Everyone has their own take on Shakespeare, but what happens if you read Shakespeare as a Buddhist?

Thought for the Day 26.4.2016

As we saw in the BBC celebration of Shakespeare on Saturday night, everyone has their own take on the playwright. If even Prince Charles has a distinctive way of saying ‘To be or not to be’, so naturally, my own take is as a Buddhist.

Sometimes I see a play and find that it makes sense of one of the Buddha’s teachings. Macbeth, for me, is a tragedy of karma that explores the moral relationship between actions and consequences. When Macbeth murders of Duncan he destroys himself psychologically, and the effects reverberate through the world. The same connection between the individual and the world is also there in the Buddhist teaching of karma, which describes how actions impact on us and also affect the world that we experience.

Othello, meanwhile ‑ a play about how a seemingly good man comes to do something very bad – traces how someone can be manipulated and then collapse. Othello’s psychology fleshes out for me the Buddha’s teachings on how we come to believe in our delusions and how suffering follows.

But there’s a broader resonance between what I practice as a Buddhist and the mindset that Shakespeare encourages me to adopt. According to Buddhist teachings, we suffer because we become attached to limited ways of thinking. Shakespeare encourages us to understand the world from multiple perspectives, as each of the characters has their own, vividly realised point of view. We see the principal characters in relation to others, but also glimpse their inner lives when we overhear them speaking to themselves.

The plays are clearly meaningful, but what they mean can’t easily be summed up in concepts. The meaning emerges in the patterning of characters, events and themes. In that way, Shakespeare teases us out of conceptual thinking into a different kind of understanding that’s close to what I explore in my Buddhist practice – a way of understanding life that includes ideas, but isn’t just intellectual.

Above all, I love the poetry that Shakespeare creates when his characters think in images and pictures. And that invites me to think – or perhaps imagine – in a similar way, and reminds me to remain alive to the metaphors that shape Buddhist teachings – life is a path; the deluded mind is on fire; change is like a river.

For me, Shakespeare is more than a poet or a playwright. Of course, he isn’t a teacher as the Buddha is. But I see them both, in different ways, as heroes of consciousness who offer new ways of seeing and open up new ways of being.