Pascal and Hamlet both struggle with the question of how to act under circumstances of constant uncertainty. Hamlet deeply desires conviction before he acts, while Pascal argues that our actions will lead to belief. And, since we can never be absolutely certain, only the highest in a set of probabilities should dictate our actions. Though they try to weigh finite probabilities against the infinite, both Hamlet and Pascal recognize that the human condition limits our ability to know the infinite consequences of our actions and choices. To understand these probabilities, Pascal reasons through rigid, calculable steps. His process contrasts sharply with Shakespeare’s representation of temperamental human logic in Hamlet. Hamlet’s distorted reasoning highlights our mortal tendency to fixate on even the smallest risks in the shadow of vast gain. As Shakespeare writes, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”.
Regardless of the strength or weakness of one’s conviction, acting with confidence (even if insincere at first) creates a stronger, genuine belief. Uncertainty, according to Pascal, can be overcome through action and outward show.
Conversely, Hamlet is immobilized by uncertainty. Unlike Pascal, Hamlet needs to believe in his choice of action before he can perform it. He is thoughtful to the point of obsession, and constantly puts off action for the sake of having a more solid reason to do it. Hamlet recognizes his own hesitancy, and often berates himself for not being as passionate and resolved as the actor is in relation to the fictional Hecuba, or as Fortinbras’ soldier is over an inconsequential piece of land. All the while that he, Hamlet, has the strongest reason to act – his father’s wrongful death and his mother’s disgraceful marriage – all he does is complain:
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A stallion! Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brains.
Brumbaugh, Victoria. “Action and Uncertainty in Pascal’s Wager and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”
The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability
“The Art of the Probable” addresses the history of scientific ideas, in particular the emergence and development of mathematical probability. But it is neither meant to be a history of the exact sciences per se nor an annex to, say, the Course 6 curriculum in probability and statistics. Rather, our objective is to focus on the formal, thematic, and rhetorical features that imaginative literature shares with texts in the history of probability. These shared issues include (but are not limited to): the attempt to quantify or otherwise explain the presence of chance, risk, and contingency in everyday life; the deduction of causes for phenomena that are knowable only in their effects; and, above all, the question of what it means to think and act rationally in an uncertain world.