Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering. The Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya[i]

Suffering (dukkha)[ii] is a basic fact of existence and The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha. In this life suffering is unavoidable. It can range from a vague feeling of dissatisfaction to the severest physical and mental torment.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  In these three tragedies we find not only the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, but mental suffering of the worst kind.

These plays also illustrate The Second Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, the truth of the causes of suffering, which are to be abandoned. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance of the fact that all things are impermanent and illusory. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, desire, aggression, anger, pride, and jealousy are also identified by Buddhists as causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion.

As the middle-aged husband of a young wife, Othello is strongly attached to Desdemona and fiercely averse to the thought that she could be unfaithful. King Lear, long accustomed to the privileges of kingship, has developed an unhealthy attachment to the gratitude of loving daughters and the deference that goes with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to anything that stands in the way of royal power that is both absolute and secure. All are ignorant of the fact that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid are impermanent and illusory.

Suffering and the causes of suffering are not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters undergoing every variety of suffering caused by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. His understanding of the inner workings of the mind and his skill as a poet enable him to depict suffering in such a way that we feel it profoundly. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a high wall and dies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (III.iv.95-100)

After Macduff learns that the agents of Macbeth have murdered his wife and children, he is advised to “Dispute it like a man.” His response is an understated but powerful expression of his suffering:

                 I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! (IV.iii.260-265)

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or of a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But ignorance, attachment, and aversion can bring us plenty of suffering without that kind of outside help. Inability to control our natural cravings is all it takes to cause suffering for ourselves and others. As the Eighth Century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote of sentient beings:

Though longing to be rid of suffering,
They rush headlong towards suffering itself.
Although longing to be happy, in their ignorance
They destroy their own well-being, as if it were their worst enemy.[iii]

Sonnet 129 offers an example of the suffering we produce when we allow our cravings to get the better of us.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker tells us that until he acts upon them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. No sooner does he gratify his lust than he is overcome with regret. He likens craving to a bait to be swallowed and a trap to be caught in. Both the craving and the regret that follow are extreme to the point of madness. There may be bliss in the instant of gratification, but very woe follows. In the closing couplet he says that we very well know what is going to happen, but don’t know how to stop ourselves. As Shantideva says, in our ignorance we “rush headlong toward suffering itself.”

Another form of suffering notable in Shakespeare is sadness or melancholy, which is expressed by Hamlet when he says:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II.ii.318-327)

For no apparent reason, Hamlet says, he finds the earth and the heavens themselves to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice is another character who cannot account for his sadness. He says in the opening lines of the play:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. (I.i.1-4)

In the opening lines of the next scene Portia strikes a similar note:

By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is
aweary of this great world. (I.ii.1-2)

While they can be ascribed to various causes, these speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, sadness is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night we are given a song about “the wind and the rain” and the rain “that raineth every day” at every stage of our lives.

The sadness that underlies Shakespeare’s works corresponds to what Buddhists call the suffering of conditioned existence or all-pervasive suffering. Because we are subject to causes and conditions that we cannot control and often do not understand, we experience a pervasive sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life.

Whether it takes the form of a vague sense of unease or the severest mental anguish, suffering is the truth of existence for all of us. Birth is suffering, teaches the Buddha. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” says King Lear. (, 200-201)

Shakespeare shows us suffering and the causes of suffering, but does he have anything to offer with respect to The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering?

Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a spiritual teacher. He does not describe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as The Noble Eight-fold Path, which is The Fourth Noble Truth, nor does he give us practices for training the mind, such as those taught by the Buddha and developed over the centuries by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering that would come with enlightenment, but in his plays he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter our suffering and that of others.  One of these qualities is compassion, which will be considered in our next post.


[i] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). 38-39.

[ii] Italicized words within parentheses are from the Pali language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first recorded.

[iii] Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016)