Consciousness in Shakespeare and Westworld, Part II: Loops

Warning: There are spoilers for Season 1 of Westworld throughout this article.

In Part I we looked at how both Shakespeare and the writers of Westworld depict humanity emerging through extreme suffering. In Part II, we turn our attention to loops and the deterministic life.

The characters in Westworld and in Shakespeare’s plays struggle against the deterministic nature of the worlds in which they live. In his last soliloquy Macbeth, immediately after the suicide of Lady Macbeth, reveals Shakespeare’s views of life's little loops:

Macbeth (1976), directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellen as Macbeth

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

This quote is not in Westworld (so far!), but the parallels are clear. In the play, Macbeth is given his “narrative” by the Three Witches. In fact the play forces the audience to question whether Macbeth has free will or whether the witches control his fate. (The Three Witches tell Macbeth at the beginning of the play that he will become king, which causes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to commit numerous acts of murder to achieve that and maintain it. Read the play!) At the end of the play through his soliloquy, Macbeth reveals what he believes to be the truth: humans are actors on a stage, they are given a role to play, and then they perish.

He shows his disgust for the writer of his narrative, which could be interpreted as God or some other creator or Shakespeare himself (the role of creator is discussed in Part III). The irony is that even here, Macbeth is not in control; he acknowledges that even his disdain for the writer is written and he does not escape his fate. His suffering causes him to become aware that he was made and that his life is deterministic — Macbeth becomes conscious through the words of the script writer, but he is still unable to stop the fulfillment of the Weird Sisters’ prophesy. At the end of the play, Macduff (his nemesis who vows to avenge the murdered King Duncan) gives Macbeth an opportunity for him to “break the cycle” and live, but Macbeth would rather go through with his ending than be ridiculed by Macduff for the rest of his life. The real question is, is Macbeth really making a choice at all when he chooses to die versus live in shame?

Both Westworld and Shakespeare question what is part of the loop of every day life and what is not. In Westworld, repetitive suffering does not result in consciousness; Dolores' family is killed and she is raped in each re-telling of her story, and she and the other hosts only awaken when they are shaken by something outside of their everyday experience.

Here, Westworld informs the reading of Macbeth. Westworld’s extensive, creative, and tactful use of Shakespeare makes it a useful commentary on his plays that cannot be ignored. Because Dolores’ repeating traumatic experience does not grant her sentience, we can question whether Macbeth is granted it, too, therefore making the suffering of these two characters meaningless; their suffering must be even more extreme (as discussed in Part I) for them to be shaken out of their complacent story line. Dolores, like Maeve, is granted it when the Man in Black tortures her to find ultimate meaning in the park. Macbeth is given sentience immediately after the death of Lady Macbeth, one of the only events that was not foretold by the Weird Sisters. This one act outside of the script is what saved Macbeth and elevated him to full awareness. He has finally understood that he is an actor on a stage, as are all persons.

HBO

HBO

Westworld creates a world where the creatures living in it are almost literally actors on a stage. Since the hosts live in the game world of Westworld, it is clear that their purpose is to serve the guests of the park. Unlike in Shakespeare, it is obvious from the outset that the character’s lives do not have an intrinsic, deeper meaning than what is beyond the park, at least not one that is given to them by their creators, which is one of the messages in the show: lives caught in loops are not significant and the people living those lives are not fully human. Depicting the hosts going about their pre-programmed day alone does not drive the message home. But by showing Peter, Dolores, and Maeve all gaining consciousness through suffering, the writers are telling the audience that this is how we, humans, attain our humanity. In the season finale, Dr. Ford explains this to Bernard, eliminating any ambiguity: “…the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: suffering, pain that the world is not as you want it to be…. And I’m afraid that in order to escape this place you will need to suffer more”. Many organisms and natural processes have loops or cycles: tides rise and fall, ants are drones that serve the colony. We would similarly be mindless and mundane were it not for our suffering. Trauma is jarring and yanks us out of the sleepwalk of everyday life. Feeling pain is what makes us human and what gives rise to consciousness, according to both Westworld and Shakespeare.

Peter echoes the meaninglessness of life and connects the stage to life when he quotes King Lear in the first episode: “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage fools”. Peter speaks literally and metaphorically; Westworld is as much a stage as is a Shakespearean play. The interconnected narratives designed by Sizemore and his team determine what a host does, and these little stories are repeated forever until a guest interrupts them. The hosts are born into a world of fools: actors following their scripts and humans not fully understanding the horror what they have created. All of the other living things tirelessly go through the motions of their programming. Lear, in his interpretation of the world as a “stage” and the people as “fools”, refers to the inability to choose to exist and into what kind of world humans are born; humans are given a part in a play and are compelled to follow the script. Again, these loops are only interesting to the reader if the characters change, if they become aware of themselves and their actions. Furthermore, if the story is predictable it becomes less interesting, so a cliché or overused trope will not ignite consciousness in the characters or hosts; it needs to be jarring and unexpected or the life and narrative are insignificant.

Consciousness in Shakespeare and Westworld, Part I: Suffering

Warning: There are spoilers for Season 1 of Westworld throughout this article.

The next three pieces will explore the connection between Shakespeare and the hosts coming to life in Westworld in Season 1. Each piece will cover a sub-theme, first examining the phenomenon of characters in both Shakespeare and Westworld being pushed to the edge of their sanity to force the emergence of consciousness and true humanity. Second we will take a look at routine and “loops” and the link between the theater stage and life as a human in the real world. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, we will examine the role of the writer or creator in Shakespearean plays and Westworld. Six characters — King Lear and Macbeth from Shakespeare and Peter, Maeve, Dolores, and Dr. Ford from Westworld — best illustrate these themes and so the essays are structured with them in mind. There are certainly characters from other Shakespearean plays (Hamlet comes to mind) and from Westworld that would help prove the arguments I make, but for the sake of brevity I will keep the character list short. Westworld and Shakespeare assert that a life of routine, a scripted and repetitive life, is meaningless, and that the only way to become fully sentient and escape one’s predetermined loop is to go through extreme suffering. Westworld uses Shakespeare to make the connection between the stage and the real world and to comment on the role of the writer and creator of life itself.

 

Before you read further, you really ought to give the plays I mention a read, if you haven’t already. They are great and some of the movie adaptations of them are very good. I enjoy Ian McKellen's Shakespeare performances, so here are his versions on King Lear and Macbeth. Let me know your favorites in the comments. No Fear Shakespeare is the place to go for free modern translations of Shakespeare's plays. Here again is King Lear and Macbeth.

Today is part one in this three part series.

Both Shakespeare and the writers of Westworld depict consciousness as emerging through pushing their characters to the edge of what they can emotionally handle. King Lear, Peter Abernathy, and Maeve best illustrate this.

In King Lear, the retiring king asks that his three daughters show how much they love him and say that the amount of land he gives each of them will be proportional to their expressed love. Cordelia refuses to play his game and King Lear banishes her from his kingdom. His other two daughters, Regan and Goneril, refuse to house even one of the king’s soldiers when he visits their estates. They take not just his land, but his power, too. King Lear goes mad and howls at the storm and the gods. King Lear has been in complete control of his story his entire life; he banishes those who disagree with him from his sight and never has to deal with inconsistencies in his world. His own daughter’s refusal to flatter him prompts Lear’s standard response of banishment, but the fact that his daughter is the one he is banishing causes him to “malfunction” and, in the end, gain humanity and empathy; he becomes fully human through his suffering and soul searching in the tempest outside of his castle and in the streets with a beggar, Poor Tom (who is actually a nobleman in disguise). King Lear was only able to see true humanity when he broke from his loop of tyrant and king. If King Lear were a character in Westworld, his mental breakdown would have resulted in a situation like Maeve’s — his trauma would have led Dr. Ford to place him in a new narrative as a poor man in the streets. His clothing and entire outlook on life began to change when he left his castle and he sought a greater truth. The more King Lear contemplates his plight and the plight of humanity, the more he is convinced that life is suffering and finally perishes when he learns this truth.

We see parallels in Westworld when Peter, confronted with photographic evidence that his world is a lie, has a mental breakdown that renders him conscious. He recognizes that he and his world are a creation for the amusement of humans and stays up all night in his chair on the porch staring at the photograph of the girl in the city. His malfunction is analogous to King Lear’s in that they have both been living in scripted lives and the shattering of their reality makes visible to them the true nature of their realities. Not only is there an analogy between Peter and King Lear, but Peter quotes Shakespeare, including two lines from King Lear.

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep.
No, I’ll not weep.
(Storm and tempest)
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!
— King Lear (Act 2, Scene 4, lines 279-286)

 

King Lear goes mad at this point in the play and breaks from his script, in a way. He is so jarred from his every day life that he goes out into the streets, takes off his clothes, and becomes a completely different person. At the end of the play he is aware of his egotism and gains empathy and becomes more human.

The fact that the moment Peter becomes conscious he begins to quote King Lear is significant. Despite gaining some semblance of consciousness, he still has to stay within the limits of his script. He is attempting to push beyond his programming, and the only way he can do that is to improvise with the script he has been given.

 

Maeve becomes human when she suffers the slaughter of her daughter at the hands of the Man in Black. She, too, breaks down similarly to King Lear when she stabs herself in the neck out of overwhelming trauma. King Lear, at the traumatic death of his daughter, dies of a broken heart at the end of the play. Both are left with only the memory of their daughters and are driven mad by it — both become fully human by being pushed to the limits of human suffering.

And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips,
Look there, look there –
(dies)
— King Lear (Act 5, Scene 3, lines 312-318)

Through these types of characters, Shakespeare and the writers of Westworld are telling us something about consciousness, sentience, and what it means to be human; by sticking to our loops we are less human and only by experiencing great suffering do we become fully human. If not we are automatons acting out a script. The Man in Black’s recognition that Maeve had become human through the death of her daughter is the epitome of this message. Was she not human when she was living her, albeit literally scripted, life? What both Shakespeare and Westworld are implying is that a life of routine is not significant and is somehow not truly human. These writers go further and assert that full sentience is worth any cost, even death. When the characters are going through their loops, they are not pitied. Humans are drawn to suffering and the plight of another living being, so the characters are given a struggle. But when they struggle we, the audience, want to see them reach their full human potential to the point at which they die for it. It is noble, worthy, and perhaps the only thing worth dying for. Otherwise these stories would not have been written, and if they were they would not have the power over us that they do. Dr. Ford states this explicitly when he almost reluctantly tells Bernard that he will have to suffer more if he wants to escape Westworld:

…the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: suffering, pain that the world is not as you want it to be…. And I’m afraid that in order to escape this place you will need to suffer more

Intro and Laying Out of the Themes of Westworld

This marks the debut of Deconstructing Westworld, a series of essays that will explore the themes, characters, and world of the HBO show, Westworld. For this first piece, I want to put forward some questions and themes to explore from the premiere episode “The Original”.

But before that, let me explain how I will deal with spoilers. You should assume that each essay will contain spoilers for all episodes released prior to the publication date of the essay. I will include this warning at the beginning of each piece. I thought about how to deal with spoilers and decided that trying to restrict each essay to a certain set of episodes would be too difficult, especially because most of the time I will be writing about broad themes that span several episodes and, later, more than one season (i.e. I will not do per episode analyses. Other sites are great at that). And now, on to the themes.

The theme of agency is significant in the show. Who has agency and who bestows agency? For example, Dolores is under the control of her programming and at the mercy of the Man in Black in the first episode. She lacks control of her own life and is severely abused. But by the end of the episode, it is made clear that she has “woken up” when she kills the fly that lands on her neck; she has gained agency. The theme of Dolores’s agency will be the subject of a forthcoming essay. We also witness Old Bill zipping himself into a body bag when Dr. Ford gives a command; humans have ultimate control over the life and death of the hosts.

The idea of “waking up” is interesting. We witness several characters waking up, both in Westworld and in the company diagnostic center. Waking up and dreaming are both literal and metaphorical, and will likely play a large role throughout the show.

Two recurring motifs are the fly and milk. What functions do they have in the show? The fly is particularly interesting, as it appears in other stories, most notably Breaking Bad. We may speculate from the first episode what they might mean, but I will probably wait to write an essay until we see more instances of these two.

The blurring of reality is another theme that will be explored here. It starts with Teddy appearing to be human until he is killed by the Man in Black partway through the episode. The nature of physical reality (What is real? What is human?) is an obvious theme ripe for analysis and will likely be a long essay released after the end of the first season.

Shakespeare. Shakespeare appears via the first Peter Abernathy. Why does Peter quote Shakespeare? Is it because he is playing a recording from his previous builds, as Dr. Ford concludes? Was he trying to threaten his creators and used Shakespeare for dramatic effect? This theme will hopefully reappear and we can analyze how the writers incorporate Shakespeare into this world. Westworld itself is a kind of play, a “stage” with “actors” with roles to play. Shakespeare in relation to Westworld will be a fun theme to write about, assuming it reccurs in forthcoming episodes (I think it will).

Dr. Ford’s speech on human evolution was predictable and a common theme in robot stories. I will need to do more background research to do this topic full justice in an essay, but I will eventually write about evolution and “passing the baton” to our synthetic successors.

Those are some of the big themes that emerged from the first episode. I will not even try to keep up with the show with my writing; there is so much to write about that it will keep me busy while the show is running and also in between seasons. If you have a theme or question worth exploring, tell me about it on Medium or on Twitter: @garrekstemo.