10. Actions & Consequences

The Buddha teaches that the intention behind every action, 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.[i]

This teaching is associated with the term karma, a Sanskrit word that means the sum of a person’s actions. The Buddhist doctrine of karma involves belief in rebirth, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not share, so we can’t say 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.”

In his plays, Shakespeare often shows us 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 Richard 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, saying:

                                      that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii.8-12)

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! Ha, 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 to Claudius 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 pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense’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 compelled,
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 actions, 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 and begotten an illegitimate son, he has a kind heart. When he tries to relieve Lear’s suffering, the illegitimate son, Edmund, betrays him to Lear’s enemies. In one of Shakespeare’s most painful scenes, Gloucester is tied to a chair, and his eyes are 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 finds nothing in the cosmic order but arbitrariness and cruelty when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods;
They kill us for their sport.

Believers in rebirth might say that adversity in one life serves to exhaust the consequences of negative actions from another. But we don’t have to regard adversity as a punishment for past misbehavior. As we saw in our chapter on suffering, pain is the common lot of all beings in this world. And sometimes misfortune, however terrible, gives us what we need to grow. The experience of suffering can enable us to feel compassion for the suffering of others, as we saw in Lear’s compassion for the “Poor naked wretches.” The experience of suffering can also bring acceptance, as it does to Gloucester. In his last words he agrees with Edgar, that:

Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all. (V.iii.10-12)

It is consoling to know that suffering can bring grace. But Cordelia, Desdemona, and Lady Macduff and her children are brutally killed. These innocents will have no further opportunity to grow in this life. We need to believe that they will find their reward in another.

Although rebirth was not an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s England, people did believe in a hereafter. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that he is:

Doomed 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 find its reward.



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


[ii]Ibid. 84.


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