Editor’s Note: This Voices piece is from a first time contributor Ms. Anna Saum. Ms Saum is a student on a gap year between high school and college. She is still undecided as to where she plans to attend, but she is looking to study Literature/English and Physics, with potential minors in Genetics and Applied Mathematics concentrating on the intersections between the disciplines. She fell in love with Shakespeare when she was six, and never looked back. A Midsummer Nights Dream and Taming of the Shrew were her first favorites, but now she is very fond of Hamlet, as well, and would probably dub it her favorite; if only because it’s so versatile. Hamlet is followed closely by Much Ado About Nothing, which she has a habit of quoting in everyday conversation.
Although at six she didn’t realize it, what drew her to Shakespeare, and the reason she has remained so enamored with his works is the way in which he manipulates language and words to create double, triple, and quadruple, meanings to simple phrases that seem benign at first glance. Nothing is unintentional, or without specific purpose. Concise language is language at its best, and Shakespeare proves that with every stanza.
This Quantum Physick Doth Prolong Thy Sick Decay by Anna Saum
What if a watched pot couldn’t boil because it was being watched? What if a watched prince couldn’t go mad because he too was being watched? That, in essence, is the Zeno Effect. As a quantum system is more frequently observed, the probability that it will decay becomes infinitesimally small. However, this is not the only outcome of obsessive observation. Sometimes watching the pot causes it to boil; this is the Anti-Zeno Effect. Or perhaps in some circumstances, the pot reacts to someone watching it by panicking and trying to boil and not boil at the same time. This is called non-convergence.
Quantum metaphors do not always translate well to the macroscopic world. Obviously a pot cannot boil and not boil at the same time. However, this particular phenomenon was described perfectly over 300 years before it was discovered. As with most ingenious metaphors, the trail leads back to Shakespeare and the Christ of Bardolotry himself: Hamlet.
More pressing than “To be or not to be?” is the state of Hamlet’s sanity. Imagine Hamlet as a quantum system, existing unobserved with each soliloquy as a measuring point. These interactions between Hamlet and the audience serve perfectly to illustrate the power of observation.
The experiment begins in Act 1, Scene 5 as Hamlet interacts with the ghost of his father for the first time. Before this scene, however, Shakespeare gives the audience background information and measurements. I choose to take each of Hamlet’s soliloquies as a measuring point of his sanity, the first of which occurs midway through Act 1, Scene 2. Hamlet, left alone after the audience’s uncomfortable introduction to his Uncle Claudius, begins to rant. Rather than delving into his own consciousness, however, he tells us about the events that have recently transpired. I view this soliloquy as a pre-experiment constant. Here Shakespeare proves to us that Hamlet is sane. Moody and depressed, yes, but perfectly sane. This nullifies any arguments that he was mad all along.
Back to the ghost. Although technically one could say that Claudius committing murder and incest is the catalyst for our experiment, I think that the real turning point in the play and the experiment’s beginning is when Hamlet and the ghost first interact. For this reason, I bestow upon the ghost the properties of the scientist.
As the roster currently stands, the ghost is the scientist implementing the “Hamlet Experiment”, the audience is Hamlet’s observer, and Hamlet is a quantum system. Let us establish a few more “Quantum Characters.”
Ophelia is another quantum system, similar to Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, she has no soliloquies, so the audience is not her observer. Hamlet himself is the scientist in this situation and Polonius is the observer. In Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare gives us her original state, perfect sanity, observed by Polonius. Act 2, Scene 1 is when the experiment begins, as Ophelia recounts to Polonius a disheveled Hamlet bursting into her chambers grabbing her wrist and staring unnervingly at her.
Up through Act 3, Scene 4, despite her father intentionally throwing her in harm’s way, using her as bait, and exploiting her heart, Ophelia remains sane. Only when her observer, the only barrier maintaining her mentality, is killed is she finally allowed to decay. Almost immediately after Hamlet stabs Polonius, Ophelia crumbles. Her next appearance does not come until Act 4, Scene 5, but when Ophelia reappears, every ounce of her sanity has decayed. She flies into melodious rants about love, lust, and death, unable to bear the murder of her observer. Ultimately she completely decays, falling into a river and drowning simply because her mental capacities have deteriorated too much for her to help herself.
Here we see a beautiful, straightforward example of the Zeno Effect. When observed, Ophelia is stagnant, but once “alone”, she decays into madness and ultimately death. I will argue later that Hamlet’s death is completely arbitrary to his decay; however, this is not the case with Ophelia. Throughout the play, she is a physical being. She focuses on looks, sex, and material possessions, never daring to see beyond her narrow life and think from a broader philosophical perspective. Even when Hamlet comes into her room savage-eyed and mad, she focuses entirely on his appearance:
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac’d,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell. (II.i.77-83)
Even during her sanity, Ophelia could only ever comprehend a physical death. Her shallow view of life prevented her from understanding or experiencing the capacity for mental decay that Hamlet has. As Ophelia’s observer, Polonius serves as a role-model for the audience. His observation and death directly impact Ophelia, and show the audience how crucial their role is. He even goes so far as to prompt the audience to participate in the determining of Hamlet’s state. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet and Polonius have a brief exchange in which Polonius breaks the fourth wall and iambic pentameter, speaking directly to the audience:
How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first; ‘a said I was a fishmonger. ‘A is far gone. And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this…Though this be madness, yet there’s method in’t…How pregnant sometimes his replies are – a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will leave him and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter. (II.ii. 186-189, 203-204, 206-211)
This gentle nudge is Shakespeare’s way of showing the audience how to observe and interpret Hamlet’s erratic behavior.
Whether or not Hamlet decays into madness depends solely on the viewers’ interpretations. One might argue that the Dane’s death is his “decay,” However, Hamlet’s potential for decay is not a physical one. He dies simply because the play must end a tragedy. Hamlet is a transcendent figure that cannot be bound by the text let alone his own life. He neglects his physical self in order to further his mentality and philosophy of the world.
Technically, the audience will continue to observe Hamlet until he is killed and the experiment ends, but by the point of his last soliloquy, their minds are made up, and the Dane has taken one road or another. To a singular person observing Hamlet, there are two options, Zeno or Anti-Zeno, not decay or decay, sane or insane; life and death are inconsequential states. When I use the term “audience”, however, I mean a singular plurality: the mind of the whole audience, which is an abstract concept, making Quantum Physics metaphors more applicable. If we depict Hamlet’s sanity as a sin(x) curve, and Hamlet’s insanity as -sin(x), alone they show totally feasible phenomena. Super-impose them, however, and they nullify into non-convergence. Even though the singular mind may allow Hamlet to choose a path, because Hamlet is a play, designed for the masses, it is doomed to non-convergence.