11. Forgiveness, Remorse & Purification

A. Forgiveness

While actions and consequences unfold as they will, the correct human response to wrongdoing is forgiveness. Without forgiveness, we are trapped in thoughts of the past and suffer from negative emotions of resentment and anger. We break free of this trap when we let go of the past and dwell mindfully in the present. As the Buddha tells us:

“Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                            How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                        Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.                                                                                                         “Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                              How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                     Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.[i]

Measure for Measurepresents a stark contrast between judgment and forgiveness. As the play opens, The Duke of Vienna deputizes Angelo to rule in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power, Angelo enforces a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who has 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 offers to spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. The disguised Duke has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancée, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo reneges on his promise and orders Claudio’s execution. The Duke secretly saves him but lets it appear that he has been killed.

Then the Duke throws off his disguise and returns to the court. Isabella seeks justice for her executed brother, and the Duke 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 asks Isabella to join her. Isabella 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)

When the living Claudio appears, Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy conclusion.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is remarkable. She forgives the man who sought to violate her innocence and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare. It would be hard to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural desire for judgment.

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.[ii]

While judgment will come, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma for Buddhists.  It belongs to us to forgive.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. Deposed by his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, Duke of Naples, he is cast away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They wash up 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 the island.

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

  1. Raise a tempest that brings his enemies to the island unharmed;
  2. Foil plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban, and others;
  3. Cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of the Alonso, to fall in love; and
  4. Summon a masque of spirits to celebrate their betrothal.

With his enemies in his power, Prospero’s thoughts turn from revenge to reconciliation:

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. (V.i.34-39)

He openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome. There is a joyful reunion of Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another drowned in the storm. And Prospero and Alonso join in mutual happiness at the forthcoming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness, Prospero responds:

There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone. (V.i.236-238)

Prospero relinquishes his magic powers, frees Ariel, forgives the plotters, and even pardons Caliban as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan. In the closing lines, he invites members of the audience to remember their 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 receive forgiveness. There is no absolution for Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But in The Tempest, Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we want forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive.


B. 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 rather than guilt. Remorse means acknowledging a wrong action, recognizing its negative consequences, doing what one can to repair them, and resolving never to repeat the action. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the act rather than the doer. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature, sometimes called buddha- nature, is unstained. Wrong actions may be what we do, but they are never who we are.

In Buddhist lore, we find stories of fearsome beings who encounter the Dharma, come to regret their wickedness, and lead blessed lives. One of the worst is Angulimara, a terrible bandit and murderer who wears a necklace of fingers taken from his 999 victims. To stop the carnage and prevent Angulimara from piling up more bad karma, the Buddha sets off to find him. When he does, Angulimara tries to make the Buddha his one-thousandth victim, but a magic spell keeps him at a distance. Unable to catch up to the Buddha, Angulimara yells, “stop,” but the Buddha tells the bandit that it is he who must stop his killing. One look from the Buddha is all it takes to change Angulimara’s heart. Overcome by remorse, he learns the Dharma, follows the Buddha as a monk, serves others, and upon his death, attains nirvana. His story demonstrates that all beings have buddha-nature, however badly they may have acted.[iii]

There may be no characters in Shakespeare quite so gruesomely awful as Angulimara, but some behave badly enough.  In The Winter’s Tale,when King Leontes of Sicilia thinks his wife, Hermione, has committed adultery with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia, he behaves abominably. He imprisons Hermione, takes away her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Leontes assumes it is Polixenes’ child, threatens to have it burned, and orders it abandoned to the elements. Leontes refuses to relent, even when the oracle of Apollo confirms Hermiones’ innocence. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his mistake. When Hermione swoons on learning the news, Leontes thinks she is also dead. But she is alive and in the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before the King’s attack of jealousy shatters their lives, 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 rather than original sin. Original innocence is consistent with the Buddhist belief that our wrong actions are never who we are.

Perdita, daughter of Hermione and Leontes, is a personification of original innocence. Abandoned to the elements but rescued by a kind shepherd, she grows up in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen, she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes. They flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes suffers terrible remorse and makes regular visits to the tombs of Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” Perdita and Florizel arrive at Leonte’s court pursued by the angry Polixenes. But Perdita’s true identity is soon revealed, and Perdita, Leontes, and Polixenes are happily reunited. At last, Paulina leads them 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.



[i]Ibid. 9.

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

[iii]Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 98.


Leave a Reply