Chapter 11: Contentment

Health, contentment, and trust are your greatest possessions, and freedom your greatest joy. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Impermanence, the inevitability of death, and the illusory nature of phenomena combine to make a strong case for renunciation. But Buddhist renunciation is not about self-imposed deprivation or harsh ascetic discipline. The Buddha actually tried that path and found it unsatisfactory. According to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:

Renunciation does not mean giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.[ii]

Renunciation is non-attachment with respect to objects, with respect to control over others, and with respect to views. It is the key to contentment, and to be content is to be happy in the place where we are, with whatever we have or do not have. The Buddha taught that there is no wealth greater than contentment.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good example of contentment. At the opening of Henry IV Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he says he is the King his captors ask to see his crown. He responds:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is called content:
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.i.62-65)

He is even content in prison, and when released he thanks his jailor for making his imprisonment a pleasure. Unfortunately he is later imprisoned in the Tower of London and murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines on the subject of contentment.

A happier example of contentment is Duke Senior in As You Like It. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a simple life with his friends in the Forest of Arden:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.i.1-11)

Duke Senior prefers the Forest of Arden to the painted pomp of the court because it is free from the perils of envy and duplicitousness. He favors exposure to cold weather, the penalty of Adam, over exposure to flattery.   At least the cold is an honest counselor that reminds him of his mortality. The dispossessed Duke is setting an example that accords closely with the following lessons taught by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala:

But he who does not regard cold or heat any more than a blade of grass and does his duties manfully, does not fall away from happiness.

These four…should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

he who appropriates a friends possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin. [iii]

Happy to make the best of a simple existence exposed to the elements, Duke Senior goes on to say:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (II.i.12-17)

It is easy to be content when things are going well for us, but the exiled Duke has renounced old attachments and finds contentment in adversity, seeing the good in everything.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta.

To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with the juice of a flower that causes her to love the next thing she sees. Seeing Bottom, she dotes on him, even with his ass’s head. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

As he meets the fairies that are to serve him, Bottom responds to each with affable good humor. Although Titania makes it clear that her services are at his command, he would be just as content with some hay and a nap.

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. When he awakens from sleep Bottom says:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say
what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was and
methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this
dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because
it hath no bottom. (IV.i.214-225)

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom himself is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments and nothing to renounce.


[i] Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 55.

[ii] Loy, David R. Buddhist History of the West, A: Studies in Lack (Albany: State University of New York Press 2002), 209.

[iii] “Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala” (DN 31), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,  (1 July 2017)


Chapter 12: Actions & Consequences

But as dust thrown against the wind, mischief is blown back in the face of the fool who wrongs the pure and harmless. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

In Buddhism belief in karma is bound up with belief in rebirth, which Shakespeare did not share, so I won’t try to claim that Shakespeare believed in karma. However, his plays do illustrate three central tenets of karma:


  • Actions bring consequences;
  • The intentions behind the actions determine the nature of the consequences
  • Good intentions bring good consequences, and bad intentions bring bad consequences

As the Buddha says in The Dhammapada, “It is better to do nothing than to do what is wrong, for whatever you do you do to yourself.”[ii]  Such advice is not unique to Buddhism. According to St. Paul, “As ye sow so shall ye reap,” or in modern parlance, “what goes around comes around.” Shakespeare vividly illustrates the principle that ill-intended actions bring bad consequences for the actor.

Let’s begin with Richard III. In the course of seizing and securing the English crown, Shakespeare’s Richard III commits eleven murders. In the end, despite all his machinations, Richard is killed in battle on Bosworth Field. To leave no doubt that ignominious death is the direct consequence of his actions, Shakespeare has the ghost of each victim appear to him on the eve of battle to recount the circumstances of their murder and bid him “despair and die.”

We have seen the consequences that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bring on themselves by their murderous actions. Before killing Duncan Macbeth foresees them:

          . . . if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii.2-12)

Shakespeare not only shows us the consequences of bad behavior in the course of the play; he has the malefactor point them out to us in advance of the crime.

After committing the murder Macbeth looks at his hands and sees that it will be impossible to escape the consequences of what he has done:

What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (II.ii.77-81)

Something similar happens in Hamlet. After murdering his brother, seizing his kingdom, and marrying his queen, Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness but realizes that his prayers ring hollow and will never bring absolution:

May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.  (III.iii.60-68)

We can easily accept that Richard III, Macbeth, and Claudius must suffer the consequences of their murderous behavior, but in other instances the unfolding of actions and consequences can seem cruel. Consider the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear. Though he has been a philanderer, he has a good heart. When he tries to relieve the suffering of King Lear, his illegitimate son, Edmund (a consequence of his father’s philandering), betrays him to Lear’s enemies. In one of Shakespeare’s most painful scenes, Gloucester is tied to a chair and has his eyes gouged out as punishment for his kindness. When Gloucester’s good son, Edgar, comes to confront the wicked Edmund at the end of the play, he says:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (V.iii.204-207)

In the pre-Christian Britain of King Lear, the consequences of misbehavior can seem extreme. Gloucester sees nothing in the cosmic order but arbitrariness and cruelty when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (IV.i.41-42 )

There is little consolation to be found in the pagan world that Gloucester inhabits. Some believers in rebirth might say that what seems to be excessive punishment in one life serves to exhaust the consequences of negative actions from another. Some Buddhists would avoid blaming the victim for his cruel fate, noting that environmental factors can also play a part. They would prefer to emphasize that the good actions of a Gloucester, a Desdemona, or a Cordelia will bring good consequences, if not in this life then in another.

Rebirth was not an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s England, but people did believe in a hereafter in which they would be held accountable for their actions. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that he is:

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (I.v.15-18)

Actions and consequences in Shakespeare’s plays are not always balanced, nor are they balanced in the course of a single life. So Buddhists believe in rebirth and Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed in a hereafter, both trusting that bad actions will be “burnt and purged away” and that goodness will eventually find its reward. Indeed, without such a conviction we could never be reconciled to the fates of Lady MacDuff and her children, Gloucester, Desdemona, and Cordelia, among others.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 35.

[ii] Ibid. 84.


Chapter 13: Forgiveness

“Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.” Abandon such thoughts and live in love. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

While actions and consequences unfold as they will, the proper human response to wrongdoing is forgiveness. Without forgiveness we are trapped in painful thoughts of the past and suffer from negative emotions in the form of resentment and anger. We break free of this trap when we let go of the past and dwell mindfully in the present.


Hamlet is Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, but it closes on a note of forgiveness. After fatally wounding one another with the same unbated and envenomed sword, Laertes and Hamlet exonerate one another.

Laertes: Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.


Hamlet: Heaven make thee free of it!  (V.ii.361-364)

This forgiveness comes too late to have any effect on the outcome of the play, but in Buddhism as well as in Christianity we are taught the importance of exchanging forgiveness before death.

Measure for Measure presents a stark contrast between strict justice and forgiveness. As the play opens Duke Vincentio deputizes a nobleman, Angelo, to rule Vienna in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power Angelo takes it on himself to enforce a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who his gotten his contracted but not yet married spouse with child. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo is smitten and, indulging the very lust that he condemns in others, says that he will spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. Still disguised as a friar, Duke Vincentio has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s dishonorable proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancé, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo still seeks to have Claudio killed. It appears that Claudio has been executed, but thanks to a series of substitutions arranged by Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns, Isabella comes before him to seek justice. After giving Angelo further opportunity to demonstrate his guilt, Duke Vincentio hands down Angelo’s sentence:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. (V.i.465-467)

At this Mariana, now Angelo’s wife, pleads for his life, and when the Duke proves resolute, asks Isabella to join her. Isabella, still thinking her brother, Claudio, is dead, kneels beside her, saying:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. (V.i.509-513)

The Duke still does not relent, and the now repentant Angelo craves death. But when the living Claudio is produced Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy resolution.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is more than remarkable. She is forgiving the man who sought to violate her chastity as a novice nun and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare in return. It would be difficult to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural human desire for justice.

The spiritual lesson is central. Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s only play with a title based on a verse from the Bible:

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. Matthew 7:2.

And the Buddha teaches:

Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others. from the Anguttara Nikaya.[ii]

While judgment is to be expected, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma, or to the unfolding of actions and consequences, for Buddhists.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of the power of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. His brother, Antonio, with the help of the Duke of Naples, has deposed him and cast him away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They land on an enchanted island inhabited by Caliban, the half-human son of a witch. Using magic powers attained through long study, Prospero subdues Caliban and rules over the island. With the help of his attendant spirit, Ariel, he raises a Tempest that brings Antonio, Alonzo, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, and servants Stephano and Trinculo to the island. Once on the island, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso for his crown, and Caliban colludes with Stephano and Trinculo in a drunken plot to kill Prospero and rule the island, but Prospero foils the plots with the help of Ariel. Meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand fall innocently in love. As the play nears its end Prospero the magician has everyone on the island in his power, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness begins.

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. (V.i.34-39)

Prospero openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome, with special warmth for Alonso.

Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another lost in the tempest, are reunited, and Prospero and Alonso join in mutual joy at the coming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness of his future daughter-in-law, Prospero responds:

There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone. (V.i.236-238)

All past wrongs are reconciled, and with the innocent love of Miranda and Ferdinand, a new day of concord begins.

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees the spirit, Ariel, forgives Stephano and Trinculo, and even pardons Caliban, as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan.

In the closing lines Prospero invites members of the audience to remember their own culpability and join in the spirit of forgiveness:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free. (Epi.19-20)

Not all of Shakespeare’s malefactors are forgiven. There is no forgiveness for the unrepentant Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But with The Tempest Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we wish to be forgiven we must be ready to forgive.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 2.

[ii] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 123.


Chapter 14: Remorse & Purification

There is nothing good about negative actions except that they can be purified through confession. Milarepa[i]

It is the part of one who has suffered wrong to forgive. It is the part of one who has done wrong to purify the action by confessing it with genuine remorse.

What we find in Buddhism is remorse rather than guilt. Remorse means full acknowledgement of a wrong action, resolution never to do such a thing again, and a determination to do what one can to correct it. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the action and not the doer of the action. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature is unstained. All beings have buddha nature, however badly they have acted.

In The Winter’s Tale Leontes, King of Sicilia, behaves very badly indeed when he wrongly thinks that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful to him with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. In a jealous rage he has his wife imprisoned and deprived of her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, Leontes assumes it is the child of Polixenes, threatens to have it burned, and then has it taken away to be abandoned to the elements. Even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent, Leontes does not relent. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his terrible mistake. Hermione swoons on learning of the boy’s death, and soon after Leontes is told that she has also died, but Hermione is alive and secreted away under the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before their lives are shattered by the King’s attack of jealousy, Polixenes tells Hermione about his happy childhood days with Leontes:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. (I.ii.85-90)

Polixenes goes on to say that had they not taken on the desires and responsibilities of adulthood they would have remained guiltless of original sin. This is a crucial point. Shakespeare begins a play about remorse and purification with an assertion of original purity, which Buddhists would call buddha nature.

The infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements at the order of Leontes, is found by a shepherd and grows up in Bohemia in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes, and they flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

For these sixteen years, back in Sicilia, Leontes has been suffering terrible remorse and making daily visits to the tomb of his wife and son, where tears are his “daily recreation.”

After the years of remorse a courtier, Cleomenes, says:

Sir, you have done enough, and have performed
A saintlike sorrow. No fault could you make
Which you have not redeemed—indeed, paid down
More penitence than done trespass. (V.1.1-4)

Perdita and Florizel arrive at the court of the grieving Leontes, pursued by Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon discovered, and Perdita, Leontes, Polixenes, and Florizel are happily reunited.

At last Hermione’s friend, Paulina, leads them all to a chapel containing what appears to be a statue of Hermione. The statue comes to life, warmly embraces Leontes, and addresses Perdita:

You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! (V.iii.153-155)

With his bad behavior purified through remorse, Leontes finds grace in the restoration of his innocent wife and daughter.


[i] Patrul Rinpoché, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), 264.


Chapter 15. Peace

Better than a thousand hollow verses is one verse that brings peace. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Alas for the man who raises his hand against another, and even more for him who returns the blow. The Buddha, The Dhammapada.[ii]

Thomas Hardy wrote that, “war makes rattling good history, but peace is poor
reading.”[iii] Shakespeare was in the business of telling rattling good histories that celebrate war and the military virtues, but in his plays we often find that the cause of peace gets the more convincing arguments.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is the one best known for patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war and its effects:

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeardthere are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not diewell, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection. (IV.i.138-151)

King Henry, who is visiting his men in disguise on the night before the battle of Agincourt, dismisses this by saying that the king is no more responsible for a soldier who miscarries in battle than a father would be for a son who miscarries on an errand, but this is a weak argument. Sending someone on an errand and sending them into battle, especially in a bad cause, are entirely different matters. Shakespeare allows Henry to appear to win the argument because he can’t very well do otherwise, but he gives Williams the better case.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War, the Trojan leaders consider whether to end many years of costly fighting by returning Helen to the Greeks and to her rightful husband, Menelaus. Hector makes a compelling case for peace, ending with the lines:

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. (II.ii.192-197)

The case for peace fails to carry the day. Even Hector reverses himself and joins the side of war. Shakespeare had no choice in this, since he was retelling a well-known story, but once more he has given peace the stronger argument.

Hector pays the ultimate price for the continuation of war, and the full horror for Troy is brought home in the lamenting cries of Cassandra and in these lines from Troilus:

Hector is gone:
Who shall tell Priam so, or Hecuba?
Let him that will a screech-owl aye be call’d,
Go in to Troy, and say there, Hector’s dead:
There is a word will Priam turn to stone;
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
Cold statues of the youth, and, in a word,
Scare Troy out of itself. (V.xi.15-22)

Shakespeare’s plays contain many such descriptions of the terrible harm that war inflicts on individuals and on society.

In Henry IV Part 1 Sir John Falstaff enlists to aid the King in putting down a rebellion, though he is more interested in profiting from the war and has no stomach for fighting. When reminded by Prince Hal that he “owe’s God a death,” he responds with this soliloquy:

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism. (V.ii.128-142)

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is either a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture of the two. In any case, Falstaff memorably derides the hollowness of popular notions of honor and offers a human counterpoint to the scenes of deadly combat.

Shakespeare’s plays celebrate military valor, but military valor isn’t everything. Some of the characters most noted for military valor, Macbeth, Othello, and Coriolanus, turn out to be flawed human beings who come to bad ends.

None of this would qualify Shakespeare as a Buddhist where views of war and peace are concerned, but for all the battles and exhortations to valor, more is said on behalf of peace than on behalf of war. Shakespeare comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of ahimsa or non-harming in these lines from Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none…
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.

In these examples we have been considering the outward peace of non-harming and the absence of war. Such outward peace is dependent on inner peace, which comes from the absence of attachment, aversion, and ignorance of how things are. The qualities that contribute to inner peace are those we have been considering, including loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30.

[ii] Ibid. 105.

[iii] Hardy, Thomas, The Dynasts, (Part II, Scene V) 01 Sep 2013 (26 May 2016)

Chapter 16: Egolessness

The entire Buddhist path is based on the discovery of egolessness and the maturing of insight or knowledge that comes from egolessness. Chogyam Trungpa[i]

For Buddhists egolessness or no-self (anatta) is one of the three basic facts of existence, the others being suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). Egolessness is the understanding that neither phenomena nor the self are ultimately real. Buddhist teachings on egolessness can be challenging, but as a first step toward some appreciation of the egolessness of the self, we might ask who we would be without our name, our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs, our memory, our family relationships, our skills, our job, our possessions, our physical appearance, our physical strength, etc? These aspects of our identity, and any other aspects that we can imagine, are subject to change and have no enduring existence. 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 try to grasp onto is a concept based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Understanding that there is no solid self doesn’t mean having no sense of self at all. It means not having an unhealthy sense of self based on clinging to what is subject to change. We are taught that if we could 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 the case of Shakespeare’s 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 comes back 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;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord: (III.ii.55-62)

When it becomes clear that he must submit to his cousin, he pictures himself exchanging the trappings of royalty 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,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave; (III.iii.148-159)

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 nonexistence:

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)

Although his suffering continues, he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he be “be eased.”

Shakespeare returns to the subject of 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” and keep a following of a hundred knights. 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 Fool responds, “Lear’s shadow.” 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 struggles with the growing evidence that he is no longer who he thought he was, no longer a king and beloved father. He now wants to know who he and others essentially are, and when he encounters a naked beggar in the storm he thinks he sees an answer to his question.

—Is man no more than this? Consider him well.—Thou
ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha, here’s three on ’s
are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated
man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III.iv.110-115)

Then, with the storm raging around him, Lear begins tearing off his clothes, crying, “off, off you lendings!” It is as if Lear is trying to tear away those aspects of identity that are causing him so much pain.

In his suffering Lear begins to understand that he was deceived by the deference paid to him as King. His identity as an invincible monarch is a lie:

When the rain came to wet me
once and the wind to make me chatter, when the
thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I
found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are
not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.
’Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof. (

As Lear descends further into madness he obsesses 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 appear to let go of his 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 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.

None of Shakespeare’s characters achieve egolessness, but some suffer the painful unraveling of identity. In the course of their suffering, Richard II and Lear have insights that approach the truth. Richard II knows at the end that contentment will come only when we are pleased with being nothing, with having no attachment to identity. And Lear knows that contentment can be found without his old identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.


[i] Chogyam Trungpa, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume Four: Journey without Goal (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), 9.


Chapter 17: Negative Capability and Conclusion

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. We cannot draw from the plays and poems any firm conclusions about Shakespeare’s politics, personal preferences, points of view, or religious beliefs. 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 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.”[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 at least this one 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)