A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self-Deconstructions

Reviewed by Sidney Gottlieb

Renaissance Quarterly
Vol.49 No.1 (Spring 1996)

COPYRIGHT Renaissance Society of America Inc. 1996

            James Howe is both a Buddhist and a post-modernist, a distinction 
            without a difference as we come to find in his intriguing study of 
            Shakespeare. Howe shares with many others the notion that criticism 
            as a disinterested endeavor to know the complex but unitary truth 
            has given way to a belief that "any interpretation is a reader's 
            'reinvention' of the chosen text, and that the primary function 
            available to a critic is to record his or her transaction with it" 
            (15). At the same time, Howe recognizes that criticism is an act of 
            discipleship: our transactions are influenced, to say the least, by 
            the ideologies surrounding us and also by the teachers we choose. 
            Howe acknowledges Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan spiritual advisor, as 
            his teacher and A Buddhist's Shakespeare is a "partial record" (13) 
            of his discipleship to Trungpa and the long and varied tradition of 
            According to Howe, the three masters or philosophies alluded to in 
            the book's title - Buddhism, Shakespeare, and deconstruction - are, 
            contrary to what might be our first impression, the most likely of 
            bedfellows. Buddhism is the most fully articulated of the three, 
            defined by Howe as primarily "a system of contradictions, a 
            systematized denial of the validity of all systems" (20). By 
            revealing the wisdom of emptiness and the "fruitful side of 
            'absence'" (17), Buddhism continually works to free its 
            practitioners from self-entrapping illusions, worldly attachments, 
            and misunderstandings about human desires and capacities. Howe sees 
            these ideas beginning to take hold now in Western thought via 
            deconstruction, and it might be well worth a long essay to go more 
            deeply into what he much-too-briefly labels the "Dharmic/Derridean 
            function of dissolution" (21). But his main concern and, of course, 
            the reason why his book comes to our attention, is to extensively 
            analyze the much earlier intimation of Buddhist philosophy in 
            western culture represented by Shakespeare, "every period of [whose] 
            career rewards an approach that joins self-deconstruction to 
            Buddhism" (22). 
            Each of the eight main chapters focuses primarily on one play, and 
            Howe, well-versed in modern critical approaches - especially those 
            influenced by Derrida, Foucault, and Greenblatt - shows how 
            consistent these approaches are with what he calls Buddhist 
            dimensions of Shakespeare. He focuses repeatedly on the lessons of 
            theatricality. Bottom, for example, "seems to embody the Buddhist 
            teaching of non-attachment" (31), and his play not only subverts 
            royal power but usefully reminds all spectators, on stage and off, 
            of the limited truth-value in any representation. This lesson is 
            also reinforced by Richard III and, perhaps most provocatively, by 
            The Merchant of Venice, where even Portia comes to embody the 
            monstrousness of believing we have a firm hold on a truth that will 
            set us free. Unless this truth is that there is no truth, we remain 
            in the "vicious cycle of samsara" (93), the world of confusion. 
            For Howe, Shakespeare's major tragic characters are victims of 
            desire. Some, like Antony and Brutus, never relinquish their desires 
            or their mistaken beliefs in an integral, unified self, and 
            therefore die agonizing and unenlightened deaths. Others, like 
            Hamlet and Lear, move to a "Buddhist form of desirelessness" (178). 
            But Shakespeare's ultimate concern is not so much the characters as 
            the audience, who by witnessing a spectacle of constant undoing, 
            subversion, and loss come to know that "desolation" is "the basis of 
            'freedom'" (144). 
            In Howe's analysis, Shakespeare typically leaves us "without a 
            safety net" (143) by setting his plays on a course of subversion and 
            dissolution that, once started, cannot be stopped - a vison of 
            Shakespeare as bold, radical, post-modern, and, according to Howe's 
            definition, Buddhist. I also find it overstated. Hovering on the 
            edges of philosophical Fluellenism, he is quick to collate every 
            appearance of negation either explicitly or implicitly with the 
            wisdom of Trungpa, and in many instances such collocations are 
            insubstantial rather than synergistic. Moreover, his frame for 
            Shakespeare's drama and philosophy generally neglects other 
            important rhythms in the plays, complex movements towards order and 
            resolution and sympathetic attachment that may be bold and radical 
            but are not post-modern or Buddhist. Despite Howe's insistent and 
            provocative argument, the unsettling and Noble Truths in Shakespeare 
            still only seem randomly and occasionally to overlap rather than 
            mirror those of Derrida and the Buddha. 
            SIDNEY GOTTLIEB Sacred Heart University