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