Archive for December, 2017

Post 22: Conclusion

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

We have seen that Shakespeare was a mindful observer of nature, of human behavior, and of the inner operations of the mind. In his great tragedies he shows the terrible consequences that ensue when in our ignorance we allow our thoughts to be taken over by attachment, aversion, and related negative e emotions. This can only lead to suffering and the causes of suffering, and Shakespeare gives us memorable examples of every variety of suffering. He also gives us examples of qualities of mind that counter suffering, including loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, contentment, respect for cause and effect, forgiveness, and remorse.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems can be used to illustrate other essential truths taught by the Buddha and his followers, including:

  • the certainty of impermanence and death,
  • the illusory nature of all phenomena,
  • interdependence,
  • the fact that all actions have consequences determined by good or bad intent, and
  • egolessness, which is the understanding that neither the self nor phenomena are ultimately real.

We have noted the absence of Shakespeare’s own ego in his works, an absence that lead Hazlitt to observe that, “He was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be…” While we cannot say that Shakespeare was a Buddhist, we might, if we agree with Hazlitt, Keats, and Emerson, say that he was Buddha-like, at least in this one respect.

We have found many points of correspondence between Shakespeare and the dharma, and a more knowledgeable and imaginative reader could doubtless find more, but some qualifications are in order. Not every aspect of Buddhist teaching can be fully illustrated by examples from Shakespeare. We find loving-kindness in Shakespeare, but not loving-kindness extended to beings throughout the universe in all directions. We find compassion, but not the compassion of a bodhisattva ready to take on the suffering of all sentient beings. The examples of equanimity that we find are of the Stoic rather than the Buddhist variety. That is, some characters are free from personal attachments and aversions but don’t necessarily regard all beings with an equal mind.

Shakespeare’s plays illustrate interdependence as it is commonly understood, but not the subtler Buddhist teaching on interdependent co-arising. We find characters that have glimpses of the truth of egolessness, but none who completely realize it. While the murder of human beings is condemned and arguments are made against war, we do not find reverence for the lives of all sentient beings.

We must also acknowledge fundamental differences between Buddhist beliefs and those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who would not have been familiar with rebirth, the samsaric cycle of birth and death, or the buddha nature of all sentient beings. Buddhists, for their part, would not subscribe to the notion of an all-powerful creator God or the existence of an eternal and individual soul.

Much of what we find in the plays and poems, including the lovers’ tribulations, the struggles for power, the clever wordplay, and the bawdy jokes, has little obvious application to the dharma, other than to illustrate the nature of samsara. Yet throughout Shakespeare’s works we find dramatic situations and passages of poetry that wonderfully reflect the truth of the dharma, which is the truth of how things really are, as taught by the Buddha.  Because he is largely egoless as an artist Shakespeare is  able:

To hold as t’were the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Hamlet III.ii.23-26)

When Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature, nature is often reflected back in forms that illustrate or partly illustrate the Buddhist dharma. Viewed within the right context, some of his works can even serve as powerful dharma teachings.


Post 21. Exhausting the Three Poisons

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us. Pema Chödrön.[i]

Shakespeare’s great tragedies bring about a “calm of mind, all passion spent,” to borrow Milton’s phrase. This state is achieved through catharsis, defined as the purging or removal of the emotions through the evocation and exhaustion of pity and fear. The notion of catharsis was introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics and is applicable to Shakespearean as well as Greek tragedy. We will consider how catharsis might apply to a Buddhist reading of Shakespeare.

In experiencing a well-written tragedy we identify with certain characters and become attached to their happiness and well being. For example, we easily identify and sympathize with the newlywed Othello and Desdemona. In the early scenes Othello’s greatness of spirit is apparent as he faces down accusations of witchcraft, and Desdemona displays a nobility of her own when she tells her angry father of her marriage and duty to the Moor. We are won over by the story of their first meeting and courtship, with Desdemona listening in rapt attention as Othello describes his many adventures:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. (I.iii.193-194)

For the remainder of the play we suffer with them, as the scheming Iago pours fuel on the sparks of jealousy that he plants in Othello’s credulous mind. The more attached we are to Othello and Desdemona’s fading hopes of happiness the more aversion we feel for Iago and his wicked machinations. Seeing their needless and horrific suffering our feelings grow until the terrible closing scene in which Othello smother’s Desdemona and then stabs himself on learning of her innocence.

As we see the bodies lying upon the bed, the passions aroused in most of us have run their course and will soon fade. The worst that could happen has happened, and nothing is left; we may feel sad, spent and strangely calm.  Aristotle would say that our pity and fear have been evoked and exhausted, but from a Buddhist perspective we might revise this to say that attachment and aversion have been evoked and exhausted. This is not much of a departure from Aristotle, since pity and fear are themselves forms of aversion.

Attachment and aversion are eliminated in two ways. The feelings that accompany attachment and aversion are raised to such a pitch that we can no longer sustain them and we are emotionally drained. And at the end of the play, with Othello and Desdemona dead and Iago about to be executed, the objects of our attachment and aversion are gone from the world.

By evoking powerful emotions and then removing the objects of those emotions, Shakespeare shows us the impermanent and illusory nature of the phenomena in which we had been so heavily invested. The veil of ignorance is lifted and we see that the objects to which we were attached and objects to which we were averse had no real existence.

After experiencing a tragedy such as Othello, we might say that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion have been eliminated, at least as far as our experience of the play is concerned.  After we leave the theatre we will still have our own personal ignorance, attachments, and aversions to contend with, but perhaps we will be better able to see them for what they are. Taken in the right spirit Shakespeare’s tragedies can serve as powerful dharma teachings.


[i] Chödrön, Pema. When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 7.


Post 20: Negative Capability

Monday, December 4th, 2017

It struck me what quality… Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. John Keats[i]

One of Shakespeare’s strengths is that as an artist he is largely egoless. We cannot draw from the plays and poems any firm conclusions about Shakespeare’s politics, personal preferences, points of view, or religious beliefs. While John Milton employs poetry as a vehicle to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Shakespeare has no such agenda. In Shakespeare’s plays many points of view are expressed and many qualities are embodied, but they are the points of view and qualities of his characters and not necessarily those of the playwright. Shakespeare is like the artist described by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence.”[ii]

The essayist, William Hazlitt, said of Shakespeare that, “He was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be; he was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become.”[iii] Hazlitt was not alone in his observation. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, “Shakespeare has no discoverable egotism.”[iv] Considering Hazlitt’s statement about Shakespeare, the Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor, writes that:

One might equally use this phrase to describe the Buddha dwelling in selfless freedom (nirvana) beneath the bodhi tree after his awakening.[v]

The poet, John Keats, was familiar with Hazlitt’s opinion and shared it. He called Shakespeare’s non-egoistic quality “negative capability” or the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This ability to be present with life, just as it is, in all its mystery is an ability that the Buddha embodied. If Keats is right and Shakespeare had it, then he was a being of profound understanding. Though not a Buddhist, Shakespeare resembled the Buddha in at least this one respect.


[i] Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016

[ii] Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1964), 215.

[iii] Motion, Andrew, Keats (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1999), 227.

[iv] Greenham, David, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, Melville, James, Berryman: Great Shakespeareans, Vol. XIII (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 16.

[v] Batchelor, Stephen. The Practice of Negative Capability: Buddhist Reflections on Creative Uncertainty. Sea of Faith. 2002 (27 May 2016)