9. Actions & Consequences

The Buddha teaches that the intention behind every action we take, large or small, contributes to our future happiness or unhappiness.

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]

These teachings are associated with the term karma, a Sanskrit word that denotes the sum of a person’s actions. The Buddhist concept of 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, Richard 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 harsh. 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.

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

[ii] Ibid. 84.

 

10: Forgiveness, Remorse & Purification

Forgiveness

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. Belief in the healing power of forgiveness is common to most if not all spiritual traditions. As a wise person has said, forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.

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 Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns to court, Isabella comes before him to seek justice for her brother’s death, and 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. The Buddha, from the Anguttara Nikaya.[i]

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.  It belongs to us to forgive.

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 Alonso, 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.

During the course of the play Prospero – assisted by the spirit, Ariel – uses his magic to:

  • Raise a tempest that brings his former enemies to the island unharmed;
  • Foil a series of plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban and others; and
  • Cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of Alonso, to fall in love;

Prospero then begins the work of reconciliation and forgiveness with the following speech:

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)

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees Ariel, forgives the plotters, 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.

 

Remorse & Purification

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 or regret rather than guilt. Remorse means acknowledgement of a wrong action, recognition of its negative consequences, a determination to do what one can to correct it, and a resolution never to do such a thing again. 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 may 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 imprisons Hermione, takes away 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. Leontes refuses to relent, even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent. 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 before heaven of any inherited stain. What we have here is a doctrine of original innocence as opposed to original sin. Original innocence is consistent with the Buddhist belief that our fundamental nature remains unblemished, however it might be obscured by our faults. Even our worst faults can be purified through remorse.

Original innocence is personified by the infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements on the order of Leontes. Happily, she 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 Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” He also patiently bears the admonishments of Paulina, who tells him of Hermione’s incomparable qualities and makes him promise not to remarry.

After Leontes’ sixteen 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 the angry Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon uncovered, 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.

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[i]Anguttara Nikaya: The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume V, F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1994), p. 140.

11: Egolessness

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 beliefs, our physical appearance, our physical strength, 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.  The Buddha 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 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 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 knows, 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.”[1] 

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.”[2] Emerson expressed the strikingly similar view that, “Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given.  He has no discoverable egotism.”[3] John Keats coined the term, negative capabilityto 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– [4]

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.”[5]  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.[6]

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, at least 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.

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[1]Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, Inc.1964), 215.

[2]Hazlitt, William, William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings. (London: Frederick Warne and Co,1889), 113.

[3]Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1876) 115.

[4]Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69384(27 Apr 2017)

[5]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

[6]Ibid.

 

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