Archive for July, 2017

Post 2. Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

Saturday, July 29th, 2017

Shakespeare 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.  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 goes farther, writing 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 breadth and depth.  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 range and inclusivity of Shakespeare’s imagination is a source of his universality.

Shakespeare also achieves universality by using the power of poetry to transcend time.  We see this in his sonnets, including Sonnet 55:

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, but vaster still is that of the Buddha and his followers. Their vision encompasses all 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.


[i] Jonson, Ben. To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Poetry Foundation, 2016 (07/19/2016)

[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.



Post 1: Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?

Monday, July 24th, 2017

Shakespeare has been my frequent companion for almost fifty years, during which time I have studied his works in school, read them for pleasure, attended hundreds of performances, watched dozens of film versions of the plays, and spent many hours listening to audio productions during morning and afternoon commutes. And for the past twenty years I have studied and tried to practice Buddhism and wondered what connections might be made between the teachings of the Buddha and Shakespeare’s works.

At first I did not come up with much. Buddhism and Shakespeare seemed to exist on different planets. Buddhism is concerned with transcending the samsaric cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, benefiting others, and taming the mind. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, appear to be concerned with worldly preoccupations, such as romantic love, debauchery, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge.

But eventually I began to see that the Buddha and Shakespeare have much in common. 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 focus on the reality of impermanence and death, and they both recognize the illusory nature of existence. It is possible to find in Shakespeare passages and stories that celebrate qualities that Buddhists value, including compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse. Buddhists are, of course, not alone in valuing these qualities. They have been encouraged in other spiritual traditions, including the Christianity of Shakespeare’s England.

The teaching of the Buddha is vast, and for the purposes of this blog I will be working on a basic level with points common to most schools of Buddhism. I have included those aspects of Buddhism most easily related to Shakespeare’s works and those passages from Shakespeare most easily related to Buddhism. There is much in Shakespeare and much in Buddhism that falls outside the scope of our discussion. For example, Buddhism is not preoccupied with the joys and tribulations of romantic attachment (other than as something to be avoided), and Shakespeare does not offer a path to non-dual realization.

But the Buddha and Shakespeare, separated as they are in time and culture, are not such strangers as we might think. Through their teachings and writings we can bring them into conversation and find that they have a great deal to say to each other.

Posts will appear on this site at weekly intervals over the next four or five months, with each post using material from Shakespeare to illustrate an aspect of the dharma. In addition to the periodic posts, the site contains sixteen pages, each of which include material that has appeared or will appear in posts.  Those who would like to jump ahead to preview future posts are welcome to do so, though it is only possible to comment on material that has already been posted.

Anyone who reads any part of this blog, and especially anyone who takes the time to leave a constructive comment, will have my sincere gratitude.