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. Readers can also find past and future posts at shakespeareandharma.com.