New book explores the Tao and the Swan of Avon
At first glance, it does seem like the beginning of a joke: “Shakespeare and Lao Tzu walk into a bar…” But Decatur writer Phillip DePoy’s new book, “The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation,” is actually a very intriguing mash-up of selections from the 81 verses that make up the “Tao Te Ching” and quotations from a range of Shakespeare’s work.
For example, in “Thirty-six:”
Lao Tzu: Being gentle/will always overcome/any hard obstacle/any strength.
Shakespeare: You bear a gentle mind, and heavenly blessings/Follow such creatures. (“Henry VIII”)
DePoy conceived the idea for the book in 1986, while writing songs for the original Atlanta production of “Hamlet! The Musical!” (“I was in it, too, playing either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, who can remember?” he jokes.)
“I was just reading another translation of the ‘Tao Te Ching’—I had been interested in Eastern spiritual thought since reading Alan Watts at age 20—and when we were dealing with Hamlet’s line, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ I realized I’d read something very similar in the ‘Tao,’” DePoy says.
So he began tinkering with a project that came to fruition this year. “I went through the ‘Tao,” and then I did some old-fashioned, 19th-century-style research, poring through the Riverside Shakespeare for references. I read Arthur Burgess, Harold Bloom, and I was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell,” he says. “At the beginning, Campbell was convinced that East and West could never meet; their mythologies and cultures were just too different, but like him, I wanted to see if there was a way to bridge the gap, and add something to the conversation.”
In “The Tao and the Bard,” DePoy does contribute to the conversation with “comments” at the end of some of the sections. For example, in “Sixty-seven”:
Lao Tzu: Most of the world will say/The Tao is foolish./This is because it’s so genuine,/but does not proclaim itself,/And much of the world/is not a genuine place.
Shakespeare: Wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it. (“Henry IV, Part 1”)
Comment: Fellow Nazarenes laughed at Jesus when he tried to tell them what he thought was the truth. The Dalai Lama has spent a lifetime trying to get the Chinese government to listen to him about the simplest truths, and they’ve ignored him. But the good news comes from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
DePoy finds it fascinating that people who lived in different centuries and different cultures seem to have been so similar in how they saw the world and the humans who bustle in it. This, he says, applies even if Lao Tzu and/or Shakespeare were actually more than one person apiece.
Those who love Shakespeare and those who are interested in Eastern thought would both enjoy this book. “Barnes & Noble wants to put it in the theatre section, but I think it would fit better in ‘Philosophy,’” says DePoy. But, he says, he does see the application for theatre folks, who are always looking for ways to see Shakespeare’s work in new lights. “I can see actors using it to help interpret lines and characters,” he says.
The broader reach, though, is simply to people who want to compare the work of two great thinkers. “I absolutely find how easily what they have said applies to things I do in life, every day,” say DePoy.
As he says at the end of “The Tao and the Bard,” “You should probably stop reading it now, and look up.”
“The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation,” by Phillip DePoy. Arcade Publishing, 2013, $16.95.