7. Renunciation & Contentment

Renunciation and Contentment

If phenomena are impermanent and illusory and death inevitable, then we would do well to renounce worldly phenomena? This is the response of Buddhism and of other major spiritual traditions. The Buddha’s path to enlightenment begins with an act of complete renunciation, as he leaves wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a true refuge from the suffering of old age sickness and death. During his search he practices extreme asceticism for six years and is reduced to skin and bones, as he subsists on a few grains of rice a day. Only after he moderates the extent of his self-denial and begins to accept adequate nourishment does he attain enlightenment. He teaches us that, while renunciation is necessary, too much attachment to anything, even to renunciation, can be counterproductive. As the Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught, ”Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.”

We don’t have to become dour puritans like Malvolio in Twelfth Night and think that because we are “virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale.” We can enjoy life as it comes to us and let others do the same, as long as we avoid attachment. But avoiding attachment while living in the world can be extremely difficult for most of us. This is one reason why Buddhism and Christianity have strong monastic traditions and why some of the greatest spiritual teachers have spent many years alone in isolated retreats. In ancient Tibet Buddhist renunciates confined their lives to four goals:

Base your mind on the Dharma,
Base your Dharma on a humble life,
Base your humble life on the thought of death,
Base your death on an empty, barren hollow.[1]

Shakespeare was probably not much of a renunciate, but he understood their way of thinking. In Sonnet 146 he gives us a poem on the subject of renunciation:

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
Pressed with these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store.
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

While Buddhists would not use the word “soul” in the sense of an eternal entity, we all have a spiritual nature, which Buddhists call buddha nature. The speaker sees his spiritual nature oppressed by desires for costly apparel. But while such material wants are richly indulged, his spirit pines within and suffers dearth. Realizing that the body will die and worms will eat up the excess lavished on it, the speaker reverses course and embraces renunciation. He will now enrich his spiritual nature at the expense of the servant body. His outer appearance will no longer be rich, but his spirit will be fed, and as the spirit is fed it overcomes death.

In its asceticism and piety Sonnet 146 is not typical of Shakespeare, but we find many voices in Shakespeare’s poems and plays. Considering all he has written about impermanence, death, and illusion, it is not surprising to encounter a voice for renunciation.

Renunciation takes many forms in Shakespeare’s plays. On becoming King in Henry V, Prince Hal renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions. In The Tempest, Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book as he renounces the practice of magic. King Lear renounces the world when he lets go of attachment to royal power and accepts imprisonment, saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. (V.iii.22-23)

Hamlet even renounces attachment to a continued earthly existence when he says:

Since no man of aught he leaves knows,
what is’t to leaves betimes? Let be.  (V.ii.237-238)

We find renunciation in Shakespeare whenever a character achieves contentment or fulfills a higher purpose by letting go of old attachments.

Contentment

Renunciation is the key to contentment, and to be content is to be happy in the present moment, in the place where we are, and with whatever we happen to have. The Buddha taught that there is no treasure like contentment, and we gain this treasure by learning to live simply with few desires.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good example of contentment. At the opening of Henry VI Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he claims to be the King, his captors ask to see his crown. He responds:My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.i.62-65)

He is even content in prison, and when released he thanks his jailor for making his imprisonment a pleasure. Unfortunately he is later re-arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is  murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines on the subject of contentment.

A happier example of contentment is Duke Senior in As You Like It. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a primitive life with his friends in the Forest of Arden:Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.i.1-11)

Duke Senior favors exposure to cold weather, the penalty of Adam, over exposure to flattery.   At least the cold is an honest counselor that reminds him of his mortality. The dispossessed Duke is echoing, almost exactly, the following advice given by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala, in the Sigalovada Sutta:

But he who does not regard cold or heat any more than a blade of grass and does his duties manfully, does not fall away from happiness.

These four…should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

he who appropriates a friend’s possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin.[2]

Duke Senior is happy to follow this pattern in making the best of a simple existence exposed to the elements and away from false friends. He goes on to say:Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (II.i.12-17)

It is easy to be content when things are going well for us, but the exiled Duke finds contentment in adversity. Duke Senior is happy to be away from populated places and to forego human speech, books and sermons for the expressions of nature. Content in any circumstance, he sees the good in everything.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta. To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with the juice of a flower that causes her to love the next thing she sees. Seeing Bottom, she dotes on him, even with his ass’s head. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

As he meets the fairies that are to serve him, Bottom responds to each with affable good humor. Although Titania makes it clear that her services are at his command, he would be just as content with some hay and a nap.

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. When he awakens from sleep Bottom says:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say
what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was and
methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this
dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because
it hath no bottom. (IV.i.214-225)

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away from him, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom himself is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce. A proverb tells us that “a harvest of peace is produced from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.


  1. Enter your Patrul Rinpoché. The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998), 50. content here. 
  2. Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335. 

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