It is the genius of Shakespeare, or at least a part of his genius, that he is able in a few simple but poetic words to insinuate the deepest questions of human existence. To be sure he is no metaphysician, in the sense that he provides answers to those questions in expository prose. He appeals, rather, to the seeker, not that self-deluded creature, the finder.

An example of his uncanny ability to cut to the chase of our existence can be found in Hamlet’s reproachful response to Guildenstern: “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” Since then, of course, a monstrous regiment of literary (and other) Guildensterns have been trying to do precisely that, to their own if to no one else’s satisfaction. No controversy is so furious or bitter as that which can in principle never be settled.

It is no accident that Dr. Ernest Jones, the first English-speaking convert, if I may so put it, to...