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.



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