What is Shakespeare’s Wisdom and how does it match up to the Buddha’s? In this article I explore Shakespeare’s Richard II as a play about belief and identity, which are core concerns of Buddhism, and suggest parallels between Shakespeare’s insights and those of the Buddha
Although I usually write about Buddhism, the subject that interests me most is ‘wisdom’. It’s the core of Buddhism, but not its exclusive preserve and when I read or watch Shakespeare’s plays I sometimes feel drawn, as I am drawn to the Dharma. The wisdom there is not the sort that you can easily encapsulate or expound, let alone correlate with Buddhism. So here, as a sort of experiment, are some reflections on Richard II prompted by the BBC production, The Hollow Crown.
As any textbook will inform you, Shakespeare’s later history plays (i.e. ‘the Second Tetralogy’) explore the ‘theme’ of monarchy or kingship, asking what it is, what it means and how the idea of kingship matches the reality of political power. That may not sound like wisdom, but it takes a deeper resonance if we consider (as critics and historians insist we should) that monarchy and kingship focused powerful and conflicting, beliefs which shaped both the political reality and mental landscape of Shakespeare’s world. For Shakespeare characters, too, the nature of kingship and whether it is bestowed through divine election or won through brute power, is not an intellectual interest but a matter of life or death. In Buddhist terms, it’s a powerful view that shapes how they see themselves and the world and is underpinned by unconscious emotions. The Buddha describes the principles involved and offers an alternative; Shakespeare excavates the lived reality.
At the start of the play King Richard II is the rightful monarch but a bad king: vain, petulant and callous, surrounded by corrupt nobles and estranged from his subjects. He banishes his cousin Bolingbroke for his part in a dispute that starts with his protests against this corruption. When Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies Richard confiscates his ‘plate, corn, revenues and moveables’, to finance a war in Ireland, provoking Bolingbroke to return to England at the head of an army.
This raises the question, what should one do when a rightful king is unworthy of his position? To depose an anointed monarch would be ‘gross rebellion and detested treason’ – a crime against God. So Henry declares that he intends only to right the particular wrongs against him, not to seek the throne. But that’s untrue: his rebellion is a crime that can only succeed by capturing the crown.
When Richard returns he invokes the symbolic resonance of his kingship. If his position expresses the natural and divine order of things, why then:
This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion’s arms.
In his view, the divine status of kingship is so unquestionable that no distinction is required between the realm of ideology and that of power:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king …
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel.
This is hyperbole, but not empty rhetoric: Richard believes what he says. But while we probably prefer his conviction to Bolingbroke’s hypocrisy, we must also reflect that his belief requires fantasy and self-delusion. That is tested when Richard discovers he has no earthly army to meet Bolingbroke’s. His conviction crumbles. What had seemed so solid now appears empty of substance, and kingship seems an illusion:
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
One of Shakespeare’s abiding themes is what happens to people when they lose the props they have relied on for their sense of identity. How do they crumble? What is revealed by their disintegration? There is much more to say about Richard’s fall, but I want to pause to make a connection with Buddhism.
Selfhood, identity and beliefs were central concerns for the Buddha. We construct a sense of selfhood, he said, by taking refuge in three great delusions (viparyasas or ‘topsy-turvy views’). We tell ourselves that the things we experience are permanent when all we know is impermanent; that they are substantial when everything we examine turns out, on closer inspection, to be insubstantial; and that they are capable of giving us true satisfaction when the truth of our lives includes suffering and an unavoidable sense of unsatisfactoriness. The driving force behind these delusions, the Buddha said, is craving; and the process that allows us to believe them is the construction of beguiling yet false views (ditthis). These views present themselves as concepts and ideas, but their intellectual content is tied to emotions. In the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha enumerates 62 such wrong views and says that, at root, each one is merely ‘the feeling of those who do not know and do not see … the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.’ These views concern religious beliefs, but the same forces guide secular beliefs and political philosophies.
That returns us to Shakespeare and Richard II, which systematically deconstructs the beliefs surrounding kingship. More important than the story is the experience of Richard himself. He asks himself, what is kingship if it can be transferred so simply and, more acutely, what is he. As he watches his power dissolve, he indulges a distinctly Buddhist fantasy of renouncing worldly life:
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;
Nothing comes of that impulse because it evades his emotional attachment to his role – and it also ignores political reality. Beneath it lies Richard’s perplexity at the dissolution of his position; and beneath that is the question, ‘If my identity can change so swiftly, who am I?’ He toys with the idea of renouncing identity altogether:-
‘Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved’,
But his real emotion is amazed bafflement, which he dramatises by calling for a mirror and asking, as he gazes at his reflection:
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
(Dashes the glass against the ground)
For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.
That’s a vivid image of a man discovering anatta – the lack of a fixed selfhood.
Richard’s exploration of insubstantiality continues in his soliloquy in his dungeon in Pomfret Castle which touches on what I take to be Shakespeare’s deepest interests, and comes close to the concerns of the Buddha. Richard is trying to understand his own life and life in general:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
It’s an arduous process as Richard lacks the intuitive understanding that Hamlet displays in his soliloquys, so he says, ‘I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out’. He observes his thoughts, notes where they lead, and realises there is no true Richard besides their conflicting voices, all of which bring misery:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing:
The thought of being nothing returns, and the Buddhist echo is even stronger.
but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
If this sounds like Insight, it is instantly clear that Richard has not realised it fully. Music sounds, bringing with it the world of time to which he is bound but which he has not respected and he laments, ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’.
Richard II deconstructs the ideology of Kingship in two ways: through the political drama in which power, not election, is the true arbiter; and through Richard’s inner struggle. However, Shakespeare’s view of kingship is more nuanced than this. Bolingbroke’s usurpation prompts the Wars of the Roses which are prophesied in this with apocalyptic intensity:
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
These words, spoken by the Bishop of Carlyle, no doubt express the fears of Shakespeare’s time contemporaries about the succession to Elizabeth, but they also suggest that his pragmatic understanding that, while beliefs may be fictions, they may still guard against chaos.
Shakespeare’s wisdom cannot be equated with that of his characters, who struggle to understand themselves and their fates. The insights the characters express are always their own, and we hear them with a greater or lesser degree of irony; but they not Shakespeare’s and not the whole truth. Shakespeare’s wisdom transpires through a play when it is taken as a whole. In some moods I prefer this emergent wisdom to that of didactic teachings, even the Buddha’s, and I feel fortunate that I do not have to choose between them.