Post 1: Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare has been my frequent companion for almost fifty years, during which time I have studied his works in school, read them for pleasure, attended hundreds of performances, watched dozens of film versions of the plays, and spent many hours listening to audio productions during morning and afternoon commutes. And for the past twenty years I have studied and tried to practice Buddhism and wondered what connections might be made between the teachings of the Buddha and Shakespeare’s works.

At first I did not come up with much. Buddhism and Shakespeare seemed to exist on different planets. Buddhism is concerned with transcending the samsaric cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, benefiting others, and taming the mind. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, appear to be concerned with worldly preoccupations, such as romantic love, debauchery, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge.

But eventually I began to see that the Buddha and Shakespeare have much in common. They both appreciate the power of thoughts and the need to control them. They are both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering. They both focus on the reality of impermanence and death, and they both recognize the illusory nature of existence. It is possible to find in Shakespeare passages and stories that celebrate qualities that Buddhists value, including compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse. Buddhists are, of course, not alone in valuing these qualities. They have been encouraged in other spiritual traditions, including the Christianity of Shakespeare’s England.

The teaching of the Buddha is vast, and for the purposes of this blog I will be working on a basic level with points common to most schools of Buddhism. I have included those aspects of Buddhism most easily related to Shakespeare’s works and those passages from Shakespeare most easily related to Buddhism. There is much in Shakespeare and much in Buddhism that falls outside the scope of our discussion. For example, Buddhism is not preoccupied with the joys and tribulations of romantic attachment (other than as something to be avoided), and Shakespeare does not offer a path to non-dual realization.

But the Buddha and Shakespeare, separated as they are in time and culture, are not such strangers as we might think. Through their teachings and writings we can bring them into conversation and find that they have a great deal to say to each other.

Posts will appear on this site at weekly intervals over the next four or five months, with each post using material from Shakespeare to illustrate an aspect of the dharma. In addition to the periodic posts, the site contains sixteen pages, each of which include material that has appeared or will appear in posts.  Those who would like to jump ahead to preview future posts are welcome to do so, though it is only possible to comment on material that has already been posted.

Anyone who reads any part of this blog, and especially anyone who takes the time to leave a constructive comment, will have my sincere gratitude.

7 Responses to “Post 1: Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?”

  1. Victoria Dolma Says:

    It’s looking good, Ed! One thing that occurred to me that you might want to add at the beginning (assuming you can go in an make edits) is that the fact that you have been drawn in your life to both Shakes. and Dharma suggested to you that there might be a link, albeit perhaps subtle and indirect. Maybe — even subconsciously — it is this which sparked the idea for this project?

    Keep up the good work.

  2. edickeya Says:

    Thanks, Victoria. You are right that there is room for elaboration here.

  3. Don Price Says:

    When I was fourteen years of age, I took my first deep dive into Shakepeare. I didn’t go voluntarily, I was dragged. It was in an English literature class, our teacher was a Mr. Thomas, he had large canine teeth, and was known to us boys as Dracula. Affectionately–and out of his earshot–we referred to him as Drac.

    Drac took us through the Merchant of Venice word by word, line by line. Took us two years. In a way, quite similar to Rinpoche guiding us through The Words of My Perfect Teacher on the home retreat.

    A few years back, Rinpoche actually brought Drac to mind for me (How cool is that??) Rinpoche quoted the lines: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It dropped as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” I was glad to discover these words are still etched into my brain.

    Thanks to you, it’s a pleasure to again closely encounter Shakespeare in my late sixties. Shakespeare and the Dharma. What a wonderful combination. Thanks to Rinpoche I’ve come to appreciate the unique phrasing of pithy dharma quotes. And, to now have you point out that Shakespeare too has his special way of invoking dharmic ideas, well, it’s just special, Ed.

    Thank you.

  4. edward Says:

    Thanks, Don. “The quality of mercy” feature’s in next weeks post, which is on compassion. But I think Rinpoche’s favorite is “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” which featured in last weeks post. And he has quoted Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation that “to be or not to be is not Buddhism” which is considered in the post on Death. Rinpoche’s teachings have been one of the inspirations for this project.

  5. Lila Says:

    fascinating idea. i am hooked and look forward to reading all along

  6. Thannarong Says:

    You seem to understand both. But Buddhism is so deep & complex. Though I realize it still there are so many more to learn. The Middle way is true. Good luck, if you may.

  7. edickeya Says:

    Yes, Buddhism is indeed deep and complex. One can only go so far in using Shakespeare to illustrate Buddhism. It is fun to look for the correspondences, but one must also be aware of the differences.

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