Egolessness is the realization that our selves and the phenomena we encounter are impermanent, interdependent, and composed of parts and therefore have only a relative and fleeting existence.  If we want to appreciate egolessness as it applies to our selves we can start by asking who we would be without our name, our family, our friends, our possessions, our work, our position, our physical appearance, our physical strength, our beliefs, our thoughts, etc. These aspects of our identity, and any others that we can imagine, are subject to change and have no enduring reality.  The more we come to realize this the more we come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a solid self.  The self that we identify with and cling to is a concept based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Having no solid self doesn’t mean having no sense of self at all.  It means having a healthy sense of self, free from clinging to what will change, clinging that can only bring us unhappiness. The Buddha taught that the greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit “I am.”[1] If we could only rid ourselves of that conceit and stop clinging to the impermanent and illusory aspects of our identity we would find openness and clarity.  This is not where most of us are.  For most of us suddenly losing even one or two cherished aspects of our identity would be a shattering experience. Some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves in this very position.

Consider Richard II.  Indulgent with his friends and profligate with money, Richard II goes too far when he exiles his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke and then seizes his assets to pay for wars in Ireland.  Henry returns from exile at the head of an invading army, and Richard returns from Ireland to find that his friends have fled, been killed, or gone over to Bolingbroke. In denial, Richard at first clings to his identity as a divinely elected monarch:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; (III.ii.55-56)

When it becomes clear that he must submit to his cousin, he pictures himself exchanging the trappings of kingship for the identity of a humble monk:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer’s walking-staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave, (III.iii.148-158)

He finds that the descent from power is not going to be that easy. Once he has given up the crown he no longer knows who he is and wishes that he could melt away into oblivion:

I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurped. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.
O, that I were a mockery king of snow
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops. (IV.i.266-273)

Sent away to prison, Richard has these final thoughts before he is murdered:

Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am; then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing. (V.v.32-41)

At the end he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he “be eased.”

Shakespeare returns to the subject of royal identity in King Lear. Lear is not deposed but voluntarily gives up power to his daughters with the expectation that he will retain “the name and all addition to a king.”  He foolishly thinks that he can give up power and keep the identity that goes with it, but soon finds out otherwise when he goes to live with his daughter, Goneril. Instead of treating him like a king and a beloved father, she bitterly scolds him for the behavior of his followers. His sense of identity shaken, Lear asks:

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I.iv.231-235)

The descent continues as Lear’s retinue is reduced by half and then taken away entirely. Left out in a storm with his sanity slipping away, Lear faces the loss of all that has defined his existence. Adrift and desperate to know who he is, he sees a naked beggar in the storm and exclaims, “Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”(III.iv.114-115)Then, with the storm raging around him, Lear begins tearing off his clothes, crying, “off, off you lendings!” It is as if he is trying to tear away those aspects of his old identity that are causing him so much pain.

Lear declines further into madness, obsessing about kingship, authority, and the ingratitude of children. Only after a battle is lost and Lear and Cordelia are led away to prison does he finally let go of attachment to power, position, and the deference that goes with them. As he consoles Cordelia Lear sounds like a man who has emerged from darkness into light:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon. . . (V.iii.9-20)

Having let go of some of the attachments that have defined his self-identity, Lear gains new understanding. He now knows that the power and position he has lost were impermanent and illusory, like the “packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon.” Unencumbered by his old burdens he is ready to look into “the mystery of things.” Unhappily, with the death of Cordelia Lear is again plunged into mental anguish. At the end he dies in the apparent belief that Cordelia has come back to life.

After much suffering Richard II and King Lear glimpse the truth. Richard knows at the end that our suffering is eased only when we are pleased with being nothing. And Lear anticipates, if only for a moment, the contentment that is to be found in freedom from identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.


Shakespeare’s Lack of Ego

We will conclude our exploration of Shakespeare and Buddhism by considering Shakespeare’s own ego or lack of ego. If Shakespeare had normal egoistic attachments they left few traces in his work. We cannot draw from the plays any firm conclusions about Shakespeare’s preoccupations, personal preferences, points of view, or beliefs. While John Milton employs poetry as a vehicle to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Shakespeare has no such agendas. In his plays many points of view are expressed and many qualities are embodied, but they are the points of view and qualities of the 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.”[2] He is like the presence that Virginia Woolf sensed when she visited Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford and wrote in her diary that, “he seemed to be all air & sun, smiling serenely.”[3]

William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Keats all remarked on Shakespeare’s lack of ego. Hazlitt wrote that, “He (Shakespeare) 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.”[4] Emerson, who had read Hazlitt’s essays, expressed the strikingly similar view that, “Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given. He has no discoverable egotism.”[5] John Keats was also familiar with Hazlitt’s opinion and shared it, coining the term, negative capability, to describe the singular quality that he found in Shakespeare.  He explains in a letter to his brothers:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason-[6]

Negative capability is openness to experience without the egoistic wish to question, understand or control.  This is a quality that a man with “no discoverable egotism” would possess.

The Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor, finds that negative capability “bears a striking affinity with the practice of Zen Buddhism.”[7] Considering Hazlitt’s statement that Shakespeare “was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become,” Bachelor writes that:

One might equally use this phrase to describe the Buddha dwelling in selfless freedom (nirvana) beneath the bodhi tree after his awakening.[8]

The ability to be present with life in all its mystery, unburdened by attachment to a solid self, is an ability that the Buddha exemplifies. If Keats, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Batchelor are right and Shakespeare possessed it, then he was a being of great insight. Though not a Buddhist, Shakespeare, the artist, resembled the Buddha in this important respect.

Not that we have to think of Shakespeare as some kind of holy man in order to appreciate his genius. Perhaps Shakespeare had egoistic attachments like most of us but was able to set them aside temporarily and enter a creative space of negative capability, of openness and clarity. Thus unencumbered, his mind would have become a polished mirror, reflecting human nature in all its variety. We find the mirror metaphor in Hamlet’s speech to the players:

… the purpose of playing. . . is, 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. (III.ii.23-26)

From Shakespeare’s mirror-like mind comes poetry and dramatic situations that illustrate truths taught by the Buddha, including the truth of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the relief to be attained through the cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, forgiveness, and remorse. It is easy to find passages that exemplify Buddhist teachings on the dangers of an unguarded mind, the reality of impermanence and death, the illusory nature of existence, the link between actions and consequences, and egolessness. When we experience Shakespeare’s plays we are often in the presence of universal wisdom, reflected as from a flawless mirror and resonating with truths taught in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions.

  1. Bhikkhu Nanamoli. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon. (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992) 34. 
  2. Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, Inc.1964), 215. 
  3. Woolf, Virginia Stephen. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Four 1931-1935 (New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). 219. 
  4. Hazlitt, William, William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings. (London: Frederick Warne and Co,1889), 113. 
  5. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1876) 115. 
  6. Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016 Apr 2017) 
  7. Batchelor, Stephen. The Practice of Negative Capability: Buddhist Reflections on Creative Uncertainty. Sea of Faith. 2002 (27 May 2016) 
  8. Ibid.