For the Buddha and his followers, the phenomena we encounter are without inherent reality. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha describes “all this fleeting world” as “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream[i]

The Thirteenth Century Tibetan master, Longchenpa, lists eight similes of illusion. Phenomena are: like a dream; like a magic illusion; like a hallucination; like a mirage; like an echo; like a city of gandharvas (ephemeral beings); like a reflection; and like an apparition. [ii]

So far as we know, Shakespeare never professed to be a spiritual teacher of any kind. His business was the creation of illusions for the entertainment of his audiences. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be read as a profession of his true craft.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.15-18)

Illusion is what we expect to encounter when we enter a theatre, but Shakespeare doesn’t stop there. In his plays we often encounter further illusions within the context of the play, illusions within an illusion. In The Tempest, for example, the magician,Prospero, conjures a masque of spirits to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, dissolves it, and then delivers these lines on the illusory nature of existence:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i.165-175)

Prospero is saying that towers, palaces, temples, the globe itself, and all that will come after are as insubstantial as the conjured masque of spirits. One wonders if Shakespeare could have somehow intuited what the Buddha taught and what physicists discovered in the last century: that matter is not as solid as it seems. What seems so solid to us actually consists of empty space and energy.

Beyond speeches on the dreamlike nature of phenomena, we find illusion in the very fabric of Shakespeare’s plays. Little is what it appears to be. Twins are mistaken for each other (The Comedy of Errorsand Twelfth Night). Women disguise themselves as men (Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Twelfth, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline). Men disguise themselves as women (The Taming of the Shrew andThe Merry Wives of Windsor). Rulers disguise themselves as subjects (Henry V and Measure for Measure). Characters thought to be dead turn out to be alive (Much Ado About NothingTwelfthNight, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s TaleThe Tempest, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pericles). Men who think that they are sleeping with an object of their illicit lust are instead consummating marriage with a rightful spouse (All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure). Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate how we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and live under a multitude of false impressions. What we see, or think we see, turns out to be man-made illusion.

For the Buddha and his followers illusion is not man-made but inherent in the nature of existence. But when they say that worldly phenomena are like a bubble, a phantom, or a dream, they are not saying that phenomena have no existence at all. They are saying that the phenomena we experience are not ultimately real because they lack three qualities that we associate with reality: they lack permanence; they lack singularity; and they lack independence. Everything is impermanent and changes, everything is multiple and made up of parts, and everything is dependent on causes and conditions.

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare echoes, point for point, the Buddhist understanding that all phenomena are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent.. The Duke of Vienna, disguised as a friar, visits a prison to comfort the condemned man, Claudio, who is unprepared to die. The Duke advises Claudio to give up hope of a reprieve and reminds him that the bodily existence he fears to lose is illusory because ––

It is impermanent:

Merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn’st toward him still.  

It is multiple:

Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. 

And it is dependent on causes and conditions:

A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict. 

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, which makes it is easy for us to overlook their impermanence, multiplicity, and interdependence and attribute to them a solid and lasting reality that they lack. In our ignorance we develop attachment and aversion to phenomena, and as a result we suffer.

In general, Shakespeare and the Buddha have different ways of showing us the illusory nature of phenomena. With his pen Shakespeare creates illusions out of “airy nothing,” and then uses them to demonstrate that the phenomena we encounter are rarely what we take them to be. The Buddha points to actual phenomena and teaches that they are illusory in that they have no inherent existence. But in the lines from Measure for Measure, quoted above, Shakespeare is very much on the same page as the Buddha in explaining that phenomena lack inherent existence because they are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent.


[i]Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993),143.

[ii]Longchenpa. Eight Similes of Illusion. Rigpa Wiki. 16 Mar 2011. (26 May 2016)