Hamlet, a Study in Satori


Part One

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be.

Perhaps the most popular (and least satisfying to those who are truly moved by the play) critical elaboration of the character of Hamlet has been that of the 'man of thought vrs. the man of action'. This perspective is appealing in that it explains, albeit superficially, why it takes Hamlet five acts to do the deed he promises at the beginning. I call this superficial because it avoids the undeniable emotional and spiritual development of Hamlet and focuses almost entirely on the intellectual. Recently, While attempting a more comprehensive look at this multifaceted character I accidentally hit upon some surprising parallels with, of all things, the concept of Satori and the steps by which a student of Zen might hope to arrive at such a state.

Of course, there are several obvious objections that such a comparison will invoke. First, that there can be no historical connection between Shakespeare and Zen (or any other Eastern practice). Second, that the fundamental cultural assumptions and philosophical constructs of the Eastern and Western traditions are entirely different. Third, that several Zen practices (meditation upon a koan for instance) have no exact counterpart in the life of Hamlet, or any other Shakespearean character.

Still, much value may be gained by such a comparative study if the first two of the above considerations are kept firmly in mind. I hope to show that the third objection may not be so certain. Further, if one can assume that, as is expressed in the Tao Te Ching< (whose fundamental principles are incorporate in Zen) - "the paths are many, the truth is one" then, at least from that perspective such considerations are not entirely relevant in any case.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (I,v)

Finally, if it can be shown that the character Hamlet demonstrates a state equivalent to satori in the final act, it should provide a new illumination of the inner life of the character as well as new insights into some of the more complex textual passages.

Let us begin with the assumption that Shakespeare himself had, at some point in his life, an experience equivalent to that which in Zen is called satori. Call it divine inspiration, grace, what you will. That a man of such genius would be aware of a spiritual condition as universal as the more mundane human conditions he gave voice to is entirely reasonable and has been commented on before. As British scholar, R.H. Blyth says in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics: "Good is good and bad is bad, but both are necessary - the acceptance of this is the secret of Zen, the secret of Shakespeare."

Yet, if Shakespeare were consciously reflecting upon the process a person goes through to achieve a kind of satori, why would he use an esoteric form of expression? Why not, given his culture context use Catholicism or Protestantism to express this experience? The first answer is obviously that he was a playwright and actor, not a clergyman. An even more compelling reason may have been that both of those religions weren't entirely suited to the task and were too fraught with dangers to be of much use. As Alan Watts comments in The Way of Zen: "It is especially difficult to find the right means of expression for the experience (of satori) in the cultural context of Christianity. For while this enlightenment comes just as much to Christians as to anyone else, the Christian mystic has always been in danger of conflict with the defenders of orthodoxy." Given the tensions between Christian sects in his time, and the fanatical posture of the Puritans, it is reasonable to assume that if Shakespeare wanted to express such spiritual understanding he would do it prudently, in a subtextual parable. Therefore, the paths and pitfalls of Hamlet can be seen as an esoteric illustration of a process that leads to enlightenment.

While we may assume that Shakespeare had some experience of 'enlightenment', it is crucial to this comparison that we offer substantial evidence from the script showing that the character Hamlet achieves, if only briefly, a state of transcendence equivalent to satori. Thus we must begin with a "definition" of such a state. The difficulty will be in giving shape to what Zen masters insist cannot be defined. In order to accomplish this we might look at how the state of "satori" has been communicated by two authoritative voices. According to D.T. Suzuki in Zen Buddhism: "Satori is a sort of inner perception - not the perception, indeed, of a single individual object but the perception of reality itself... " In other words one sees the world, including oneself, from a new, objective view-point; that is to say, one transcends oneself. The primary characteristic of the new way of seeing is that all things are as they are - not discernible as having discrete value. As E. Herrigel says in Zen in the Art of Archery: "All things are of equal importance in its sight, the most trivial as well as the most significant by ordinary human standards. ... revealing a relationship which does not obtain in the ordinary field of vision. "

I might add that this is essentially an affirmative stance towards existence that accepts what 'is' regardless of moral or other societal values.

As these quotes provide us with a flavor, a partial 'picture' of this state, they also reveal some surprising correlations with Hamlet, as we see him in Act V Scene ii. Let's examine some of what Hamlet says in this final scene that might reflect the above: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. " (V ii 220-221) While this is generally interpreted as a Christian reference that expresses the great plan of an ever watchful God, it can as easily be seen as an insight into the Zen concept of the interconnectedness of all things; the awareness that all things are equal and related to all other things. If we take into account the context, Hamlet's emotional state in this scene, as suggested by his calm and considered tone, is one of peaceful acceptance, rather than spiritual awe or supplication. He even expresses the recognition of his part in this "special providence".

If it be now, 'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
(V ii 221-224)

The rhythm, and repetition of line, in the above quote emphasize its fateful or metaphysical qualities, and the context (just prior to the final action) show us that Hamlet is clearly in a state where his own mortality, as well as whatever "action" may be required of him are no longer a source of great personal or moral concern. He accepts them as they come along. Yet, he is aware that he must be "ready". In other words, he knows that he alone is responsible for his own state of being. The flavor is clearly closer to Zen than to orthodox Christianity. Later, he speaks to Laertes of his unique perspective:
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
The Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If it be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is
One obvious interpretation of the above is that this is a self-serving excuse for having killed Polonius; a sort of psychological rationalizing. While such an interpretation may have psychological justifications, it unnecessarily reduces the tragic quality of Act V by denying Hamlet any real growth of character; in fact it propels the audience back to the very beginning of the play, when Hamlet states that he will assume a madness.

Why not assume that Hamlet is telling the truth; that he has come to realize that, like all people who behave unconsciously, he has done damage to himself as well as others? This bring up the question, what is Hamlet's madness? We will look into this at some length later, but for now, if we interpret this line as a new and quite unusual way of looking at the world for Hamlet, one that radically transcends his previously egocentric view of himself, then we can perceive his state as equivalent to satori. At the same time, because of this radical growth in the character's awareness, we enhance the sense of impending tragedy so essential to the final scene.

In other words Hamlet can now see that, in a very special sense, he truly was mad, not simply feigning it. This is because true responsibility can only exist in satori; prior to that attainment man operates from delusion, social conditioning, unconscious, instinctive behaviour, and so on. He must go "mad" in a way that allows him insights into the "madness" of the world around him. Then, once he achieves enlightment he becomes fully responsible, capable of making choices without illusion, and thus the inevitablility of the tragic condition is underlined:
"...thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart. But it is no matter." (V.ii)

On to Part Two