What was Shakespeare's philosophy of life?    

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare expressed his philosophy through his characters in his plays. His philosophy seems to have been cynical and pessimistic. He seems to have been an agnostic, although it would have been unwise for him to express agnostic or atheistic ideas at a time when the church was very powerful and vindictive. He has been called an early existentialist.

Some of his famous soliloquys can be studied for the purpose of deducing Shakespeare's personal philosophy. At least two such soliloquys are to be found in Hamlet. One is Prince Hamlet's famous soliloquy beginning with "To be or not to be: that is the question." (Act 3, Scene 1) Another more worldly one is Polonius's advice to his son Laertes in Act 1, Scene 3, which contains such practical advice as "Neither a borrow nor a lender be" and "Beware of entrance to a quarrel" and ends with the best possible advice that any person could give to another: "This above all: to thine own self be true."

Shakespeare must have been a practical, realistic man as well as a poet and a philosopher. He managed to earn a lot of money during his time as a playwright and theater owner in London, and he retired in comfort in his old age.

One of his most pessimistic speeches is given by the Duke in Measure for Measure:

Duke.  Be absolute for death.  Either death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter.  Reason thus with life:

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep.  A breath thou art,

Servile to all the skyey influences,

That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,

Hourly afflict.  Merely, thou art Death's fool,

For him thou labor'st by thy flight to shun,

And yet run'st toward him still.  Thou art not noble,

For all th' accommodations that thou bear'st

Are nurs'd by baseness.  Thou're by no means valiant,

For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork

Of a poor worm.  Thy best of rest is sleep,

And that thou oft provok'st; yet grossly fear'st

Thy death, which is no more.  Thou art not thyself,

For thou exists on many a thousand grains

That issue out of dust.  Happy thou art not;

For what thou hast not, still thou striv'st to get,

And what thou hast, forget'st.  Thou art not certain,

For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,

After the moon.  If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;

For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,

Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,

And Death unloads thee.  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.  Thou hast nor youth nor                                     age,

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

Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth

Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms

Of palsied Eld: and when thou art old and rich,

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

To make thy riches pleasant.  What's yet in this

That bears the name of life?  Yet in this life

Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death we fear,

That makes these odds all even.

 (Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1)

Many more examples of Shakespeare's philosophy can be found in his plays, notably Hamlet,Macbethand King Lear, as well as in some of his sonnets.