Buddhism in Shakespeare

I am auditioning for Measure for Measure by George W. Shakespeare tomorrow, and I find myself in an interesting exercise. You take a passage of lines in Shakespeare’s text, and you convert it to your own words. The idea is to a) figure out what the hell you’re talking about and b) to show that the bard never wasted a word. You will never be able to translate him and use less words, he was that economical.

One of the sides (parts of the script chosen by the casting directors to prepare for an audition) is a scene where the Duke is talking to a prisoner. The prisoner has just told the Duke that he is praying for clemency, and that all he has to live on is hope or death. The Duke tells him to choose death over hope.

Here’s the passage, with my translations


Be absolute for death; either death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter.

(If you are probably going to be killed in the morning, it would be best to decide that death is what you want. If you manage to survive, awesome. If you get killed, then you’ll be getting what you want.)

Reason thus with life:

(Yeah, I know, you can’t really choose death. Okay, then think about life in the following way. Address the idea of “life” and say:)

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep:

(If life is taken from me, I’ve lost something that only fools would put too much stock in.)

a breath thou art,

Servile to all the skyey influences,

That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,

Hourly afflict:

(Life is no more than the wind that comes out of you, and that weak-ass wind is affected by every single little disturbance in nature. Anything that happens from the farthest point in the sky to where you stand now can shift that breath off course, every single minute of every single day…)

merely, thou art death’s fool;

For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun

And yet runn’st toward him still.

(“Life” is, by definition, just postponing the inevitable. You’re gonna die, death knows it. Every day that you delay death you are still spending one more day getting closer to it. In this way, choosing life is betraying the choice you will have to make one day anyway, you may as well choose it now.)

Thou art not noble;

For all the accommodations that thou bear’st

Are nursed by baseness.

(“Life” is actually just a collection of the lowest acts that we are capable of. All of the higher aspects to being a man are actually in defiance of the urges that life pushes us towards.)

Thou’rt by no means valiant;

For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork

Of a poor worm.

(There is no bravery in continuing to live, this tenuous ridiculous existence that pales in the face of lying in our eventual crypt. Being alive, acting in fear of death, is cowardly.)

Thy best of rest is sleep,

And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st

Thy death, which is no more.

(Your whole life, you’re tired. The act of living is exhausting and the only time you aren’t exhausted is when you sleep, something that you do all the time and wish you could do more of. Which is weird because death is no more than eternal peaceful rest, and you are terrified of that.)

Thou art not thyself;

For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains

That issue out of dust.

(There is no “life”, pre se. The thing that you think of as life is actually just a mass of synapses and atoms that you’ve collected and control for a few years before the inevitable destruction arives and you have to let all those particles go back to the cosmos.)

Happy thou art not;

For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,

And what thou hast, forget’st.

(There is no peace in existence. Every day is a struggle to deal with the shit you’ve already got and to try to get more shit. You don’t even know what all shit you already *have* and yet you think by going out and getting *more* shit, somehow that will make you happy. And it never does.)

Thou art not certain;

For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,

After the moon.

(Every single day, life seems to be something different. There is no consistency in existence, it changes and shifts and splinters the same way that the moon is always in a different aspect and a different place in the sky.)

If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;

For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,

Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,

And death unloads thee.

(You can’t take it with you where you’re going, and you are going there. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or stuff you amass, you’re gonna lose it once you get to where you’re going. Plus, the more stuff you think you have, the more relationships you have to manage, the more you share your life and others share their lives with you, the harder it is to make the journey.)

Friend hast thou none;

For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,

The mere effusion of thy proper loins,

Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,

For ending thee no sooner.

(Look, even if you think there is some kind of good in life because you share it with the people you love, I’ve got news for you. Even your frickin’ *kids* are gonna be old and miserable and die one day. If you leave your fortune and your stores of happiness to your friends, if you leave it to your offspring, there will be a day when they will be laid up with horrible pain and sores and they’re gonna moan and turn over and say, “Christ, I wish I was just fucking *dead*.”)

(There is an alternate view of these words which is “even your kids are hoping you’ll die soon” and that may be closer to the text, but I’m not playing it that way.)

Thou hast nor youth nor age,

But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,

Dreaming on both;

(You can’t ascribe any happiness to being alive and young, or alive and old, because the fact is whichever one you are, you are always wishing you had the other in a half-alive daze.)

for all thy blessed youth

Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms

Of palsied eld;

(When you are a kid, you’re broke and you have to rely on the old people to provide for you, the whole time knowing that a) you’re gonna become old one day and b) when you get old it’s gonna suck.)

and when thou art old and rich,

Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,

To make thy riches pleasant.

(So now you’re old, you have the money and prestige and power you had to beg for when you were a kid, but now you’ve totally lost your sex drive, you don’t care about the people in your life, you have no energy or vitality and you look like shit, so what difference does it make that you have all this awesome stuff?)

What’s yet in this

That bears the name of life?

(Seriously, how does it make any sense to choose anything else? There’s nothing worth chosing in being alive.)

Yet in this life

Lie hid more thousand deaths: yet death we fear,

That makes these odds all even.

(And still, people don’t realize all the ways that I just described life as a thousand times worse than death. We walk around terrified of the one thing that can bring us any kind of peace and rest. It’s only in death that everything that is currently wrong with our lives can be made right.)


And when you do a Shakespeare play, or at least when I do, you translate every goddam line like that. It’s actually sometimes a good idea to do with any play. Subtext, y’know, it’s that chewy nougat center of the text.