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Life lessons from Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius

William Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius (the great stoic philosopher and emperor) have more in common than you might think. They share a recorded birth-date, with Shakespeare baptized on 26 April 1564, and Marcus Aurelius born on 26 April 121 (Shakespeare’s actual birth date remains unknown, although he was baptised on 26 April 1564. His birth is traditionally observed and celebrated on 23 April, Saint George’s Day). But aside from their birth month (and a gap of over a thousand years), what links these two venerated writers? Shakespeare’s plays are a famed source of creative and dramatic inspiration, but are also mined for their astoundingly insightful commentary on human nature. In a similar fashion, Marcus Aurelius is best remembered for his Meditations, a set of pithy aphorisms on Stoic philosophy and guidance on life.

We’ve delved into Shakespeare’s plays and the contemplations of Marcus Aurelius, to bring you six enduring life lessons. Tired of the worries of modern living, social pressures, or concerned you’re not following your true purpose? Then read on, help is at hand…

1. Live in the present

“Remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present” (Book 8, 36).

In this important meditation, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we can’t change what’s already happened, and are equally incapable of predicting the future. It’s a method of avoiding unnecessary distress caused by “picturing your life as a whole,” assembling the “varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future.” Paulina, the faithful friend of Queen Hermione in The Winter’s Tale would certainly agree with this. In true Stoic fashion, she apologizes for condemning King Leontes, whose insane jealousy caused the death of their beloved Queen: “What’s gone and what’s past help should be past grief” (The Winter’s Tale, 3.2).

“Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus’” from the Louvre Museum, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2. It’s all in your attitude

“All disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us” (Book 4, 3).

It is a key tenet of Stoic philosophy that external situations aren’t important, but it’s how you react to them. If someone has insulted you, instead of giving in to destructive emotions, rely on rationality and inner calm. Likewise, Othello agrees that if a wronged person can take his losses with grace, then he will be all the richer for it: “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief” (Othello, 1.3).

3. Live each day as if it were your last

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for both Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius, death was a common feature of everyday life. They both return to the theme of the transience of human existence, and the relatively short time we’re given as “players” on the earthly stage. As life can end at any moment, we should make the most of it, and live each day:

“As if you had died and your life had extended only to this present moment, use the surplus that is left to you to live from this time onward according to nature” (Book 7, 56).

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (Richard II, 5.5).

4. Be good to others

Given the limited time available, what should we be doing? Marcus Aurelius is very clear on this, stating multiple times that our purpose as social, rational creatures is to help our fellow humans: “Refer your action to no other end than the common good” (Book 12, 20).

Concurrently, the characters advocating goodness, mercy, and love are rife throughout the Shakespearean canon.This is perhaps most aptly summarized by the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none” (All’s Well That Ends Well, 1.1).

“Shakespeare, Poet” by WikiImages. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

5. Be true to yourself

Marcus Aurelius states that the only real tragedy is not being true to yourself. What others think of you is of no importance, but how you act and how you think are the only things of intrinsic value. He ponders on the significance of adversity: “If something does not make a person worse in himself, neither does it make his life worse, nor does it harm him without or within” (Book 4, 8).

Shakespeare’s characters are no strangers to this maxim. Indeed, Othello reminds Cassio that external praise (which is easily won or lost) is of little significanceit’s his own judgement that matters: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser” (Othello, 2.3).

6. Less is more

Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius are of one mind when it comes to the age old saying that “less is more.” We should focus on doing one thing well and thoughtfully, rather than rushing many things at once: “Do little, if you want contentment of mind” (Book 4, 24).

And as Friar Laurence fatedly chides Romeo: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2).

Can you think of any more Shakespearean Stoicism that we’ve missed?

Featured image credit: “The Storm, Shakespeare” by chaos07. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. David Glidden

    These parallels are certainly enjoyable to read. What is even more interesting is to what extent Shakespeare consciously used Stoic doctrines in his plays. Scholars know something of his knowledge and interest in the Stoic philosopher/playwright Seneca. But one wants to know more about Shakespeare’s competence in Latin. Or were there translations/chapbooks he had access to?

  2. anne corr

    ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’
    Hamlet

    “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
    ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  3. […] both Shakespeare, the English bard, and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher are celebrated on April 26th. Here’s a nice quote from each of […]

  4. Vincent

    I like the poem “be true to your self”

  5. Sahar

    Beautiful

  6. Lita

    Love it, very interesting. I would like to read more. Thanks.

  7. Dhom

    I love this reading exellent and I repeat reading this story of shakespear by knewing knowledge and lessons.

  8. Sid E

    Said

    I agree that the inside world of any individual has more value if he or she uses the true rationale.

  9. Caterina Salabè

    I actually just wrote a paper on the subject of Shakespeare and Stoic philosophy in “King Lear”. Can you please suggest a possible publisher or CFP? Thank you.

  10. Tan Hiok Seng

    Valuable lessons and insights about life that are immune to the ravages of time. Relevant then, relevant now and will be relevant to generations yet unborn.

  11. Bard Busker

    is this your video?

    if not this has been copied on YouTube

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Pk1H7xPxlA

  12. Mark Treece

    “The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgements, calling it “good” or “bad.” (Book 5, 26)

    “Hamlet (Act II, scene 2) “…there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

  13. Heide

    My observations are based on comparisons between Aurelius’s “Meditations” (M) and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark” (H).

    (M) I. 16. “…his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection…”

    (H) Act 1 Scene 3 “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; But do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatched, unfledg’d comrade…”

    **********

    (M) I. 16. “…that might be applied to him which is recounted of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess…”

    (H) Act 1 Scene 4 “This heavy-headed revel east and west makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations; they clepe us drunkards… and indeed it takes from our achievements… the dram of evil doth all the noble substance of a doubt, to his own scandal.”

    ***********

    (M) II. 11. “But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.”

    (H) Act 2 Scene 2 “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    *********

    (M) II. 14. “… it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time… the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same.”

    (H) Act 5 Scene 2 “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. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.”

    *********

    (M) III. 3. “Hippocrates after curing many diseases himself fell sick and died… Alexander and Pompeius, and Caius Caesar, after completely destroying whole cities… themselves too at last departed from life.”

    (H) Act 5 Scene 1 “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth unto dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam, and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away…”

    ***********

    (M) III. 8. “In the mind of one who is chastened and purified there wilt find no corrupt matter, no impurity, nor any sore skinned over.”

    (H) Act 3 Scene 4 “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks; It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, whiles rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen.”

    **********

    (M) IV. 48. “Think continually how many physicians are dead after often contracting their eyebrows over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality.”

    (H) Act 5 Scene 1 “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once… This might be the pate of a politician… or of a courtier… There’s another; why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures and his tricks? … Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt?”

    ***********

    (M) IV. 48. “One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him… Pass then through this little space of time comfortably to nature, and end thy journey in content…”

    (H) Act 1 Scene 2 “… your father lost a father; that father lost, lost his;… why should we in peevish opposition take it to heart? Fie! ‘Tis a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, a fault to nature, to reason most absurd, whose common theme is death of fathers…”

    *******

    (M) IV. 16. “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

    (H) Act 3 Scene 4 “O Hamlet! Speak no more; Thou turnst mine eyes into my very soul; And there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct.”

    **********

    (M) VIII. 19. “Even the sun will say, I am for some purpose, and the rest of the gods will say the same. For what purpose then art thou? to enjoy pleasure? See if common sense allows this.”

    (H) Act 4 Scene 4 “What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unus’d.”

    ***********

    (M) XI. 3. “What a soul that which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgement…”

    (H) Act 5 Scene 2 “The readiness is all.”

    **********

    (M) XI. 6. “After tragedy the old comedy was introduced, which had a magisterial freedom of speech… but as to the middle comedy which came next… which gradually sunk down into a mere mimic artifice…”

    (H) Act 3 Scene 2 “O! There be players that I have seen play… that have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.”

    ******

    (M) XI. 15. “The affectation of simplicity is like a crooked stick. Nothing is more disgraceful than a wolfish friendship. Avoid this most of all.”

    (H) Act 1 Scene 5 “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

    ********

    (M) III. 6. “It is not right that anything of any other kind, such as praise from the many, or power, or enjoyment of pleasures, should come into competition with that which is… good.”

    (H) Act 3 Scene 2 “Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.”

    ******

    (M) IV. 33. “For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath, they are gone and no man speaks of them.”

    (H) Act 3 Scene 2 “O heavens! Died two months ago and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year; but by’r lady, he must build churches then, or else shall he suffer not thinking on…”

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