Post 21. Exhausting the Three Poisons

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us. Pema Chödrön.[i]

Shakespeare’s great tragedies bring about a “calm of mind, all passion spent,” to borrow Milton’s phrase. This state is achieved through catharsis, defined as the purging or removal of the emotions through the evocation and exhaustion of pity and fear. The notion of catharsis was introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics and is applicable to Shakespearean as well as Greek tragedy. We will consider how catharsis might apply to a Buddhist reading of Shakespeare.

In experiencing a well-written tragedy we identify with certain characters and become attached to their happiness and well being. For example, we easily identify and sympathize with the newlywed Othello and Desdemona. In the early scenes Othello’s greatness of spirit is apparent as he faces down accusations of witchcraft, and Desdemona displays a nobility of her own when she tells her angry father of her marriage and duty to the Moor. We are won over by the story of their first meeting and courtship, with Desdemona listening in rapt attention as Othello describes his many adventures:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. (I.iii.193-194)

For the remainder of the play we suffer with them, as the scheming Iago pours fuel on the sparks of jealousy that he plants in Othello’s credulous mind. The more attached we are to Othello and Desdemona’s fading hopes of happiness the more aversion we feel for Iago and his wicked machinations. Seeing their needless and horrific suffering our feelings grow until the terrible closing scene in which Othello smother’s Desdemona and then stabs himself on learning of her innocence.

As we see the bodies lying upon the bed, the passions aroused in most of us have run their course and will soon fade. The worst that could happen has happened, and nothing is left; we may feel sad, spent and strangely calm.  Aristotle would say that our pity and fear have been evoked and exhausted, but from a Buddhist perspective we might revise this to say that attachment and aversion have been evoked and exhausted. This is not much of a departure from Aristotle, since pity and fear are themselves forms of aversion.

Attachment and aversion are eliminated in two ways. The feelings that accompany attachment and aversion are raised to such a pitch that we can no longer sustain them and we are emotionally drained. And at the end of the play, with Othello and Desdemona dead and Iago about to be executed, the objects of our attachment and aversion are gone from the world.

By evoking powerful emotions and then removing the objects of those emotions, Shakespeare shows us the impermanent and illusory nature of the phenomena in which we had been so heavily invested. The veil of ignorance is lifted and we see that the objects to which we were attached and objects to which we were averse had no real existence.

After experiencing a tragedy such as Othello, we might say that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion have been eliminated, at least as far as our experience of the play is concerned.  After we leave the theatre we will still have our own personal ignorance, attachments, and aversions to contend with, but perhaps we will be better able to see them for what they are. Taken in the right spirit Shakespeare’s tragedies can serve as powerful dharma teachings.


[i] Chödrön, Pema. When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 7.


Leave a Reply