Introduction

Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare

It is September of 2005 and I have just returned to Washington from a Buddhist retreat center in the mountains north of Montpellier  in France. The past three weeks have been devoted to taming the mind by sitting in meditation posture while focusing attention first on the breath, then on a mantra, then on an image of the Buddha, and finally on the wish that all sentient beings have happiness. The meditation exercises have given me a more peaceful and settled state of mind along with glimpses of a reality beyond worldly distractions. But as much as I value my calmer state of mind and more expansive view, I have missed my worldly distractions and am glad to be home.

Looking at my calendar I see that one of the first worldly distractions on my agenda is Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre. On the evening of the day after my return I still need to sleep off jet lag, but tickets are not to be wasted, so I make my way to the theatre. Soon all traces of jet lag vanish as I am transfixed by the thoroughly absorbing performances by Avery Brooks as Othello and Patrick Page as Iago. Three hours later, after all of the scheming, deception and manipulation, after all of the mental anguish, madness and killing, and after all of the building tension and catastrophe, I gaze at the bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello lying on the stage. The emotions of pity and terror that were aroused in me have been purged, just as Aristotle predicted, and as I leave the theatre and walk in the soft September rain to the Gallery Place Metro station, I experience a calm and settled state of mind that is a little like the state of mind experienced in meditation.

In the days that follow I think of the Elizabethan writer working amid the noise and commotion of a large and dirty city on a rainy northern island, and I think of the Buddha living six centuries before Christ in a tropical land of lush forests inhabited by elephants, monkeys and tigers. I have found each in their different way to be a source of wisdom and transformation and wonderif any parallels or instructive connections can be drawn between the works of England’s greatest playwright and the teachings of the Buddha?

Try as I might, I don’t come up with much. It is as if Buddhism and Shakespeare exist on different planets. Buddhism, on the one hand, is concerned with overcoming the ego and transcending the cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, benefiting others, and taming the mind. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, are largely concerned with worldly preoccupations, such as romantic love, sex, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge. The lack of common ground should not come as a surprise. Drama is after all based on tension within and between ego-centered individuals with negative emotions and conflicting desires. These essential ingredients of drama are the very things that the Buddha and Christ teach their followers to overcome.

My search for connections between the works of Shakespeare and the teachings of the Buddha is bogging down, and a great chasm looms before me: the chasm of historical, cultural and religious differences between Elizabethan England and India at the time of the Buddha, a chasm that I scarcely understand and cannot hope to bridge. Sensing that the task is hopeless, I give up. If there are parallels or instructive connections between such disparate realms, I am not the one to find them. But no sooner do I let go of my search for connections than connections between the Buddha and Shakespeare begin to reveal themselves. Now that I am no longer trying, it occurs to me that:

  • They both appreciate the power of thoughts and the need to control them;
  • They are both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering;
  • They both celebrate qualities that counter suffering, including compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse;
  • They both focus on the reality of impermanence and death, and
  • They both testify to the illusory nature of existence.

As the fog lifts I begin to find in Shakespeare’s works passages and dramatic situations that richly illustrate some of the Buddha’s central teachings. But how can 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 begin to return until after Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

Believers in rebirth might try to get around this by speculating that Shakespeare was a bodhisattva, a realized being who chose to be reborn in Elizabethan England to spread the Buddhist Dharma in a new form to new audiences. Intriguing as such speculation might be, we do not have to believe that Shakespeare was a reborn bodhisattva in order to believe that his works resonate with the teachings of the Buddha. We have only to appreciate the universality of a playwright whose works have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.

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

Out of his oceanic mind Shakespeare brought forth human experience in all its depth and complexity. His characters represent all walks of life, from exalted rulers to thieves and drunkards. 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 his characters in extreme situations that test the limits of the human spirit 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 the malign, the innocence of childhood and the exhaustion of old age. The playwright with the most extensive audience is also the playwright with the most extensive imagination.

As Jonson and Coleridge have observed, his imagination and his appeal transcend 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 Julius Caesar is killed, 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 own vision is at least as farseeing as that which he attributes to Cassius. He transcends the perspective 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 of others who have experienced his works over the last 400 years and for those who will experience them from now until “the ending doom.”

Shakespeare’s boundless vision brings everyone into his audience. His vision is vast, as is that of the Buddha and his followers. Their vision encompasses all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. Two such universal visions cannot be mutually exclusive, and any correspondences between them should be well worth exploring.

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[i]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

[ii]Foakes, R.A., Coleridge on Shakespeare: The Text of the Lectures of 1811-12. (New York: Psychology Press, 2013),166.

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

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