Yogic ideas in Shakespeare

What is it that makes the works of a man—a shadowy figure of whom very little is known—live and flourish so that they seem to transcend the barriers of time and space and to partake of eternity?

According to Yoga, it is because such works come from the pen of a man who was truly inspired. This is not to say that Shakespeare was a Christian or a Yogi or a theologian or a metaphysician in a narrow dogmatic sense. It means that the Lord of the Universe is the inspirer of each and every great artist and that it is His inspiration which descends into the mind of the artist; and His inspiration always gives glimpses of the spiritual truth and the way to its realization.

We do not say that Shakespeare had read Vedanta or was a practising Yogi, but we do say that since his inspiration was true and in consequence has the stamp of infinity on it—and his plays continue to hold the stage in every country of the world and provide sources of fresh creative power for painters, writers and musicians (e.g. Verdi)—we should expect to find in his plays a reflection of the spiritual truths taught in all the great religions and which find one of the highest expressions in the Advaita Vedanta of Shri Shankaracharya.

In an article in the March 1964 issue of Encounter, John Wain stressed the mythopoeic nature of much of the material in Shakespeare’s plays deriving from the collective imagination of humanity or what Jung calls the ‘collective unconscious.’

His mind did not play over the surface of things. It started from the deepest layer and moved upwards, gathering up material and transforming it as it went. Poetry is participation. An audience watching a Shakespeare play is carried along on a tide of imagery and rhythm that is, largely, subliminal.

But we can go further than this. These images of the collective imagination are themselves only pictures—albeit poetic and imperfect pictures—of something more fundamental, the Reality which lies at the very heart of our being and which has to be experienced before the purpose of living is fulfilled.

We are proposing to take a few examples of fundamental yogic ideas and to show how they are reflected in passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Then in rather more detail we may consider one or two themes in King Lear and how they reflect the message of Yoga. We do not claim that Shakespeare consciously intended a yogic interpretation of these themes —far from it; indeed their power and effectiveness derives as much from the fact that they were probably the fruit of spontaneous inspiration. But the themes and pictures are there all right, as we hope to show.

Yoga tells us that God is the only Reality and that the Self of each one of us is that very God. Nevertheless through a mysterious veiling power called technically avidya (nescience), the true nature of our Self—which is also the Self of all beings—is temporarily obscured. In the Upanishads, God or the Universal Self is likened to the sun. From the point of view of the individual tied to the earth (tied to his egoism and the animal needs of his body) the sun often appears to be obscured by clouds. But the sun itself is never obscured and even its rising and setting are an illusion, only appearing to the observer on earth.

He has not set, nor has he ever risen.

O Ye Gods, by this truth may I never fall from God (Brahman). One who knows the secret of Brahman for him the sun neither rises nor sets: for him there is day once for all. (Chandogya Upanishad 3.11)

God or the Universal Self in you, in me and in all others, so to say plays hide-and-seek with Himself through the world of becoming, without ever really departing from His nature of Light and Perfection.

Compare now the soliloquy of Prince Henry (Act 1.2 of Henry IV Part I) who at first continues to sport with Falstaff and his friends although he well knows their true worth:—

I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyok’d humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world That, when he please again to be himself Being wanted, he may be more wondered at By breaking through the foul and ugly mists Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

What is avidya ?  There is a play called Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? The title tells one nothing about the play. When it was translated into Czech and produced in Prague, the producer thought the title would not be understood so he altered it to Who’s afraid of Franz Kafka? This is like avidya. It is confusing, misleading and uninformative to begin with, and if you try to explain it, it becomes more muddling. But, although it can’t be explained, it can be and is experienced. The audience experience the play even though the title doesn’t explain it to them. We experience the play of life and, unless our sense of discrimination has been heightened, we find the play too a source of confusion and suffering. We arrogate to ourselves the confusion, suffering and darkness of the play, although in fact we are only spectators.

This idea of avidya (nescience) is brought out in the passage in Twelfth Night where the Clown, voluntarily impersonating Sir Topas, the curate, is visiting Malvolio who is involuntarily impersonating a madman.

Mai.: Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir Topas, do not think I am mad: they have laid me here in hideous darkness.
Dio.: Fie, thou dishonest Satan! I call thee by the most modest terms: for I am one of those gentle ones that will use the devil himself with courtesy. Say’st thou that house is dark ?
Mai.: As hell, Sir Topas.
Clo.: Why it hath bay windows, transparent as barricadoes, and the clear storeys towards the south-north are as lustrous as ebony: and yet complainest thou of obstruction ?
Mai.: Iam not mad, Sir Topas. I say to you this house is dark.
Clo.: Madman, thou errest. I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.

Here we are given a picture of a ‘madman’ (who is not really mad at all but only seems to be mad) seeing nothing but darkness all round him where there is no darkness and he should see light. So the jiva (a potential saint but not an actual one) sees darkness, suffering and unhappiness around him, whereas the actual saint in his God-vision experiences light and bliss in this world.

When Miranda (buddhi) is wedded to Ferdinand (jnana) she exclaims:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world
That hath such people in ‘t.
She speaks with the eyes of a jivanmukta.

Before Prince Henry assumes kingship as Henry V he first sees through Falstaff and his gang, then he rejects him in play and finally he rejects him in earnest and absolutely. In Henry IV Act III. 4 he jokingly rejects Falstaff in play:

Dost thou speak like a King ? Do thou stand for me, and I’ll play my father.

Then he continues: Henceforth ne’er look on me. Thou art violently carried away from grace: there is a devil haunts thee, in the likeness of a fat old man—a tun of man in thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it ? Wherein cunning, but in craft ? Wherein crafty, but in villainy ? Wherein villainous, but in all things ? Wherein worthy, but in nothing ?

What a description of the lower propensities of the mind! When in the last scene of Henry IV Part 2, Act V. 5, Falstaff approaches the man who is now King Henry V, he is rebuffed with the words:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.

What is the message? The Yogi has to rise to the Kingship of the Self. At first the animal instincts, the lower propensities of the mind, like Falstaff and his crew, are his companions, but he learns to assess their real worth. Thus by the discipline of tapas (austerity) and vairagya (dispassion) he rejects them in play, so to speak, because they are still with him, they are still part of his world and visit him daily. But when he attains to Self-knowledge, there is no possibility of these animal and immoral elements approaching him at all. He ‘knows them not.’

This theme of rising above the animal passions and the instinctive life recurs elsewhere, as in The Tempest,where Caliban and Co. are kept in their rightful place as servants, just as Falstaff and Co. are. The Tempest is perhaps the last play and the only one for which no plot or source is known. Nowhere more clearly than in this play is it brought out that the world is passing and has no independent existence, as in the celebrated speech in which Prospero says, after the fairy masque is over and the players have vanished into thin air:

Our revels now are ended: these our actors As I foretold you, were all Spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like the insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Why should the editors assume that Shakespeare meant of when he wrote on? We are the canvas, the stuff on which name and form, the passing events of the world, the transient body, the changeable fickle mind as well as all the impressions of the world which come to us through the mind, dance like dreams.

We are truly Prospero, the great magician who conjures up the magic show and who, after weaving his magic spells for some time, breaks his staff and drowns his book.

The whole point is that Prospero is not in essence made of dream-stuff. He can dismiss the insubstantial pageant and enjoy his own existence which is immortal and untouched by the visions,—and as he implies in the Epilogue, the Prospero in each one of us can be released from the limitations of the dreamworld by prayer and by freeing our personalities from gross faults and wrong actions.

But release me from my bands,
With the help of your good hands,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer;
Which pierces so, that it assaults Mercy itself, and frees all faults,
As you from crimes would pardon’d be Let your indulgence set me free.

When the reality of Prospero in us is known, the great globe is seen to be only a vision. At the end of the Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck addresses us who have witnessed the performance to the same effect:

If we shadows have offended Think but this—and all is mended—
That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear.


Every play underlines the illusory and deceptive nature of the world around us. As John Wain says: Shakespeare’s work is one vast metamorphosis. In every story he tells, people put on disguise, alter themselves, pretend to be what they are not… Masquerade, disguise, confusion are everywhere. Every comedy is a comedy of errors. And every tragedy is a tragedy of errors. Mistake, misassessment, illusion start the action going in every case…. Both comedies and tragedies start from error, the error of spiritual blindness which makes the protagonist an enemy of order, and they both carry the action through to revelation and settlement.

According to Professor Wilson Knight, there is a constant antithesis in Shakespeare’s plays between tempest (i.e. agitation, struggle, rajas) and music (i.e. harmony, tranquillity, sattva). While we are in and of the world, we are subject to an alternation of these two. When the storm is hushed, then heavenly music is heard. But Prospero commands both tempests and music and manipulates them at will. So also, we can imagine, the yogi whose eyes have been opened by God-vision can manipulate his moods and outer circumstances at will and is never troubled by them because he transcends them and he knows they are something phenomenal and other than himself which cannot touch his real nature. He can enjoy his mastery as Prospero does. It is a maxim of Yoga that only the perfected yogi can really enjoy the world.

These are a few yogic themes and all are found in one form or another in the great tragedy of King Lear, which we now consider.

Lear is concerned with the problem of kingliness in all its aspects. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in whose title the hero is given a mark of rank: it is King Lear.

Lear’s abdication in the first scene leads to a struggle for power. Who is to succeed ? Who is most fit to rule ? Which of the values and attitudes they represent is most valid? The same problem is dramatized in Lear himself. In his eyes and in ours he remains king throughout, but the meaning of his kingship changes. Therefore we are constantly faced with the problem: what makes a king?

Of course the Elizabethans held a view which is quite out of fashion today, namely that some men are better than others. Nowadays its “I’m as good as you, so get off the pavement”. The Elizabethans believed that men were not born equal, that some were superior by the same natural law that makes the eagle the king of the birds.

So the good characters in Lear (e.g. Kent) seek to obey and love someone superior to themselves. The individualists are bad characters like Edmund who go their own way in which each man is king. But the ideal of love and service of a superior is not simple. Kent serves Lear by disobeying him, Oswald is a bad servant through obedience. When Cornwall is about to put out Gloucester’s eyes, a retainer exclaims:

I have served you ever since I was a child But better service have I never done you Than now to bid you hold.

And he ultimately kills his master. Servants are only as good as the qualities which command their obedience; it is one reason why in Yoga we are asked to give love and devotion only to the Lord or Guru.

The great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley, writing sixty years ago, asked: “Should we not be near the truth if we called this play “The Redemption of King Lear” and declared that the business of ‘the gods’ with him was neither to torment him nor to teach him a ‘noble anger’ but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life ?”

We may agree provided that we do not think of “redemption” as the redemption of the pawn shop or the lost sheep returning to the fold. This is not the saving or recovering of the old, but the transformation to the new.

A better title would be “The Passion of King Lear”, using ‘passion’ in the religious sense of the suffering and death and resurrection of a god and also the re-telling or re-enactment of his story.

The Lear of Act I is scourged and crucified—in the outward action of the play by Edmund, Regan, Goneril and other characters; but also he undergoes an inner scourging and crucifixion through which all his ideas about himself, of his own position as king, his personal conceptions of justice, love and human relationships, are nailed to the cross and perish. But they were narrow ideas and ideas based on error (avidya.) and we sense at the end of the play that Lear is resurrected as king in a wider kingdom and that his old worldly kingdom is too narrow to hold him. It is the unselfish love of Cordelia which redeems him and finally brings about the ‘resurrection’ of which he begins to have a faint premonition when he says to her:

You are wrong to take me out o’ the grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss: but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.

(Cp. Eliot: We are redeemed from fire by fire.)

Cordelia is “queen over her passion”. She is the pure sattva. At first she is exiled but returns to monopolize Lear’s personality. He recognizes her:

I think this lady to be my child Cordelia.

He wants to be only with her: at the end he has eyes for no-one else, not even the faithful Kent:

We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies . . .
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee ?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven And fire us hence like foxes.

But Lear is deceived. He has not “caught her”. The spiritual truth of one and only one reality does not allow of two immortal existences. The resurrection of the God is accompanied by a human sacrifice. Sacrifice means “making holy”. A pure and spotless creature is destroyed and divinity is born. In yogic terms, the antahkarana (mind) has become pure sattva like Cordelia, but it has to be offered up in sacrifice so that the divinity of Self can be born. Lear’s clinging to Cordelia at the end of the play, like a yogi’s clinging to his purified mind, is the last limitation that has to be surrendered.

Bradley and others have shown that the characters in King Lear embrace all the main characteristics which are found in humanity and in individual men. They can be grouped into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the ‘good’ including the pure and selfless Cordelia, Kent, Edgar and Albany; the ‘bad’ covering Oswald Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall.

Outwardly, Lear is scourged and crucified by the ‘bad’ elements and, inwardly, his suffering and purgation is attributable to his ‘bad’ qualities. His ruling passion is anger (which Elizabethans believed was the characteristic passion of old age). It is his anger which banishes Cordelia, which punishes Kent and which becomes its own punishment—“the wheel of fire” to which he feels himself bound. It is this anger which leads to his madness; it is an illustration of the Gita verse:

From anger arises delusion, from delusion loss of memory, from loss of memory the destruction of intelligence, and from the destruction of intelligence he is utterly ruined. Gita(11.64)

Lear knows that his anger is immoral and he repeats to himself continually “thou must be patient”: he even prays for patience. But his prayer goes unanswered, and later we understand why. What is conventionally regarded as a moral evil, in his case becomes a means of liberation: madness and the breaking up of his mind is the hell into which he descends in order to rise again as a new King Lear. It is a ‘noble anger’ and like Samson it shakes and pulls down the temple of the egotistical Lear; perhaps nothing else could do so. At first he rails against the ingratitude of his daughters, but then the storm in his mind, symbolised also by the outer storm on the heath, bursts asunder by its sheer power the little world of which he was the centre. He ceases to be the wronged father of Goneril and Regan: he becomes the spokesman of all outrage and injustice throughout the world. It is the first time that he has ever really cared about the interests of others:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’r you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm;
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and windowed raggedness defend you From seasons such as these ? Oh, I have ta’en Too little care of this!

The action of the play is trial. A trial is first of all a test or experiment. It is, as has been said, an experiment in kingliness. But trial also means a legal trial, and the state of being tried by suffering. All these senses apply to King Lear.

In the first scene, the test of the three sisters turns into a juridicial trial. But the same lesson is taught as, according to Wilson Knight, the theme of Measure for Measure—“Judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact, Lear finds himself on trial and the unpalatable verdict is that he is unlovable, he is too selfish to be loved. For the same reason Burgundy, who has come to choose a bride, finds himself rejected by Cordelia.

Throughout the play, kingliness is defined by the values of justice and love. The ideal king is a just judge and affectionate father to his people. All through the play we find the characters judging, condemning, approving or disapproving the actions of others.

But we soon see that the conventionally accepted views of justice and love are false and that in practising them man is thoroughly hypocritical. In the very first lines of the play Kent suggests that Lear is more partial to Albany than to Cornwall. We know from his own lips that he is preparing to give Cordelia a more opulent share of the kingdom than her elder sisters. The mock trial of Goneril and Regan which he holds on the heath is inspired by Lear’s own indignation at being wronged. Shakespeare shows, to quote Wilson Knight, that: Mari’s ethics, his show of civilization, are surface froth only. The deep instinctive currents hold their own course in earth, beast and man. Maris morality, his idealism, his justice—all are false and rotten to the core.

Human justice is deep-down based on self-interest:

Lear: See how yondjustice rails upon yond simple thief.
Hark, in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, Which is the justice, which is the thief?

And even worse, it doesn’t work. When human justice doesn’t work, Lear appeals to heavenly justice. But it is still his idea of what heavenly justice should be—and heaven does not share it. His prayers go unanswered. His curses on Goneril and Regan have no effect. The winds will not peace at his bidding. Cordelia is not saved from hanging.

Nevertheless we recognize in all Shakespeare’s plays a firm conviction that the world is governed by a divine moral force:

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends Rough-hew them how we will.

And that divinity is ultimately just and good, though we cannot understand or predict its working on particular occasions because we see only a tiny piece of the universal jigsaw. It is a profound belief in dharma ruling the world which makes the servant exclaim when Cornwall has plucked out Gloucester’s eyes:

I’ll never care what wickedness I do If this man comes to good.

Lear at the beginning of the play is obsessed with the criterion of human justice, so Cordelia speaks only the language of justice to him:

I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

But he finds this criterion, and the criterion of his idea of heavenly justice, unsatisfactory, and at the end of the play he ceases to judge. The human mind is imperfect. No one can claim to be guiltless. Therefore universal forgiveness is in order.

Lear: “None does offend, none, I say, none.”

This higher ethic is echoed in Isabella’s lines to Angelo:

How would you be
If He which is the top of judgement, should But judge you as you are? Oh, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips Like man new-made.
(Measure for Measure 2.11.71).

Not only the weakness of our ideas of justice but the inadequacy of all normally accepted values and criteria are shown up by the poetic and dramatic paradoxes which permeate King Lear.

Avidya turns all our values topsy-turvy.

In the first scene, the two daughters who seem good to the old king are bad, while the one who seems bad is good. France describes Cordelia as:

Most rich, being poor,
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov’d, despised.

Lear is wiser when he goes mad than he was before. When Gloucester had his eyesight, he failed to see that Edmund was a villain and Edgar was loyal: when he loses his eyes, he sees rightly for the first time:

I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen Our means secure us, and our mere defects Prove our commodities!

We know from Mendelism (and Mendel was an Abbot, so we have to take his views seriously) that two blacks seldom if ever make a white. But the spiritual law is very different. As Mariana observes in Measure for Measure:

Best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better For being a little bad.

Dr Shastri said that the spiritual teachers preferred pupils with a bit of rogue in them—and many found this a comforting and reassuring thought.

Edgar, leading Gloucester to what Gloucester believes is the edge of a cliff, says:

Why I do trifle thus with his despair Is done to cure it.

In fact we have the sense in Shakespeare’s plays that all the afflictions, all the unanswered prayers, all the errors committed, are ultimately means of salvation. Posthumus exclaims (in Cymbeline):

Most welcome, bondage! For thou art a way,
I think, to liberty.

This is a reflection of the view of the Sankhya school of yoga that Prakriti is helping the jiva towards salvation.

By discarding all dependence on the world, all clinging to wealth, reputation, power and influence, by self-naughting, the yogi discovers his identity with the King of kings. This is called discovering the secret of kingliness, or the process of Self-knowledge. The process is powerfully illustrated in King Lear. A modern commentator writes:

“Gloucester’s leap from his imaginary cliff is an icon or symbolic picture of the outer form of tragedy—a fall from high to low state. And this descent into the depths is followed by return to truer life: ‘Give me your arm’, says Edgar. ‘Up so. How is’t ? Feel you your legs ? You stand.’ This is redemptive tragedy’s inner pattern and thus Edgar’s experiment becomes a microcosm of the entire play. And … we begin to wonder whether Lear’s tragedy—the fall which brings him to despair and death—may not likewise be a test, a trial, done to cure him. But who conducts this great experiment we do not see.”

The title page of the First Quarto couples the history of the “life and death of King Lear” with “the unfortunate life of Edgar”—not with the life of Gloucester, as might be expected. Edgar’s rise from misery to authority during the play is antiphonal to Lear’s fall from authority to misery. “The younger rises when the old doth fall.”

Edgar demonstrates the external way of attaining kingliness through renunciation. He casts off his clothes and is naked. “Edgar, I nothing am”, he exclaims as he jettisons the old Edgar.

But Edgar’s experience is on a shallower and less significant level than Lear’s. He only pretends to be mad. Lear actually goes mad. He tears off his clothes, symbols of all he has been and the civilized conventions he has believed in: “Off, off, you lendings: come, unbutton here”, and stands naked. But we sense the same pattern for him as for Edgar: he will now rise to authority over an unseen and greater kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven within him, characterised by shanti (inner peace).

King Henry VI refers to this shanti:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head,
Not deck’d with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.

Lear’s quest is essentially a quest for Self-knowledge. Early on in the play it is said that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself”. He has to become like the Duke in Measure for Measure who was:

One that, above all other strifes Contended especially to know himself.

Lear: Does any here know me ? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus ? Speak thus ? Where are his eyes ? Either his emotion weakens, his discernings Are lethargied—Ha! waking ? ’tis not so;
Who is that can tell me who I am ?
Fool: Lear’s shadow.

The last scene of the play is very like the first. Almost the same characters are present. But Lear is no longer centre of the stage: he has abdicated from the little kingship of egoity. And we, the audience, feel part of his kingdom because we sense his universal compassion, and that he suffers for us. In these ways we realize that Lear’s Self-knowledge has undergone a radical change since Act I.

We can end with two practical notes from Cordelia and Lear with yogic overtones:

Cordelia: What shall Cordelia do ? Love and be silent.
Lear: Make no music, make no noise: draw the curtains
So, so. We’ll go to supper in the morning.

This could be a yogic text. Silence the mind, keep out the distracting sense impressions. In this way, enjoy an unexpected feast (supper is usually eaten at night).

As the Gita says, “What is night for all beings is the time of waking for the sage who sees.” The sage enjoys a supper of which they know not.


Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!