Archive for October, 2017

Post 16. Remorse & Purification

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

There is nothing good about negative actions except that they can be purified through confession. Milarepa[i]

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 full acknowledgement of a wrong action, resolution never to do such a thing again, and a determination to do what one can to correct it. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the action and not the doer of the action. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature is unstained. All beings have buddha nature, however badly they have acted.

In The Winter’s Tale Leontes, King of Sicilia, behaves very badly indeed when he wrongly thinks that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful to him with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. In a jealous rage he has his wife imprisoned and deprived of her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, Leontes assumes it is the child of Polixenes, threatens to have it burned, and then has it taken away to be abandoned to the elements. Even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent, Leontes does not relent. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his terrible mistake. Hermione swoons on learning of the boy’s death, and soon after Leontes is told that she has also died, but Hermione is alive and secreted away under the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before their lives are shattered by the King’s attack of jealousy, 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 of original sin. This is a crucial point. Shakespeare begins a play about remorse and purification with an assertion of original purity, which Buddhists would call buddha nature.

The infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements at the order of Leontes, is found by a shepherd and grows up in Bohemia in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes, and they flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

For these sixteen years, back in Sicilia, Leontes has been suffering terrible remorse and making daily visits to the tomb of his wife and son, where tears are his “daily recreation.”

After the years of remorse a courtier, Cleomenes, says:

Sir, you have done enough, and have performed
A saintlike sorrow. No fault could you make
Which you have not redeemed—indeed, paid down
More penitence than done trespass. (V.1.1-4)

Perdita and Florizel arrive at the court of the grieving Leontes, pursued by Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon discovered, and Perdita, Leontes, Polixenes, and Florizel are happily reunited.

At last Hermione’s friend, Paulina, leads them all 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] Patrul Rinpoché, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), 264.


Post 15. Forgiveness

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

“Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.” Abandon such thoughts and live in love. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

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

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, but it closes on a note of forgiveness. After fatally wounding one another with the same unbated and envenomed sword, Laertes and Hamlet exonerate one another.

Laertes: Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.


Hamlet: Heaven make thee free of it!  (V.ii.361-364)

This forgiveness comes too late to have any effect on the outcome of the play, but in Buddhism as well as in Christianity we are taught the importance of exchanging forgiveness before death.

Measure for Measure presents a stark contrast between strict justice and forgiveness. As the play opens Duke Vincentio deputizes a nobleman, Angelo, to rule Vienna in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power Angelo takes it on himself to enforce a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who his 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 is smitten and, indulging the very lust that he condemns in others, says that he will spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. Still disguised as a friar, Duke Vincentio has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s dishonorable proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancé, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo still seeks to have Claudio killed. It appears that Claudio has been executed, but thanks to a series of substitutions arranged by Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns, Isabella comes before him to seek justice. After giving Angelo further opportunity to demonstrate his guilt, Duke Vincentio 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 when the Duke proves resolute, asks Isabella to join her. Isabella, still thinking her brother, Claudio, is dead, 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)

The Duke still does not relent, and the now repentant Angelo craves death. But when the living Claudio is produced Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy resolution.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is more than remarkable. She is forgiving the man who sought to violate her chastity as a novice nun and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare in return. It would be difficult to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural human desire for justice.

The spiritual lesson is central. 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. from the Anguttara Nikaya.[ii]

While judgment is to be expected, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma, or to the unfolding of actions and consequences, for Buddhists.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of the power of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. His brother, Antonio, with the help of the Duke of Naples, has deposed him and cast him away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They land 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 over the island. With the help of his attendant spirit, Ariel, he raises a Tempest that brings Antonio, Alonzo, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, and servants Stephano and Trinculo to the island. Once on the island, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso for his crown, and Caliban colludes with Stephano and Trinculo in a drunken plot to kill Prospero and rule the island, but Prospero foils the plots with the help of Ariel. Meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand fall innocently in love. As the play nears its end Prospero the magician has everyone on the island in his power, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness begins.

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. Go, release them, Ariel. (V.i.34-39)

Prospero openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome, with special warmth for Alonso.

Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another lost in the tempest, are reunited, and Prospero and Alonso join in mutual joy at the coming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness of his future daughter-in-law, Prospero responds:

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

All past wrongs are reconciled, and with the innocent love of Miranda and Ferdinand, a new day of concord begins.

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees the spirit, Ariel, forgives Stephano and Trinculo, and even pardons Caliban, as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan.

In the closing lines Prospero invites members of the audience to remember their own 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 are forgiven. There is no forgiveness for the unrepentant Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But with The Tempest Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we wish to be forgiven we must be ready to forgive.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 2.

[ii] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 123.


Post 14. Actions & Consequences

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

But as dust thrown against the wind, mischief is blown back in the face of the fool who wrongs the pure and harmless. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

In Buddhism belief in karma is bound up with belief in rebirth, which Shakespeare did not share, so I won’t try to claim 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.” Shakespeare vividly illustrates the principle 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, Shakespeare’s Richard III 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 him 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:

          . . . if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii.2-12)

Shakespeare not only shows us the consequences of bad behavior in the course of the play; he has the malefactor point them out to us in advance of the crime.

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? Hah! 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 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 pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’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 compell’d,
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 murderous behavior, but in other instances the unfolding of actions and consequences can seem cruel. Consider the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear. Though he has been a philanderer, he has a good heart. When he tries to relieve the suffering of King Lear, his illegitimate son, Edmund (a consequence of his father’s philandering), betrays him to Lear’s enemies. In one of Shakespeare’s most painful scenes, Gloucester is tied to a chair and has his eyes 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 sees nothing in the cosmic order but arbitrariness and cruelty when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (IV.i.41-42 )

There is little consolation to be found in the pagan world that Gloucester inhabits. Some believers in rebirth might say that what seems to be excessive punishment in one life serves to exhaust the consequences of negative actions from another. Some Buddhists would avoid blaming the victim for his cruel fate, noting that environmental factors can also play a part. They would prefer to emphasize that the good actions of a Gloucester, a Desdemona, or a Cordelia will bring good consequences, if not in this life then in another.

Rebirth was not an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s England, but people did believe in a hereafter in which they would be held accountable for their actions. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that he is:

Doom’d 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 eventually find its reward. Indeed, without such a conviction we could never be reconciled to the fates of Lady MacDuff and her children, Gloucester, Desdemona, and Cordelia, among others.


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

[ii] Ibid. 84.


Post 13. Interdependence

Monday, October 9th, 2017

This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be. The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya[i]

As noted in our discussion of illusion, nothing is independent. All phenomena depend for their existence on causes and conditions. When causes and conditions come together in a certain way, a phenomenon arises. When causes and conditions are no longer conducive, it dissolves.

To illustrate interdependence Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a piece of paper. He says that in the paper we should see the rain clouds and the sunshine that provided the right conditions for the forest that supplied the wood that was used to make the paper. We should see the logger who cut the tree and the food that nourished the logger and the logger’s parents.[ii] We could also see the factory where the paper was made and all of the people who worked in the factory and the chemicals that were used. We could go on forever describing the causes and conditions that come together in just one sheet of paper.

Interdependence can easily be seen in the activities of human beings. Our very existence and everything that happens to us depend upon a multitude of causes and conditions, and everything that we do or do not do, down to the smallest action or inaction, will affect others and ourselves, often in unpredictable ways.

This is evident in the action of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo and Juliet offers a particularly good example. The prologue to the play describes the lovers as “star-crossed,” but the causes and conditions that lead to their tragedy unfold right here on earth. In the following brief summary of the play I have placed a number in parentheses after every cause and condition that is critical to the outcome.

The play begins in the streets of Verona with a brawl between partisans of the feuding Capulet and Montague families. (1) This causes Verona’s prince to pronounce an edict threatening death to anyone involved in further disturbances. (2)

Soon after, an illiterate (3) serving man to the Capulet family encounters Romeo Montague in the street and asks for his help in reading a list of the guests to be invited to a festive supper at the Capulet household. (4) The serving man invites Romeo to “come and crush a cup of wine” if he “be not of the house of the Montagues.” Seeing that Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated, will be there (5) Romeo decides to attend the gathering in disguise. (6)

At the Capulet’s party Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, recognizes Romeo’s voice and wants to strike him dead, (7) but Capulet forbids it. Tybalt reluctantly agrees to be patient but determines to make Romeo pay for his intrusion. (8)

Romeo and Juliet meet and fall deeply in love despite the ancient quarrel between their families. (9) Later that night Romeo climbs over an orchard wall to speak with Juliet at her balcony window, and they exchange vows. (10)

Wanting to marry as soon as possible, Romeo visits Friar Lawrence the next morning to arrange a secret wedding. (11) The Friar overcomes his misgivings and agrees to marry them in hopes that, “this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.” (12) Juliet meets Romeo at Friar Lawrence’s cell, and they are married. (13)

In the next scene Tybalt finds Romeo and tries to provoke a fight. (14) Romeo, knowing that Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin, responds with conciliatory words, but his friend, Mercutio, who happens to be present, (15) takes up the fight with Tybalt. (16) Romeo comes between them to stop the fight, (17) but Tybalt takes advantage of his interference to kill Mercutio. (18) Tybalt leaves but returns looking for Romeo, (19) and this time Romeo fights him to avenge Mercutio. (20) Tybalt is killed. (21) The Prince arrives and sentences Romeo to banishment for having violated his edict against fighting. (22)

After one night of love, Romeo goes into exile in Mantua, and Juliet’s parents, not knowing of her secret marriage, (23) insist that she agree to an arranged marriage with Count Paris or else be disinherited. (24) Neither Juliet’s mother nor the Nurse have the compassion or strength of character to come to her defense, (25) so she turns to Friar Lawrence. (26) Rather than desert Romeo for a bigamous marriage with Paris, she says that she is willing to face death. (27)

The Friar is an herbalist, (28) and happens to have a potion that will make Juliet appear to be dead on the morning of her wedding. (29) The potion will wear off after 42 hours, by which time Juliet will have been interred in the family mausoleum. (30) Friar Lawrence dispatches Friar John to Mantua to inform Romeo of this plan so that Romeo can be at the mausoleum by the time Juliet awakens. (31) However, Friar John is quarantined by the authorities, who suspect that he has visited a house infected with pestilence. (32) The message is not delivered. (33)

Romeo, receiving word that Juliet has died (34), determines to go to the mausoleum and join her in death. (35) For this purpose he buys a fatal poison from a poor apothecary. (36) Romeo arrives at the cemetery and enters the tomb, sees Juliet’s apparently dead body, and takes the poison. (37)

As Juliet awakens and sees Romeo’s body, (38) Friar Lawrence arrives and tries to get her to leave with him. After the Friar is frightened away by approaching watchmen, (39) Juliet kisses Romeo, takes his dagger, and stabs herself. (40) The Capulets and Montagues meet with the Prince at the cemetery to learn from Friar Lawrence what has happened and to bury their old antagonisms together with their children.

In this brief summary we find forty clearly identifiable causes that had to come together in just the way that they did for the tragedy to reach its sad conclusion. If the Capulet’s serving man had not been illiterate, if he had not met Romeo in the street at that particular moment, if Romeo had not been infatuated with Rosaline, if Tybalt had not recognized Romeo’s voice, etc. We could go on listing the causes leading up to Juliet’s death, and behind each of the causes that we can easily identify are many others that we cannot see, and behind each of those are still others, ad infinitem. Whatever Shakespeare may have thought about the power of the stars to determine destiny, his plays illustrate the principle of interdependence, which is fundamental to Buddhism.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s works fully illustrate the Buddhist understanding of interdependence. The Buddha goes beyond our ordinary ideas of interdependence with his teaching on interdependent co-arising or origination, which holds that cause and effect are not separate, but arise together. Each cause has an infinite number of effects and each effect has an infinite number of causes, and all causes and effects are related in a single whole, transcending concepts of space and time. The Buddha also taught on the twelve links of interdependent co-arising or origination, which determine the samsaric cycle of birth and death and the suffering that accompanies it.

Shakespeare did not have the benefit of teachings on interdependent co-arising or the twelve links of interdependent origination. While this is another instance in which Buddhism goes farther than Shakespeare can follow, Shakespeare’s plays do illustrate interdependence, as we commonly understand it.


[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998), 221.

[ii] Ibid, 3-5.


Post 12: Contentment

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Health, contentment, and trust are your greatest possessions, and freedom your greatest joy. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Impermanence, the inevitability of death, and the illusory nature of phenomena combine to make a strong case for renunciation. But Buddhist renunciation is not about self-imposed deprivation or harsh ascetic discipline. The Buddha actually tried that path and found it unsatisfactory. According to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: 

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

Renunciation is non-attachment with respect to objects, with respect to control over others, and with respect to views. It is the key to contentment, and to be content is to be happy in the place where we are, with whatever we have or do not have. The Buddha taught that there is no wealth greater than contentment.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good example of contentment. At the opening of Henry IV Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he says he is 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. Unfortunately he is later imprisoned in the Tower of London and murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines on the subject of contentment.

A happier example of contentment is Duke Senior in As You Like It. 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 but 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 prefers the Forest of Arden to the painted pomp of the court because it is free from the perils of envy and duplicitousness. He 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 is setting an example that accords closely with the following lessons taught by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala:

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 friends possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin. [iii]

Happy to make the best of a simple existence exposed to the elements, Duke Senior goes on to say:

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)

It is easy to be content when things are going well for us, but the exiled Duke has renounced old attachments and finds contentment in adversity, seeing the good in everything.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta.

To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with the juice of a flower 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 also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. 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 agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom himself is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments and nothing to renounce.


[i] Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 55.

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

[iii] “Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala” (DN 31), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,  (1 July 2017)