6. 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, none approach Milarepa’s realization. But some 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 a 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 explains that “To be or not to be” is not the question, because reality is beyond being and non-being:

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.[vi]

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s view, phenomena have no intrinsic being or non-being. They come and go within an ever-changing dynamic of interdependent causes and conditions. Thich Nhat Hanh’s reality, which we might call non-dual reality, cannot be chopped up and placed in categories, such as being or not being.

Having accepted that reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might look at another passage from the same 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)

In this passage, 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 Buddhist practitioners who seek out charnel grounds as places for meditation on death. His mind has 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 of reality. The fall of a sparrow will manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are not sufficient, it will not manifest. Has Hamlet somehow acquired a non-dual perspective and glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary view 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 content to let causes and conditions unfold 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.  Quoted in Blackman, Sushila, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die.(Boston: Shambhala,1993), 21.

[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



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