Post 22: Conclusion

We have seen that Shakespeare was a mindful observer of nature, of human behavior, and of the inner operations of the mind. In his great tragedies he shows the terrible consequences that ensue when in our ignorance we allow our thoughts to be taken over by attachment, aversion, and related negative e emotions. This can only lead to suffering and the causes of suffering, and Shakespeare gives us memorable examples of every variety of suffering. He also gives us examples of qualities of mind that counter suffering, including loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, contentment, respect for cause and effect, forgiveness, and remorse.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems can be used to illustrate other essential truths taught by the Buddha and his followers, including:

  • the certainty of impermanence and death,
  • the illusory nature of all phenomena,
  • interdependence,
  • the fact that all actions have consequences determined by good or bad intent, and
  • egolessness, which is the understanding that neither the self nor phenomena are ultimately real.

We have noted the absence of Shakespeare’s own ego in his works, an absence that lead Hazlitt to observe that, “He was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be…” While we cannot say that Shakespeare was a Buddhist, we might, if we agree with Hazlitt, Keats, and Emerson, say that he was Buddha-like, at least in this one respect.

We have found many points of correspondence between Shakespeare and the dharma, and a more knowledgeable and imaginative reader could doubtless find more, but some qualifications are in order. Not every aspect of Buddhist teaching can be fully illustrated by examples from Shakespeare. We find loving-kindness in Shakespeare, but not loving-kindness extended to beings throughout the universe in all directions. We find compassion, but not the compassion of a bodhisattva ready to take on the suffering of all sentient beings. The examples of equanimity that we find are of the Stoic rather than the Buddhist variety. That is, some characters are free from personal attachments and aversions but don’t necessarily regard all beings with an equal mind.

Shakespeare’s plays illustrate interdependence as it is commonly understood, but not the subtler Buddhist teaching on interdependent co-arising. We find characters that have glimpses of the truth of egolessness, but none who completely realize it. While the murder of human beings is condemned and arguments are made against war, we do not find reverence for the lives of all sentient beings.

We must also acknowledge fundamental differences between Buddhist beliefs and those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who would not have been familiar with rebirth, the samsaric cycle of birth and death, or the buddha nature of all sentient beings. Buddhists, for their part, would not subscribe to the notion of an all-powerful creator God or the existence of an eternal and individual soul.

Much of what we find in the plays and poems, including the lovers’ tribulations, the struggles for power, the clever wordplay, and the bawdy jokes, has little obvious application to the dharma, other than to illustrate the nature of samsara. Yet throughout Shakespeare’s works we find dramatic situations and passages of poetry that wonderfully reflect the truth of the dharma, which is the truth of how things really are, as taught by the Buddha.  Because he is largely egoless as an artist Shakespeare is  able:

To hold as t’were the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Hamlet III.ii.23-26)

When Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature, nature is often reflected back in forms that illustrate or partly illustrate the Buddhist dharma. Viewed within the right context, some of his works can even serve as powerful dharma teachings.


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