen. By 2005, he had written twenty-three plays. In 1987, he became internationally famous for his acclaimed script for the movie Moonstruck, for which he won an Academy Award and the Writer's Guild Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe. On that basis, Stephen Spielberg offered Shanley the opportunity to direct a movie from his own original script for Joe versus the Volcano, which came out in 1990. The film met with mixed reviews, and Shanley, as of 2005, had yet to direct another movie. He has adapted novels to screenplays, and several of his plays have been adapted for the movies, but his primary focus has always been theater. Despite his decades as a successful playwright and his immediate success in writing for the screen (Moonstruck was his very first screenplay), Shanley never won any major theatrical awards for his works before Doubt.


Act 1

The first act of Doubt consists of a sermon by Father Flynn. His theme is uncertainty, which he relates to the disorientation felt by most of the country the year before, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He points out how people came together spiritually and concludes that despair does not have to be an experience that isolates people, if they have faith. To make his point, Father Flynn tells a story about a sailor, lost at sea, who uses his memory of the stars to guide his navigation, even when the stars are covered by clouds for more than twenty nights. The sailor's faith in the truth he once knew is likened to the despairing person's faith in God.

Act 2

Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas School, meets in her office with Sister James, who teaches eighth grade. She asks about a boy who has been sent home with a bleeding nose and warns that children sometimes inflict their own injuries as a way to leave school. During the conversation, Sister Aloysius reveals her dislike of teachers who act kind in order to hide their own weakness or laziness.

The talk turns to whether Sister James stays in the room when the "specialty" instructors—those in charge of teaching art, music, physical education, and similar subjects—come in. In particular, Sister Aloysius is interested in whether Sister James leaves the boys alone when Father Flynn teaches religion and physical education. She asks Sister James to be alert, but she cannot find it in herself to be more specific about what she suspects.

Act 3

Act 3 comprises another monologue by Father Flynn, addressing the boys during basketball. He tells them that they will be able to shoot better if they relax and quit thinking about how they might look. On the subject of personal hygiene, he tells an apocryphal story about a boy with whom he grew up, named Timmy Mathisson, who had dirty fingernails that he put in his nose and in his mouth, which resulted in his death from spinal meningitis.

Act 4

Sister Aloysius and Sister James meet in the garden. Sister James explains that the boys in her class are at a lecture, given by Father Flynn, on the subject of being a man. Sister James explains that the new African American boy in her class, Donald Muller, does not have to worry much about bullying from the other students, because Father Flynn has taken on a role as his special protector. Immediately, Sister Aloysius says that she thinks Father Flynn is planning inappropriate behavior with the vulnerable boy. Sister James recalls that Father Flynn took Donald for a private talk to the rectory and that, when he came back, Donald had alcohol on his breath.

Sister Aloysius explains that it would be difficult to have a priest removed, even if there was evidence that he had had sex with a student. Father Flynn would certainly deny any such allegation, and Monsignor Benedict would believe whatever Father Flynn said. The rules of the Church prohibit a nun from taking suspicions to any higher authority. The boy would not talk, intimidated by shame. Sister Aloysius tells Sister James that she is going to confront Father Flynn and will need Sister James there as a witness.

Act 5

Father Flynn arrives at the door of Sister Aloysius's office, but the rules forbid a priest and a nun to be in a room alone. When Sister James arrives, Sister Aloysius serves tea. Father Flynn thinks that the meeting is about the Christmas pageant. Sister Aloysius mentions Donald Muller, saying that she knows that he has given the boy "special attention" and that Donald behaved strangely when he returned to class. Father Flynn, feeling accused, starts to walk out when Sister Aloysius mentions the smell of alcohol on the boy's breath. He explains that Donald had been caught by the caretaker drinking altar wine and that he was trying to spare the boy exposure.

After Father Flynn leaves, Sister Aloysius explains to Sister James that she thinks he was lying. Sister James vigorously defends him, accusing Sister Aloysius of simply disliking him, but Sister Aloysius dismisses her defense as being grounded in youthful naïveté. Sister Aloysius phones the boy's parents and asks them to come to the school for a meeting.

Act 6

Father Flynn gives a sermon about intolerance. He tells the story of a woman who, while gossiping with a friend, sees a hand over her head. She goes to her priest, and he tells her that it is a sign of God's displeasure. He instructs her to go home, take a pillow onto the roof, slash it with a knife, and empty it out. When she returns, the priest tells her to go and gather up all of the feathers that came from the pillow. She explains that she cannot, that they scattered to the winds. The priest in Father Flynn's story explains that gossip, once it is out, cannot be recalled either.

Act 7

Father Flynn meets Sister James while she is praying in the same garden that was the setting of act 4. She has had trouble sleeping, feeling guilty about being a gossip, like the woman in Father Flynn's sermon. Father Flynn speaks comfortingly, telling her that she is free to make up her own mind about him and is not obliged to follow whatever Sister Aloysius thinks. When she asks, he tells her directly that Sister Aloysius's allegations are not true. Father Flynn contrasts his own philosophy, which emphasizes love and concern, with Sister Aloysius's philosophy of strictness and discipline. Before she leaves, Sister James tells him that she does not believe that he is guilty.

Act 8

Sister Aloysius has a conference with Donald's mother. Mrs. Muller explains that she and her husband expected Donald to have trouble at St. Nicholas, being the first black student there, and they were glad that Father Flynn was looking out for him. Mrs. Muller is focused on Donald's staying through the end of the school year, which will give him a chance at being accepted into a good high school. When Sister Aloysius expresses concern about Father Flynn, Mrs. Muller takes a defensive posture: she knows that, in the event of a public inquiry, Donald, not the priest, would be blamed. She decides that it would be better for the boy, even if Father Flynn is using him sexually, to stay at St. Nicholas until graduation.

When she leaves, Father Flynn comes in, furious. He ignores the rule that states that a priest and nun cannot be alone in a room and slams the door behind him, demanding to know why Donald Muller's mother was there. He goes through the evidence of his misbehavior and discredits each charge, until Sister Aloysius says that she has talked to a nun at his last parish. Father Flynn raises objections—that she should have gone through the parish pastor, that there is no evidence in his official record of inappropriate behavior, and so forth—but Sister Aloysius insists that she knows he has taken advantage of boys. When she starts to leave to report him to higher authorities, he stops her and listens to her demands to leave St. Nicholas. When she does leave, he phones the bishop to ask to be reassigned.

Act 9

Sister Aloysius and Sister James meet and talk in the garden. Father Flynn has been moved to another parish, but with a promotion to pastor. Sister Aloysius was unable to convince Monsignor Benedict of Father Flynn's inappropriate behavior, but she is sure of his guilt. She feels guilty herself, because, to get him to leave, she lied about having contacted someone at his previous parish, a bluff that evidently frightened him away.


Sister Aloysius Beauvier

Sister Aloysius is the principal of the St. Nicholas school. She is stern, suspicious, and cynical, making a point of showing the students no weakness and discouraging signs of weakness in the nuns under her. When she is first introduced, her suspicious nature seems excessive: she suspects a boy who went home with a nosebleed of having intentionally inflicted it himself, and she feels that ballpoint pens, as opposed to fountain pens, offer students the easy way out. Her dour attitude makes her unsympathetic, and audiences are left to wonder whether, as Father Flynn and Sister James speculate at different times, she is suspicious of Father Flynn only because she personally dislikes his compassionate demeanor.

Sister Aloysius was not always a nun: she was once married, but her husband died in World War II, nearly twenty years before this play takes place. At a previous assignment, at St. Boniface, she was involved in having a pedophile priest "stopped," but currently, at St. Nicholas, she feels frustrated, certain that the Church hierarchy will not stand behind her should her suspicions about Father Flynn prove to be true.

Throughout the play, Sister Aloysius does not waver in her certainty that Father Flynn has had improper relations with boys. In the last act, however, after the priest's resignation confirms her suspicions, she tells Sister James that she had to lie in order to trap him, referring to lying as a step away from God and the price that one must pay in pursuing wrongdoing. The last line of the play has Sister Aloysius telling Sister James, "I have doubts! I have such doubts!" Her doubts reflect her awareness that persecuting Father Flynn has had bad as well as good effects.

Father Brendan Flynn

Up until the end, Doubt does not make clear whether Father Flynn is a just a concerned man or an actual child molester. Throughout the play, he makes a convincing case that he is being persecuted by Sister Aloysius because she disagrees with his progressive ideas. In their final confrontation, though, when he is faced with the nun's claim that she broke the prescribed order and has spoken to a nun from Father Flynn's previous parish, he gives in and leaves St. Nicholas before she can expose him.

Father Flynn comes from a working-class background, and he is comfortable with the boys of his parish. He teaches religion and physical education. His manner with the boys, shown in act 3, is tough yet caring: he offers advice; criticizes; pokes fun; and, in the end, invites them back to the rectory with him for Kool-Aid and cookies. When he is accused of giving Donald Muller wine as a way to approach him for sexual favors, he explains that he was really protecting Donald from being thrown out of school after he found out the boy had drunk some of the altar wine. Father Flynn tells Sister James that he believes in being open and caring, that he follows the Bible's teachings of love.

In act 1, Father Flynn gives a sermon that includes a story about a man in a boat, lost at sea and with no stars to guide him; Sister Aloysius later implies that this is a sign that he himself has some secret that would prompt a feeling of despair. When he is addressing his basketball class, he tells them a story about a boy with whom he went to school, a boy who did not wash his hands properly and caught spinal meningitis and died. Later, after being confronted by Sister Aloysius and Sister James, he gives a sermon about a woman who learns that gossiping can have uncontrollable and ruinous results. Father Flynn's style is to turn events and situations from his own life, and from the world around him, into parables.

One particularly telling moment comes when, called to a meeting in Sister Aloysius's office, he walks over and sits behind her desk: rather than seeing the kindly priest fighting against a rigid and humorless traditionalist, audiences see him being cocky, proud, and a bit arrogant. He still seems defensive later in the play, when he tells Sister Aloysius that she will not be able to prosecute him, until his fear that she might actually have heard the truth about his history—he has been at three parishes in five years—forces him to ask for reassignment, indicating his guilt.

Sister James

Sister James is an earnest young nun in her twenties, who starts out eager to teach her students and pique their interest in history. She believes the best of her students and approaches their problems with compassion and sympathy. These are qualities that Sister Aloysius warns her against. For instance, Sister Aloysius explains that teachers who try to make their subjects interesting to students are really just performing and being clever. She tells Sister James that students who have to go home with physical problems might have inflicted the problems on themselves, precisely to get out of school. She makes Sister James doubt her basic assumptions about her role as a nun: as Sister James explains to Father Flynn when they are confiding in each other about Sister Aloysius, "She's taken away my joy of teaching. And I loved teaching more than anything." At the end of the play, when it is revealed that Father Flynn has been reassigned, Sister James returns after a visit to her brother, who had previously been identified as being ill.

Donald Muller

Donald Muller, the boy who is presumed to be the victim of sexual abuse, does not appear onstage, but his role is important. He is the first black student at St. Nicholas, putting him immediately in a dangerous position: the nuns accept it as a matter of course that he will be in fights with the other boys. Sister Aloysius views his difficult situation as making him an ideal candidate for the tactics of a sexual predator. This suspicion grows when Sister James tells her that Donald was taken to the rectory by Father Flynn and that he returned behaving strangely and smelling of liquor. Father Flynn explains that he was trying to protect Donald from punishment after the boy stole some of the altar wine and drank it. After the priest says this publicly, Donald is punished by being dismissed as one of the altar boys.

Donald's mother later reveals to Sister Aloysius that Donald was in fights at his previous school and that his father abuses him at home. When told that Donald might be a victim of a sexual predator, she says that she believes that he may have encouraged the relationship and that she and his father think the problems at the old school were a result of his homosexual tendencies.

Mrs. Muller

Mrs. Muller is the mother of Donald Muller, the first black child to attend St. Nicholas. She has been afraid that he would meet with hostility in the predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood and was comforted to know that Father Flynn formed a close bond with the boy. When she is called down to talk to the principal of the school, Mrs. Muller fears that her son's school career might be in trouble: she has been counting on his being a St. Nicholas graduate in order to assure his placement in a good high school. She is aware that he has been expelled from the altar boys for drinking wine, but she thinks of that as a minor infraction that is behind them. She reveals that Donald's father beat him when he found out about the altar wine.

When she finds out that her son may be the victim of a sexual predator, Mrs. Muller does not react with outrage. She is afraid that her boy will be blamed for the crime by a community that is already inclined to be hostile to blacks. When Sister Aloysius tells her that she thinks Father Flynn has given Donald wine as a way to have sex with him, Mrs. Muller points out how, in that episode, it was her son, and not the priest, who was punished. She reveals that her son may already be a homosexual, which would make him a willing participant in Father Flynn's abuse. Overall, she is willing to accept a relationship between the boy and the priest for a few months until Donald graduates, preferring to concentrate on the good influence that Father Flynn offers to a boy who is trying to fit in to a hostile environment and to escape an abusive father.



One of the key elements of Doubt is the issue of certainty and how difficult it is to be certain, even in an environment of faith. The two main characters, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, each hold staunchly to their views of the world and are unwilling to see things as others do: this unwillingness to yield is both a strength and a weakness and leads to the final tragic conclusion. The other two onstage characters, Sister James and Mrs. Muller, are racked with doubt, able to see both sides of their dilemma.

Sister Aloysius is certain that there is sexual abuse going on at St. Nicholas, even before she has any substantial proof of it. She says late in the play that her certainty grew from one small gesture: the way in which one of the students recoiled from Father Flynn's touch. The evidence that she compiles as a result is flimsy and easily explained away. She takes such minor issues as the length of Father Flynn's fingernails and the fact that he lectures the boys on being men to be support of her suspicion. When Father Flynn offers reasonable explanations for his behavior, she persists. He believes that her personal dislike for his teaching style may be strengthening her sense of certainty. She is even willing to threaten trouble for the boy, who presumably is the victim in this case. She shows no sense of uncertainty until the play's last line, when she admits to having doubts.

Father Flynn is just as certain that he himself is a force for good and that, with his emphasis on love and compassion, he is better for the boys than Sister Aloysius is. In the end, his retreat from St. Nicholas seems to be an admission of guilt, but he never verbally acknowledges having done wrong.

Mrs. Muller, on the other hand, is pragmatic enough to admit that allowing a bad relationship may lead to a greater good. She suspects that her son and Father Flynn might be involved in a relationship, but she also knows that exposing their relationship would do much more damage to her son's future prospects than anything the priest could do. She weighs up the factors—the months until graduation, her husband's rage, the benefit of graduating from a good school—and decides that there are no easy answers about right or wrong.

The weight of the question of certainty makes Sister James a very important figure in this play. She starts out feeling that the best way to teach is with compassion, but Sister Aloysius convinces her that strict discipline is more important than compassion. When he needs her support, though, Father Flynn talks with her about how Sister Aloysius's stern, disciplinary approach is a violation of the Bible's focus on love. Sister James is divided between logic and emotion, reason and compassion: her certainty shaken, she is troubled, which is the effect that Doubt strives to evoke in its audience.

Gender Roles in the Church and the World

In general, Sister Aloysius feels frustrated in her attempts to remove Father Flynn because of the Church hierarchy. At one point, though, she recognizes that the structure of the Church is arranged to keep men in power, so that, even as the school's principal, she will be incapable of taking the actions she feels she needs to take to protect her students. In act 4, she recalls to Sister James a time at a previous parish when a sexually predatory priest had to be removed from contact with children. "But I had Monsignor Scully then … who I could rely on. Here, there's no man I can go to, and men run everything."

Outside the Church, society at large experiences a similar division of male and female roles. Mrs. Muller comes to meet with the principal alone because her husband has to work, enforcing the traditions of men being breadwinners and women being focused on child rearing. When their boy, Donald, is in trouble at school, however, his father becomes involved in his life by taking on the role of disciplinarian, which he approaches with a violence that is so extreme that his wife thinks it is a threat to the boy's life.


There are two characters in Doubt who are used to represent vulnerability. The first and most obvious is Donald Muller, the student who is suspected of having been sexually abused. Donald has recently transferred from another school and is the first black student to attend St. Nicholas. When she hears that Father Flynn has established himself as a "protector" to Donald, Sister Aloysius immediately assumes that his motive is to take advantage of him. "He's isolated," she explains to Sister James. "The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for." While the teachers who advocate compassion—Sister James and Father Flynn—see Donald's vulnerability as a responsibility, Sister Aloysius has no doubt that an unscrupulous predator will take advantage of any weakness.

At the same time, Sister Aloysius is concerned with keeping Sister Veronica's weakness hidden from the Church hierarchy. Sister Veronica's eyesight is failing with age, and Sister Aloysius fears that, if her condition were commonly known, the Church would move her out of the parish. To some extent, her concern for Sister Veronica is protective, putting Sister Aloysius in the strange position of having to shield a weakened nun from the Church that she serves. But while she is telling Sister James to watch over Sister Veronica, she says, "I cannot afford to lose her." Her concern about Sister Veronica's vulnerability is based, at least in part, on her own consolidation of power. To some extent, Sister Aloysius is taking advantage of Sister Veronica's vulnerability in the same way that she assumes Father Flynn is taking advantage of Donald's.

Sexual Abuse

Any sexual relationship between an adult and a minor is technically considered sexual abuse, because the minor is presumed to lack the worldliness and experience to knowingly consent to a relationship. It is particularly immoral for someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher or work superior, to enter into such a relationship with someone who might feel intimidated by their power.

As with most moral issues, however, Doubt blurs the distinctions that might otherwise seem clear-cut. For one thing, it presents the relationship between Father Flynn and Donald Muller as one of emotional depth, whether it has a physical element or not. Father Flynn believes that he is a good man, that it is he, not Sister Aloysius, who is concerned with the boy's welfare. Donald's mother also seems to believe this to be true: she sees the dangers that threaten her son, both in the hostile school environment and from his abusive father at home, and she is thankful that he has a protector. She is willing to accept the idea that a sexual relationship might exist between the boy and the priest, because she fears that the threat of their having no relationship at all would be worse. "My son needs some man to care about him and see him through to where he wants to go," she explains. "And thank God, this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that."


  • In the twenty-first century, the number of nuns continues to diminish, and the average age of active nuns is getting older. Interview a nun (either in person or via the Internet) and find out what factors induced her to take her vows. Have another person read the interviewee's part as you present your conversation to your class.
  • Critics have tried to compare Sister Aloysius's willingness to take action, even without much evidence, to America's preemptive strike against Iraq in 2003. Research the arguments and lead a class discussion on the similarities and the differences between the two positions.
  • Sister Aloysius says that she entered the convent after her husband died during World War II. Research the ways in which important social upheavals, such as wars, famines, and the overthrow of governments, affect the enrollment numbers for religious orders and create a chart that shows the correlations.
  • In what ways do you think this story would have been different if St. Nicholas had been a racially integrated school? Find footage of news reports about school integration and put together a video montage of people talking about what it was like. Present it to the class, along with your views on the ways in which racial integration might have changed the story.

Mrs. Muller also raises the prospect that Donald may have encouraged such a relationship because he is, as she puts it, "that way." While this might remove some of the stigma of it being a homosexual relationship, it does not make it any less abusive. Even if the boy is a willing participant, not forced into having sex, the adult is still guilty of abuse of power.


Priestly Monologues

Acts 1, 3, and 6 of Doubt consist of monologues delivered by Father Flynn, who is onstage by himself. These monologues function as speeches in the play. Two of them are meant to represent sermons from the pulpit, addressed to parishioners during a mass, and the other one is given as a lecture to a group of boys playing basketball. In the last one, Father Flynn interacts with particular boys, responding to them as if they were there, though no actors are present.

Dramatists often use monologues to allow a character to express her or his own ideas without other characters who are involved in the story knowing what those ideas are. In such cases, characters might walk away from the action, often toward the audience, and say out loud what is going on in their minds. In this case, though, Father Flynn's words are meant to be heard by an audience. In the cases of the sermons, it would make no sense to provide an audience on the stage, since Father Flynn is just talking, and their reactions are not necessary. It would be quite possible for another playwright to have written in parts for Jimmy, Ralph, Conroy, and the other boys that Father Flynn directly addresses in act 3, but there really is no need for that, since audiences can imagine their actions from what the priest says.

Multiset Stage

Three of the play's nine acts take place in the small garden that separates the convent where the nuns live from the rectory where the priests live, and three acts take place in Sister Aloysius's office. The scenes are so short that changing sets frequently would put a disproportionate drag on the action. To keep the action moving, the script allows the different sets to be on one stage, changing from one to another by having the lights cross-fade—dim on one set as they come up on the other.

The garden is an important location for symbolic reasons. As Sister Aloysius points out, it is a small patch of land, but "we might as well be separated by the Atlantic Ocean." Sister Aloysius says that she stopped visiting the garden because Monsignor Benedict used to go there: though they live in proximity, the nuns and priests are not allowed to meet with each other one on one. This rule is presumably in place to keep nuns and priests from developing romantic relationships, though in reality it creates a sense of alienation that prohibits them from addressing problems when they arise. The garden, which could be a peaceful, spiritual setting, becomes, ironically, a place that breeds mystery and suspicion among the people it separates.

It is also important, in establishing the social dynamic of St. Nicholas parish, for the play to be based in Sister Aloysius's office. As the school's mother superior, she has authority over the nuns, and in her office she can rule, rattling off theories of education and voicing suspicions and innuendoes that she would not be able to discuss out in the open. When Father Flynn comes to a meeting there, he usurps her power by sitting down at her desk, showing that even a low-level priest is more powerful in the Church hierarchy than the highest nun. Later, when he finds out that Sister Aloysius has been talking with Donald Muller's mother, Father Flynn ignores the rule that forbids a nun and a priest to be together without supervision, and he slams the door behind himself at the start of their climactic confrontation in act 8.

Compassion as a Tragic Flaw

Father Flynn is a caring man who tries to break down the social barriers that separate him from the boys in his class. His compassion is conscious, a trait that he actively pursues, believing that it is more important for the boys to feel loved than it is for them to be pressured by rules. In particular, he makes a point of giving extra attention to Donald Muller because he feels that the boy can use a friend, given his circumstances. His extraordinary friendship with the boy is suspicious, if not inappropriate. Even if he is not, as Sister Aloysius assumes, sexually involved with the boy, Father Flynn's desire to ignore common social boundaries puts him in a position that threatens his career. By traditional dramatic standards, his need for acceptance can be seen as a tragic flaw in that it is a character trait that leads to his downfall.

While compassion is not generally viewed as a flaw, Shanley does establish a framework for seeing it as one. In act 2, discussing the teaching style of Sister James, Sister Aloysius characterizes innocence in teachers as self-indulgent and lazy. To her, a teacher who tries to befriend a student is doing so for selfish reasons. As much as Father Flynn is adamant in his insistence that children should be treated with compassion, Sister Aloysius is adamant that such ideas are a sign of impure intentions. Whether or not he is a sexual predator, Father Flynn draws attention to himself with his insistence on behaving as the boys' friend.


Although Shanley clearly takes as his subject the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for years, he has said that he did not set out to write a play about that situation. The true subject of Doubt is, as its title indicates, uncertainty. The play's subtitle is "A Parable," indicating that it is not meant to be any sort of analysis of the events described in the newspapers. Although the play takes place at a Catholic school, it does not explicitly address intricate matters of Catholicism; instead, it uses its setting to examine a human predicament that can occur in any religion or profession.

Traditionally, a parable is a rhetorical device used to illustrate an abstract concept. In this case, Shanley is interested in exploring the idea of doubt, which, as he illustrates in the play, is much more complex than it seems at first. The main characters behave with certainty, but the structure of the play shows audiences that they experience doubt and also why they do. The use of the word parable in describing this play is particularly significant because of that word's association with Christianity: many of the lessons Christ relates to his followers are told through parables. The parables of the New Testament are generally associated with universal themes that apply to all cultures and times, whereas Shanley applies the word to a story that is unfolding in the headlines of the present day.


Catholic Church Scandal

The history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is, by its very nature, shadowed, concealed over the course of decades by threats and bribes that number into the millions of dollars. The wave of public disclosures dates back to 1984, when rumors of sexual impropriety led to the guilty plea of the Reverend Gilbert Gauthe of the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, in molesting eleven boys. The ensuing investigation implicated nineteen other priests, and the diocese negotiated out-of-court settlements with the victims for undisclosed financial amounts. Over the next eight years, several other scandals made headlines, including at least one case involving a Chicago cardinal in which the accuser later testified that his original claim was a lie. By 1992, protestors picketing outside the conference of U.S. bishops in Washington, D.C., infuriated by the Church's position of trying to hide abuse cases at all costs, influenced the bishops to issue the first set of written principles regarding how to handle allegations. Still, accusations continued to pop up, with notable cases in Dallas, Honolulu, and New York City.

The scandal hit with full force in Boston in 2002. In January of that year, the defrocked priest John Geoghan was accused of having abused more than 130 children while serving as a priest in the Boston archdiocese over a period dating back to the 1970s. The subsequent investigation revealed that his superior, Bernard Cardinal Law, frequently hid Geoghan's crimes by reassigning him and authorizing payoff money to his accusers. Among the revelations that came out in the press was that Law had known about Geoghan's behavior since 1984; that Geoghan's victims, all boys, included one who was just four years old; and that the Catholic Church had already paid out about forty million dollars to Geoghan's victims. The shock of the Boston case spread: by the end of 2002, twelve hundred priests had been accused of sexual abuse nationwide, and five U.S. prelates (bishops or archbishops) had been forced to resign. By 2005, similar cases had sprung up in a number of other countries.

A study conducted by the John Jay College has determined that between 1950 and 2002 an estimated 4 percent of Catholic priests engaged in sexual relations with a minor, almost exclusively boys. Sex-abuse-related costs totaled $573 million, with $219 million covered by insurance companies; these numbers are lower than actual amounts paid, because some dioceses, most notably Boston, did not participate in the survey and because payments made after 2002 were not included. Most of the incidents of abuse, a full 75 percent, were found to have taken place between 1960 and 1984, but researchers are not certain of what this statistic might mean. Although the hope is that sexual abuse by priests has tapered off as time has progressed, the figure might indicate that people who are abused as children are hesitant to report it until they have grown up and that another wave of allegations will come up in the future. In all, the John Jay study found that sexual abuse had occurred in 95 percent of the dioceses in the United States. Since 2004, another seven hundred priests have been removed from their positions in connection with this scandal.

School Integration

For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, states were allowed to legally force black students and white students to attend different schools. The legal principle, upheld in the Supreme Court's ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, was that different races would be provided accommodations that were "separate but equal." In practice, however, the facilities provided for white students were almost always superior. This led to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, during which segregation, or separation, of the races was challenged throughout the country. Plessy was overturned in 1954, in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ruled it illegal to refuse students admission to schools on the basis of race.

Although the law was clear, traditionalists who had grown up in a world where races did not interact with each other fought change. One of the most famous cases occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957: black students were stopped from entering Central High School by a crowd of violent whites led by the state's own governor, Orval Faubus, and President Eisenhower had to order federal troops to the site to protect the students. Similar tensions occurred in 1963, when a black student, James Meredith, enrolled at the University of Mississippi, considered a bastion of southern segregationist tradition: riots and threats of lynching forced Meredith to live under the protection of National Guard troops for several months.

Segregation problems were most frequently associated with the South, but the struggle to integrate northern schools was just as difficult, and problems sometimes lingered longer. The schools of Washington, D.C., for instance, had been segregated for decades, with white families moving to the affluent suburbs, leaving schools in the city where blacks lived in overcrowded conditions and infrastructure was poorly maintained. After the Brown ruling, when the courts ordered that students from each area be transported by bus to the other areas in order to achieve more racial balance, violence became an almost daily occurrence, culminating in 1964 in a particularly bloody struggle between a predominantly white parochial school, St. John's, and the predominantly black school, Eastern.

The most notable holdout to integration in the North, however, was in Boston, where, as in Washington, whites and blacks lived in separate districts. Attempts to integrate Boston schools relied on complex busing systems, moving students of both races, often against their wills, for hours each morning to take them to learn in hostile environments. Although there were unfair aspects to busing, the alternative, which proved to be districts that were consciously arranged by the Boston School Board to keep races separate, were deemed by the courts to be even worse. The Boston plan, begun in 1974, led to years of violence and racial tension. While not always as legally complex or emotionally inflamed, similar integration struggles took place in cities throughout the North in the 1960s and 1970s.


There is no question that Doubt was a breakthrough critical and popular success for Shanley. Although Shanley had seen his plays produced in New York City for more than twenty years, this was the first work to make the general public aware of him as a playwright. Previously, his claim to fame had been an Oscar for his first movie script, Moonstruck (1987), and as writer and director of the cult favorite Joe versus the Volcano (1990). Within months of its Broadway debut, the play had already taken the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie for its previous off-Broadway run, and several Tony Awards.

What captured the attention of the critics, garnering Doubt more serious consideration than other plays about serious, topical issues, is Shanley's finely tuned balance of the moral complexity of the issues he raises. As Charles Isherwood puts it in the New York Times, the play "is no hand-wringing tract about the abuse of power and religious hypocrisy." He goes on to see its larger implications: "The play is a quiet indictment of the reverence for righteousness that has become a hallmark of American culture in recent years." Robert Brustein, writing in the New Republic, dubs it "the strongest play about the Catholic clergy since Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, which also featured a splendid characterization … of a less-than-charitable nun." Brustein mentions in passing that the play might be a little too direct and unambiguous, but he generally finds it a "significant advance" for Shanley. As Richard Zoglin puts it in a Time magazine article about must-see shows on Broadway, "Shanley's work packs more complexity, humanity—doubt—than plays twice its length."


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he examines the relationships that the characters in this play have with the world outside the Church.


  • Shanley's best-known work is his screenplay for the movie Moonstruck. His 1994 two-person play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (2000) has a similar romantic appeal. It is available in Thirteen by Shanley.
  • At the same time that Doubt was being performed on Broadway, Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman (2004) was also running. The play is a hypnotic, Kafkaesque story of a writer who is interrogated by authorities in a fictitious authoritarian state for the similarities between incidents in his stories and a recent spree of child murders.
  • Cheryl L. Reed's 2004 study Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns is not, as its title might suggest, an exposé about the women who serve the Church but is instead the honest account of a wide variety of nuns from a selection of different orders throughout North America.
  • Christopher Durang's 1981 play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You is a comedy lampooning the stereotypical nuns that people remember from their childhood and, as such, can be seen as the temperamental opposite of Doubt. It is available in Christopher Durang Explains It All for You: Six Plays.
  • For a better sense of what life was like in the neighborhood of the play's St. Nicholas, read the wonderful history The Bronx: It Was Only Yesterday, 1935–1965 (1992). The authors Lloyd Ultan and Gary Hermalyn provide background for a wealth of photos showing a life gone by.

Shanley's drama Doubt centers on a nun in a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. She starts the play with suspicions that a priest in the affiliated church is a sexual predator, and she makes it her mission to have him removed, regardless of the cost to herself, his presumed victim, or anyone else. The play is carefully crafted to raise important issues—from faith to cynicism, compassion to discipline, and righteousness to obedience—but it recognizes the complexity of all these ideas and avoids taking sides. For all the attention Doubt has gained in the media because of its timely subject matter, Shanley's real interest is in the interplay between certainty and uncertainty and how too much of either can be destructive. As such, the play's main character is neither the accuser, Sister Aloysius, nor the accused, Father Flynn; it is rather the young nun, Sister James, who can see the merits of being both steadfast and tolerant. Sister James could be considered a surrogate for the audience: a reasonable, neutral party who is willing to listen to what each side has to say. It is strange, then, that Shanley has her disappear from the play at the climactic moment. It is strange, but it works, because the absence of reason is the whole point.

Shanley uses the word "doubt" in two specific, deliberate places, defining the extremism of the two main characters. Early on, before audiences have even been made aware of Sister Aloysius's suspicions of Father Flynn, the subject of his possibly having a shameful secret is raised when Sister Aloysius and Sister James are discussing his latest sermon, on the topic of Doubt. (Shanley uses the capital "D" in the published script, even though theater audiences would not be aware of it.) Sister Aloysius wonders in a provocative way, "Is Father Flynn in Doubt, is he concerned that someone else is in Doubt?" Much later, when her allegations of sexual abuse become apparent, this question makes sense; outside the context of his crime, however, it seems that Sister Aloysius, who is stringent in her ways, looks down on the priest only because he lacks absolute certainty. At the end of the play, though, having won a battle of wills over Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius suffers from her own uncertainty. "I have doubts!" she exclaims to Sister James. "I have such doubts!" If certainty is what allows Father Flynn to continue as a child molester without crumbling under a guilty conscience and what allows Sister Aloysius to doggedly pursue a possibly innocent man, then uncertainty in the play is not presented as being any more attractive.

This is not a play about the relative merits of child molesting or kindness but about that terrible feeling that one does not know the right course. The two main characters are each insulated, wrapped so deeply in their own self-assurance that they cannot relate to the world outside of themselves. They each feed off the self-righteousness of the other to nourish the righteousness of their own causes, unable, owing largely to surrounding circumstances, to see things in a larger context. Shanley uses the self-contained world of the parish to parallel the self-assured worlds of his characters' minds.

This is why Sister James is such a potentially important figure. Sister James agrees with many of the views of Father Flynn in regard to education and Christian behavior, approaching her job as a teaching nun with the attitude that love, not discipline, is the most important thing to offer her students. She is also in agreement with Sister Aloysius, however, that child molestation is an unthinkable crime that cannot be left unpunished. She is anguished, she wants her peace of mind, and she is as disgusted by Sister Aloysius's cold heart as she is by Father Flynn's alleged behavior. Her allegiances shift, depending on who is talking to her; in short, she is just as uncertain about how to morally judge these two people as most of the open-minded audience members are inclined to be. It would be nice if she could be a voice of moderation, to make the two sides recognize each other, but, given the political structure of the Church, that clearly is not possible. Neither her mother superior nor a priest has any inclination—or need—to listen to her.

It is therefore fitting that, when the final confrontation between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius comes in act 8, Sister James is nowhere to be found. Later, when the excitement is all over, it is explained that she was out of town visiting her sick brother, whose illness has been mentioned earlier. (Showing concern for this brother is just one part of Father Flynn's charm offensive, to win Sister James to his side.) This absence in which she attends to other things changes the significance of Sister James in the story. Sister James avoids ending up being a junior version of either side or a combination of traits learned from Sister Aloysius and Father James, because she has a life outside the walls of St. Nicholas school and parish house. The play gives special significance to events that happen outside the insular church environment, showing separation from outer life as a direct cause of doubt and the inability to deal with it.

Each scene takes place on Church property, and the play only hints at what life is like beyond the Church's protection. Outside is a frightening world of violence and disease. One of the four onstage characters, Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy whom Father Flynn is suspected of victimizing, lives in the secular world. She brings with her a sense of defeat that casts a cloud over the idealism of both Sister Aloysius's need for control and Father Flynn's need to love. Her son, Donald, has been beaten up, both by students at the public school he attended and by his own father, because of suspicions of homosexuality. Mrs. Muller understands that Father Flynn might be using her son sexually, but she accepts such abuse as being better than the violence of the world outside. The parish is a sanctuary for her, albeit a flawed one.

Sister Aloysius is the one member of the Church who has had significant experience with the outside world, having lived a secular life and having even been married before taking her vows. All she says about that time is that her husband fought and was killed in Italy during World War II. Her entry to the Church marked an escape from that violent world and, in itself, might be enough to explain her jaded view, her sense that such common pieces of life as ballpoint pens and sugar are luxuries that weaken the spirit. Shanley also provides a little background of her life within the Church, when, eight years earlier, at another parish, she played a part in the downfall of another sexually predatory priest. As much as life at St. Nicholas seems to be harmonious, a life like Sister Aloysius's will not let her leave appearances to speak for themselves.

Leading the life that Father Flynn has led, on the other hand, offers every encouragement to try to maintain the status quo. The priest has limited experiences to draw on: Sister James even comments on his frequent use of made-up stories for his sermons, which indicates talent and imagination but does not suggest any sort of personal history that he would care to recall. His history is with the Church, and, so far at least, it has been a successful one. If Sister Aloysius is right (and her successful bluff at the end indicates that she probably is), Father Flynn has behaved criminally before and beaten the rap, and so there is no reason to expect that he will not do so again. Perhaps he really does believe that his sexual relations with children are based in love, but, at some level at least, he knows that there is nowhere but the Church where such behavior would be protected. His past is within the Church, his future is within the Church, and in neither past nor future does his behavior earn him the sort of punishment that it would in the real world.

Having one of the key players, Sister James, go outside the Church while the other players battle each other within it is thus symbolically significant. Audiences can assume that Sister James will bring an outsider's view to the situation when she returns to it. For Sister Aloysius and Father James, though, there is nothing but symbolism to connect them to the outside world.

Sister Aloysius indulges in just one personal interest in this play: she listens to a transistor radio in act 8. Her listening is not for pleasure. She does not listen to music, she listens for news, which she relates to the time in her past when her husband was at war and she followed the news reports carefully. This curiosity about the outside world, her constant bracing for the tragedy that eventually did come in her husband's case, shows a lot about her imagination. Sister Aloysius spends her life preparing for the worst, and when she actually does find the worst in Father Flynn's actions, it seems almost a coincidence.

For Father Flynn, the outside world shows up in the form of a crow. Act 7, in which he makes the calmest and most convincing case for his innocence, is bracketed by the appearance of a crow overhead. His explanation to Sister James in that scene is entirely reasonable: he tells her how much he values the Christian principle of love and how much Sister Aloysius opposes such compassion, making it clear why she would try to distort his actions into looking like perversity. Because he apparently believes himself to be innocent, Father Flynn sounds innocent—that is, until the end of the scene, when Sister James leaves and he is left by himself. A crow, which he had accused of "complaining" at the scene's start, caws again, and Father Flynn yells at it. For a man who has just explained his innocence, he betrays himself to be conscience-stricken.

Doubt conveys how the Church creates an environment that encourages security, an environment wherein the uncertainty that rules the outside world is minimized, if not overcome. Because she can see both Father Flynn's and Sister Aloysius's points of view, Sister James is in danger, throughout the play, of becoming an adherent of one or the other extreme; instead, she escapes the trap of narrow-mindedness by renewing her connection to the world. For those who do not leave the Church grounds, there are only abstract images, such as voices on the radio or squawking birds, to remind them of the world they have shut out.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Doubt, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Stephen Phillips

In the following review, Phillips relates how Sister Margaret found out about her role in Doubt, and provides background on the events that shaped the play.

This season's big Broadway hit is a raw story of child abuse in the Catholic church. Stephen Phillips meets the teacher who inspired the author to speak out.

New York theatre-goers currently packing out the hit Broadway play Doubt would scarcely guess that the real-life inspiration for its most endearing character is still teaching at a school nearby—almost half a century on from her fictional stage representation.

It was news to Sister Margaret McEntee, too, last November, when the veteran English and religious education teacher answered a phone call at the Brooklyn convent where she lives. "Did you know you're on the first page of the New York Times arts section?" asked a former student, Geraldine Cunningham-Pare.

Come to think of it, there had been a picture of a nun wearing the old, distinctive full-length habit of her order, the Sisters of Charity, in the newspaper the other day. The play review also mentioned "Sister James," her old name before she'd switched to her baptismal name, Margaret, during the 1960s Vatican reform movement. And it mentioned a "Sister Aloysius," not a million miles from Sister Aloysia, the real-life headmistress at her old school, St Anthony's, in New York's Bronx.

"That was you," Geraldine Cunningham-Pare said. "And guess who wrote it? John Patrick Shanley." "Oh, little Johnny," Sister Margaret replied, recalling a six-year-old she'd taught as a 21-year old rookie teacher in 1956.

Geraldine Cunningham-Pare, a film critic for Catholic newspapers, had taken a keen interest in Mr Shanley's Hollywood and Broadway career. He'd won the Oscar for best screenplay in 1988 for the Cher movie, Moonstruck. "I think your 15 minutes of fame have begun," she told her former teacher.

It's been a rollercoaster ride ever since for Sister Margaret, aged 69 and still going strong at Greenwich Village's Notre Dame high school. Doubt has become one of the hottest tickets in New York. Last month it won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama, and it's tipped to land the Tony Award for best play, in Broadway's equivalent of the Academy Awards, on June 5. But the play is perhaps an unlikely box-office smash, confronting as it does the topical but still uncomfortable subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

The Catholic church in the United States has been battered by stories of abuse inflicted on young people by its priests. Some parishes have been pushed to the brink of insolvency by compensation payouts to victims. And painful memories were stirred up by the spectacle of the former Boston cardinal Bernard Law—accused of presiding over the repeated reassignment of alleged paedophile priests to roles giving them access to children—officiating at Pope John Paul II's funeral last month.

In writing his fictional scenario, John Patrick Shanley, 54, drew partly on his experiences growing up in New York's Irish immigrant community. "These guys came out of the woodwork to young boys," he says. "In my case, it wasn't the clergy, but a teacher at a school subsequent to St Anthony's, who was enamoured of me but never crossed the line." A friend wasn't so lucky. After being abused he left the country. "He felt shamed, he had lost his pride."

Doubt is an intense 90-minute, one-act play, leavened by flashes of irreverent humour. Idealistic Sister James is the foil between the polarising characters of a charismatic priest with the common touch, Father Flynn, and a crusty, matriarchal headmistress, Sister Aloysius, who suspects him of abusing one of her pupils. Sister James is torn between the antagonists' clashing personalities and starkly opposing views of the Catholic ministry. Sister Aloysius conforms to an old-school view of boundaries between laity and clergy, decrying Flynn's efforts to reach out to the community.

It's a tension felt keenly by Sister Margaret, who recalls a run-in with the real-life Sister Aloysia, who reproached her as a new teacher for consorting with parents who'd come to school to pick up their children.

These days she wears civilian clothes, having shed the traditional nun's garb along with her male title.

Casting his former teacher's character in Doubt made perfect sense, says John Patrick Shanley, who, at 6 ft 1 in and with more than a passing resemblance to Liam Neeson, could be a leading man himself. "She was this fresh-faced young nun with this very benevolent attitude," he remembers.

Sister Margaret recalls Mr Shanley as a "loveable little kid". But she adds: "Thank God I didn't teach him in secondary school." By his own admission, Mr Shanley was no model pupil. He was banished from St Anthony's dining hall for food fighting, expelled from his secondary school, and dropped out of New York University to join the US Marines before returning to complete his studies. Despite the indelible impression left by his first teacher, he had misgivings about a meeting with her, brokered by Geraldine Cunningham-Pare, who contacted Mr Shanley via a website dedicated to their old neighbourhood. It wasn't so much the dark subject matter he'd cast her character into, but a distinctively American concern. "The word lawsuit crossed my mind," he explains. "There's the old accusation, 'You stole my life'."

A phone conversation allayed his fears. "She was so thoughtful, quoting (Holocaust survivor) Elie Weisel. I thought, 'Oh, I'm fine. This is a complex, rich, life-affirming person'." Still, Mr Shanley was nervous when Sister Margaret attended a performance as his guest in January, the first time the two had met in 48 years. He positioned himself, incognito, behind a newspaper in the theatre foyer, like a spy awaiting a secret rendezvous.

"This man got up, folded his newspaper, walked towards me and said, 'Sister James—oh my God, you don't look like I remember you'," says Sister Margaret. Inside the auditorium, staring at the mock-up of their old school (renamed St Nicholas) on stage, Mr Shanley was on the edge of his seat. "I had no idea what her reaction was going to be."

The guest was also unnerving for actress Heather Goldenhersh, who plays Sister James. "It was like having a rock star in the audience," she says.

They needn't have worried. Sister Margaret was flattered by the stage depiction and thrilled to be a dramatic muse. Ms Goldenhersh has since visited her at school. Hearing Sister Margaret talk about her sense of vocation has been a refreshing antidote to the often self-absorbed world of acting, she says.

Sister Margaret's classroom at Notre Dame, a private all-girls Catholic school where she prefaces each lesson with a prayer, is a world away from the blinking brashness of New York's theatre district around Times Square.

Leading a discussion on altruism and charity, she never raises her voice in coaxing comments from the class of 16-year-olds. Walking the corridors between lessons takes some time as she stops to ask students how they're doing and greets others, eager to say hello, with a ready smile. "My approach to teaching is relational—people before content," says Sister Margaret. "But content's very important," she adds quickly. "She relates morals to real life, so it's personal and we get a higher level of understanding," says Rachel Cardero, 18. "She calls the kids, 'cupcake'," says director of advancement Robert Grote.

Sister Margaret is enjoying her new-found celebrity. On a balmy evening last month, while the curtain's up on Broadway, John Patrick Shanley is the guest speaker at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, home to her convent.

The shrill din of Manhattan is just a distant hum on this picturesque campus beside the Hudson River. Sister Margaret and her family, friends and colleagues take pride of place at the front of the hall and then cameras roll for the Today Show, America's leading breakfast television programme, capturing the local-boy-made-good. After his speech Mr Shanley is mobbed by fans.

Nevertheless, Sister Margaret says she's encountered disapproval from some quarters. Some say Doubt brings up an unseemly subject, publicly airing "dirty laundry". "I say, go see it," she counters. "It opened my eyes."

In the play, her devout character is chided for being too gullible by her headmistress, who counsels that innocence can be a luxury amid lurking evil. Sister James, for whom entertaining such dark suspicions about someone is anathema, is plunged into an existential crisis. Ultimately, the audience is left guessing about whether "he did it", but Sister James is the character people identify with, says Sister Margaret. "She's the voice of reality, trying to step back and make an analysis of what's going on, and it's really hurting her."

Source: Stephen Phillips, "Faith, Hope, and Doubt," in Times Educational Supplement, No. 4635, May 20, 2005, p. 6.

Grant Gallicho

In the following review, Gallicho calls Doubt "remarkably balanced" and praises the play for its "lasting artistic value."

Playwrights and screenwriters have had several years to mine the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, but it is only with John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt that someone has written something of lasting artistic value. Doubt, which recently opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater after an extended run at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is gripping. Its actors turn in riveting performances; and the play remains remarkably balanced, scrupulously avoiding caricature and moral posturing.

Shanley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, has cleverly wrapped the sexual-abuse crisis in the cloak of a whodunit, and set the story in 1964, at a Bronx parochial school run by the Sisters of Charity. Sr. Aloysius (Cherry Jones) is the tough-as-nails principal, whose suspicions about the character of Fr. Flynn (Brian F. O'Byrne) are confirmed when one of her young teachers, Sr. James (Heather Goldenhersh), reports that a student has been removed from her class by Flynn and returned with the smell of alcohol on his breath. Complicating the problem, the boy in question, Donald Muller, whom we never meet, is the only black student in the school.

Setting the play in the 1960s provides insights into the milieu in which clergy sexual abuse might occur—a time when deference to clerical authority was more prevalent than it is today. Shanley's choice of 1964, in the middle of the second Vatican Council—when understanding of the roles of clergy, women religious, and laity was shifting—also offers occasions for dramatic reversals and complexity. Flynn's gruff charm—straight out of Irish Catholic lore—and his easy, teasing way with boys, make clear how he might use his charisma to gain the confidence of potential victims. It is one of the play's shrewder ironies that Flynn is a proponent of the reforms of Vatican II. He regularly articulates liberal-Catholic principles—and seems to mean them. Part of the play's genius is in drawing Flynn in such sharp contrast to Sr. Aloysius, whose Catholicism is so preconciliar that she disapproves of students' singing "Frosty the Snowman" because it's "heretical" and "espouses a belief in magic." A lesser playwright would have freighted the Flynn character with all the negative and authoritarian characteristics associated with the preconciliar church, and presented Sr. Aloysius as a syrupy, saintly defender of the helpless.

Sr. Aloysius is anything but sweet. Anyone who attended Catholic schools staffed by women religious will recognize the sternly rigid yet secretly caring sister, channeled by Cherry Jones's masterly performance. Sr. Aloysius is a tough, self-assured woman who expects a toughness from her staff and fellow nuns in all matters, great and small. She admonishes Sr. James for allowing students to write with ball-point pens—"When they press down they write like monkeys"—and cautions her against being too trusting of priests, too anxious to please: "If you forget yourself and study others, you will not be fooled."

Armed with this steely resolve, Sr. Aloysius goes about the business of studying Fr. Flynn. After hearing from a fellow sister that the priest has been taking boys to the rectory for private talks about "how to be a man," she invites him to her office under the pretense of an administrative meeting, coaxing a reticent Sr. James to attend as a witness. To watch Aloysius and Flynn go through the motions of courtesy (while knowing what's boiling under the surface) is to experience an inspired moment of dramatic irony.

O'Byrne's physical performance in this scene is enormously effective. He strides into Aloysius's office and promptly takes her seat at the desk, making the power relationship perfectly clear. They make small talk. Aloysius offhandedly mentions an elderly sister who recently "fell on a piece of wood, and practically killed herself."

FLYNN: Her sight isn't good, is it?

ALOYSIUS: Her sight is fine. Nuns fall, you know.

FLYNN: No, I didn't know that.

ALOYSIUS: It's the habit. It catches us more often than not. What with our being in black and white, and so prone to falling, we are more like dominoes than anything else.

This back-and-forth, like so much of the play's dialogue, is intensified by tiny dramatic movements, even covert ones, because this exchange has a comédie bent. But they reveal something important about the characters: the hint of predatory menace in Flynn's pointed inquiry about the other nun's health (Is she fit for work at the school?), and Aloysius's protective nature—not naive, but smart enough to play to Flynn's latent misogyny by comparing nuns to falling dominoes. She has his number.

The conversation stalls once Aloysius asks Flynn why he took Donald Muller out of class. Flynn explains that he removed Donald to talk to him about having drunk the altar wine, but then recognizes the meeting is a set-up, and storms out. At a loss about how to pursue her investigation, Aloysius takes a risk by summoning Donald's mother (Adriane Lenox) to her office, but makes no headway with her either. After at first denying that Flynn has molested Donald, Mrs. Muller finally acknowledges that the abuse has taken place. But she refuses to take action against Flynn, or even remove Donald from the school, because, she explains, the priest is "the only one who pays him any attention."

Aloysius pleads with Mrs. Muller to expose Flynn, to remove Donald from his reach, pushing finally to one of the play's most powerful reversals, in which Muller offers an admonishment of her own: "You may think you're doing good, Sister, but the world's a hard place." Adriane Lenox's performance is compact, tragic, and utterly convincing. This wrenching scene is just one example of how Doubt turns every dramatic commonplace on its head. Even when you expect the parent of a victim to be the most scandalized, Shanley pulls the rug out from under you.

The tense last scene is a final confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius, where it's revealed that Aloysius herself has feet of clay. Flynn is at his manipulative best. Even at this point in the play, the audience can't be certain of his guilt or innocence. But Aloysius is. She threatens to expose him if he doesn't immediately request a transfer. He refuses, continuing his denials.

By now, all pretense to courtesy is gone. As the conversation escalates, Aloysius makes no effort to hide her disdain for Flynn, but he will not yield. The actors never succumb to the temptation to overplay the intensity of the scene, yet they clearly convey what's at stake for Flynn and for Aloysius—his future as a cleric and her moral integrity. In the end, however, neither Flynn nor Aloysius walk away unscathed.

"In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God," Aloysius tells Sr. James. This pillar of strength, a woman certain of herself, her convictions, her church, is broken by exposing what she's convinced is a horrific injustice. The price she pays is her certainty. "Oh, Sr. James," she sighs in the play's final sorrowful line, "I have such doubts."

The doubt in the title refers to multiple questions and betrayals. Like other Catholics confronted with clergy abuse, Sr. Aloysius comes to question and have doubts about herself. For in prosecuting the injustice she perceives, she's driven to betray her own moral code. Even in the rooting out of something as abominable as pedophilia, the play shows, other moral truths can be lost. That's the ambivalence so compellingly presented here.

Did Flynn do it? The play itself doesn't say. By not resolving the case, Doubt shows that its ambition extends beyond the whodunit genre. It's gutsy for Shanley to withhold the emotional satisfaction of closure in a drama fueled by such a fraught subject. And in doing so, Doubt reflects what the sexual-abuse crisis has been for so many Catholics: an occasion of profound grief for a church they, like Sr. Aloysius, believed in.

Source: Grant Gallicho, "The Cost of Justice," in Commonweal, Vol. 132, No. 8, April 22, 2005, pp. 21-22.

Robert Coe

In the following interview-essay, Coe provides background on Shanley's life and career, and Shanley discusses his early plays and the experiences that inspired Doubt.

John Patrick Shanley's Bronx characters don't sidle up and ask—they demand to be seen and heard. Saying exactly what they feel, almost without appearing to think about it, they're posturing and naked at once, far-fetched, mercurial and profane, and they effortlessly own the stage. This fall theatre season in New York is offering a major revival of Shanley's electrifying first drama, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a 1984 two-hander "dedicated to everyone in the Bronx who punched me or kissed me, and to everyone whom I punched or kissed"—by a man inducted this past summer into the Bronx Walk of Fame. The play opened at Second Stage on Oct. 21. Five days later, New York audiences began catching up to Shanley's present work at the Public Theatre's Shiva Theatre, where the LAByrinth Theater Company is presenting the world-premiere production of one of the playwright's most radical stylistic experiments to date: Sailor's Song, a love story with dancing (to waltzes by Johann Strauss), set in an imagined seaside town, about a cynical man and a true believer battling over two beautiful women and the nature of love.

A second new play will open on Nov. 22 at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage I, and will play this spring at California's Pasadena Playhouse: Doubt, a drama set in the 1960s at a Bronx Catholic School—the story of a stern principal, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who grows suspicious of a priest who seems to be taking too much interest in a young male student. Night and day from the animal vitality of Danny, Doubt unfolds in a spirit of poetic restraint and deep seriousness, and it reads as Shanley's most powerful play in years.

This would seem an ideal moment to reconsider the career of an off-center playwright frequently viewed as an eccentric, vulgar provisioner for scenery-chewing actors, but who is in fact a deeply ambitious artist working through primal themes, in a language that people actually use and a voice as recognizable as David Mamet's (although less easily caricatured). An overview of his work reveals a more substantial, shapelier body than this reader had previously imagined, as well as an integrity and steadily deepening gravitas suited to a writer now nearing 54 and living comfortably in Brooklyn Heights, with a leafy school ground for a backyard, since 2000.

Formerly married, now divorced and co-parenting 12-year-olds Nick and Frank, and after two decades toiling with mixed success and failure in the killing fields of Hollywood, Shanley has settled into a solid maturity that, as he once told a journalist, leaves behind the "electric leaps" of youth in favor of "a more considered attempt to converse and discover connection."

It was slightly over 20 years ago that Danny burst onto the American theatre scene with two vivid characters, described by the author as "violent and battered, inarticulate and yearning to speak, dangerous and vulnerable," locked in mortal combat, longing and, eventually, a kind of love. From the beginning Shanley exhibited a seemingly effortless mastery of the rhythms of hostility and longing, along with a natural gift for instilling tremendous spiritual ambition in his characters—a willingness to leap, to let go, far more often than to hesitate and cling. Whether in doubt or rapture, Shanley's characters are unafraid of speaking in banalities or in wild poetic flight—or, when they are afraid of something, then the playwright confronts those fears head-on. (Courage and determination are subjects that Shanley has revisited throughout his career.)

Each of the Bronx plays that followed Danny would be about people wanting either IN or OUT—another way of saying that these plays are about dramatic change and a challenge to imposed definitions and boundaries, especially the ones between the Bronx/Manhattan and victimhood/liberation. Shanley's characters seek transcendence, connection and new identities, via more than words alone: They touch, sweat, spit and spray every available bodily fluid in that alternately claustrophobic and explosive atmosphere that has characterized most of the canonical mainstream of 20th-century American drama.

Shanley worked outside this atmosphere as well. Welcome to the Moon … and Other Plays, which ran in the fall of 1982 at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre, introduced a strain of surrealistic experimentation that established Shanley's parallel career as a radical stage formalist, not unlike that of another hard-living, essentially naturalistic Irish-American writer, Eugene O'Neill.

Shanley remained in his imagined Bronx and delivered further on his promise with Savage in Limbo (1985), "dedicated to all those good assassins who contributed to the death of my former self." Working with multiple characters this time, Shanley stood closest to his eponymous heroine, the pained and caustic Denise Savage: "We're on the cliff. We were born here. Well, do you wanna die on the cliff?" Savage was in part about the animals lurking inside human beings, just as Danny was, but with a caveat offered by Denise's friend in boyfriend trouble, Linda Rotunda: "It ain't the new clothes that make the man. It's what he does with his dirty things." The project of self-discovery becomes one of finding determination within the grope and flailing of tongues. As the aptly named bartender Murk opines: "The problem with people is they think they're alone. They think what they say don't do nothing. So they say every stupid thing that goes through their gourd, and they do [sh―t] they don't even know why. Which leads to what? The world looks like homemade refried [sh―t]."

Shanley could not keep working forever in this tortured Italian-American ghetto. Women of Manhattan (1986)—this time the inevitable and telling dedication was "to women, women, women … [written 23 more times] and a guy named Larry Sigman [a dying friend, now deceased]"—headed down to a lower borough, away from working-class, ethnic concerns, to address the issue and substance of self-esteem, a screaming lack in all Shanley's earlier characters. Women of Manhattan moved through the animal appetites to search for grown-up identities. I have probably undervalued the verbal intelligence and wit on display in these early writings, but this play, while beautifully written and complete, feels a little weightless.

Shanley wasn't through with the Bronx: His 1985 fantasia, the dreamer examines his pillow, dedicated, simply enough, "to my family," introduced family members for the first time—a daughter, Donna, who is unable to live with her lover, Tommy, or without him (especially after she discovers he's sleeping with her 16-year-old sister). Like Women of Manhattan, the dreamer pursues questions of identity, as opposed to merely coping or desperately surviving: "You are somebody," Donna tells Tommy. "Tell me who…. You know what it is down there inside the last Chinese box?" Dealing with their pie-in-the-sky romantic dreams, she realizes they will always find themselves "back down in this [sh―t]hole room or some other [sh―t]hole room, and I can't feature that no more." The dreamer is a dark attempt to chart the intellectual/emotional terrain of Shanley's imagination, leading to an ambiguous recognition that in sex we can discover identity, and escape it.

Shanley's best work simultaneously imagines and exposes the failure of "the key that lets me outta my life," as Donna puts it. Self-knowledge is far more difficult to obtain than simply escaping the past or some shithole room. In the end, the dreamer reaches for a deeper question: Why live at all? A didactic element entered Shanley's work for the first time: "You gotta make the big mistakes," says Donna's dad. "Remember that. It makes it easier to bear. But remember, too, that Sex does resurrect. Flyin in the face of the truly great mistakes, there is that consolation."

Shanley's constant implicit theme—the marriage of two people—became comically overt in his popular Italian American Reconciliation (1988), the first of his plays the author directed, with a cast including John Turturro (the original Danny), John Pankow, Laura San Giacomo and Shanley's then wife, Jayne Haynes, at Manhattan Theatre Club. Reconciliation had a simple, outrageous plot involving an inappropriate seduction (the commedia aspect of which was inescapable), a hilarious momentum, and an almost maudlin denouement reached when Aldo (Turturro) announces: "And this is the lesson I have to teach: The greatest, the only success, is to be able to love."

Nineteen-eighty-two to 1988 were years of extraordinary creativity for the former juvenile delinquent and NYU grad. By the time of The Big Funk (1990), he was arguing for the interconnectedness of everything. But an undercurrent had entered his work that was not so empathic. Shanley prefaced the published version: "And so I ask the question: Why is theatre so ineffectual, un-new, not exciting, fussy, not connected to the thrilling recognition possible in dreams? It's a question of spirit. My ungainly spirit thrashes around inside me, making me feel lumpy and sick."

The Big Funk was formally adventurous, employing nudity and direct address of the audience, while also reminding us of the Greeks by essentially being about a dinner party—a Symposium. But it also removed all recognizable contexts of time and place—as if the playwright wanted to address the interconnectedness of everything at the expense of its specificity. From this turning point, Shanley wheeled back to a theatrical beginning he never actually had and wrote a nakedly autobiographical family play: Beggars in the House of Plenty (1991), about how some siblings make it and others don't. Beggars is arguably his most successful work employing surrealistic element, while also breaking from his usual intense dramatic focus to explore a more studied irony. Out of the cauldron into what fire? (The old Shanley did periodically surface, as his stand-in "Johnny" intoned: "I look like the Bronx inside. I could vomit up a burning car.")

Inevitably, Shanley stepped back from his investigation of an increasingly distant past: Four Dogs and a Bone (1993) was his first play not driven by insatiable personal demons. Instead, it used bitter, excoriating comedy to limn a social world in which two actresses battle to have their parts beefed up during an indie film production. By the end of the play it's the screenwriter who grows some balls, or is corrupted (it's hard to tell which, but he does take over the show). Shanley knew something about Hollywood wish-fulfillment: Back in the early '80s, watching funds from a large NEA grant dwindling, he had decided that instead of returning to painting apartments, moving furniture or tending bar, he would write a screenplay. Five Corners (1987) ended up being produced by Beatle George Harrison, and was followed shortly by Shanley's signature achievement, Moonstruck, the Norman Jewison film and Cher vehicle that won Shanley a well-deserved Oscar for best screenplay.

Moonstruck brought together all his insights into Italian-American culture with a brilliantly funny, wise and balanced screenplay that holds up, to this day, as a masterful comedic melodrama. This was followed by The January Man (1989), a botched thriller; Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), which Shanley also directed, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, in an odd turn that died at the box office; Alive (1993), about a plane crash and cannibalism in the Andes; and, Congo (1995) a jungle-based techno-thriller about mutant apes—none of which came close to matching his early success.

Shanley returned to the stage with new aspirations: Psychopathia Sexualis (1996) was a clever, entertaining boulevard comedy about sexual fetishism and a loony shrink. Cellini (1998), his first-ever stage adaptation, drew on the notorious Renaissance autobiography; Missing/Kissing (1996) proved a not-particularly-engaging romantic study; Where's My Money? (2001), his first experience with the LAByrinth Theater Company, was a wholly satisfying dark comedic drama about a kinky affair, a cynical marriage and the loss of romantic sentiment—for my money, Shanley's best play since the '80s, although more West Side comedy of manners than raw exposé.

Then came 9/11, which inspired Shanley's topical Dirty Story (2003), featuring characters intended to represent the U.S., Israel and Palestine—a comedic parable so cartoonish that some critics had a hard time taking it seriously, even while the New York Times called it "appallingly entertaining." [Denver Center Theatre Company's production runs through Nov. 13.] Shanley was staying on a Mideast beat: Live from Baghdad, a 2002 film written for HBO, about CNN at the start of the Gulf War, earned an Emmy nomination for him and other co-screenwriters. (My favorite line: "If we can keep talking, then maybe we won't kill each other.") Shanley also recently completed a new script for Moonstruck director Norman Jewison, The Waltz of the Tulips. Apparently the moonstruck writer is thinking in three-four time these days.

Which brings us up to Doubt and Sailor's Song—two new plays, each a major return to form, both resounding evidence of a new confidence, maturity and economy from an artist who has always maintained that "writing is acting is directing is living your life."

We meet at his request at the SoHo Grand Hotel for tea and cookies. Shanley is grayer than the last time I saw him, back in the early '90s, strolling in a black leather jacket down Lafayette Street in Manhattan with the actress Julia Roberts. His explosive, raucous laugh and the classic Irish twinkle in his eye haven't changed; he seems eminently sane, focused, amiable and self-examined. He tells me that today is his son Frankie's birthday, and that after our interview he will be picking him up to celebrate. Both sons were adopted at birth, four-and-a-half months apart, so for the next seven-and-one-half months, Shanley laughs, "both my sons are 12." Speaking with the rhythms of his native Bronx, he is still asking ambitious questions and giving big answers, but with a new subtlety, new tools and a steady, jovial demeanor.

[ROBERT COE]: When was the last time you actually saw Danny and the Deep Blue Sea?

[JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY]: It's been a few years. Some of my plays I've never seen done by anybody since the original productions. Danny I've seen done maybe three times in amateur productions that somebody got me to go to. Actually, the last time I saw it was in Paris, in French.

Did you think you were watching No Exit?

[Laughs] No! Because Danny has a catharsis. Catharses build up a lot of energy, and when the energy is metabolized, it is released, and the audience is released. That can be really important! You have to legitimately achieve it. It's one of the big reasons that I would go to the theatre—in the hopes of experiencing that.

Who will be playing Danny and Roberta this year?

I don't know. Second Stage suggested Leigh Silverman for director—she had done well at the Public [with Lisa Kron's acclaimed solo 2.5 Minute Ride], and I met with her and thought she was smart and driven and completely unlike me. I can't explain that any more than to say she's made of different stuff. So I said, "All right, let's see what you'll do. You're free. I want the Leigh Silverman production."

You really don't want to haunt the rehearsal hall?

Nah. I'm not much for going back. You can either have a career or chase it, and I don't particularly want to chase my own shadow back through time. With the number of workshops of my plays in New York alone, it could have been my career, just going to my own shows—and how sad would that have been!

"Is Shanley here again?"

[Raucous laughter] That's right. "Poor guy."

So let's jump forward 20-plus years to your new play Sailor's Song. The publicity makes it sound as if you were inspired by the two Genes: Kelly and O'Neill.

Sailor's Song is about—just to pull a figure out of the air—35 percent dance. But it's not performed by dancers, it's very much a play. A very, very romantic play—almost a tragic-romance. I'll be very involved in this one. Sailor's Song and Doubt are only four days apart in rehearsal schedule, so I couldn't direct either one of them. Doug Hughes is directing Doubt, and he's great; the other show's got a much greener director, Chris McGarry, who's been an actor mostly, and who I did Dirty Story with. He's very intelligent and I wanted to give him a shot. The music is extant—it's waltzes, used in a very unusual way. It's almost all three-four time—"Tales of Vienna Woods," "Blue Danube," all that stuff. Johann Strauss mostly, right down the line! And it works! I did a workshop of it last fall to make sure, and it's really fun to listen to that music. All the music that's ever been written is still around, but it's amazing how pop music has pushed out everything else, for the most part, except for in formal dance. And it doesn't have to be so.

You've written so much about the nature of love and romance. I sense in Sailor's Song a new wisdom and maturity—almost a mellowness that does not suggest complacency, just a longer overview and a deeper perspective.

Yes. I'm savoring life now, whereas I used to just wolf it down. This play is all about savoring the moonlit moment of romantic choice—that place on the dance floor of the heart when two people could kiss but they haven't yet. You are a dancer and the music is playing like a blue river around you. Everything is on the move and yet, paradoxically, time has ceased its forward motion. And this liquid pulsing, photograph of possibilities is placed side by side in this play with mortality, with the certainty of death, with the brevity of youth, and with the importance of now. So Sailor's Song is about the almost unbearable beauty of choosing to love in the face of death. Love is the most essential act of courage, isn't it? Will you choose to love before you are swept away by oblivion? I hope so.

Now tell me about Doubt.

I went to a Catholic Church school in the Bronx and was educated by the Sisters of Charity in the '60s. That's a world that's gone now, but it was a very defined place that I was in for eight years. I realized later on when the Church scandals were breaking that the way a lot of these priests were getting busted had to be by nuns. Because nuns were the ones who were noticing the children with aberrant behavior, distressed children, falling grades, and in some cases they had to be the ones who discovered what was happening. But the chain of command in the Catholic Church was such that they had to report it not to the police but to their superior within the Church, who then covered up for the guy. This had to create very powerful frustrations and moral dilemmas for these women. It was very shortly after that that they started to leave the Church in droves.

I was not aware of that. Has this been noted elsewhere?

As far as I can make out, never. So showing this experience was one of the motivations behind Doubt. Another was that I saw a dark side to the Second Vatican Council's message of "go out into the community." When I was a kid, priests were not going to take boys out of church [to outside activities]. They were priests, they were in the rectory. And so I think this explosive combination of celibacy and "go out and make believe you're just one of the other folks" had a lot to do with the problems that followed.

But over and above that, the more interesting thing to me doesn't have anything to do with the scandals, and that is the cathartic, philosophical power of embracing doubt—of embracing not knowing, embracing that you may never know the truth or falsity of a story, of a scenario, and that you cannot morally stand in judgment from any place that is utterly firm in relation to another person's life. And yet actions must be taken if you feel the imperative, if you feel that you have the clarity of thought and know what should be done. And that powerful, explosive dilemma for an individual is really fraught for me. Here are these women who stumble on what may be something—and the choice is to go through the normal chain of command, which will lead to the complete exoneration and literally the safety of an abusive priest.

You know a member of my own family was molested by [Father John] Geoghan, the guy who was strangled in prison. And my family members went to Cardinal O'Connor, after they'd gone to everybody locally and gotten no satisfaction, and Cardinal O'Connor took them by the hands and said, "I am so sorry this happened. I will take care of it." And then he promoted him. Unbelievable. So they left the Church, but after 10 years they went back, and that Sunday the Monsignor got up and gave a sermon saying that these children who were abused, it was the parents' fault. That's when they left the Church again.

So this material is very close to home.

It is, but I think when you see the play you'll see that my relationship to it is very complicated. There's an even weirder level: Is what some of these guys do totally bad? That I also have doubts about. When I was growing up, at certain points I was championed by homosexual teachers who were the only people watching out for me. And why were they doing it? They were really into boys. They were really into my problems. Did they do anything to me? No. Did they want to? I don't know. Did they make a pass? No. Was that in the air? Somewhere yes, it was in the air. Did I take advantage of the good things they were offering me? Yes, because I needed to, because I was isolated and there was no one else. Did that make them bad people? Not to me. Not to me at all.

It's only acting out that compromises a child.

That is correct. And, even then, if it's like some guy putting his hand on my leg and me saying, "Get your hand off my leg," and that's it—frankly I wouldn't have been traumatized. But, of course, what happens is that a lot of kids who are more confused than that about their sexuality, which is perfectly natural at that age—and also out of tremendous need—can become very confused. So there are a lot of levels to it. I'm not interested in issue plays per se, although I'm more interested in them now than I used to be. What I'm not interested in is writing polemics on one side of an issue or another. Doubt does not have to dismantle passion. It can be a passionate exercise.

When you look back, do you see any arc or evolution in your career?

One of the ongoing concerns that I have is how to be intimate with another human being. Another is how to invite everybody to the party. We have to be able to find a way to communicate so that we can talk about anything. That's the one thing we should be able to do—to talk about anything.

We don't necessarily have to be able to do everything.

That is correct. Right now, the Democrats and the Republicans, for instance, are never able to cede anything to the other side. Everything has to be crossfire! Which can be a fun part of a play, but that's a play that never goes to catharsis. It ends up forever stuck in some kind of French existential hell! And that's not what's interesting to me. I want to find the dynamic door that leads out of the dilemma and on into the future.

I grew up in a violent place where people did not communicate well, but where there were big feelings and big longings, and I remember that some of the most interesting people were also the most doomed, because they had no tools to save themselves. In some weird way, the Palestinian character in Dirty Story is a descendent of those people: "If you won't solve my problem, if no one will listen to me, then I'm going to blow you and me up." I certainly knew that guy, I certainly grew up with that guy—and I've got a little bit of that guy in me. I always said that if things went well I would spend the first half of my life writing about my problems, and the second half I would write about other people's problems, and that's sort of what happened—I'm able now to start turning out. Maybe that's why I was able to write Doubt, and why I was able to write Dirty Story. Of course they're personal plays, but they are about larger social concerns.

Your own ethnic background provides a great example of communicating across boundaries and bridging differences.

Yes. I'm very Irish, from an Irish-Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. I grew up in a household where talk was important, music was important, clothing was not important, food was not important. Then I went over to my Italian friends' houses, where the guys were combing their hair with "Hidden Magic" which they'd stolen from their mothers and spending an hour getting dressed, and talking openly about sexuality, which was bad in my household! It was just a much more sensual, ebullient world, I went to their houses to soak up the sheer pleasure of it, the stimulation—and I was like, "I want what they got, plus what I got!"

My father came from Ireland when he was 24, had a brogue and was raised on a farm, basically in the 19th century. And my mother was first-generation—her parents were from Ireland as well. And when I went back to the farm where my father was born—he died two years ago at 96—the people on that farm spoke in poetry, and we really got along. And I thought, "This is much closer to my true family than the particular culture I grew up in!"

Most of your plays are language-driven, and yet we know movies generally aren't—the engine of a film is imagery. How do you think writing screenplays has affected your playwriting?

Actually, the influence is very much the other way around. Playwriting has continued to make my screenwriting possible. Without that constant feedback from the audience, writing can become ungrounded. Audiences show up too late in cinema; you don't get a chance to fix it after they get there. So you better have a very strong sense of what you've got, of what the music is between you and the audience. The theatre gives so much back in that way. I feel genetically born to be a playwright. When I started writing in the dialogue form, I had a complete moment of recognition, like, "Oh! This is what I do!" I'd written in many other forms before that—I started writing when I was 11 and I was a poet, exclusively, for several years. But it wasn't until I was 23, 24, that I tried the dialogue form, and it was instantaneous. I wrote a full-length play the first time I ever wrote in dialogue, and it was produced a few weeks later.

When you reflect back on your personal journey, are you ever amazed that here you are, this troublemaker from the Bronx, who ended up playwright with something to say that lots of people want to hear?

Yes. My life is both inevitable and surprising to me. But I've never had the slightest sense of future. I did not envision a fate. So I don't know why I should have any feeling of surprise.

Source: Robert Coe, "The Evolution of John Patrick Shanley," in American Theatre, November 2004, pp. 22-26, 97-99.


Brustein, Robert, "Prosecution Plays," in the New Republic, May 23, 2005, p. 27.

Isherwood, Charles, "Stories That Tell vs. Storytelling," in the New York Times, May 6, 2005, Section E, p. 1.

Zoglin, Richard, "4 Must-See Shows On (and Off) Broadway," in Time, April 25, 2005, p. 56.


Berry, Jason, Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, University of Illinois Press, 2000.

This book, originally published when the abuse story was first surfacing in 1992, is considered a classic in the study of what went wrong with the priesthood in the last half of the twentieth century.

Calhoun, Ada, "Bryony Lavery and John Patrick Shanley Dish about Religion," in New York Magazine, September 13, 2004, p. 61.

In a joint interview, Shanley and the playwright Bryony Lavery (Last Easter) consider the place that religion has in their works.

Foster, David Ruel, ed., The Two Wings of Catholic Thought: Essays on "Fides et Ratio," Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, Fides et Ratio, proclaiming that reason and faith do not have to be considered separately but can be found together in Catholicism. The essays in this book examine the implications of that doctrine, which appears as one of the central conundrums of Doubt.

Wilson, Anna Victoria, and William E. Segall, Oh, Do I Remember!: Experiences of Teachers during the Desegregation of Austin's Schools, 1964–1971, State University of New York Press, 2001.

The authors repeat testimony of teachers and students who suffered through the awkward phases of including people of color into traditionally white school systems, giving a sense of the division that race can create in an academic setting.

Witchel, Alex, "The Confessions of John Patrick Shanley," in the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 2004, pp. 31-35.

This article was written at a time when three of Shanley's plays, including Doubt, were about to open in New York City.


views updated May 23 2018


To be in doubt about a proposition is to withhold assent both from it and from its contradictory. Although people sometimes withhold assent with no reason for doing so and persist in this even after conceding that they have no reason, doubt is rational only when one has a reason for it and reasonable only when the reason is a good one. Doubt may be accompanied by various feelings, but it seems unlikely that there are specific feelings uniquely associated with it; in general, the feelings associated with doubt are anxiety or hesitation, which are identified as feelings of doubt when they arise in contexts involving questions of belief. In any case, philosophers are not ordinarily concerned with psychological characterizations of a doubter's state of mind. Their attention is primarily devoted to understanding the conditions under which doubt is reasonable and to defining the limits of reasonable doubt.

Evidence and Reasonable Doubt

Whether it is reasonable for a person to doubt a proposition cannot always be decided solely by considering the evidence that the person possesses relevant to the proposition or, in a situation in which there is purportedly noninferential knowledge, by considering his ground for assent. Doubts that are unreasonable or absurd in one situation may be quite reasonable in another, although the available evidence or ground is the same in both cases. For example, special caution is appropriate when the penalties for error are particularly great; hence, an ordinarily acceptable basis for assent may be inadequate if much depends upon avoiding error, although the gravity of the risk does not in itself constitute evidence. Moreover, a basis for assent that would be entirely compelling in normal circumstances may be insufficient if otherwise remote possibilities of error must be taken seriously because of threats posed by a resourceful deceiver.

From the fact that someone has no reason to doubt a given proposition, therefore, it does not follow that the evidence he possesses is sufficient to render unreasonable all doubts concerning the proposition. It would seem quite worthwhile to explore the ways in which the reasonableness of doubt is affected by considerations other than the available evidence or ground for assent. Philosophers, however, on the whole, are interested only in very general principles that are not affected by contingencies of any sort. For this reason, perhaps, philosophical studies of doubt have usually been concerned with limiting cases in which the reasonableness of doubt depends only on the available evidence or ground for assent. In other words, they have dealt mainly with what is indubitable with what it is never reasonable to doubt regardless of contextual variables of the sort described above. Accordingly, a philosopher's designation of certain propositions as dubitable is not generally to be understood as a denial that there are circumstances in which doubting these propositions would be absurd. The designation means only that given the evidence or ground for the propositions, there are conceivable circumstances in which doubt would be reasonable.

Conditions of Indubitability

Toward the end of the First Meditation, René Descartes invokes the distinction between what is indubitable and what, in normal circumstances, is open to no reasonable doubt. In defense of his decision to regard as dubitable many propositions which, in practice, it is unreasonable to doubt, he declares, "I cannot at present yield too much to distrust, since it is not now a question of action but only of meditation and of knowledge." In their usual concerns, individuals are not often required to decide whether a proposition is indubitable, as distinct from deciding whether there is any reason to doubt it. Questions of indubitability are theoretical: they concern only the relation between a proposition and the evidence or ground for it, and take no account of the other concrete circumstances in which a proposition is evaluated.

limits of relevant evidence

When is one entitled to regard a proposition as indubitable? It might be maintained that one is not entitled to do so as long as anything which can serve as evidence relevant to the proposition remains unexamined, on the ground that when this evidence comes to be examined, it may turn out to require an alteration of belief. But by virtue of the empirical and logical connections among facts, the truth-value of any proposition affects the truth-values of an unlimited number of others: Hence, the truth-values of an unlimited number of propositions are relevant to that of any proposition and may serve as evidence concerning it. Since it is impossible to examine each of these other propositions, no proposition could ever be regarded as indubitable if it were first necessary to examine everything that may serve as evidence relevant to its truth-value. On the other hand, it seems that this impasse can be avoided only if it is possible to settle in advance the import of matters that have not been examined.

immediate experience

That it is in fact possible to settle the import of matters that have not been examined may be brought out as follows. The impossibility of checking all the consequences of an empirical proposition is often cited to support the view that empirical propositions must always remain dubitable. Nonetheless, many philosophers who employ this argument concede the indubitability of so-called "basic propositions," or a person's current reports of the immediate contents of his consciousness (for example, pains, sense data, thoughts). But however fragmented and ephemeral immediate experiences may be, they are not without innumerable conditions and consequences. Like those of empirical propositions (statements of fact about the world outside immediate consciousness), the truth-values of basic propositions are connected with those of an unlimited number of other propositions which may be construed as evidence relevant to them. Hence, if a person's current reports of the immediate data of his own consciousness are indubitable, it is not because he has surveyed everything that may serve as evidence relevant to them: rather, it is because his ground for making the report is such that he cannot reasonably acknowledge that any evidence could supersede it. Indeed, it is reasonable for him to require that all evidence be interpreted so as to be consistent with his report.


When one proposition serves as evidence relevant to a second, it does so by virtue of certain other empirical or logical propositions (laws or rules) by which the two are connected. The connection may be broken or its nature altered, however, if the intermediary propositions upon which it depends are rejected or revised. Thus, the possibility of coming upon contrary evidence can be excluded by requiring that this alternative be adopted whenever necessary.

But under what conditions is it reasonable to make such a requirement of incorrigibilityto arrange that nothing count as evidence against a certain proposition? In some cases (for instance, when a mathematical proposition is supported by a well-understood proof, or when a basic proposition is grounded in immediate experience) it may seem fairly clear that the conditions are satisfied. However, philosophers have failed to provide a general account of these conditions; instead, they have usually limited themselves to identifying particular instances of their satisfaction. Some philosophers have claimed with considerable plausibility that certain elementary mathematical propositions (such as that 2 + 2 = 4) may be regarded as indubitable without proof, but they have done little to explain systematically why this should be so. With regard to empirical propositions, neglect of the problem of clarifying the conditions in which they may be accepted as indubitable has resulted in part from widespread controversy over whether the problem properly arises at all. That there are no such conditions is frequently maintained by philosophers (for example, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, C. S. Peirce, C. I. Lewis) who subscribe to certain popular epistemological doctrinesin particular, the doctrines that every empirical proposition is to be construed on the model of a scientific hypothesis, or that it is to be interpreted phenomenalistically as equivalent to an unlimited number of predictions.

Logical Contingency and Necessity

A more general obstacle to a sound understanding of the basis of indubitability lies in a tendency to look for it in the wrong place. A proposition is indubitable when there could be no reason to doubt it, but this impossibility is not in general inherent in the logical character of the proposition itself. Indubitability is an epistemic property that depends on the relation between a proposition and the evidence or ground for assent with which it is considered. In particular, dubitability and indubitability must not be confused with logical contingency and logical necessity. The logical contingency of a proposition does not as such entail that no one has conclusive evidence or ground for it, and a logically necessary proposition may reasonably be doubted by someone who is not in a position to appreciate its necessity and who therefore must concede the possibility that further inquiry will uncover evidence against it.

Moreover, it is a mistake to suppose that evidence for a proposition is not conclusive unless its conjunction with the denial of the proposition is self-contradictory. To be sure, a proposition is indubitable if and only if no basis for assenting to its alternative is conceivable, but something may be inconceivable even though it contradicts neither itself nor what has already been established.

Conditions of Rational Inquiry

The claim that a basis for doubt is inconceivable is justified whenever a denial of the claim would violate the conditions or presuppositions of rational inquiry. Avoidance of self-contradiction is perhaps the most familiar of these conditions, but it is not the only one. For instance, since inquiry is fundamentally an attempt to discriminate between what is to be accepted and what is to be rejected, nothing can rationally be conceived which involves denying the necessity for making these discriminations or undermining the possibility of making them.

A systematic explanation of dubitability and indubitability awaits, therefore, a general theory of the nature of rationality which illuminates the presuppositions and conditions that rationality requires. Furthermore, it awaits an account, developed from this theory, of the particular conditions in which propositions of various sorts must be regarded as indubitable if the possibility of rationality is to be preserved. Even if this were done, however, a further problem would remain. While an adequate theory of rationality would give a clear account of the conditions in which a proposition may reasonably be regarded as indubitable, it cannot of course guarantee that these conditions are correctly identified in any given case. To support the claim that a certain proposition is indubitable, it is not sufficient to understand the conditions in which such claims are justified; it is also necessary to know that the conditions are fulfilled in the particular case in question.

The Indubitability Regress

A disturbing pattern of argument seems to develop, however, in considering the proposition that a given proposition is indubitable. The proposition that the conditions for the indubitability of a certain proposition have been satisfied cannot itself be regarded as beyond doubt unless the conditions for its indubitability have been satisfied; but the satisfaction of these conditions is dubitable unless , and so on.

But acknowledging this regress does not require one to concede that it is never reasonable to regard a proposition as indubitable. Rather, the view to which the regress leads appears to be that while there are occasions on which it is reasonable to regard a proposition as indubitable, it is never altogether indubitable just which occasions these are. There is an air of paradox here, perhaps, but there is no logical difficulty. The regress does not interfere with the possibility of there being satisfactory logical relations between indubitability claims and judgments establishing that these claims are reasonable. It only interferes with our confidence in ourselves, suggesting that there is always room for doubt as to whether we are being reasonable. Or, to put the matter a bit differently, the regress supports no more than the mordant comment that it is never reasonable to insist that the question of whether one is being reasonable is entirely closed.

See also Ayer, Alfred Jules; Descartes, René; Error; Experience; Knowledge and Belief; Lewis, Clarence Irving; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Propositions; Questions; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Skepticism, History of.


In addition to loci classici in Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy ; David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding ; and Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, there are particularly interesting and relevant discussions in the following more recent works: A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1956); C. I. Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1946); N. Malcolm, "Knowledge and Belief," in Knowledge and Certainty (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963); G. E. Moore, "Four Forms of Scepticism," in Philosophical Papers (London: Allen and Unwin, 1959); and C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA, 1935).

other recommended titles

Buryeat, M. F., ed. The Skeptical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

DeRose, Keith, and Ted Warfield, eds. Skepticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Fogelin, R. Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Greco, John. Putting Skeptics in their Place. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hankinson, R. J. The Sceptics. London: Routledge, 1995.

Klein, Peter. Certainty: A Refutation of Scepticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Lehrer, Keith. "Why not Scepticism?" Philosophical Forum 2 (1971): 283298.

Roth, Michael, and Glenn Ross. Doubting: Contemporary Perspectives on Skepticism. Boston: Kluwer, 1992.

Sosa, Ernest. Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Sosa, Ernest, and Enrique Villanueva, eds. Skepticism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Stroud, Barry. The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Williams, Michael. Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992; corrected edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Harry G. Frankfurt (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated May 18 2018


Doubt is one of the states of mind that a knower can entertain toward some proposition. If the knower is unaware of the proposition altogether, he is in a state of ig norance. If he either affirms or denies the proposition with no hesitancy, he possesses certitude. If he affirms or denies the proposition but with fear that he may be incorrect, he has an opinion. If, on slight grounds, he is inclined either to affirm or deny, he has suspicion. Finally, he can decline either to affirm the proposition or deny it, in which case he is in a state of doubt (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 2.1; De ver. 14.1). Thus doubt, in general, is a suspension of judgment concerning the truth or falsity of a proposition.

Kinds of Doubt. When serious evidence is lacking both for and against the proposition, the doubt is called negative. When there is equally serious evidence for and against, the doubt is called positive.

Distinction is made also between speculative doubt and practical doubt. As the terms themselves suggest, the former pertains chiefly to abstract, objective truth or falsity, while the latter concerns a concrete act of conduct. The distinction is relevant principally in ethics and moral theology. In these sciences speculative doubt bears on the objective morality of an action considered in itself. Practical doubt pertains to the lawfulness of someone's performing an action here and now. In some instances it is possible to solve a practical doubt without solving a speculative doubt on the same matter.

Also of moral relevance is the distinction between doubt of law and doubt of fact, which regard respectively the existence or meaning of a law and its applicability. The following discussion is concerned primarily with speculative doubt understood simply as the intellectual state of suspended judgment with no necessary association with moral science (see doubt, moral).

Role of Doubt. Most often doubt is taken unfavorably as signifying undesired and insoluble perplexity, or the deliberate despair of acquiring certitude, characteristic of skepticism. Yet doubt has also positive roles in preventing error and in initiating philosophical inquiry. When cogent evidence or authority in support of a proposition is lacking, one ought to suspend judgment lest, under influences extrinsic to objective truth, the simple lack of truth (ignorance) become its positive corruption (error). Thus can doubt prevent error.

Similarly, doubt can promote the discovery of truth. In this role doubt is closely associated with wonder in the genesis of knowledge. Wonder is a kind of emotional shock, a species of fear that occurs when one confronts an effect, the cause of which he does not know (ST 1a2ae, 32.8; 41.4). Out of the initial state of wonder there arises a sort of doubt that is not a symptom of unbelief but a stimulus to investigation (ST 3a, 27.4 ad2; 30.4 ad 2). When this incipient doubt is elaborated into technically formulated difficulties against some position, the mind is in a state that Aristotle calls aporia; metonymically, such difficulties are themselves called aporias (dubitabilia by thomas aquinas).

Both Aristotle and Aquinas make it incumbent on the philosopher to consider the aporias. If one has not looked carefully at a knot, they ask, how can he expect to untie it? Therefore, he who wishes to discover truth"ought to 'doubt well,' that is, to touch well on things that are dubitable," i.e., the aporias (In 3 meta. 1.339). Aporia, however, is not an end in itself but a means of defending and clarifying truth: "the elimination of doubt is the goal of the truth seeker" (ibid. 340). Moreover, aporia is sometimes hypothetical, a means of talking to one's adversaries, rather than a doubt (ibid. 342).

Methodical Doubt. The foregoing indicates that the older philosophers understood the methodical use of doubt. However, the term methodical doubt is usually associated with descartes in his celebrated proposal to doubt all things as a prerequisite for establishing certitude (Discourse on Method, 4; Meditations, 1, 2). Scholastic philosophers maintain that Descartes's method logically leads to universal skepticism, even though Descartes himself was not a skeptic.

Among scholastics there is disagreement regarding the place doubt should have as a philosophical method, particularly in the critique of knowledge. Some exclude the possibility of doubting the first fact (one's own exis tence), the first condition (the mind's ability to achieve truth), and the first principle (the principle of contradic tion). Others maintain that such an attitude is open to the charge of excessive dogmatism and that it also arbitrarily singles out only three among many spontaneous and evidential certitudes. Hence, this group holds that all certitudes are subject to methodical doubt, but of a different kind than Descartes's.

To understand this view rightly, it is necessary to distinguish first between simple doubt and methodical doubt. Simple doubt is the mind's involuntary perplexity when confronted with a problem it is unable to solve. Methodical doubt, on the other hand, is an assumed attitude whereby one deliberately chooses to doubt as a means of promoting inquiry and establishing certitude. Such methodical doubt may be either real or fictitious. It is real when one actually suspends his judgment on a proposition. Apparently it was this sort of methodical doubt that Descartes attempted to use universally; yet to do so plunges one into a skepticism from which it is impossible to emerge. The doubt is fictitious when one attempts only to assume that the contradictory of a certitude is true and discovers that such an assumption is impossible to entertain. Only this latter sort of doubt can be applied to the first fact, condition, and principle, and to other immediately evident truths. Hence, universal real doubt is prohibited not because of any dogmatic presumptions, but because the very attempt to doubt some truths is absurd and self-defeating.

Doubt and Skepticism. skepticism differs from methodical doubt in accepting doubt as the final outcome of inquiry rather than as its beginning. Skepticism abandons the quest for truth, despairs of certitude, and adopts an attitude of permanent doubt. The skepticism that is of interest to philosophy is not the practical skepticism of indecisive persons, nor the shallow, affected skepticism of those who want only to avoid intellectual effort, but the speculative or doctrinal skepticism of some serious thinkers who say that definitive and certain answers cannot be given to the great problems of life and knowledge.

Speculative skepticism is absolute if it is an unqualified mistrust of human knowledge that questions not only certitude but even probability. In an extreme form it professes to doubt everythingeven the most immediate facts of existence and consciousness. Skepticism is relative if it rejects the possibility of achieving reflex, scientific certitude, but recognizes probability and the necessity of accepting many things as certain in everyday life.

Skepticism may be universal or partial. Universal skepticism doubts all human knowledge, whatever its source. Partial skepticism doubts only some kinds of knowledge. Thus, platonism is skeptical of sense knowledge; positivism is skeptical of supra-sensible truths; fideism is skeptical of purely natural knowledge; rationalism is skeptical of divinely revealed truth, and so forth.

See Also: dialectics; knowledge, theories of; epistemology.

Bibliography: p. coffey, Epistemology, 2 v. (New York 1917; reprint 1958) 1:13538. l. m. rÉgis, Epistemology, tr. i. c. byrne (New York 1959). p. j. glenn, Criteriology (St. Louis 1933). r. p. phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy, 2 v. (Westminster, Md. 1948) 2:838. j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite, or the Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan from 4th French ed. (New York 1959).

[j. b. nugent]


views updated May 18 2018


The distinction between doubt as an instrument of rational thought and pathological doubt was known to philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza) long before Freud, and had long been studied as a symptom or syndrome in psychiatry. Théodule Ribot defined doubt as "a conflict between two tendencies in thought, incompatible and antagonistic, without any possible reconciliation, into a succession of positive and negative judgments about the same subject that does not culminate in a conclusion" (1925). In his study on obsessional neurosis, Freud noted that "[a]nother mental need . . . obsessional neurotics . . . is the need for uncertainty in their life, or for doubt" (1909d, p. 232).

Freud first discussed doubt in his work on dreams where he saw it as a mark of resistance and an indication to the analyst of the significance of the repressed element to which it related. But for the most part Freud considered doubt in the context of obsessional neurosis, where it applied to events that had already occurred, and could be seen above all as an expression of ambivalence, a repudiation of the instinct for mastery as sublimated into an instinct for knowledge (1913i, p. 324).

The etiology of doubt as a symptom is analyzed at length in the case history of the "Rat Man" (1909d). Freud summarized it in a letter of April 21, 1918, to Lou Andreas-Salomé: "The tendency to doubt arises not from any occasion for doubt, but is the continuation of the powerful ambivalent tendencies in the pregenital phase, which from then on become attached to every pair of opposites that present themselves" (1966/1972, p. 77).

Obsessional thought, however, to characterize it more accurately, has three somewhat different aspects: uncertainty, hesitation, and doubt. Uncertainty can be viewed as that voluntary blurring of references, which underpins the aversion for watches, for example. Doubt, for its part, is an internal perception of indecision, which just like hesitation is associated with the volitional sphere, whereas uncertainty belongs to the cognitive and doubt to the affective. These three aspects do not necessarily function simultaneously, as witness the fact that we can be certain yet unable to decide on action; at the same time, action can overcome hesitation in the absence of the slightest certainty about the reasonableness of that decision. The essence of wisdom would be to achieve certainty before abandoning hesitationthe precise attribute obsessionals find it so hard to adopt (Mijolla-Mellor, 1992).

Apropos of the Rat Man, Freud mentions the "predilection for uncertainty" of obsessional neurotics who turn their thoughts to "those subjects upon which all mankind are uncertain and upon which our knowledge and judgments must necessarily remain open to doubt" (1909d, p. 232-33). This tendency extends to easily accessible knowledge, seemingly as a form of protection against the risk of knowing. In fact the obsessive neutralizes any idea, any decision, by evoking its opposite. Thus hesitation and the predilection for uncertainty constitute the cognitive aspect of the impossibility of choosing, an attitude that serves to delay action indefinitely. The obsessive is paralyzed by ambivalence, immobilized by two instinctual impulses directed at the same object.

What is the source of this ambivalence? Since it is too general a concept to determine the "choice of neurosis," Freud offered a hypothesis based on constitutional factors: "The sadistic components of love have, from constitutional causes, been exceptionally strongly developed." And in terms of individual history, these "have consequently undergone a premature and all too thorough suppression" (1909d, p. 240).

Serge Leclaire (1971) has made significant contributions to our understanding of the nature of doubt in the obsessive individual, which he sums up rather laconically as "He doubts because he knows."

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Certainty; Intellectualization; Mahler, Gustav (meeting with Sigmund Freud); "Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis" (Rat Man); Obsession; Obsessional neurosis.


Freud, Sigmund. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1913i). The disposition to obsessional neurosis: a contribution to the problem of choice of neurosis. SE, 12: 311-326.

Freud, Sigmund, and Andreas-Salomé, Lou. (1972). Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé; letters. (Ernst Pfeiffer, Ed. and William and Elaine Robson-Scott, Trans.). New York: Harcourt Brace. (Original work published 1966)

Janet, Pierre. (1909). Les Névroses. Paris: Flammarion.

Leclaire, Serge. (1971). Démasquer le reel. Paris: Le Seuil, "Champ freudien."

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le Plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


views updated May 18 2018

doubt / dout/ • n. a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction: some doubt has been cast upon the authenticity of this account | they had doubts that they would ever win. • v. 1. [tr.] feel uncertain about: I doubt my ability to do the job. ∎  question the truth or fact of (something): who can doubt the value of these services? | I doubt if anyone slept that night. ∎  disbelieve (a person or their word): I have no reason to doubt him. ∎  [intr.] feel uncertain, esp. about one's religious beliefs.2. archaic fear; be afraid of: I doubt not your contradictions.PHRASES: beyond (a or a shadow of a) doubt allowing no uncertainty: you've proved it beyond doubt | they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what made them doubt open to question: the outcome is no longer in doubt. ∎  feeling uncertain about something: by the age of 14 he was in no doubt about his career doubt used to indicate the speaker's firm belief that something is true even if evidence is not given or available: those who left were attracted, no doubt, by higher pay. ∎  used to introduce a concession that is subsequently dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant: they no doubt did what they could to help her, but their best proved insufficient.without (a) doubt indisputably: he was without doubt the very worst kind of reporter.DERIVATIVES: doubt·a·ble adj.doubt·er n.doubt·ing·ly adv.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Doubt (Sanskrit, vicikitṣā; Chinese, yi) serves in different Buddhist traditions as either a hindrance to spiritual development or a catalyst for contemplative insight. In the mainstream Buddhist schools of South Asia, doubt refers to skepticism about claims made within the tradition regarding such cardinal teachings as conditionality, the constituents of spiritual cultivation, or the Buddha, dharma, and saṅgha. Thus, doubt obstructs confidence in and tacit acceptance of the religion's teachings, and it hinders the development of prajÑĀ (wisdom).

Doubt was the fifth of the five hindrances (nivāraṇa) to dhyĀna (trance state)—along with sensual desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, and restlessness and worry—and it had no constructive role to play in Indian Buddhist meditation. Doubt was rather an obstacle to overcome through prajñā, sustained thought (vicāra), and the investigation of dharmas (dharmapravicaya). Doubt could be temporarily allayed on the second stage of dhyāna and overcome permanently at the first stage of sanctity (i.e., stream-entry).

By the time East Asian Buddhists fully appraised doubt, this debilitating skepticism had been transformed into a principal force driving the meditator toward enlightenment. In the kŌan meditation of the Chan school, for example, the "sensation of doubt" (Chinese, yiqing) became the principal catalyst to contemplation by provoking a profound existential quandary. Doubt generated through inquiry into the keyword or critical phrase (Chinese, huatou) of the kōan grows to take in all perplexities and uncertainties that one confronts in everyday life. Doubt eventually creates such tremendous pressure in the mind of the meditator that it "explodes" (Chinese, po), destroying in the process the conventional point of view that constitutes the ego, and freeing the mind to experience the multivalent levels of selfless interrelationships that characterize enlightenment in the Chan school.

See also:Meditation; Path; Psychology


Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "The Short-Cut Approach of K'an-hua Meditation: The Evolution of a Practical Subitism in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism." In Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, ed. Peter N. Gregory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "The Transformation of Doubt (Yiqing) in Chinese Buddhist Meditation." In Love and Emotions in Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Halvor Eifring. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Jayatilleke, Kulatissa Nanda. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. London: Allen and Unwin, 1963.

Nyanaponika Thera, trans. and comp. "The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest: Selected Texts from the Pali Canon and the Commentaries." Wheel Series 26 (1947). Reprint, Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1961.

Robert E. Buswell, Jr.


views updated May 21 2018


To question or hold questionable. Uncertainty of mind; the absence of a settled opinion or conviction; the attitude of mind toward the acceptance of or belief in a proposition, theory, or statement, in which the judgment is not at rest but inclines alternately to either side.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not beyond all possible or imaginary doubt, but such proof as precludes every reasonable hypothesis except that which it tends to support. It is proof to a moral certainty, that is, such proof as satisfies the judgment and consciences of the jury, as reasonable people and applying their reason to the evidence before them, that the crime charged has been committed by the defendant, and so satisfies them as to leave no other reasonable conclusion possible.

A reasonable doubt is such a doubt as would cause a reasonable and prudent person in the graver and more important affairs of life to pause and hesitate to act upon the truth of the matter charged. It does not mean a mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt.

Doubt (Magazine)

views updated May 23 2018

Doubt (Magazine)

The journal of the Fortean Society, devoted to highlighting and discussing "Fortean data,"strange and anomalistic scientific phenomena collected by Charles Fort. It was first published as the Fortean Society Journal in September 1937. The name was changed to Doubt with the eleventh issue (Winter 1944-45). It ceased publication with issue no. 61 after the death of editor Tiffany Thayer. The Fortean community is now served by a number of succeeding publications, including the Fortean Times, Chaos: The Review of the Damned, and INFO.


views updated May 29 2018

doubt †fear; be in uncertainty XIII. — OF. doter, duter (mod. douter) :- L. dubitāre waver, hesitate, rel. to dubius DUBIOUS. The latinized sp. with b appears XV.
So doubt sb. †fear; uncertainty. XIII. — OF. dote, dute (mod. doute), f. douter. Hence doubtful, doubtless XIV.