A funny thing happened to Scott Kaiser as he completed the Shakespeare canon, the 38 plays generally attributed to William Shakespeare. When he served as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's voice and text director on a 2009 production of "King Henry VIII," Kaiser could finally say he'd worked on each of those plays either as an actor, coach, teacher or director.
But about that time he began to notice something he hadn't seen before. Sprinkled throughout the plays were elements that Kaiser, currently OSF's director of company development, recognized from his college years as Taoism, the ancient Chinese system of philosophy and spirituality said to stem from the teachings of Lao Tzu.
In Shakespeare, as in Taoism, there is veneration of the flow of nature. The is an acceptance of impermanence. A reverence for the healing power of love, a stress on forgiveness, a plea for moderation and simplicity. And that's just for starters.
So is he saying Shakespeare was an Asian mystic?
"No," Kaiser says. "But we've lost touch with the spiritual roots of theater. If you go back to ancient Greece, the community gathered for a celebration of their connection to the land and the gods."
Tracing such an idea from ancient China to Elizabethan England led Kaiser to write "The Tao of Shakespeare," a new book from his Muse of Fire Books (183-page paperback, $9.56 at amazon.com).
"It's a mashup of Shakespeare and Lao Tzu and modern times," he says.
The title joins such neo-Taoist works as "The Tao of Physics," "The Tao of Pooh" and "The Tao of Willie" (which is about country singer Willie Nelson).
Some of Shakespeare's later plays, including "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale," have often been seen as embodying spiritual values such as forgiveness, but Kaiser says he sees themes common to Taoism and Buddhism even in the seemingly nihilistic "King Lear," a play whose world is so bleak it often leaves audiences shaken.
"Lear is a primary example," Kaiser says. "Here is a king with great wealth and power that have corrupted him. And he gets stripped of everything, every possession, his power, friendship ... Only then does he gain wisdom. His enlightenment is the arc of the play."
Kaiser's relationship with Shakespeare goes back 40 years, to when he was 15 and playing Bottom, the rustic weaver in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in a high school play.
"It was great to get laughs," he says. "A lot of people were surprised. I was shy, and getting up in front of people wasn't something my friends expected."
He figures if he'd been born in a shtetl, or small Jewish village, in Poland, as were his ancestors, he may have been fascinated by the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, and studied in a yeshiva, or school of Jewish studies. But he was an American kid, and there was college, and then 40 years of being fascinated by Shakespeare.
Another instance of that fascination is Kaiser's new play, "Love's Labors Won," which picks up four years after the end of Shakespeare's play about the King of France and his scholarly buddies giving up women. The play's premier run is Nov. 14-23 at Seattle University, with Kaiser directing.
In his years with the OSF, Kaiser worked on nearly 100 productions, directed, conducted workshops and taught at theater companies and conservatories around the nation. Then he started seeing this spiritual thread.
"Initially it was about finding things that sounded like Taoism or Buddhism," he says. "I started collecting quotes, many more than are in the book (about 180). The more you look the more you find."
He found himself walking around the hills above Ashland pouring over rehearsal notes from plays he'd worked on over the decades. He immersed himself in Taoist and Buddhist texts and writers from Herman Hesse to Eckhart Tolle and the Dalai Lama.
He came to the conclusion that important themes from the ancient wisdom texts and the works of Shakespeare often matched up in surprising detail, and that both had a lot to say to people in the present day.
For example, Lao Tzu says, "Silence is a source of great strength." In "Richard II," Shakespeare has Mowbray say, "Truth hath a quiet breast." And Kaiser writes, "Only when we surrender / To life's few certainties / ... Can we walk through life / With a quiet breast ... "
Another thing that characterizes both Taoism and Shakespeare is a love of paradox, Kaiser says.
"The Tao is difficult to read," he says. "It asks you to see two sides of everything simultaneously ... to accept things that contradict each other."
The Tao Te Ching abounds in mind-twisting thoughts such as, "Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know." And, "The further one goes, the less one knows.” And "the name that can be named is not the eternal name."
Similarly, Kaiser says, Juliet describes herself as loving Romeo and hating him, and she describes him as now a raven and now a dove.
In "The Tempest," the magician Prospero is brought to the realization that forgiveness is superior to revenge, taught in part by a nature spirit, which is quintessentially Taoist.
Kaiser doesn't always come down on one side of a question. For Hamlet's "to be or not to be speech," he asks whether suicide is an act of cowardice and selfishness and a violation of nature's way, or whether it's an act of courage, love and compassion.
"It's not a book where I'm going to offer a simple answer," he says, perhaps sounding a bit like a sage. "The idea is rather to meditate on it."
Reach freelance Medford writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.