The Dharma According to Shakespeare explores ways in which passages and situations from the works of William Shakespeare might be used to illustrate some of the basic teachings of the Buddha and his followers.  At first I thought this exploration might lead to an article or a short book, and have so far drafted about seventy pages.  Eventually it occurred to me that the project could benefit from the comments that might come in response to a series of blog posts.

Posts will appear on this site at weekly intervals over the next four or five months, with each post undertaking to illustrate an aspect of the dharma with Shakespeare’s help. In addition to the periodic posts, the site contains sixteen pages, each of which contain material that will appear in future posts.  Those who would like to jump ahead to preview these 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 takes the time to leave a constructive comment, will have my sincere gratitude.

Why Buddha & Shakespeare?

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 could 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 so far as I can tell.

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.

Edward Dickey is retired from a thirty-year career at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was Director of the State & Regional Program. He has an M.A. in Literature from the American University and lives in Washington, DC, where he has been active with a local Buddhist group for the past twenty years.

Note:  Although this site uses the extension .com because it is the most familiar alternative, The Buddha According to Shakespeare is strictly a non-profit undertaking, and the information presented is solely for purposes of education and public discourse.