William Shakespeare

(1564 - 1616)


More than any other poet Shakespeare has accomplished
mentally the legendary feat of the impetuous sage Viswamitra;
his power of vision has created a Shakespearean world of his own.


from Hamlet

To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep.
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Sri Aurobindo’s remarks:

«When you read Hamlet, you become Hamlet — you feel you are Hamlet. When you read Homer, you see Achilles living and moving and you become Achilles. That is what I mean by creativeness.»

«Hamlet is a Mind, an intellectual, but like many intellectuals a mind that looks too much all round and sees too many sides to have an effective will for action. He plans ingeniously without coming to anything decisive. And when he does act, it is on a vital impulse. Shakespeare suggests but does not bring out the idealist in him, the man of bright illusions.»


To be or not to be, that is the question

introduces powerfully one of the most famous of all soliloquies and it comes in with a great dramatic force.»

«The origin of the inspiration may be from anywhere, but in Shakespeare it always comes through the vital and strongly coloured by it as in some others it comes through the poetic intelligence.

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.

There is something from the Above in the rhythm also, but it is rather covered up by the more ordinary rhythm of the first half line and the two lines that follow. It is curious that this line and a half should have come in as if by accident and have nothing really to do with the restricted subject of the rest.»

«Take this lines from Shakespeare —

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven —

they are plainly vital in their excited thrill, for only the vital can speak with that thrill and pulse of passion — the rhythm also has the vital undulation and surge so common in Shakespeare.
I have given an instance elsewhere of Shakespeare’s thought-utterance which is really vital, not intellectual —

Life is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Here is a “thought”, a judgment on life, and its origin would naturally be assigned to the intellect, but as a matter of fact it is a throw-up from Macbeth’s vital being, an emotional or sensational, not an intellectual judgment and its whole turn and rhythm are strongly vital in their vibration and texture. But yet in this passage there is a greater power that has rushed down from above and taken up the vital surge into its movement — so much so that if it had been a spiritual experience of which the poet was speaking, we could at once have detected an action of the illumining spiritual Mind taking up the vital love and soaring into spiritual greatness.
Or take the quotation —

the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.

Here both style and language come ultimately from a higher above-mind level, but […] the vision of the “dreaming soul” is felt through the vital mind and heart before it finds expression […]. It is this constant vitality, this magnificent vital surge in Shakespeare’s language which makes it a sovereign expression, but of life and, so far as it is also a voice of mind or knowledge, not of pure intellectual thought but of life-mind and of life-knowledge.»

«Shakespeare’s images are not, as with so many poets, decorative or brought in to enforce and visualise the intellectual sense, they are more immediately revelatory, intimate to the thing he speak and rather the proper stuff of the fact itself than images. But he has too a clearer, less crowded, still swifter fashion of speech in which they are absent; for an example,

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word, —

which has yet the same deep and penetrating intuitive spirit in its utterance. Or the two manners meet together and lean on each other, —

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,

or become one, as in the last speeches of Anthony, —

I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay upon thy lips.

«Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this 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.

What Shakespeare is dwelling on is the insubstantiality of the world and of human existence. “We are such stuff” does not point to any God-self. “Dream” and “sleep” would properly imply Somebody who dreams and sleeps, but the two words are merely metaphors. Shakespeare was not an intellectual or philosophic thinker nor a mystic one. All that you can say is that there comes out here an impression or intuition of the illusion of Maya, the dream-character of life but without any vision or intuition of what is behind the dream and the illusion. There is nothing in the passage that even hints vaguely the sense of something abiding — all is unsubstantial, “into air, into thin air”, “baseless fabric”, “insubstantial pageant”, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”. “Stuff” points to some inert material rather than a spirit dreamer or sleeper. Of course one can always read things into it for one’s own pleasure, but —»

«I would certainly say that Shakespeare’s lines

Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

have the Overhead touch in the substance, the rhythm and the feeling; but Shakespeare is not giving us here the sense of the One and the Infinite. He is, as in the other lines of his which have this note, dealing as he always does with life, with vital emotions and reactions or the thoughts that spring out in the life-mind under the pressure of life.»

«If you note the combination of words and sounds in Shakespeare’s line

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

so arranged as to force on the mind and still more on the subtle nerves and sense the utter absoluteness of that difficulty and pain of living for the soul that he awakened to the misery of the world, you can see how this technique worked. Here and elsewhere the very body of the thing seen or felt come out into the open. The same dominant characteristic can be found in other lines which I have not cited, — in Leopardi’s

acerbo indegno mistero delle cose»

«In Shakespeare in whom poetry always flowed, I suppose, the three lines in Henry IV invoking sleep,

Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes and rock his brains
In the cradle of the rude imperious surge?

leap out from the rest. There is no doubt at all that these three lines have simply descended from above without any intervention. Or, his lyric, “Take, O take those lips away” — the whole of it has come down from above.»

from Measure for Measure

Take, O take those lips away
That so sweetly were forsworn;
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn:
But my kisses bring again, bring again;
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain.