The Will to be Wise: Seven Pieces of Advice from Shakespeare

Although he was a success on stage, William Shakespeare suffered many losses — his 11-year-old son, his brothers, and his parents died while he was writing his comedies and tragedies, and he certainly knew the pain of losing a lover. Here are seven ways he has his characters cope with great sorrow and emerge with great wisdom.

1) As they mourn the loss of their sons, two royal women have this exchange:

Why should sorrow be full of words?

Let them have scope: though what they do impart
Help not all, yet do they ease the heart.

Shakespeare not only spoke of sorrow; he transformed it into poetry. Describing a struggle in words can help others to see what you are experiencing, and teach them how you dealt with that experience.

2) There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Suffering from the loss of his father and his mother’s hasty re-marriage, Hamlet finds comfort by talking with his friend Horatio. Despite the sad events happening around him, Hamlet takes the time to imagine a world elsewhere, without limits. This act of imagination allows him to transcend the pain and dullness of his current circumstances, and to begin planning how to change those circumstances.

3. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.

Among the definitions of love that Shakespeare offers in his passionate sonnets is this one, an assertion that love is unwavering and resists time’s ravages. Love–of a person, of a place, of a principle–can be a steady light in a dark world.

4. We are such things as dreams are made on.

There are no limits in dreams, just as there are no limits to what we can imagine. And imagining a better world is the first step to bringing that better world into being. We–our minds, our spirits–have the power to dream of–and make–changes.

5. Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.

In a play about romantic confusion, “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare offers some unconfusing truths about true love, including this one. Love is not based on a quick glance at a screen, but on the deep connections that come from shared values and mutual efforts to understand each other.

6. Who can control his fate?

Sometimes wisdom is very hard-won. Othello asks this question as he comes to the realization that the world is not always what it seems to be. Thinking he was in control, Othello wrongly suspected his wife of infidelity. But from his tragedy we can learn to be more generous and patient in our efforts to understand our family and friends.

7. Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness!

Know yourself. Be yourself. In each of Shakespeare’s tragedies, great evil is done by men and women who pretend to be honest, kind, and, yes, wise. Acknowledging that we are complex beings, admitting that we are capable of evil and of good, and trying to find ways to avoid acting on our darkest thoughts are perhaps the greatest lessons Shakespeare taught.