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.


We have seen that Shakespeare was a mindful observer of nature, of human behavior, and of the inner operations of the mind. He shows us the terrible consequences that ensue when characters allow their minds to be consumed by ignorance, attachment and aversion, which are the causes of suffering.

In his works, Shakespeare depicts every variety of suffering, ranging from the deepest anguish to a vague sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life. He also gives us examples of qualities of mind that counter suffering, including 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, which are multiple and interdependent as well as impermanent;
  • 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 compassion in Shakespeare, but not the compassion of a bodhisattva ready to take on the suffering of all sentient beings. Some of Shakespeare’s characters are free from personal attachments and aversions but they don’t necessarily regard all beings with an equal mind. 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 find characters that have glimpses of the truth of egolessness, but none who completely realize it. Hamlet grows in readiness for death as journeys from “To be or not to be” to “let be,” but when the time comes for him to die, he is not above avenging himself on those responsible for mortally wounding him.

Much of what we find in the plays and poems, including the lovers’ tribulations, the struggles for power, the thirst for revenge, 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 are. Capturing the truth of how things are is what the Buddha and Shakespeare, in their different ways, do.

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 Buddha’s teachings.


[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)