Universality

We will begin to take a Shakespearean look at some basic Buddhist principles in our next post.  This post could be called, Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?, Part II.

Shakespeare could have known nothing about the teachings of the Buddha.  Knowledge of Buddhism disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire and would not begin to return until after Shakespeare’s lifetime.  Believers in rebirth might try to get around this by speculating that Shakespeare was a bodhisattva, a realized being who chose to be reborn in Elizabethan England to spread the Buddhist dharma in a new form to new audiences.

Intriguing as such speculation might be, we do not have to believe that Shakespeare was a reborn bodhisattva in order to believe that his works resonate with the teachings of the Buddha.  We have only to appreciate the universality of a playwright whose works have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.

As Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, wrote in the preface to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”[i]  The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge goes farther, writing that he “shakes off the iron bondage of space and time”[ii] to produce plays and poems “out of the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind.”[iii]

Out of his oceanic mind Shakespeare brought forth human experience in all its breadth and depth.  His characters represent all walks of life, from exalted rulers to thieves and drunkards.  He shows us every feeling known to humankind, including love, compassion, joy, sadness, grief, hatred, pride, jealousy, remorse and fear.  He takes us inside the minds of lovers, deposed monarchs, jealous husbands, mistreated fathers, grieving parents, and serial killers.  He places his characters in extreme situations that test the limits of the human spirit and take some to the brink of madness and beyond.  His settings include royal courts, taverns, battlefields, bone-strewn gravesites, blasted heaths, enchanted islands, and fairy haunted forests.  His works embrace the natural and the supernatural, the benevolent and the malign, the innocence of childhood and the exhaustion of old age.  The range and inclusivity of Shakespeare’s imagination is a source of his universality.

Shakespeare also achieves universality by using the power of poetry to transcend time.  We see this in his sonnets, including Sonnet 55:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme. . .                                                                                               . . . your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.

He intends for his poems to last not just for a long time, but “to the ending doom.”  He has similar aspirations for his plays.  After Julius Caesar is killed, Cassius asks:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown? (III.i.124-126)

Shakespeare’s own vision is at least as farseeing as that which he attributes to Cassius.  He transcends the perspective of his own time and place to write for audiences that will encounter his works in the distant future, “in states unborn and accents yet unknown.”  He writes for us and for the millions of others who have experienced his works over the last 400 years, and for those who will experience them from now until “the ending doom.”

Shakespeare’s boundless vision brings everyone into his audience.  His vision is vast, but vaster still is that of the Buddha and his followers. Their vision encompasses all beings throughout the whole of space and time.  Two such universal visions cannot be mutually exclusive, and any correspondences between them should be well worth exploring.

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[i] Jonson, Ben. To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Poetry Foundation, 2016 (07/19/2016) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44466

[ii] Foakes, R.A., Coleridge on Shakespeare: The Text of the Lectures of 1811-12. (New York: Psychology Press, 2013),166.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (George Bell and Sons, 1884), 278.