Buddhist Shakespeare

Monday, February 6th, 2023

An Address to the White Heron Sangha
February 5, 2023

Good evening fellow White Heron Sangha members and visitors. Thank you for once again inviting me to give a Sunday night Dharma Talk.In some previous ones I’ve explored ways that American literary writers I admire, specifically, Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac and Leonard Cohen, were influenced by Buddhist texts and incorporated them into their own unorthodox experiences and writings.

Tonight, I want to examine ways that the works of William Shakespeare connect with my understanding of Buddhist principles. There’s no evidence that this sixteenth and seventeenth century British writer had any exposure to Buddhist teachings. Nevertheless, I find in his works many ideas in common with what’s called “the Dharma,” identifiable with what Joseph Campbell called The Perennial Philosophy.

In the immense body of Shakespeare literary criticism since 1948, I’ve found only two items, both quite recent, that treat this subject: The Buddha and the Bard by Lauren Shufran (May 2022) and Shakespeare Meets the Buddha by Edward Dickey (October 2021).

My own interest in the subject arises from an academic career that included teaching, directing and writing about Shakespeare—including a book which argued that Shakespeare read the Bible as literature and construed its varied depictions of God as personifications of the theatrical roles of author, director and actor.

In this talk I will align six Buddhist doctrines with recurrent Shakespearean themes

1 Emptiness and Form, Prajnaparamita –The World as Stage
2 The First Noble Truth, Dukkha–Tragic Suffering
3 Dependent Co-arising, Ptratityasamutpada–Motivation and Causality
4 Impermanence, Anicca–Time
5 Delusion, Avidya–Error
6 No-self, Anatta–The Person as Actor

Separating, labelling and numbering these ideas is somewhat misleading, since they often overlap or blend. However, this kind of schematic analysis is typical both in Buddhist texts and in literary criticism because it opens new ways of understanding. (more…)

All Is True

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Last night I went to see All Is True, the new Kenneth Branagh movie written by Ben Elton.  I was motivated by curiosity more than expectation, wondering where the creator of the hilarious and erudite “Upstart Crow”  BBC sitcom series would go in revisiting the life and works of Shakespeare.

During the first fifteen minutes I found the somber lighting, lugubrious pace and bleak expressions of the familiar sprightly characters alienating, but at a certain point I got oriented to the genre and recognized Elton’s earlier constructions of Will, Anne, Judith and Hamnet presented behind tragic instead of comic masks.

By the scene of the encounter between Ian McKellen’s Southhampton and Branagh’s Shakespeare that concludes with the double recitation of sonnet 29, “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” my tears flowed along with theirs. I was stirred by its enactment of a “marriage of true minds” for whom the approach to immortality brought human limitations into highest relief.

By the end of the film this seemed its central tone and idea, brought home by the titles that followed the happy ending insisted upon by the Ben Jonson character–titles stating that the three sons of Judith, who seemed to fulfill Will’s obsessive wish for a male heir, all died as children, and by the song from Cymbeline behind the final credits:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

As I left the theatre I felt that “All is True” achieved the aspiration uttered by its protagonist: with a patent fiction to express reality–in this case the notoriously elusive reality of the author’s personality. It did that by combining the few known facts with astute readings of his work to imagine the inner and outer life of his last silent years. In the words of Jonson’s tribute, it made “My Shakespeare rise!”

Shakespeare Reading Paul: Heavenly Fraud in The Winter’s Tale

Saturday, May 27th, 2017

A couple of days before the conference in Jerusalem for which this paper was written, I woke up before dawn to avoid the crowds and went down to the Old City to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Under a dark and cavernous rotunda, before the shrine covering the tomb from which Jesus is said to have been resurrected, priests in splendid vestments swung censers, sang prayers and placed communion wafers in the mouths of the few worshippers in attendance. During the performance of that ceremony I sensed the tangible power of their faith. Though I didn’t share it, I was alerted to the gravity of the subject of my upcoming talk. (more…)

Book review: The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

[published in Renaisssance Quarterly, Fall 2014]

This book begins with the assertion that “no one has yet published a full-length critical study of Shakespeare’s practice of biblical allusion and the implications of biblical allusion for our understanding of the plays.” Its author is eminently qualified to remedy what he calls this “deficiency,” having published several books on aspects of biblical culture in Early Modern England and co-curated an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Impressive in its learning and packed with original discoveries of biblical and extra-biblical Shakespearean references, the book is written in concise, lucid and lively prose. Its “argument” is incontrovertible: the Bible is a pervasive source and object of reference in Shakespeare’s plays. The recognition and contextual reframing of hundreds of biblical allusions was part of the experience of earlier audiences, whose familiarity with the Bible was guaranteed by their cultural environment. The book’s task is to restore such experience to the modern reader lacking this familiarity.

Part I, titled ” Shakespeare’s Allusive Practice and its Cultural and Historical Background” opens with a vast array of evidence for the saturation of Shakespeare’s culture with Biblical narratives, characters and language. Chapter 2 traces discourse about the Bible and Shakespeare from early editorial glosses through 19th century elevation as paired pillars of British Civilization to recent debates about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. (more…)

Book Review: Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures, edited by Travis de Cook and Alan Galey, Routledge, New York and London 2012.

Published in Religion and Literature 44:2, Fall 2012

This is a collection of essays about relationships between the production, dissemination and reception of books and the pairing of two books: Shakespeare and the Bible.

Many recent scholars have studied the either the Bible or Shakespeare in terms of the history of the book”ways that material media have determined their form and message.  Intertextual relationships between Shakespeare and the Bible is also a familiar, if sparse, field of critical inquiry.  But investigating the coupling of Shakespeare and the Bible itself with the methods of textual materialism is a novel and narrowly focused undertaking.

The editors’ discussion of Rudyard Kipling’s whimsical 1934 fantasy about Shakespeare’s drafting language of the King James Bible introduces the book’s overall polemical argument that the consideration of historical and physical conditions of texts should counter the tendency to canonize them and “naturalize” their assumed unity and completeness.

The book’s first group of essays examine ways in which Shakespeare’s use of the specific editions of the Bible he’s presumed to have read affected plot, characterization, theme and language in individual plays. (more…)

Book Review: English Mercuries

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Dear Professor S Marx

RQ has received a review copy of English Mercuries: Soldier Poets in the Age of Shakespeare by Adam McKeown (Vanderbilt University Press). Would you agree to write a 700 word review due no later than February 10th?

Renaissance Society of America
365 Fifth Avenue, 5400
New York, NY 10016


This book’s scholarly subject is literary works about war produced between 1551 and 1632 by English writers who fashioned themselves both soldiers and poets. Three introductory chapters frame that subject: an account of the author’s experience as an English professor and Marine Lieutenant Colonel deployed in Djibouti during 2006, where questions raised in a class he taught on Shakespeare’s Henry V generated the project, a discussion of an 18th-century pamphlet pretending to collect eyewitness accounts of 16th century warfare, and a description of similarities between the conditions of expeditionary forces under the command of Elizabeth 1 and George Bush 2. The whole book addresses what the author calls a “glaring omission”(11) by voicing perspectives of veterans then and now about war and militarism.

McKeown analyzes texts dealing with military activity during  Elizabeth’s regime. “Age of Shakespeare” in the subtitle alludes to a sentimental characterization of Early Modern England he challenges and to responses to Henry V that begin and end the book.  His readings undermine the hawkish propaganda usually associated with military writings and critique policies leading to the “calamity” of expeditionary war.  Instead, they emphasize the paradoxical, nuanced and invariably tormented experience of soldiers in battle, on deployment or returning home.

In Thomas Churchyard’s 1575 account of  The Siege of Leith, McKeown finds both a critique of the military strategy that fruitlessly sacrificed many lives and disdain for the diplomacy that eventually brought peace yet discredited the sacrifices of those who fought.

Contrasting George Gascoigne’s 1576 The Spoil of Antwerp with Alarum for London,  an anonymous 1602 play based upon it,  McKeown finds the earlier soldier’s account of the English mission in the Netherlands better informed and more judicious than the later adaptation, which converts it into anti-Spanish propaganda.

John Donne’s utterances on the subject “ask their readers to see war as both a testing ground for personal and national valor and a destructive force that ravages human pride and renders whole countries bare, peace both an Eden on earth and a state of gnawing restlessness and internal anxiety.”(19) McKeown states that the purpose of these emblematic paradoxes is to stimulate spiritual awakening, but he finds their source in Donne’s harrowing military experiences in the Cadiz and Azores expeditions.

McKeown juxtaposes John Harington’s popular translation of Ariosto’s war-glorifying Orlando Furioso with his reports on the disastrous Irish campaign for which he volunteered and with his complaints of ingratitude by “the country that scorned him when he came home.”(20)

The book concludes with an affirmation of martial virtue in Ben Jonson’s The New Inn and The Magnetic Lady, where the playwright presents exemplary veteran soldiers who, during the revival of English militarism after the death of King James, warn “Caroline England of its moral and physical unfitness to get involved in foreign war.”(20)

McKeown’s third chapter, “English Mercuries,” begins by presenting a document about heroic soldiers that lionizes Elizabethan military achievements. At the end of a long paragraph he reveals that it is an 18th century hoax often quoted to support 19th century English militarist propaganda.  “Mercury” signifies reporter, as in the names of newspapers, and “English Mercuries” is used by the chorus in HenryV (2.0.7) to describe the king’s recruits. The term appears in emblems and a familiar motto signifying the Renaissance ideal of soldier-scholar: Tam Marti quam Mercurio. But Mercury also represents a liar and thief, alluding to the unreliability of both Chorus and King, as witnessed by the play’s cynical other voices. McKeown restores the term’s honorific meaning in reference to his real soldier-poets.

McKeown’s paradoxical method is prominent in the introductory chapter, entitled “Ecole Lemonier” after the “forward antiterrorism base” in Djibouti U.S. forces shared with the French Foreign Legion.  Here, McKeown tells us, he taught Henry V to fellow marines who wanted to know if Shakespeare ever served. He describes this class to reporters and to NPR listeners he addressed in a commentary as neither “the story of one sensitive intellectual’s attempt to create a meaningful experience in a war otherwise without meaning” nor that of “a patriot who risked the censure of an elitist and hypocritical academy to serve his country and give Shakespeare back to the regulars guys fighting the war.”(12) Rather he claims, “it was a real war story by real soldier about other real soldiers fighting in a real war.”

The book concludes by repudiating the perennial use of Henry V to promote military adventurism. In the self-portrait on the back cover, the author wears no uniform, but his black t-shirt, shaved head and fierce smile convey the message, “Semper Fi.” Speaking both for and as one of the English Mercuries, he characterizes soldiers as “morally strong people¦who are not stooges of the state or servants of its whims¦They are above all products of political violence and witnesses to how people come to terms with political violence not as an idea but as an action they must commit or endure.” McKeown provides valuable insight to outsiders about what military people for five hundred years have thought about their profession.  But in this age of a volunteer army, I still fail to understand his meaning of  “must.”

Book Proposal Reviewer Questionnaire

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

This book is still in proposal form “ that is, it has not yet been signed for publication.  Your comments are very important to us in determining whether or not to publish this project, and are very helpful to the author(s) in terms of getting specific recommendations for revision, where necessary.

1.  Overall Reaction: What is your general reaction to this proposal?

a)    Do you find any of the features of the text particularly appealing?  Is the book based on any assumptions with which you agree? Disagree?  Please explain.

I find the idea of a collection of essays on Shakespeare and the Bible most appealing.  The relations between these texts is a topic of interest to a wide audience and carries great potential for scholarly research and interpretation.  A number of excellent essays dealing with aspects of the topic are now available, but puzzlingly few academic books have been devoted to it.  Assembling such a large and illustrious gathering of scholars to converge on this subject is a timely and useful project.

The project’s focus on metacritical themes”ambiguities in definitions of the terms “Shakespeare” and “Bible,” efforts to stabilize those definitions, and the afterlife of the coupling of the two for ideological purposes”is based on an assumption that such inquiries should take priority over direct interpretive approaches.  This assumption may depend on another assumption: that literary scholarship is obliged to unmask “transcendentalizing” and “naturalizing” evaluations of texts by earlier readers and authorities.  Such evaluations are prevalent in the coupling of Shakespeare and the Bible, as is exemplified by the prevalence of titles like Shakespeare and the Bible: showing how much the great dramatist was indebted to Holy Writ for his profound knowledge of human nature in any keyword search.   But I would prefer a collection of essays that presented a range of interpretive approaches to the larger topic rather than one primarily devoted to such critique.

What I found most valuable in the abstracts of essays to be included were the insights into ways that Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood, responded to and used specific Biblical texts”the Geneva Bible’s marginalia, Paul’s insistent argumentation, the relations among Scripture-quoting, character, and Biblical context, and Shakespeare’s adaptations of Biblical women’s voices. To me the theme of “History of the Book” as it appears in the essays in the first half of the collection, referred to as “Scriptural Negotiations,” is of secondary interest.

Chapters 6,7, and 8 move away from any consideration of intertextual relations between Shakespeare and the Bible to the issues of book packaging and canon-formation during the early modern period. They provide a fitting transition to the second half of the collection devoted to the afterlife or reception of the coupling of the two. The discussion of Bardolatry and of Scripture each as support for British Cultural authority is well-trodden ground, but these essays shed fresh light on their mutual reinforcement. (more…)

Greenaway’s Books

Tuesday, September 18th, 2001

Early Modern Literary Studies September 2001


Greenaways Books

Shakespeare and the Bible articles

Sunday, October 1st, 2000

Peter Milward

Monday, August 14th, 2000