Shanley’s thought-provoking, multi-faceted play, Doubt, can be described simply as a battle of diametrically opposed wills and belief systems (mainly that of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn), appropriately staged primarily in a “court-room style” setting. Those reading and watching the play are, in a way, forced to come to terms with and confront their principle beliefs as they grapple with the enigmatic concepts of judgment, morality, and of course, doubt. In the contest of wills that ensues as the play progresses following the aspersions cast upon Father Flynn by Sister Aloysius, Doubt calls to attention the difficulties of navigating one’s way in a modern world enveloped in dramatic changes and moral dilemmas. By not making clear who the protagonist and antagonist of the story are, and who in fact is in the right, Shanley instead endorses a complete, bold rejection of absolutes—of all that is dogmatic, straightforward, and black and white. One scene that encapsulates the play’s central theme of conflicting mental practices, those of dogmatism/certainty and doubt, occurs early on in the play, when Sister Aloysius is speaking with Sister James about the way in which she should teach and conduct herself in front of her students.
Although the relationship between Sister James and Sister Aloysius is not the fundamental focus and subject of scrutiny in the play, this brief encounter clearly shows how irreconcilably different the convictions of the two women are. Sister James, in her gentle and oftentimes passive way, is a more subtle form of Father Flynn. In this scene, the women are discussing William London in Sister Aloysius’ office. Sister Aloysius, continuing her relentless line of criticism and cynicism, urges Sister James to be skeptical when it comes to the origin of William London’s ostensibly spontaneous nosebleeds. She tells her not to let compassion dictate her judgment, and instead to practice disconnectedly cold pragmatism: “Liars should be frightened to lie to you. They should be uncomfortable in your presence. I doubt they are…the children should think you see right through them” (12). Taken aback by this and dubious, Sister James asks, “Wouldn’t that be a little frightening?”, to which Sister Aloysius unblinkingly responds, “Only to the ones that are up to no good” (13). These words carry incredibly strong implications related to the play’s main plot.
When she speaks of William London, she is, by virtue of insinuation, speaking of Father Flynn. She adheres to the notion that only the guilty flinch and are disconcerted when accused of having done something wrong. Since Father Flynn shudders at her unwavering suppositions, she assumes, without consideration, that he is lying, and thus guilty of bringing about an “improper” relationship with the vulnerable Donald Muller. She is of the understanding that intuition and faith are infallible guides that facilitate the discovery of truth. She is blinded by her deeply entrenched beliefs about human nature and behavior, and because of this, she refuses to see the possible innocence and humanity in Father Flynn until the very end, when she laments, “I have doubts! I have such Doubts!” In conjunction with her ultimate adoption of doubt, it could even be said that she begins to doubt her religious faith and vocation in general.
In his revealing preface, Shanley expresses his notions of certainty and uncertainty: “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise” (ix). Doubt, he explains, has a dynamic, malleable nature that allows for change and growth, while certainty is an emotionally expedient refuge for those who are too scared to admit that they, in reality, “don’t know…anything”. Father Flynn, coinciding with this perception of obstinate sureness, says to Sister Aloysius, “even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion and not a fact” (55). Hypocritically, Sister Aloysius preaches emotional disconnectedness and concrete logic, when she does not practice them herself. While it can be said that Father Flynn and Sister James evidently represent doubt and Sister Aloysius certainty, it is unquestionable that Shanley does not endeavor to predispose an individual to favoring one side over the other.
He prevents one from establishing pat conclusions about the characters, their motives, and the validity of their arguments. In doing this, he creates an interactive experience for the reader and audience member; the play is, in large part, a reflection of oneself and one’s core beliefs, and therefore, interpretations will vary from person to person. One thing, however, is certain with regard to verdict and truth: “There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time”. Doubt warns us not to lose sight of the truth by seeing only what we expect or hope to see. Rather than admonishing suspicion, it admonishes lack of humility and the ability to view things through a different lens.