Negative Capability

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. It is impossible to tell much of anything about Shakespeare’s politics, personal preferences, points of view, or religious beliefs from his plays and poems. 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, 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 this respect.

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[i] Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69384.

[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) http://sof.org.nz/batch2002.htm