The Tao of Shakespeare

By Scott Kaiser


My life-long journey with Shakespeare began at age fifteen, when I played the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in High School. For an awkward teen, the thrill of embodying a Shakespearean character—especially a character beloved for making an ass of himself—was a life-altering experience.

From that time on, I became fascinated with Shakespeare, and made it a personal goal to work on every play in the canon—all 38 of them. Had I been born in a Polish shtetl in the nineteenth-century, as were my ancestors, I imagine that my life-long endeavor would have been a mastery of the Talmud, and the place of study, a yeshiva. But as an American, born in the twentieth century, that book was The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the place of devotion, a theatre.

Most people don’t think of the theatre as a spiritual practice, but, undeniably, it is. In fact, if you go all the way back to the roots of the ritual, to ancient Greece, the theater is one of the oldest spiritual practices known to man. For an act of theater, then and now, whether in Epidaurus or in Ashland, brings people together to share stories, seeking to learn about the purpose of life and how it should be lived.

Certainly Shakespeare, writing for his Wooden O on the South Bank of the Thames, understood this to be so. His later plays, the romances, in particular, were infused with spirituality. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero, reminded of his humanity by a spirit of the island, learns how to forgive his enemies. And in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes, through faith, forgiveness, and sixteen years of spiritual practice, is reunited with his dead wife.

But spirituality pervades Shakespeare’s other genres as well. In the comedy As You Like It, for example, Duke Senior extols the virtues of a simple, pastoral life to his exiled followers among the trees of Arden. In the history of King Richard the Second, a deposed and isolated Richard seeks enlightenment through meditation in his dismal prison. And in The Tragedy of King Lear, Lear achieves spiritual enlightenment only after he has lost absolutely everything.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me step back a bit…

For nearly three decades, working in classrooms, lecture halls, and rehearsal studios, in high schools, conservatories, and regional theatres, by writing, teaching, coaching, and directing, I’ve been making my living by helping people understand and interpret The Complete Works.

And nearly forty years after I played Bottom, as voice and text director on a production of the rarely-produced King Henry the Eighth, I achieved my goal of working on Shakespeare’s entire canon.

You might think that’s the end of the story, but it isn’t. Because that’s when the unexpected happened. No sooner had I reached my goal, than my perspective on Shakespeare’s body of work began to change.

For I began to notice something in Shakespeare’s plays that I hadn’t seen before. I began to discern, sprinkled generously throughout Shakespeare’s writing, ideas that I recognized, from my days as a college undergraduate, as Taoism.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I don’t mean to suggest that Shakespeare was a Buddhist. Or that he meditated. Or that he was Lao-Tzu—the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching—reincarnated as an English glove-maker’s son. Far too much nonsense about Shakespeare the man already exists in the world, and I have no wish to contribute to such fanciful thinking.

What I’m saying is this: the more I looked, the more I perceived a fascinating, elemental intersection between the wisdom of the ancient masters—Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, and the Buddha—and the wisdom of William Shakespeare.

For in both Shakespeare’s Complete Works and in Lao Tzu’s timeless Tao Te Ching, we see a veneration of nature, of living in harmony with the natural world.

We see a deep understanding of impermanence and the acceptance of change.

We see a reverence for love, with its power to heal, to embrace, to bind, to nourish, to sustain, and to enlighten.

We see an exaltation of human kindness: of forgiveness, of gratitude, of compassion, of generosity.

We see pleas for moderation and simplicity in all things—in living, in working, in speaking, in eating, in drinking.

We see a rejection of ambition—of the pursuit of wealth, goods, fame, accomplishment, power, reputation, and glory.

We see condemnation of violence, of aggression, of the abuse of position, of political corruption.

We see an admiration of patience, of meditation, of skill, of listening, of pausing before speaking, of acknowledging faults, of accepting flaws.

We see an affirmation of balance, of yielding, of cooperating, of coexisting, of seeking a middle way, of offering no resistance.

We see a rejection of absolutes, of judgment, of prejudice, of opinions, of negativity.

We see a censure of envy, of greed, of anger, of malice, of jealousy.

We see appeals for compassion, for humility, for mindfulness, for selflessness, for acceptance, and for honesty.

We see an acceptance of aging and death as a natural process.

We see a penchant for paradox, where truths are expressed in ways that seem absurd, nonsensical, enigmatic, self-contradictory.

In short, we see in these writings, despite the fact that they arose in different periods, from different places, in different languages, the exact same universal truths being expressed, truths that are “not of an age, but for all time.”

Following this fresh path, I began collecting quotations from the canon, hundreds of them, gleaning them from my personal library of rehearsal notebooks—detailed records which contain notes from productions I’ve worked on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over 24 seasons.

I also immersed myself in Buddhist and Taoist literature, by such authors as Herman Hess, Eckhart Tolle, Stephen Mitchell, Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the Dalai Lama, digesting whatever I could get my hands on in my search for common ground.

With Shakespearean passages in hand, I would meditate on a quotation every day—mostly by walking along trails in the wooded hills of our small Southern Oregon town.

My intent, as I walked, was to find a quiet space where the stress of modern life, the words of William Shakespeare, and the wisdom of the ancient spiritual masters could all sit down in a circle and meditate together.

Returning home, I would transcribe my thoughts in the form of short poems written in free verse—inspired by Shakespeare’s lines, reflecting upon modern life, shaped by the tenets of Taoism.

The collection of poems you now hold in your hands is the result of those meditations.

The process of writing this book has been enormously valuable to me in my quest to become a better, more enlightened human being.

I now offer these passages to you, gentle reader, in the hope that they may help you to find your own way on the path of life.