5: Mortality

In considering impermanence we have already been considering death. Death is impermanence as it affects the temporal existence of living beings. According to the Buddha:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the
movement of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky.
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain. (Lalitavistara Sutra) [i]

And in the words of Hamlet:

And man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one.’ (V.ii.74)

The reality of death was more immediate for the contemporaries of the Buddha and of Shakespeare than it is for most of us in the modern world. In Shakespeare’s England the average life expectancy was 35. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague swept London four times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For those who escaped the plague there were epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and malaria.[ii] And then there were the gruesome public executions and the decomposing heads of “traitors” displayed on London Bridge. Londoners confronted death and the horror of death on a daily basis.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of the plays no fewer than 74 characters die onstage. Thirty are stabbed, five are beheaded, seven are poisoned, and 32 die by other means.[iii] Another 81 die offstage.[iv].

Remembrance of death is a great factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. This was true for Shakespeare’s contemporaries as it was for the contemporaries of the Buddha. At the time of his own death the Buddha said:

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme, (Mahaparinirvana Sutra)

Death is the most powerful motivation for spiritual practice, and meditation on death is the supreme meditation. Perhaps no one exemplifies these teachings better than Tibet’s great yogi and poet, Milarepa, who writes:

In horror of death, I took to the mountains,
Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,
Capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind. Now all fear of death is over and done. [v]

There are no Milarepas in Shakespeare. Although many of Shakespeare’s characters confront death, they do not do so as hermits and probably not in ways that lead to full spiritual realization. But some of his characters do progress spiritually as they come to terms with death. Such a character is Hamlet.

Hamlet returns from school for his father’s funeral only to find that his uncle Claudius has already seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. His father’s ghost then appears to tell Hamlet that Claudius murdered him and that Hamlet must exact revenge. Claudius refuses to allow Hamlet to leave the court to return to school, and then Claudius and Polonius use Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, in a plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his most famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? (III.i.56-60)

These lines occasioned the following teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be,” is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going … But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.[vi]

Thich Nhat Hanh is considering Hamlet’s speech from the standpoint of ultimate truth, which transcends dualities such as being and non-being, birth and death, here and there. Of course these dualities do manifest, but only on the relative level, not on the level of ultimate truth, which is beyond being and non-being. Thich Nhat Hanh sees that Hamlet is trapped in a dualistic mindset that does not comprehend ultimate truth. We approach that truth when we are fully alive to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls, suchness.Suchness, from a Buddhist perspective, is the miracle of the way things are in the present moment, out of time and beyond dualities.

Having established that ultimate reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might go on to look at other passages from the soliloquy:

To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (III.i.72-76)

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (III.i.84-90)

In these passages Hamlet reconsiders what he has just said about “To be or not to be.” He thinks better of the proposition that he can by the act of suicide flip the switch from being to non-being. Hamlet abandons thoughts of suicide, but only because he fears that death would only bring another and scarier form of being. He has yet to transcend notions of being and non-being altogether.

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy does not contain Hamlet’s last words on the subject of death, however. As the play nears its end, Hamlet and Horatio visit a graveyard and enter into a contest of wit with a joking gravedigger. Hamlet seems at home among the bones as he holds up the skull of Yorick, a jester well known to him from childhood, and addresses it thus:

                                 Now get you to my
lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch
thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh
at that. (V.i.199-202)

From contemplating the transience of physical beauty he turns to the transience of worldly power:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw! (V.1.220-223)

Hamlet’s contemplations at the bone-strewn graveside bring to mind those Buddhist practitioners who seek out charnel grounds as places for meditation on death. Involved as he has been in a web of court intrigue, Hamlet is probably not devoting much time to spiritual practice, but his mind has somehow grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with an even mind.

In the next scene Hamlet prepares for a “friendly” fencing match with Laertes before the court. Suspecting, rightly, that there is a plot against Hamlet’s life, Horatio says, “If your mind dislike anything obey it,” and offers to cancel the match on Hamlet’s behalf. Hamlet replies:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves
what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding that phenomena lack intrinsic being or non-being and will manifest or not as conditions determine. In a similar way Hamlet’s sparrow has no enduring existence and will live or die as conditions determine. Has Hamlet glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being, birth and death? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary perspective that he expresses. The timing of the fall of a sparrow and the timing of his own death have no importance for him. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death, his own death. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and prepared to let things manifest as they will.

Of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet exhibits the most spacious mind. He may not completely realize its infinite potential, but over the course of the play he travels the long distance from “To be or not to be” to “let be.” From thoughts of suicide followed by fears “of something after death,” he grows in readiness for death. When he says, “let be,” he expresses an acceptance that Buddhists and followers of other spiritual traditions practice for lifetimes to attain. Still, Hamlet is no Buddha. Moments of insight can be supplanted by personal passion, as we see in the final scene when he kills Laertes and Claudius.


[i]Buddha Shakyamuni. Lalitavistara Sutra. Rigpa Shedra, 19 Nov. 2011 (22 Aug. 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Four_thoughts#cite_note-1

[ii]Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s LondonShakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05 May 2016) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/londondisease.html >.

[iii]Jones, Josh, 74 Ways Characters Die in Shakespeare’s Plays. Open Culture 01 Jan 2016 (26 May 2016) http://www.openculture.com/2016/01/74-ways-characters-die-in-shakespeares-plays-shown-in-a-handy-infographic.html

[iv]Minton, Eric, The Dead and Dying Make for Live! Theatre. Shakespeareances.com. 22 Jan 2016 (26 May 2015) http://www.shakespeareances.com/willpower/onstage/Deaths-01-BSF16.html

[v]Milarepa, In horror of death. Rigpa Wiki. 27 December, 2015. (09 August, 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Quotations:_Milarepa,_In_horror_of_death

[vi]Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 41997 in Plum Village. (26 May 2016) http://www.buddhist-canon.com/PLAIN/TNHSUTTA/1997%20Dec%204%20%20Diamond%20Sutra%20(part%201).htm


One Response to “5: Mortality”

  1. Holly T Says:

    This is the best yet. Hamlet is my favorite play — I suppose I relate to the self absorption, the emotional minefield of his relationships and the determination to understand what life is about. I think many many do. I like your well written and well thought out description of Hamlet’s journey from “to be or not to be” to “let be.” Thank you. Looking forward to the next post.
    One thought: the first sentence uses the “we” form which sounds so academic and like a lecture. Popular writing — a wider audience — might come by a different approach. Then again, this website probably attracts those most familiar with.the “we”form.

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