5: Mortality

Death is impermanence as it affects the worldly 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.[i]

And in the words of Hamlet:

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 today. In Shakespeare’s London, 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 every day.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of his plays no fewer than 74 die onstage, thirty by stabbing, five by beheading, seven by poisoning, and 32 by other means. Another 81 die offstage.[iii]

Remembrance of death can be a major factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. Shortly before he died, the Buddha said:

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.[iv]

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 wrote:

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 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 to find that his uncle, Claudius, has seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. After Hamlet is refused permission to return to school, the ghost of his dead father visits him, tells of his death at the hands of Claudius, and urges his son to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” As Hamlet considers what to do, he finds that Claudius and Polonius are using his girlfriend, Ophelia, in their plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his 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 a teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he differs with Hamlet. He explains that “To be or not to be” is not the question, because reality is beyond dualities such as “being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going.” Hamlet’s words suggest that he was attached to conceptual notions of being and non-being, but such notions are not reality. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “when conditions are sufficient things manifest,” but we should not call that being, and “when conditions are not sufficient things do not manifest,” but we should not call that non-being; because phenomena have no intrinsic existence; no intrinsic being or non-being. They come and go within an ever-changing dynamic of causes and conditions.[vi]This may seem confusing because non-dual reality is beyond our conceptual understanding. We can try to explain it up to a point, but we cannot capture it in words. We can only experience it.

Having established that non-dual reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might go on to look at other passages from Hamlet’s famous 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 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. His mind has somehow grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with equanimity.

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 a
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 of aught he leaves
knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage, Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s view. The fall of Hamlet’s sparrow will manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are not sufficient, it will not manifest. Has Hamlet acquired a non-dual perspective and glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary view that he expresses in this speech. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death. The timing of his death matters no more to him than the fall of a sparrow. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and prepared to let causes and conditions play out as they will.

Of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet exhibits the most spacious mind. He may not fully realize its infinite potential, but over the course of the play he travels a long journey 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, at least not a fully realized one. 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

[ii]Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s London. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05 May 2016) <http://www.shakespeareonline.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]From the Mahahaparinirvana Sutra

[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 4, 1997 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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