Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.4 Autumn 2017

Shakespeare—Verging on the Non-Dual

There are at least four instances where lines of Shakespeare echo aspects of the non-dual teachings. Two concern the highest love, and two emerge from an identity crisis.

The 116th sonnet tells of the expansion of selfhood through love, continued and constant, undaunted even if the beloved withdraws affection, more intent on loving than on being loved. Such love undermines duality and our sense of being a separate self. Letting go of ‘self’, it is a preparation for the love of the Infinite.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The first identity crisis is that of King Richard II, in the last act of that play, when the king has fallen from glory and is a prisoner in Pomfret Castle. Perhaps for the first time in his life, in his aloneness he becomes vividly aware of his thoughts, finding ‘none of them contented’. He realises that all he really possesses is his mind, yet knows he has wasted his time, so that even his mind seems valueless. What is he now? Nothing—it seems. And he concludes:

Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

Is he referring only to our acceptance of death, with its apparent loss of everything? The lines may equally point to the freedom and joy (‘eased’, ‘pleased’) of a state unburdened by egoism and the obsession with ‘I’ and ‘mine’. The way of illumination is the path of voluntary self-forgetfulness. But whereas Shakespeare leaves us in a vacuum, with no clear indication of what remains when the individualised self is negated, the non-dual teachings affirm that what remains is the supreme Self, infinite and universal. Maulana Rumi has written: ‘Sell a drop—buy the ocean’, and Christ teaches that by losing our ‘selfish’ self, we recover our identity with ‘the light which lighteth every man’. The same teaching was expressed in the spirit of devotion by Shri Dada of Aligarh:

This sansara is a game of dice in which the ignorant imagine they win if they accumulate wealth and power. I have played this game of dice in a slightly different way. I play the love-game with the Lord Himself; His stakes are prosperity and release, my stake is my life. Cheerfully, voluntarily, I manipulate my dice to lose the stake of my life. To lose in this sansara is to win, for the true, spiritual attainments are not positive. He who knows the joy of voluntarily losing a game to the object of his love, has played the game well.

Crisis of identity is the central theme of King Lear. From the glory and vanity of kingship, Lear becomes a rejected outcaste, yet he comes to experience deep feelings of empathy with the suffering and misfortune of others, whereas before he had ‘taken too little care’ of this aspect of life. His fellow-feeling is so intense that in his reckless mental condition, he tears off his kingly clothes so that he can authentically ‘feel what wretches feel’. Through suffering, he partly transcends his narrow self-centred personality, and his sense of self is expanded to embrace all who are in adversity. The words of another character in the drama, apply equally to Lear himself. Edgar, when asked: ‘Now, good sir, what are you?’, replies:

A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to [i.e. able to conceive] good pity.

Like selfless love, this compassion is a step towards the universalisation of consciousness that is the hallmark of the non-dual realisation. Shri Dada has called fellow-feeling ‘a key to the treasury of peace, a short cut through the garden of delusion’.

Our final citation is Shakespeare’s enigmatic and allegorical poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle (turtle here meaning the turtle-dove), and the nature of their death together ‘in a mutual flame’. The two lovers—one a mythical eagle-like creature, the other a symbol of constancy—are presented in direct and powerful language, as examples of self-transcendence in love.

So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw this right
Flaming in the phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.

Property was thus appall’d,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Scholars still debate the meaning of the poem, but the student of mystical experience in the light of the non-dual realisation, may find lines like ‘Number there in love was slain’ and ‘Neither two nor one was called’ of special interest and relevance.