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Preface: A Meeting of Minds

What if we could use the power of Shakespeare’s poetry to illustrate certain aspects of the Dharma, the truth about the nature of existence as taught by the Buddha? The prospect is intriguing and daunting, intriguing to think of relating Shakespeare’s poetry to such truths, and daunting because the Dharma is so vast. I have tried to find Buddhist teachings that might be related to Shakespeare’s works and passages from Shakespeare that might be related to Buddhist teachings. What I have found amounts to a fraction of Shakespeare and a fraction of Buddhism, so perhaps my title is too ambitious. A Few Aspects of The Dharma According to Certain Passages from Shakespeare might be more realistic.

But setting reality aside, let us imagine that we could bring the Buddha and Shakespeare together for a meeting of minds. In preparation, the Buddha would read most of the plays and several sonnets, and Shakespeare would read The Dhammapada, two or three sutras, and a life of the Buddha. While reading Shakespeare’s plays, the Buddha’s heart would overflow with compassion for the suffering of the poor deluded characters. And to Shakespeare, the Buddha’s teachings would seem strange at first but would ring true. He would even want to write a play based on events in the Buddha’s life.

Shakespeare would arrive at the meeting place in doublet and hose and find the Buddha in robes made from squares of saffron-colored cloth. They would bow to one another, and each would express sincere admiration for the other’s work. Soon they would settle into a discussion of those works, with thoughtful questions, careful explanations, moments of puzzlement, and occasional nods of agreement. What would they discuss?  Their conversation might cover the primacy of mind, the nature of worldly existence, suffering and its causes, and qualities that offer a path out of suffering to happiness. It would be a conversation worth overhearing.

1. Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare

A. Across the Great Divide

Several years ago, I spent two weeks at a Buddhist retreat center on a mountain in France. Our teachings and practices took place in a large canvas tent, with sides drawn up to let in the summer breeze. Sitting in meditation posture, we learned to tame our minds by focusing attention on a series of objects, beginning with the breath. We followed the Buddha’s simple direction: “when I breathe in, I know that I am breathing in; when I breathe out, I know that I am breathing out.” Over the coming days, we would go on to focus attention on a mantra, an image of the Buddha, bodily sensations, and feelings. Each session began and ended with a prayer for the benefit of all beings.

From the tent, we saw colorful Tibetan prayer flags moving with the wind, heard delivery trucks bringing food and supplies, and smelled the vegetarian curry prepared for lunch. Inwardly, we struggled, some with distracting thoughts, some with strong emotions, some with back pain, some with strained knee ligaments, some with sleepiness, some with buzzing flies, and some with an itching nose.

Our instructions were: (1) focus attention on an object; (2) watch the mind, and when attention wanders, return it to the object; and (3) otherwise, rest the mind in stillness.

Maintaining focus on a meditation object turned out to be harder than I expected. At first, I was lost in distraction most of the time, which was discouraging, although our teacher had told us to expect distractions. By the end of the retreat, I had made progress and was feeling settled and at moments deeply peaceful. I had not achieved any state of great insight, but it was a beginning, and we had been cautioned not to fixate on attaining any state. As I boarded the bus that would take me to the airport, I was sorry to leave but resolved to build on the experience by practicing regularly and returning for more retreats.[i]

Within twenty-four hours of my return to Washington, D.C., I went to a performance of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre. I entered the theatre feeling tired from jet lag but soon found myself transfixed by the thoroughly absorbing production. Three hours later, after the scheming, deception, and manipulation, after the mental anguish, madness, and killing, and after the building tension and catastrophe, I gazed at the bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello lying on the stage. The emotions aroused in me had been exhausted. I walked to the Metro station in the soft September rain with a peaceful state of mind, not unlike the state of mind experienced in meditation.

In the days that followed, I thought of Shakespeare on his rainy northern island and the Buddha five centuries before Christ in a land inhabited by elephants, tigers, and monkeys. I had found each to be a source of wisdom and wondered if there were parallels or instructive connections between Shakespeare’s works and the Buddha’s teachings.

Try as I might, I could not come up with much. It was as if the Buddha and Shakespeare were from different planets. The Buddha taught his followers to overcome the ego and transcend the cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, training the mind, and benefiting others. Shakespeare wrote plays about romantic love, sex, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge. The apparent lack of common ground should not have come as a surprise. Drama requires tension within and between ego-centered individuals with negative emotions and conflicting desires. These essential ingredients of drama are the very things the Buddha taught his followers to overcome.

My search for connections was at a standstill.  And before me loomed a chasm of historical, cultural, and religious differences between Shakespeare’s England and the Buddha’s India, a great divide that I could not fathom or hope to bridge. Sensing that the task was hopeless, I gave up. If there were relationships between such disparate realms, I would not be the one to find them. But as soon as I stopped searching, connections began to reveal themselves. Now that I was no longer trying, it occurred to me that the Buddha and Shakespeare:

  • Both recognized that our thoughts shape our experience;
  • Both were concerned with suffering and its causes;
  • Both embraced qualities that counter suffering, including love, compassion, joy, and equanimity;
  • Both were concerned with impermanence and death;
  • Both understood the illusory nature of existence;
  • Both believed that ill-intentioned actions have bad consequences for the actor;
  • Both realized that the self to which we cling has no enduring reality.

As the fog lifted, I began to find passages and dramatic situations in Shakespeare’s works that illustrate some of the Buddha’s basic teachings. But how could this be? Shakespeare, on his rainy northern island, could have known nothing about the teachings of the Buddha. Knowledge of Buddhism disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire and would not return until after Shakespeare’s lifetime. Believers in rebirth might speculate that Shakespeare was a bodhisattva[ii]who chose to be born in Elizabethan England to spread the Dharma in a new form to new audiences. But we do not have to believe that Shakespeare was a bodhisattva to understand how his works might sometimes resonate with the teachings of the Buddha. We have only to appreciate the universality of an author whose plays have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.


B. Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

As Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, wrote in the preface to the First Folio, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”[iii]  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that he, “shakes off the iron bondage of space and time,”[iv] to produce plays and poems “out of the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind.”[v]

Out of his oceanic mind, Shakespeare brought forth human experience in all its depth and complexity. He shows us every feeling known to humankind, including love, compassion, joy, sadness, grief, hatred, pride, jealousy, remorse, and fear. He takes us inside the minds of lovers, deposed monarchs, jealous husbands, mistreated fathers, grieving parents, and serial killers. He places characters in extreme situations that test their limits and take some to the brink of madness and beyond. His settings include royal courts, taverns, battlefields, bone-strewn gravesites, blasted heaths, enchanted islands, and fairy haunted forests. His works embrace the natural and the supernatural, the benevolent and malign, the innocence of childhood and the experience of old age. As Goethe wrote, “whatever can be known of the heart of man may be found in his plays.”[vi]

As Jonson and Coleridge observed, Shakespeare’s works transcend his own time. In several of his sonnets, including Sonnet 55, Shakespeare announces his intention to do no less:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme. . . .
Your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.

He intends for his poems to last not just for a long time, but “to the ending doom.” He has similar aspirations for his plays. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cassius asks:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown! (III.i.124-126)

Shakespeare’s vision is at least as farseeing as that which he attributes to Cassius. He transcends the limits of his own time and place to write for audiences that will encounter his works in the distant future, “in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” He writes for us and for the millions who have experienced his works over the last 400 years and those who will experience them until “the ending doom.”

Shakespeare’s vision brings everyone into his audience. His perspective is vast, as is that of the Buddha and his followers. They envision the end of suffering and the ultimate enlightenment of all beings. Two such universal visions cannot be mutually exclusive, and any correspondences between them should be well worth exploring.


Excerpts from DHAMMAPADAby Thomas Byrom, copyright © 1976 by Thomas Byrom. Used by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Folger Digital Texts (https://www.folger.edu/folger-digital-texts) is the primary source for the quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

All sources are cited below. Brief passages excerpted are in the public domain or fall under the definition of fair use. The Dharma According to Shakespeare is a scholarly, non-profit project in the service of education and public discourse.

1 The description of my retreat is a composite of experiences from several retreats in France and the United States.

2 A bodhisattva is one who is able to reach nirvana but instead chooses to be reborn to help sentient beings.

[iii]Jonson, Ben. To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Poetry Foundation, 2016 (07/19/2016) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/44466

[iv]Foakes, R.A., Coleridge on Shakespeare: The Text of the Lectures of 1811-12.(London & New York: Routledge, 2013),166.

[v]Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge(London: George Bell and Sons, 1884), 278.

[vi]Bent, Samual Arthur. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1887). 258.



2. Mind


A. Mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine:

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.[i]

 Mindfulness is often cultivated through meditation, but we can practice it in any situation. The Buddha taught mindfulness and praised the mindful observer:

Mindful among the mindless,

Awake while others dream,

Swift as the racehorse,

He outstrips the field.[ii]

The alternative to mindfulness is to be so preoccupied with thoughts and emotions, including memories, plans, hopes, fears, resentments, and worries, that we barely notice what is going on around or within us. The problem is not with thoughts and emotions, which are sometimes beneficial and often unavoidable. The problem is with our tendency to let them take over our minds, with each thought leading to the next in an endless cascade of distraction. Thus distracted, we are under the control of a “monkey mind” that keeps jumping from one thought or emotion to the next.

Shakespeare knew all about the monkey mind. InA Midsummer Nights Dream, he writes of “Lovers and madmen” with “seething brains.” His plays contain many such lovers and madmen, but he mastered his own mind well enough to create a body of work grounded in mindful observation of:

  • Natural surroundings,
  • The behavior of other people, and
  • Interior mental states.

Attention to natural surroundings would have come early as young Shakespeare explored the gardens, meadows, and forests around Stratford, observing the shapes, colors, movements, sounds, and smells of the rural countryside. These experiences remained with him when he sat down to write poems and plays that contain 57 species of birds and 108 different flowers, weeds, and trees, along with memorable evocations of weather and landscape.

To give an example, in Hamlet Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia with the following description.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. (IV.vii.190-191)

The essayist, William Hazlitt, noted that:

The leaves of the willow are, in fact, white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear “hoary” in the reflection of the brook.[iii]

Details such as the white undersides of willow leaves reflected in a brook bring nature convincingly to life. Only a mindful observer would notice such details, remember them, and turn them into poetry.

We can also imagine Shakespeare in the marketplace or the tavern as he attends to the expressions and conversations of people around him, soaking up their quirks and manners of speech. Drawing on such observations, he created:

  • The dissolute Falstaff,
  • The unprincipled Nurse of Romeo and Juliet,
  • The puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night,
  • The meddling Polonius of Hamlet, and
  • The bright and witty Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing.

In character after character, Shakespeare gives us personalities as vivid and true as the people we know.

In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses commends the quality of mindfulness, the watchful state that the Buddha praises and the playwright exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep,
Keeps place with thought and almost, like the gods,
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles. (III.iii.205-209)

The watchful state takes in everything. Nothing is too minute or too vast for it. It discerns each particle of the gold of Plutus, the Greek god of wealth. It penetrates to the depths of the ocean and of the mind, to the cradle of thoughts and emotions. From his watchful state, Shakespeare explored the depths of his own mind to observe the range of qualities latent in all of us. In Sonnet 109, he writes of a mind inhabited by “All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood.” By mindfully observing the frailties and strengths within, he was able to imagine the interior lives of the great variety of characters that populate his plays.


B. Taming the Mind

The “frailties that besiege all kinds of blood” give rise to thoughts and emotions that will control us if we do not learn to tame them. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.[iv]

Hamlet testifies to the power of the mind to shape our experience when he tells his visiting fellow students, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that:

there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (II.ii.268-269)


I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. (II.ii.273-275)

Hamlet’s bad dreams arise from a mind that is not yet tamed. Spiritual teachers have likened an untamed mind to a glass of muddy water and a tamed mind to a glass in which the mud has settled to the bottom and the water is clear. Shakespeare hits on a strikingly similar analogy in Troilus and Cressida when he has Achilles say:

My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred,
And I myself see not the bottom of it.  (III.iii.308-309)

Most of us rarely see to the bottom of our minds, so much are they stirred by distracting thoughts and emotions. But meditators can, with practice, begin to tame their minds by watching thoughts and feelings as they arise and noting them without attachment or aversion until they pass. Meditation advice can be found in the reading suggestions at the end of this book. The crucial point is to be mindful of interior mental states so we can control them before they cause harm. Especially dangerous are negative emotions, such as jealousy, anger, and avarice. If we habitually fall under their control, we will be sure to regret it. As the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much                                                                                                    As your own thoughts, unguarded.[v]

Although Shakespeare could not have been familiar with Buddhist meditation practices, his plays amply illustrate the Buddha’s teaching about the perils of an unguarded mind. Consider Othello. At the opening of the play, he has married Desdemona and faces the wrath of her father, who accuses him of witchcraft. But the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish invasion. By the time he reaches Cyprus, a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things are going well, the malevolent Ensign, Iago, plants in Othello’s mind the false notion that Desdemona is committing adultery with Lieutenant Cassio. The Moor’s mental state rapidly deteriorates as Iago spins a web of circumstantial evidence that makes it appear that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

Even as Othello writhes in agony under the spell of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster,” he knows the cause of his anguish is his mind and not outer circumstances:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all… (III.iii.389-395)

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! (III.iii.397-400)

Manipulated by Iago and unable to control the emotions that are tearing him apart, Othello suffocates his wife and then learns of her innocence. Looking on her body, he laments:

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! (V.ii.330-331)

If ever a living character could be said to suffer the torments of hell, it is Othello, who ends by stabbing himself to death.

Then there is King Lear, who plans to enjoy a happy retirement from the stresses of monarchy after dividing his kingdom among three daughters. His plan gets off to a bad start when he asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most.” Two wicked and insincere daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate protestations of love, while his youngest child, Cordelia, says that she loves him according to her bond as a daughter. At this, the disappointed Lear allows anger to take over. In a rage, he banishes Cordelia, along with his loyal servant, Kent, who defends her. Lear realizes his mistake when the wicked daughters, having gained power, begin to treat him slightingly, take away his retinue, and leave him out in a terrible storm. Like Othello, he knows that his anguish is of the mind and that it is worse than any physical suffering:

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude! (III.iv.6-14)

Lear’s mental suffering continues long after the outward storm abates. When Cordelia returns and takes him into her care, he wakes to say:

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (IV.vii.46-48)

Lear’s mind, deluded by many years of deference and flattery, is unprepared for harsh treatment. Under the weight of suffering too great for him to bear, he descends into madness.

Finally, there is Macbeth. Fresh from victory in battle, Macbeth meets three witches who tell him that he shall be “king hereafter.” Enticed by the prospect of royal power, Macbeth conceives a plot to kill King Duncan and seize the crown. Upon returning home he thinks better of it, but Lady Macbeth spurs him on. After murdering the visiting Duncan and claiming the crown, he commits more murders to consolidate his position and then suffers the mental consequences of his actions:

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III.ii.41)

Lady Macbeth’s mind is also in turmoil as she relives Duncan’s murder while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. Her doctor arrives, and Macbeth asks:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? (V.iii.50-55)

The doctor replies:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. (V.iii.56-57)

And Macbeth responds:

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it. (V.iii.58)

He fails to understand that we must look after our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to watch their minds and are overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous pain. We risk falling into the same trap if we do not heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tongpa:

In my every action, I will watch my mind,
And the moment destructive emotions arise,
I will confront them strongly and avert them,
Since they will hurt both me and others.[vi]

When we fail to master our minds, we increase our suffering and that of others. Suffering and the causes of suffering will be the subjects of our next chapter.


[i]Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness, Mindful: Healthy Living Healthy Life, 11 Jan. 2017 (01 Mar 2019) https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/

[ii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9.

[iii]Hazlitt, William, Shakespeare and Milton(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1923), 2.

[iv]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala,1993), 1.

[v]Ibid. 13

[vi]Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15Jun2016)




3. Suffering and its Causes

A. Suffering

Some people avoid Buddhism because they think it is only about suffering, but this is not the case. The Buddha’s teachings show us a path out of suffering to happiness and ultimate freedom. But to take that path, we must first acknowledge the reality of suffering and understand its causes. So the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering:

Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.[i]

Even those fortunate enough to enjoy relative health, prosperity, and security suffer from stress, negative emotions, or – at the very least – a vague sense of unease, together with the sure knowledge that we and our loved ones will grow old, get sick, and die.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In these tragedies, we find mental anguish that is worse than any physical pain. But suffering is not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s characters undergo every variety of suffering, and he makes us feel their pain. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a wall and dies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (III.iv.95-100)

We don’t just observe grief in these lines. We experience what it feels like from inside the character’s mind.

Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, endures an even greater loss. After he learns that the agents of Macbeth have murdered his wife and children, he is advised to “Dispute it like a man.” His response is an understated but powerful expression of his grief:

I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? (IV.iii.260-264)

Macduff articulates a critical truth. When suffering comes, we have to face and feel the pain before healing can begin. If we try to suppress our pain by diverting or numbing ourselves, we only create more pain.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But we can create plenty of misery without such catastrophes. Failure to control our cravings is all it takes to cause pain for ourselves and others. Sonnet 129 shows what happens when we allow our desires to get the better of us.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker tells us that until he acts on them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. Both the craving and regret are severe to the point of madness. There may be bliss in the instant of gratification, but very woe follows. In the closing couplet he says that we know what is going to happen, but don’t know how to stop ourselves. As the Eighth Century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva wrote of sentient beings:

Though longing to be rid of suffering,
They rush headlong towards suffering itself.
Although longing to be happy, in their ignorance
They destroy their own well-being, as if it were their worst enemy.[ii]

Another form of suffering notable in Shakespeare is sadness or melancholy, which is expressed by Hamlet when he says:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II.ii.318-327)

For no apparent reason, Hamlet finds the earth and the heavens to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Veniceis another character who cannot account for his sadness:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. (I.i.1-4)

These speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, melancholy is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night,we have a song about the wind and the rain “that raineth every day.”

The sadness that underlies Shakespeare’s works corresponds to what Buddhists call the suffering of conditioned existence or all-pervasive suffering. Because we are subject to causes and conditions that we cannot control and often do not understand, we experience a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life. It may be as pronounced as Hamlet’s melancholy or as mild as a song about wind and rain at the close of a comedy. All-pervasive suffering can be like the sound of a refrigerator running in the background. We may hardly notice it until the motor shuts off. For many of us, the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence rarely shuts off.


B. The Causes of Suffering

The Second Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of the causes of suffering. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance. We are in a state of ignorance when we fail to appreciate that:

  • We are not lasting, independent, or single;
  • Others are not lasting, independent or single; and
  • We are not separate from others.

In our ignorance, we see permanence where there is change, independence where there is interconnection, and solidity where there is division. Thus deluded, we develop attachments and aversions to things that don’t exist as we think they do, and we suffer.

Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, avarice, pride, aggression, anger, hatred, jealousy, and lust for power are also causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion. They are the negative emotions that will destroy us if we fail to watch our minds.

We have seen the three poisons at work in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth:

  • Othello is in love with Desdemona, but love turns to anguish when he mistakes Iago’s falsehoods for proof of infidelity. Deranged by jealousy, he kills Desdemona and himself.
  • King Lear is attached to the love of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and plans to set his “rest on her kind nursery.” But when he mistakes her honesty for unkindness, attachment gives way to wrath, and he angrily disinherits her. With this action, he opens the door to the misery that follows.
  • Macbeth’s lust for royal power leads him to murder King Duncan and then commit more murders to protect his position. He turns his kingdom into a place where “sighs and shrieks and groans” rent the air, and all for a “fruitless crown.” He ends with his head on a pike.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth fail to master their minds, fall prey to the three poisons, and – as Shantideva says, “destroy their own well being as if it were their worst enemy.”

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays about kings of England, and a “fruitless crown” is at the center of each of them. The crown is the chief object of attachment, the prize for which Shakespeare’s characters are ready to kill and be killed. And those that attain royal power will go to any lengths to keep it. But this crown, for which men wage battles, commit murders, and heap misery upon misery, is neither lasting, nor independent, nor single.

  • No kingship lasts for long. Shakespeare wrote seven plays about the six kings who ruled between 1399 and 1485. During this period the crown changed hands eight times, and three kings were deposed and killed.
  • The crown is never independent. To maintain a tenuous hold on power, Shakespeare’s kings cobble together networks of supporters large enough to counter their adversaries. But despite their best efforts, they often fall victim to shifting alliances and the vagaries of battle.
  • The crown is not indivisible. It is divisible, as we see when King Lear plans to divide his kingdom among three daughters. And Shakespeare’s kings watch their realms split apart as territory is lost and won and lost again.

One by one, Shakespeare’s kings come to the painful realization that their crown lacks inherent reality. Shortly before losing his throne Richard II laments.

    within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! (III.ii. 165-175)


Shakespeare’s hollow crown is a symbol of the false promise that lies at the heart of the three poisons.

The crown brings little happiness, even to kings that keep their thrones.  In Henry IV, Part 2, the King has insomnia. Lying awake, perhaps with a troubled conscience, he thinks of a sea-boy slumbering on a mast during a storm.

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And, in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.(III.i.26-31)

Henry IV might well have trouble sleeping at night. By deposing Richard II and seizing his throne, he has set off a train of events that will lead to the wars of the roses, with all of their attendant slaughter. The hollow crown lures the ignorant into power plays that bring destruction for generations to come.

In exploring the causes of suffering, we have focused on characters that bring misery to themselves and others by acting out of jealousy, anger, and lust for power. Without the pain we bring on ourselves, we would suffer less, but we would still suffer. Birth is suffering, teaches the Buddha. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” says King Lear.

It may seem unfair that people who do nothing to bring suffering on themselves endure misfortune. But suffering does not have to be seen as punishment. It may sometimes be a blessing, bringing us what we need to grow. In our chapter on Actions and Consequences, we will touch on the possible benefits of suffering.

Shakespeare shows us suffering and its causes, but does he have anything to offer concerning the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering? Shakespeare was a playwright and not a buddha. He does not prescribe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth. But in his plays, he shows us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, can do much to counter suffering. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We will explore them in our next chapter.



[i]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019) https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html

[ii]Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Bodhicharyavatara


4. The Four Immeasurables

The Buddha taught that selfless dedication to the happiness of others brings great benefits. So fundamental is this teaching that many communities begin their Dharma practices with The Prayer of the Four Immeasurables:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering, and                                                                                         May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from attachment and aversion.

The four immeasurables, sometimes called the brahma-viharas or divine abodes, include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness for themselves, because we must love ourselves before we can love others. They go on to wish happiness for someone dear to them, then for someone neutral, then for a difficult person, and eventually for all beings, unconditionally. Buddhists practice the other three immeasurables with the same all-embracing spirit. In this way, they cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others.

None of Shakespeare’s characters practice the four immeasurables formally. Nor do we find them training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet in Shakespeare’s plays, we find characters that, in their own ways, practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.


A. Loving-kindness

In expressing her love for Romeo, Juliet delivers lines that could serve to describe the vast and inexhaustible quality of loving-kindness.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea.
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.140-143)

As inexhaustible as Juliet’s love is, it is limited to the extent that it involves romantic attachment. But Juliet is only thirteen years old. We want to think that such love lives on, if not in this life then in another. To get a sense of loving-kindness in its fullest manifestation, we might imagine a love as boundless and deep as Juliet’s reaching out to all.

In Shakespeare, loving-kindness usually involves selfless dedication to the happiness of one person. None of Shakespeare’s characters exemplify such loving-kindness better than “the noble and true-hearted Kent,” who occupies himself entirely in extending kindnesses to his old master, King Lear. He risks Lear’s wrath by trying to dissuade him from foolishly disinheriting Cordelia and is exiled on pain of death. Undaunted, he returns in disguise to continue serving him. When Lear goes mad on the heath, Kent leads him to shelter from the elements, and then to shelter from those who would kill him, and finally to the care of Cordelia. Near the end of the play, seeing the dying Lear anguishing over the dead body of Cordelia, his kindness becomes compassion as he wishes him release from pain:

Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (V.iii.380-382)


B. Compassion

Compassion is the natural response of love to the suffering of others. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it. At the beginning of The Tempest, we are in the midst of a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero,and see a ship sinking in the raging sea. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (I.ii.5-13)

In these lines, Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures a greater storm of anguish within. When he notices his shivering Fool, he thinks of others feeling the fury of the elements. His selfish heart opens, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great pain, he comes to realize that he has been blind to the plight of others for too long. With the opening of his heart, he finds relief from his distress, if only for a moment.

Like loving-kindness, compassion is boundless. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others, the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows, it displaces attachment, aversion, and ignorance, thereby relieving our pain. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. The inexhaustible nature of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venicewhen Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio.[i]

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare, compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the distress of another. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.


C. Sympathetic Joy

Sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the goodness and good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, virtues, accomplishments, wealth, and success of others, wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune. Envy reflects the false notion that happiness is a limited commodity.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a military expedition. They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

There are no faces truer than those that are so washed.                                                                              How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping! (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and they prepare for a wedding. Meanwhile, Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.” Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her. Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives. Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune, he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John is one “to joy at weeping.” He devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception. Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests. When Hero faints and appears to be dead, the officiating Friar perceives her blamelessness and arranges to hide her away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but after the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot, they become friends again. The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero dead, agrees to marry her cousin, sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

And when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband.  (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages. Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with an imminent wedding, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at the happiness of others? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night each end with a triple wedding. And Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples.

As audience members, we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We celebrate the marriage of the lovers. We rejoice that those thought to be dead are alive and restored to their families. We delight in the virtues exemplified by the characters. And after the performance, we applaud the accomplishment of the actors. We can even exult in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us, the feelings of sympathetic joy fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.


D. Equanimity

Buddhist equanimity has two aspects. The first involves freedom from attachment to gain, praise, fame, and pleasure, and freedom from aversion to loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. Taken together, these are known as the eight worldly conditions, and they are a major source of suffering. The Buddha praises:

A mind that does not waver when touched by [the eight] worldly conditions . . . free from disturbances, purified of passion and finished with sensuality, it is calm and serene, without the storms of desires and the waves of worries.[ii]

Freedom from the eight worldly conditions is what Hamlet commends when he addresses these words to his friend, Horatio:

For thou hast been
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (III.ii.64-74)

Horatio is a model of equanimity. His is “a mind that does not waver when touched by the worldly conditions.” We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the loss calmly, saying:

With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now. (IV.iii.217-218)

Of course, the freedom from attachment that we find in Hamletand Julius Caesarcannot be traced to any Buddhist source. It is a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch. While Roman equanimity involves freedom from the worldly conditions, it lacks a second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which is to regard all beings with an equal mind.

An equal mind is not an indifferent mind. We practice equanimity when we set aside our attachment for some and aversion for others and remember that all have buddha-nature and want to be happy. With an all-embracing spirit we wish others freedom from obstacles that impede their happiness and obscure their inner goodness. In the words of the Buddha, equanimity is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.”[iii]It has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.

In Shakespeare’s plays, we find characters like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly conditions. But we do not easily find characters that exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. As benevolent as Shakespeare’s characters often are, they do not make it a point to regard all beings – friends, enemies, and everyone in between – equally. Nor do we as audience members look on all of Shakespeare’s characters equally. Drama by its nature elicits attachment for some and aversion for others.

And yet, with Shakespeare’s characters, our aversion is usually qualified because we come to know them so well. We are often privy to their innermost thoughts. In them, we can see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances. When we experience Hamlet we know what it is to be Hamlet, we know what it is to be Ophelia, and we know what it is to be Gertrude. We may even know what it is to be Claudius. In Macbeth, the title character is both protagonist and villain. We can understand him even as we are appalled by what he does. We can see most of these characters as human beings like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and avoid suffering, and in this respect, they are the same as us. To the extent we see that others are the same as us, we see them with an equal mind. Even Macbeth, or a real-life equivalent, has buddha-nature and deserves to be included in our practice. When we practice for those who behave wickedly, we are not excusing their wickedness. We are wishing them freedom from the delusions that cause it.

Equanimity in the face of the eight worldly conditions and in our attitude toward other beings requires insight. Insight comes with appreciation of impermanence, mortality, and interdependence, As we will see in the following chapters, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.



[i]Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.(Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.

[ii]Life’s Highest Blessings: The Maha Mangala Sutra. Dr. R.L. Soni, trans. (Kandy Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), 86.

[iii]The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bikkhu Nanamoli trans. (Wisdom Publications,1995). 394.

5. Impermanence

The Buddha tells a story about children intently making castles of sand by the side of a river. Each child is proudly possessive of his or her creation. When one child kicks over another’s sandcastle, there is a loud protest of “That was mine!” The perpetrator is set upon and beaten by the others. Then the children resume their play, each attached to his or her treasured sandcastle and careful to defend it from any further incursions. When evening comes, and it is time to go home, the children demolish the castles that they had jealously protected only moments before. Then they depart.[i]

In just this way we forget impermanence and cling to things that we know won’t last. The only difference between the children and the rest of us is that our attachments to impermanent phenomena do not usually go away with the onset of evening. We need to remember the words of the Buddha:

Everything arises and passes away.                                                                                                                 When you see this you are above sorrow.                                                                                                        This is the shining way.[ii]

Impermanence is a fact of existence. Everything in our universe is in a state of change. Some things change in readily observable ways, like sandcastles or clouds in the sky. Others, like rocks and buildings, appear permanent but are in continual change at the atomic level and will gradually disintegrate over time if not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal experience of impermanence and gives it poetic expression, as in the funeral song from Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (IV.ii.335-336)

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony looks at shape-shifting clouds and thinks of l the imminent dissolution of his body:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

Even such a body, Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, (IV.xiv.18-19)

In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida tells us more about impermanence than she intends when she vows to be true to Troilus:

If I be false or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When water drops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! (III.iii.187-193)

In vowing constancy, Cressida envisions a Troy that will last for eons into the future, until water drops have worn away its stones. Her vow notwithstanding, she transfers her affections to the Greek, Diomedes, after she is forced to join her father in the Greek camp. Audiences hearing Cressida’s speech would perceive three kinds of impermanence. In her words, they would find the slow-acting change in which water drops wear away stones. Knowing that Cressida will prove false, they would see the impermanence of human affections. And knowing the story of the Trojan War, they would think of the destruction that will come to Troy sooner than Cressida expects. While Cressida acknowledges slow-acting change, she has no idea how impermanent her world will prove to be.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are in one way or another about impermanence. In Sonnet 64, he describes how our seemingly solid world changes:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

“Down-razed” towers would have been a common sight in Shakespeare’s day when the recently dissolved monastic establishments were torn down or quarried for their stone, and brass images and other objects associated with the Roman Catholic faith went into the fire. Even the earth proves to be impermanent as the ocean washes it away and rearranges it. Seeing change all around, the speaker sadly reflects that if time can take away such solid-seeming phenomena, then it will surely take away his love. He can only “weep to have that which [he] fears to lose.”

In Sonnet 73, the speaker turns his attention to the impermanence of his own body. He makes us feel both the sweetness of life and the certainty of its passing:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In the opening line, the speaker identifies himself with life at its lowest ebb, and its most precious. The tone is elegiac, and the images of decline are also images of beauty, yellow leaves, bare ruined choirs, twilight fading into night, and the glow of a dying fire. The final couplet drives home the point that imminent loss makes love stronger and that our response should be to love well. This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the response is to weep. In Sonnet 64, impermanence leads to suffering, but in Sonnet 73, it leads to love.

We love well when we embrace love and change in the same instant, recognizing that they are inseparable and that change is a source of joy as well as sorrow. It will take our love away, but it brought our love to us in the first place. Without impermanence, nothing could change, grow, or live. As Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki explains:

When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.[iii]

Like the children with their sandcastles, we habitually grasp onto people and things as though they were permanent, but as the Buddha teaches, “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.”[iv]We can come to terms with the truth of “everything changes,” or we can argue with reality. Shakespeare shows us impermanence in all its manifestations and provides a glimpse of the reconciliation found in acceptance of change.



[i]Kornfield, Jack; Gil Fronsdal (eds); Teachings of the Buddha(Shambhala Publications, 1996), 16.

[ii]Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala,1993), 74.


[iii]Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind(New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 102-103.


[iv]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019) https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html



6. Mortality

Death is impermanence as it affects the worldly existence of living beings. According to the Buddha:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movement of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.[i]

And in the words of Hamlet:

man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one.’ (V.ii.74)

The reality of death was more immediate for the contemporaries of the Buddha and of Shakespeare than it is for most of us today. In Shakespeare’s London, the average life expectancy was 35. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague swept London four times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For those who escaped the plague, there were epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and malaria.[ii]And then there were the gruesome public executions and the decomposing heads of “traitors” displayed on London Bridge. Londoners confronted death and the horror of death every day.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of his plays no fewer than 74 die onstage, thirty by stabbing, five by beheading, seven by poisoning, and 32 by other means. Another 81 die offstage.[iii]

Remembrance of death can be a major factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. Shortly before he died, the Buddha said:

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.[iv]

Death is the most powerful motivation for spiritual practice, and meditation on death is the supreme meditation. Perhaps no one exemplifies these teachings better than Tibet’s great yogi and poet, Milarepa, who wrote:

In horror of death, I took to the mountains—
Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,
Capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind.
Now all fear of death is over and done.[v]

There are no Milarepas in Shakespeare. Although many of Shakespeare’s characters confront death, none approach Milarepa’s realization. But some progress spiritually as they come to terms with death. Such a character is Hamlet.

Hamlet returns from school for his father’s funeral to find that his uncle, Claudius, has seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. After Hamlet is refused permission to return to school, the ghost of his dead father visits him, tells of his death at the hands of Claudius, and urges his son to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” As Hamlet considers what to do, he finds that Claudius and Polonius are using his girlfriend, Ophelia, in a plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his famous soliloquy:

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. (III.i.56-60)

These lines occasioned a teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he explains that “To be or not to be” is not the question, because reality is beyond being and non-being:

When conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also, when conditions are not sufficient things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong.[vi]

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s view, phenomena have no intrinsic being or non-being. They come and go within an ever-changing dynamic of interdependent causes and conditions. Thich Nhat Hanh’s reality, which we might call non-dual reality, cannot be chopped up and placed in categories, such as being or not being.

Having accepted that reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might look at another passage from the same soliloquy:

To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (III.i.72-76)

In this passage, Hamlet reconsiders what he has just said about “To be or not to be.” He thinks better of the proposition that he can, by the act of suicide, flip the switch from being to non-being. Hamlet abandons thoughts of suicide, but only because he fears that death would bring another and scarier form of being. He has yet to transcend notions of being and non-being altogether.

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy does not contain Hamlet’s last words on the subject of death, however. As the play nears its end, Hamlet and Horatio visit a graveyard and enter into a contest of wit with a joking gravedigger. Hamlet seems at home among the bones as he holds up the skull of Yorick, a jester well known to him from childhood, and addresses it thus:

Now get you to my
lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch
thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh
at that.  (V.i.199-202)

From contemplating the transience of physical beauty, he turns to the transience of worldly power:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw! (V.1.220-223)

Hamlet’s contemplations at the bone-strewn graveside bring to mind Buddhist practitioners who seek out charnel grounds as places for meditation on death. His mind has grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with equanimity.

In the next scene, Hamlet prepares for a “friendly” fencing match with Laertes before the court. Suspecting, rightly, that there is a plot against Hamlet’s life, Horatio says, “If your mind dislike anything obey it,” and offers to cancel the match on Hamlet’s behalf. Hamlet replies:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves
knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage, Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of reality. The fall of a sparrow will manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are not sufficient, it will not manifest. Has Hamlet somehow acquired a non-dual perspective and glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary view he expresses in this speech. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death. The timing of his death matters no more to him than the fall of a sparrow. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and content to let causes and conditions unfold as they will.

Of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet exhibits the most spacious mind. He may not fully realize its infinite potential, but over the course of the play, he travels a long journey from “To be or not to be” to “let be.” From thoughts of suicide followed by fears “of something after death,” he grows in readiness for death. When he says, “let be,” he expresses an acceptance that Buddhists and followers of other spiritual traditions practice for lifetimes to attain. Still, Hamlet is no buddha, at least not a fully realized one. Moments of insight can be supplanted by personal passion, as we see in the final scene when he kills Laertes and Claudius.



[i]Buddha Shakyamuni. Lalitavistara Sutra. Rigpa Shedra, 19 Nov. 2011 (22 Aug. 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org[ii]Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s London.Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05 May 2016) <http://www.shakespeareonline.com/biography/londondisease.html>

[iii]Jones, Josh, 74 Ways Characters Die in Shakespeare’s Plays. Open Culture 01 Jan 2016 (26 May 2016) http://www.openculture.com/2016/01/74-ways-characters-die-in-shakespeares-plays-shown-in-a-handy-infographic.html

[iv]From the Mahahaparinirvana Sutra.  Quoted in Blackman, Sushila, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die.(Boston: Shambhala,1993), 21.

[v]Milarepa, In Horror of Death. Rigpa Wiki. 27 December, 2015. (09 August, 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Quotations:_Milarepa,_In_horror_of_death…

[vi]Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village. (26 May 2016) http://www.buddhist-canon.com/PLAIN/TNHSUTTA/1997%20Dec%204%20%20Diamond%20Sutra%20(part%201).htm



7. Illusion

For the Buddha and his followers, the phenomena we encounter are without intrinsic reality. In the Diamond Sutra, he describes “all this fleeting world” as:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.[i]

And in the Dhammapada he says:

Existence is illusion.                                                                                                                           Understand, go beyond.                                                                                                                                 This is the way of clarity.[ii]

The Buddha sought through his teachings to make his followers aware of the illusory nature of everyday reality. But when it served his purpose, he could conjure supernatural apparitions. Accounts of the Buddha’s life relate the story of Queen Khema, the proud and beautiful wife of King Bimbisara. One day Khema noticed a crowd gathered around the Buddha and went to hear his teaching. Seeing the queen, the Buddha caused an image of a young and stunningly attractive girl to appear behind him. She was slowly waving a large fan to cool the Buddha. As he taught, she gradually became a mature woman, then middle-aged, then older with gray hair and wrinkles, and then an ugly crone. Finally, the image fell dead to the ground. Queen Khema was so affected by this demonstration of impermanence, old age, and death that she gave up her position, took ordination and followed the Buddha as a nun.[iii]

Shakespeare was neither a spiritual teacher nor a magician. He was a highly gifted creator of theatrical illusions. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dreamcould be a profession of his craft:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.15-18)

Out of “airy nothing” Shakespeare constructs imaginary worlds inhabited by all sorts of illusions. Ghosts appear and disappear in Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III, andCymbeline. In Macbeth,the three weird sisters appear, summon apparitions, and disappear like bubbles in water. And The Tempestis filled from beginning to end with a variety of magical effects and displays.

Not all of Shakespeare’s illusions involve the supernatural. More often the illusions in his plays result from disguises and other deceptions. He had his bag of tricks and used some repeatedly:

  • Twins are mistaken for each other (The Comedy of Errorsand Twelfth Night).
  • Women disguise themselves as men (Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline).
  • Men disguise themselves as women (The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor).
  • Rulers disguise themselves as subjects (Henry V and Measure for Measure).
  • Characters thought to be dead turn out to be alive (All’s Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale).
  • Men who think they are sleeping with an object of their illicit lust are instead consummating marriage with a rightful spouse (All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure).

With his bag of tricks, Shakespeare shows how we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and live under a multitude of false impressions. What we see or think we see in Shakespeare’s plays often turns out to be man-made illusion.

In The Tempest,Shakespeare gives us more than supernatural or man-made illusions. After conjuring and dissolving a masque of spirits, Prospero delivers these lines:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.  (IV.i.165-175)

Prospero is not just talking about the supernatural here. He is telling us that “real” phenomena, such as towers, palaces, temples, the globe itself, and all that will come after are as insubstantial as a dream. This is what the Buddha says when he likens “all this fleeting world” to “a phantom, or a dream.”

In describing the world as “a phantom or a dream,” the Buddha is not saying that phenomena have no existence at all. He is saying that phenomena are not ultimately real because, as we noted in our chapter on suffering, they are changing, interdependent, and multiple. Everything changes, everything depends on causes and conditions, and everything is made up of parts.

In Measure for Measure,Shakespeare repeats the Buddha’s teaching on the illusory nature of phenomena, point for point. In the play, the Duke of Vienna visits a prison to comfort a condemned man. The Duke advises him to give up hope of a reprieve and reminds him that the bodily existence he fears to lose is illusory because:

It is impermanent:

Merely, thou art death’s fool,
For him thou labor’st by thy flight to shun,
And yet runn’st toward him still. (III.i.11-13)

It is dependent on causes and conditions:

A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences
That doth this habitation where thou keep’st
Hourly afflict. (III.i.8-11)

And it is made up of parts:

Thou art not thyself,
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (III.1.20-22)

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, and we easily forget that they lack lasting, independent, and singular reality. In our ignorance, we remain attached to our sandcastles.

The Buddha is said to have conjured magical illusions for the education of his followers, and Shakespeare created theatrical illusions for the entertainment of his audiences. But illusion was more than magic for the Buddha and more than theatrical invention for Shakespeare. They both grasped an essential point – that everyday phenomena do not exist as we think they do. For the Buddha “all this fleeting world” is a “phantom or a dream,” and for Shakespeare “the great globe itself . . . shall dissolve.”


[i]Diamond Sutra: A.F. Price and Wong Mou-lam (trans.), The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng(Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990) 146.[ii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 74.

[iii]Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000) 86.

8. Renunciation & Contentment

A. Renunciation

If the phenomena to which we cling are no more solid, lasting, or independent than sandcastles, then we might do well to renounce them. The Buddha’s path to enlightenment began with an act of renunciation. He left wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a refuge from old age, sickness, and death. During his search, he practiced extreme asceticism for six years and was reduced to skin and bones as he subsisted on a few grains of rice a day. Only after giving up self-mortification and taking adequate nourishment did he attain enlightenment. In the Dhammapada, he warns against indiscriminate renunciation.

But as a blade of grass held awkwardly
May cut your hand,
So renunciation may lead you into the dark.[i]

The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, reflected the Buddha’s “middle way” approach when he taught that:

Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.[ii]

Renunciation is not self-deprivation. The essential point is to let go of attachments, which is no easy task for most of us.

Renunciation takes many forms in Shakespeare. While his renunciates do not usually accept that everything goes away, they let go of harmful attachments.

At the Elizabethan court, extravagant and expensive clothes were the order of the day. In Sonnet 146, the speaker remembers his mortality and renounces costly apparel saying:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss.

The resources and attention that have gone into acquiring the latest fashions will now be devoted to the well being of his soul.

When he becomes King, in Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions:

Presume not that I am the thing I was; . . .
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company. (V.v.57-59)

In The Tempest,Prospero renounces the practice of magic and the control that comes with it:

But this rough magic
I here abjure, . . . 

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. (V.i.59-66)

King Lear lets go of attachment to royal power, privilege, and personal liberty when he goes to prison, saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. (V.iii.22-23)

Hamlet is the one character who may accept that everything goes away. He renounces attachment to a continued earthly existence when he says:

Since no man of aught he leaves knows,
what is’t to leaves betimes? Let be.  (V.ii.237-238)

We find renunciation in Shakespeare whenever a character willingly lets go of attachments. The ultimate renunciation is to let go of ego, a subject we will explore in our final chapter.


B. Contentment

Renunciation and contentment are closely related, as they both depend on acceptance. To be content is to be happy in the present moment, in the place where we are, and with whatever we happen to have or not have. The Buddha taught that there is no treasure like contentment, and we gain this treasure by learning to live without desires.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but an excellent example of contentment. At the opening of Henry VI Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he claims to be the King, his captors ask to see his crown. He responds:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.i.62-65)

He is even content in prison, and when released, he thanks his jailor for making his imprisonment a pleasure. Henry is later re-arrested and confined in the Tower of London, where the future Richard III murders him, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s best lines on contentment.

Duke Senior in As You Like It is a happier example of contentment. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a simple life with his friends in the Forest of Arden:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.i.1-11)

Duke Senior favors exposure to cold weather, the penalty of Adam, over exposure to flattery.  At least the cold is an honest counselor that reminds him of his mortality. The dispossessed Duke’s words match the advice given by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala, in The Sigalovada Sutta:

But he who does not regard cold or heat any more than a blade of grass and does his duties manfully, does not fall away from happiness.

These four . . . should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

he who appropriates a friend’s possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin.[iii]

Following a path like the one prescribed by the Buddha, the Duke knows how to make the best of his situation:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (II.i.12-17)

From the toad of adversity, he plucks a jewel of contentment and finds that nature more than compensates for the lost pastimes of the court.

Nick Bottom, the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis Shakespeare’s most enchanting (and enchanted) model of contentment. He is one of a group of rustics who go into a forest to rehearse the play of Pyramus and Thisbe.Unknowingly, they have entered the realm of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are fighting over a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the mischievous Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck changes Bottom’s head to that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with an herb that causes her to love the next thing she sees. Seeing Bottom, she dotes on him, even with his ass’s head. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

As he meets the fairies that are to serve him, Bottom responds to each with affable good humor. Although Titania makes it clear that her services are at his command, he would be just as content with some hay and a nap.

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and give Bottom back his head. When he awakens from sleep, Bottom says:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say
what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was and
methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this
dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because
it hath no bottom. (IV.i.214-225)

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along happily. When he wakes, he is not unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants but feels he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom is content to live with the mystery. Bottom’s words are disconnected and confused, but whatever occurs, he is happy where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or cannot remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce.

A proverb tells us, “A harvest of peace comes from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.



[i]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 83.

[ii]Quoted in Loy, David R. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 209.

[iii]Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335.


9. Peace

During the Buddha’s lifetime, northern India was divided into several states with established warrior castes. Accounts of the Buddha’s life include an episode in which he intervened to stop a war between the Shakyan and Kolyan states. Arriving at the river separating the states, the Buddha found the opposing forces drawn up and ready to fight. When he asked why, none could say, but the two sides had exchanged insults, and all agreed that honor demanded a battle. The Buddha learned from local farmers that the cause of the conflict was a shortage of water for irrigation. He convinced the warriors that blood was more precious than water. The opposing armies listened as the Buddha told stories and gave teachings. At last, they made peace. Not only was a bloody battle averted, but 250 men from each side joined the Buddha’s community of monks.[i]

In war and other forms of violence, we see the suffering caused by the three poisons, attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha tells us:

Better than a thousand hollow verses                                                                                                                           Is one verse that brings peace.[ii]


Alas for the man                                                                                                                                                   Who raises his hand against another                                                                                                       And even more for him who returns the blow.[iii]

Without violent conflicts brought on by the three poisons, Shakespeare would have had less subject matter. Most of his plays involve violence and sixteen feature battles. Thomas Hardy wrote, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.”[iv]Shakespeare was in the business of writing rattling good histories with scenes of bloody combat. But in his plays, we often find that peace gets stronger arguments.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry Vis best known for the patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war:

But if the cause be not good, the King
himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a
battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some
crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard
there are few die well that die in a battle, for how
can they charitably dispose of anything when blood
is their argument? Now, if these men do not die
well, it will be a black matter for the king that led
them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion
of subjection. (IV.i.138-151)

King Henry, who is visiting his men in disguise on the eve of battle, dismisses these words. He says the King is no more responsible for a soldier killed in action than a father for a son who miscarries on an errand. But this is a weak argument. Sending someone on an errand and sending them into combat are different matters. Shakespeare allows Henry to appear to win the argument because he can’t very well do otherwise, but he gives Williams the better case.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan war, the Trojan leaders consider whether to end many years of fighting by returning Helen to the Greeks. Hector makes a compelling case for peace:

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. (II.ii.192-197)

Hector’s argument fails to carry the day, and he dies in battle. In the end, the Greeks sack troy, slaughter the men, and enslave the women.

Shakespeare’s plays contain many descriptions of the consequences of war. The following passage from Henry Vis among the most graphic:

                                 in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (III.iii.33-40)

The case for peace takes a lighter turn in Henry IV Part 1. Sir John Falstaff enlists to aid the King in putting down a rebellion, though he is more interested in profiting from the war and has no stomach for fighting. When reminded by Prince Hal that he “owes God a death,” he responds with this soliloquy:

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism. (V.ii.128-142)

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture. In any case, Falstaff memorably derides the hollowness of popular notions of honor and offers a human counterpoint to the scenes of deadly combat.

Shakespeare celebrates the military virtues, but for all the calls to valor and displays of courage, he makes a strong case for peace. Shakespeare comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of ahimsaor non-harming in these lines from Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none . . .
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.

In these examples, we have considered the outer peace of non-harming. Such outer peace depends on inner peace. In earlier chapters we have considered some of the qualities that contribute to inner peace. They include loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, and contentment. These qualities provide a basis for positive actions that bring good consequences. The connection between actions and consequences will be our next subject.



[i]Sherab Chodzon Kohn, The Awakened One:A Life of the Buddha(Boston, Shambhala Publications, inc.) 78.

[ii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30.

[iii]Ibid. 105.

[iv]Hardy, Thomas, The Dynasts, (Part II, Scene V) 01 Sep 2013 (26 May 2016) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4043/4043-h/4043-h.html


10. Actions & Consequences

The Buddha teaches that the intention behind every action, large or small, contributes to our future happiness or unhappiness:

But as dust thrown against the wind,                                                                                                             Mischief is blown back in the face                                                                                                                      Of the fool who wrongs the pure and harmless.[i]

This teaching is associated with the term karma, a Sanskrit word that means the sum of a person’s actions. The Buddhist doctrine of karma involves belief in rebirth, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not share, so we can’t say that Shakespeare believed in karma. However, his plays do illustrate three central tenets of karma:

  • Actions bring consequences;
  • The intentions behind the actions determine the nature of the consequences;
  • Good intentions bring good consequences, and bad intentions bring bad consequences.

As the Buddha says in The Dhammapada:

It is better to do nothing                                                                                                                                           Than to do what is wrong,                                                                                                                                       For whatever you do you do to yourself.[ii]

Such advice is not unique to Buddhism. According to St. Paul, “As ye sow so shall ye reap,” or in modern parlance, “what goes around comes around.”

In his plays, Shakespeare often shows us that ill-intended actions bring bad consequences for the actor. Let’s begin with Richard III. In the course of seizing and securing the English crown, Richard commits eleven murders. In the end, despite all his machinations, Richard is killed in battle on Bosworth Field. To leave no doubt that ignominious death is the direct consequence of his actions, Shakespeare has the ghost of each victim appear to Richard on the eve of battle to recount the circumstances of their murder and bid him “despair and die.”

We have seen the consequences that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bring on themselves by their murderous actions. Before killing Duncan Macbeth foresees them, saying:

                                      that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii.8-12)

After committing the murder, Macbeth looks at his hands and sees that it will be impossible to escape the consequences of what he has done:

What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (II.ii.77-81)

Something similar happens to Claudius in Hamlet. After murdering his brother, seizing his kingdom, and marrying his queen, Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness but realizes that his prayers ring hollow and will never bring absolution:

May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above:
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. (III.iii.60-68)

We can easily accept that Richard III, Macbeth, and Claudius must suffer the consequences of their actions, but in other instances, the unfolding of actions and consequences can seem harsh. Consider the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear. Though he has been a philanderer and begotten an illegitimate son, he has a kind heart. When he tries to relieve Lear’s suffering, the illegitimate son, Edmund, betrays him to Lear’s enemies. In one of Shakespeare’s most painful scenes, Gloucester is tied to a chair, and his eyes are gouged out as punishment for his kindness. When Gloucester’s good son, Edgar, comes to confront the wicked Edmund at the end of the play, he says:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (V.iii.204-207)

In the pre-Christian Britain of King Lear, the consequences of misbehavior can seem extreme. Gloucester finds nothing in the cosmic order but arbitrariness and cruelty when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods;
They kill us for their sport.

Believers in rebirth might say that adversity in one life serves to exhaust the consequences of negative actions from another. But we don’t have to regard adversity as a punishment for past misbehavior. As we saw in our chapter on suffering, pain is the common lot of all beings in this world. And sometimes misfortune, however terrible, gives us what we need to grow. The experience of suffering can enable us to feel compassion for the suffering of others, as we saw in Lear’s compassion for the “Poor naked wretches.” The experience of suffering can also bring acceptance, as it does to Gloucester. In his last words he agrees with Edgar, that:

Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all. (V.iii.10-12)

It is consoling to know that suffering can bring grace. But Cordelia, Desdemona, and Lady Macduff and her children are brutally killed. These innocents will have no further opportunity to grow in this life. We need to believe that they will find their reward in another.

Although rebirth was not an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s England, people did believe in a hereafter. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that he is:

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (I.v.15-18)

Actions and consequences in Shakespeare’s plays are not always balanced, nor are they balanced in the course of a single life. So Buddhists believe in rebirth, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed in a hereafter, both trusting that bad actions will be “burnt and purged away,” and that goodness will find its reward.



[i]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 35.


[ii]Ibid. 84.


11. Forgiveness, Remorse & Purification

A. Forgiveness

While actions and consequences unfold as they will, the correct human response to wrongdoing is forgiveness. Without forgiveness, we are trapped in thoughts of the past and suffer from negative emotions of resentment and anger. We break free of this trap when we let go of the past and dwell mindfully in the present. As the Buddha tells us:

“Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                            How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                        Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.                                                                                                         “Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                              How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                     Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.[i]

Measure for Measurepresents a stark contrast between judgment and forgiveness. As the play opens, The Duke of Vienna deputizes Angelo to rule in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power, Angelo enforces a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who has gotten his contracted but not yet married spouse with child. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo offers to spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. The disguised Duke has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancée, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo reneges on his promise and orders Claudio’s execution. The Duke secretly saves him but lets it appear that he has been killed.

Then the Duke throws off his disguise and returns to the court. Isabella seeks justice for her executed brother, and the Duke hands down Angelo’s sentence:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. (V.i.465-467)

At this Mariana, now Angelo’s wife, pleads for his life and asks Isabella to join her. Isabella kneels beside her, saying:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. (V.i.509-513)

When the living Claudio appears, Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy conclusion.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is remarkable. She forgives the man who sought to violate her innocence and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare. It would be hard to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural desire for judgment.

Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s only play with a title based on a verse from the Bible:

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. Matthew 7:2.

And the Buddha teaches:

Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others.[ii]

While judgment will come, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma for Buddhists.  It belongs to us to forgive.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. Deposed by his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, Duke of Naples, he is cast away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They wash up on an enchanted island inhabited by Caliban, the half-human son of a witch. Using magic powers attained through long study, Prospero subdues Caliban and rules the island.

During the play, Prospero – assisted by the spirit, Ariel, uses his magic to:

  1. Raise a tempest that brings his enemies to the island unharmed;
  2. Foil plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban, and others;
  3. Cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of the Alonso, to fall in love; and
  4. Summon a masque of spirits to celebrate their betrothal.

With his enemies in his power, Prospero’s thoughts turn from revenge to reconciliation:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. (V.i.34-39)

He openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome. There is a joyful reunion of Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another drowned in the storm. And Prospero and Alonso join in mutual happiness at the forthcoming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness, Prospero responds:

There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone. (V.i.236-238)

Prospero relinquishes his magic powers, frees Ariel, forgives the plotters, and even pardons Caliban as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan. In the closing lines, he invites members of the audience to remember their culpability and join in the spirit of forgiveness:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free. (Epi.19-20)

Not all of Shakespeare’s malefactors receive forgiveness. There is no absolution for Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But in The Tempest, Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we want forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive.


B. Remorse & Purification

It is the part of one who has suffered wrong to forgive. It is the part of one who has done wrong to purify the action by confessing it with genuine remorse. What we find in Buddhism is remorse rather than guilt. Remorse means acknowledging a wrong action, recognizing its negative consequences, doing what one can to repair them, and resolving never to repeat the action. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the act rather than the doer. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature, sometimes called buddha- nature, is unstained. Wrong actions may be what we do, but they are never who we are.

In Buddhist lore, we find stories of fearsome beings who encounter the Dharma, come to regret their wickedness, and lead blessed lives. One of the worst is Angulimara, a terrible bandit and murderer who wears a necklace of fingers taken from his 999 victims. To stop the carnage and prevent Angulimara from piling up more bad karma, the Buddha sets off to find him. When he does, Angulimara tries to make the Buddha his one-thousandth victim, but a magic spell keeps him at a distance. Unable to catch up to the Buddha, Angulimara yells, “stop,” but the Buddha tells the bandit that it is he who must stop his killing. One look from the Buddha is all it takes to change Angulimara’s heart. Overcome by remorse, he learns the Dharma, follows the Buddha as a monk, serves others, and upon his death, attains nirvana. His story demonstrates that all beings have buddha-nature, however badly they may have acted.[iii]

There may be no characters in Shakespeare quite so gruesomely awful as Angulimara, but some behave badly enough.  In The Winter’s Tale,when King Leontes of Sicilia thinks his wife, Hermione, has committed adultery with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia, he behaves abominably. He imprisons Hermione, takes away her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Leontes assumes it is Polixenes’ child, threatens to have it burned, and orders it abandoned to the elements. Leontes refuses to relent, even when the oracle of Apollo confirms Hermiones’ innocence. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his mistake. When Hermione swoons on learning the news, Leontes thinks she is also dead. But she is alive and in the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before the King’s attack of jealousy shatters their lives, Polixenes tells Hermione about his happy childhood days with Leontes:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. (I.ii.85-90)

Polixenes goes on to say that had they not taken on the desires and responsibilities of adulthood, they would have remained guiltless before heaven of any inherited stain. What we have here is a doctrine of original innocence rather than original sin. Original innocence is consistent with the Buddhist belief that our wrong actions are never who we are.

Perdita, daughter of Hermione and Leontes, is a personification of original innocence. Abandoned to the elements but rescued by a kind shepherd, she grows up in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen, she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes. They flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes suffers terrible remorse and makes regular visits to the tombs of Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” Perdita and Florizel arrive at Leonte’s court pursued by the angry Polixenes. But Perdita’s true identity is soon revealed, and Perdita, Leontes, and Polixenes are happily reunited. At last, Paulina leads them to a chapel containing what appears to be a statue of Hermione. The statue comes to life, warmly embraces Leontes, and addresses Perdita:

You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! (V.iii.153-155)

With his bad behavior purified through remorse, Leontes finds grace in the restoration of his innocent wife and daughter.



[i]Ibid. 9.

[ii]Anguttara Nikaya: The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume V, F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1994), p. 140.

[iii]Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 98.