Quantum Hamlet


a dialogue between


Thomas Newton & James Soderholm

JS: It occurs to me that Hamlet’s real question is not so much ‘To be or not to be’ as ‘To be and not to be’. The difficulty for him is not whether ‘to act’ (and kill Claudius) or ‘not to act’ (and remain passive, if not cowardly), but rather the frustrating co-existence of these two states—or possibilities—in his mind. Hamlet never really thinks of killing himself but he does think about killing himself. Nietzsche’s aphorism comes to mind: ‘The thought of suicide gets one through many nights’. Hamlet persistently debates with himself about killing his uncle but does not get around to until Act 5, and then it is an impulsive not a deliberative murder.

Is there a kind of ‘quantum’ Hamlet, a literary phenomenon that suggests parallels to other states of being where one cannot determine the position of an element, or a mind, until one observes it and, in observing it, altering the phenomenon? Hamlet is never not of two minds. Often he is of three or four minds. It’s what makes him so dizzyingly complex and so endlessly fascinating on the stage. What happens when the phenomenon one observes is not an electron but human consciousness itself? What if we could get into the mind of Schrödinger’s cat, staring at that bomb in the other corner of the box, the poor cat’s only companion? How can we interpret the various entanglements of ‘Hamlet’—the prince and the play—if we open it up to an analysis inspired by quantum mechanics?


TN: It is a key basis of quantum mechanics that at the unimaginably small scale, the quantum scale, it is possible for a particle to simultaneously exist in two places at once; it is only by measuring the position of the particle that it resolves itself to exist in only one place. It is worth keeping in mind that this phenomena does not only occur in theory or within the confines of a laboratory but it is a natural occurrence that is going on at all times; just on a scale undetectable to us. This means that the laws of quantum mechanics are something fundamental to our universe and as likely to provide a parallel analogy to life as other aspects of nature such as “the apple never falls far from the tree” and “all the world’s a stage”.

The impact this has on Hamlet is that the main character’s indecision can be modelled as a quantum phenomenon. “To be and not to be”- the choice of whether or not to continue with life is generally just viewed as Hamlet briefly entering a suicidal state, deciding against it, and returning to a normal state of being. Instead it could thought of that Hamlet is in a quantum state; at the moment of the soliloquy he has both made the decision to “Take up arms against a sea of troubles”, to end his life, and to continue living. At the end of the soliloquy he has not returned to a state of normality, rather he has left his quantum state of indecision and moved into a new, fixed, state of self-preservation.

As mentioned earlier, in quantum mechanics once a particle is scientifically observed it will cease existing in two states, once the box is opened the cat can be deemed alive or dead. By asking the question “To be or not to be”, by evaluating whether you truly do want to go one living, this could be seen as “opening the box” into your own psyche. Once Hamlet has made the effort to observe his own thoughts on the matter of death he ceases to exist in two states, he is now definitively not suicidal. Through this analogy it could be said that until you actively make a decision on a subject you are in a quantum state; you simultaneously are in agreement with both possibilities until you weigh up the options and decide. On the matter of suicide, everyone exists in a state where they are simply going through life until they reach a psychological moment like Hamlet’s where they must choose whether or not life is worth living. Indeed, the wave of depression that is so common in one’s teenage years could be viewed as the moment you “open the box” and resolve into a state where you have debated, observed yourself and chosen life.


JS: Let’s watch Hamlet twist in the quantum wind a bit more:

I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Here, Hamlet has chosen the life of a melancholic whose polis is the cosmos (the renaissance prince as etymologically cosmo-politan). That is, he holds together in a—mirthless—vision the very ends of spectra: golden fire : pestilent vapours – paragon : animals – quintessence : dust. Hamlet’s mind levels down, a canny reprisal of the medieval contemptus mundi except that it is not so much Christian as post-Darwinian. Angels to animals, quintessence to stardust. Amen. “Hamlet” is that intellectual entanglement that keeps weighing up and keeps opening the box and then weighs up again. That vertiginous rhythm is fascinating to watch (from the audience) and depressing as hell to ‘live’ (from inside Hamlet’s skull). Is ‘man’ a wave or a particle or a ‘wavicle’ (an entity having characteristic properties of both waves and particles). As you suggest, indecision is a quantum state and, for Hamlet, the only state in town. In fact, it is a state of play. In Shakespeare’s most self-reflexive and self-conscious play, all possibilities are in play, and that includes when Hamlet himself both scripts and ‘stages’ a play-within-a-play.

I suppose I love Hamlet and Hamlet so much because they transmute depression and melancholy into a kind of play. And you have to (continue to) live to play. Nietzsche: “We must regain the seriousness of a child at play”. Or a Hamlet at [a] play. Stoppard seems to have intuited that ludic element in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Indeed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent, in their intersubstitutional ludicrousness, a heads-up (self-aware) play of indeterminacy and contingency. Is Stoppard a quantum playwright? What are the odds?


TN: It’s interesting to mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as it is a play where quantum states are so obviously present. Throughout the play the lead characters complain about being trapped in the “flood” that is the events of Hamlet; the say they want to stop and think but they are being led by Claudius and must get on with what he wants. However despite this, in typical Waiting for Godot absurdist style, they always seem to be in some other worldly place where time stands still and nothing changes; where the coin lands heads every time you throw it. In this way they are simultaneously moving unhappily through the events of Hamlet and yet, stuck in each moment of thought. A quantum state where they are both running out of time and without time at all.

In the third act of the play they make reference to how life is like a boat; or rather, they reference how a boat is not like death and leave the audience to do the rest. Their point is that on a boat one is free to stop, move and do whatever you like but no matter what it is impossible to escape the fact that you are ever moving onward to some final destination. True enough, in life we can chose to act however we wish; as Nietzsche said we are free from gods and fundamental rules to create works of art and to live according to the rules we make. No matter what we do on our boat of life however, we are ever moving towards one final destination. Life itself appears to adopt a dual state where we are both free and on a fixed path.

In the aforementioned section of Hamlet he seems to be struck by similar thoughts as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He sees how no matter what happens in life the same end is achieved and judges the world meaningless. He recognises the “beauty” of life to be the result of random chance and therefore dreams it to be not beautiful at all. But the aim of existential, absurdist plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Waiting for Godot is not to induce a “mirthless” view where all life is pointless, rather it is to see that we are not beholden to natural rules and we should gain what joy and beauty we can from life.

In quantum mechanics a particle does not exist in a dual wave-particle state forever, upon observation it does resolve into one or the other; the electron either goes through the right or left slit once it is observed. In this moment Hamlet could be seen to be dropping back in and out of a quantum state of indecision. To use your earlier phrase he “keeps weighing up and keeps opening the box and then weighs up again”, by evaluating and re-evaluating his thoughts he drops back into quantum realms before emerging at decision about the world only to drop back in again. In this way perhaps he is trying to change what realisation he came to; after finding out the cat was dead he tries to change the outcome by closing the box again and hoping for a different result.

As to Hamlet’s play, could this be a form of scientific experiment? Is the play-within-a-play in fact a world-within-a-world where he can attempt to simulate his life to see how it plays out before him and perhaps to gleam a deeper understanding? By playing a true event, his father’s death, can he hope, through distant and detached observation, to gain a scientific understanding of the play and therefore his own world?


JS: I think, for Hamlet, the theatrical and the real are alloyed, perhaps a kind of thought experiment to see just how much the world is in fact a stage, a place to perform both one’s authority (as a king or queen does) and one’s misgivings, doubt, and fears (as troubled princes might do). Until something is theatrical it is not real. Hamlet is fascinated by the spectacle of the death of his father, must twice replay it—not just for Claudius but for himself-- two slits open. Hamlet opens the coffin of his father to let him caper as the ‘Player King’, so he can watched him killed off twice, first in a pantomime and second in the form of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. It is a kind of experiment to see how Claudius’s conscience might be caught out, but it at the same time a symptom of Hamlet’s capacity to be moved by play-acting, so much so that his exultant reaction to the play-within-in-a-play suggests that he looked upon it as if he had somehow accomplished his Oedipal chore and had killed Claudius. The simulation was as powerful as the Ghost’s murder-narrative in Act 1. I recall a Persian proverb: ‘Once something has been declared dead you can be assured of its vitality.’ Does that also hold, as some level, for Schrödiger’s cat? And for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both of whom are simultaneously dead (when off-stage) and alive (also off-stage!)?


TN: A side note on the relation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has with quantum mechanics. In the Schrodinger’s cat scenario the more gruesome fate of the cat becomes more probable as time passes; as you wait the likelihood that at some point the vial of poison will have broken increases. Whilst the cat is in the box it is indeed both alive and dead but the probability that it is dead gradually rises. Therefore when something is in a quantum state where once you observe it, it will adopt one of two possible outcomes; the longer it is in such a quantum state, the more probability moves towards one particular outcome. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern throughout the play their fate is in a quantum state; they are either going to live or die. However, as the play progresses everything points to the less hopeful option. Factors outside the protagonist’s control - the will of Claudius, Hamlet switching the letter – slowly insure their deaths. In this way the play fits within the rules of quantum mechanics; in the beginning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are alive and dead, as events unfold their demise becomes gradually more certain until once they finally arrive in England, the box is opened, and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”.

Returning to Hamlet and to his play. There is an effect in the quantum world called the Zeno effect; this states that the frequency with which you observe a quantum phenomenon will affect how quickly probability converges on a particular outcome, as discussed earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the Schrödinger’s cat scenario as we know when the theoretical box is opened the system regains normality and a particular outcome is decided. And, if the box is then closed again the quantum probabilities reset and is all starts again. The sooner you open the box the less likely it is that the vial will have had time to break and therefore the more likely that the cat is alive. Therefore, if the box is opened infinitely soon after it was closed it can be said that it is certain the cat will be alive. The Zeno effect therefore states that if the box can be “opened” and “re-opened” quickly enough then the cat will be forcibly kept in a live state. In theory, if you watch a kettle frequently enough it will never boil. Indeed this idea has been proven as researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado was able to keep an ion of Beryllium in an unstable energy configuration by frequently re-measuring its energy. It was of particular amusement to find that there is a split-off from the Zeno effect named the “quantum Hamlet effect, it finds that by re-observing a quantum phenomenon in a certain way you can be left with no way of determining the probability of the outcome when you “open the box” and the theorised atom is left with a dilemma of “to decay or not to decay”.

Hamlet’s play, in which as mentioned he replays the events of his father’s death not once but twice, could be an attempt to avoid the tragic end he may see becoming more probable. By replaying the scene, by re-evaluating the events going on over and over he could be attempting to create the Zeno effect, to ensure that the kettle stops boiling and to preserve the rapidly failing possibility that he will survive the play. Indeed “to be and not to be”, the two possible outcomes of Hamlet are that he lives and that he dies. As the play goes on probability moves in favour of his demise and, perhaps, as he sees it coming he attempts, and fails, to demonstrate the Zeno effect and freeze probability in his favour with constant re-evaluation of the events of the play and his own psyche.


JS: As mortals, we are all of course in the position of Hamlet and his two outcomes: each day that we live we die a bit more and that probability of decay and death gradually increases with age. It is in the evaluation and re-evaluation of that mortal narrative where things get interesting. Hamlet’s mind is the box he keeps opening to show himself—and the audience—what ‘state’ or ‘states’ he is in. Shakespeare had peculiar talent for depicting the gruesomeness of mortal states of decay.

HAMLET: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter? 
LORD POLONIUS: I have, my lord. 
HAMLET: Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to 't. 
…
CLAUDIUS: Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius? 
HAMLET: At supper. 
KING CLAUDIUS: At supper! where? 
HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end. 
KING CLAUDIUS: Alas, alas! 
HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. 
KING CLAUDIUS: What dost you mean by this? 
HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

T.S. Eliot noticed that Webster inherited this proclivity for memento mori: ‘Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin; / And breastless creatures under ground / Leaned backward with a lipless grin’.

One of the most famous scenes in world literature depicts Hamlet face to face, living skull to skinned skull, addressing Yorick, his old friend and court jester.

[Takes the skull ] Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

One looks into the grave, opens the coffin, and there is Decay. As Hamlet contemplates certain death, he is both dead and alive, both alive to death and dead to life. He himself is measuring his own reaction to the abhorrent absurdity of mortality. The probability of decay is 100. But there is an afterlife and Hamlet knows it. So the probability of life after decay is also 100. What a pickle! Is Hamlet, the prince and the play, finally too complicated even for quantum mechanics?


TN: It’s interesting to mention that Hamlet knows of an afterlife. His dying words are of course “The rest is silence” -- words that could in theory be taken to mean that, as he lays dying, he sees that what comes next is “silence” and there is no afterlife. This naturally contrasts with what has seemed obvious throughout the play so far: Hamlet has seen the ghost of his farther, proof at the very least that even if there is no heaven there is certainly not “silence”. In all, the idea that he knows there is something after death is not quite certain, although what is in this quantum reading! Thus there is still the possibility that when facing death Hamlet is still unsure of what comes next, or if anything does at all. Indeed, the reason Hamlet chooses life in “To be or not to be” is for fear of the dreams that may come if death is truly a great sleep. So whilst Hamlet may know death is not the end, it is not without its fears.

In quantum physics it is not possible for a decaying particle to remain infinitely in a stable state; even if the particle is observed and found to have not decayed (If the box has been opened and the cat is alive) the instant the particle is no longer observed it re-enters a quantum state and the probability that next time is will have decayed continues to rise. The only way to hold a particle in a stable state (to keep the cat alive) in quantum physics is with the Zeno effect.

Mixing this with our analogy that we, in life, are in a quantum state with an increasing probability of decay, you arrive at an unnerving conclusion. It is impossible to conserve the “Alive” outcome indefinitely. If we treat every moment of depression or every near death experience as a moment like Hamlet’s where we “open the box” to find out if we are stable (and will go on living) or decayed (suicidal or already deceased) then even if we prove to be alive, as Hamlet finds himself to be, we will return to the same quantum state as before once the moment of reflection is over.

Returning to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I already mentioned the idea that in each scene time seems frozen but the play as a whole is about being caught up in the flow of time. If we treat each scene of the play as an “open the box” moment then this makes sense; for the period of time that each scene takes place the characters are ‘Alive’ and the threat of decay is paused but, in the time between the scenes, they re-enter their quantum state and the probability of death only rises. Until at the end of the play, where the box is opened and the cat is dead.

It’s worth noting that at the time of the soliloquy it is fairly understandable for Hamlet to consider suicide, for he is depressed about his uncle and mother, ordinary enough reasons, and he considers ending it all. Indeed, the speech is has fairly logical line of reasoning; whether life is worth the effort of putting up with the “slings and arrows” that come. It is only after this point in the play that Hamlet becomes truly obsessed with death. Later he goes on to make all three statements you mention earlier; each discussing his darker thoughts on death. And in these moments he is less instantly logical, though his comments possess reason they are not as ‘usual’ as in his soliloquy. As Polonius remarks: “though this be madness there is method in’t.” His thoughts now seem to be the ramblings of a man obsessed with death rather than previously, where they were thoughts anyone might have.

In the moment where Hamlet chooses life in his great speech he is truly alive and death’s looming shadow stops, but when he goes on with the play he becomes quantum again and death creeps closer once more. Perhaps he feels this and spends the rest of the play trying to freeze himself in a stable state by constantly re-evaluating events around him and his own mind using the Zeno effect; doing this through his play and many internal soliloquies. By re-opening the box over and over he is able to pause his ‘decay’ but of cause he cannot maintain this forever, when the events of the play cause him to be captured, exiled and kidnapped he is forced to cease his efforts, to concentrate on the murder of his uncle, and indeed death comes to him in the end.

And so: no. Even Hamlet’s complexity cannot surpass the impossible and implausible nature of quantum mechanics.


JS: “The moment of reflection.” Your last few paragraphs have cerebrally anointed that phrase for me. What in quantum terms—or Hamletic terms—is a “moment”? What are its boundaries in time? What is a moment’s temporal physique? Who is in a position to determine the duration of a moment? The great soliloquy is a series of moments and a kind of loose meditation on several overlapping subjects (passivity, suicide, sleep, dreams, the afterlife, conscience, cowardice). Is a soliloquy a linguistic analogue to a quantum state where two or more ‘positions’ might be simultaneously held [together]? Does Hamlet reflect on the idea of having a position about a position? When he says, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, he is a suggesting that the mind determines the position of everything, including moral positions, and that these positions can change at the speed of thought.

As for Hamlet’s concentrating on the murder of his uncle near the end of the play, I am sceptical. In fact, he seems largely to have forgotten the ghost’s imperative and his task of revenge when he begins saying things that sound wistfully Christian: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will” and “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…let be”. It almost as if Hamlet has switched from, well, ‘Hamlet time’ to ‘Christian time’. As we have been discussing, ‘Hamlet time’ has quantum interest. Christian time has a simple, Providential linearity and inevitability. Sparrows will fall and it will mean something (the will of God in evidence in even the smallest occurrences). A Danish Prince might fall and it might mean nothing. This dreadful thought is usually the spur that brings Christianity (or any major religion) charging in on white steed to rescue us from our dire reflections. Hamlet is ordinarily a lateral thinker who enjoys prising open the box over and over to see if curiosity killed the quantum cat. Does the death of the cat really matter? Isn’t the will to look inside more interesting? Is the will to measure part of the will to power? Here is Hamlet staring into the grave of absurdity and opening once again the Pandora’s box of his self-troubling mind:

HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO
'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET
No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Even that rather damp sounding-board called Horatio has had enough of Hamlet’s ‘too curious’ investigations, but Hamlet’s curiosity keeps returning to the coffin—to open it over and over again to measure the particles of death and then—wonderfully, sadly—to measure his measuring.


TN: The questions: “What is a moment?” and “What is position” are an incredibly interesting ones. And it is not just a mystery in philosophical thought but in physics as well. In order to know something’s position in physics you take two positions in space and moments in time. When talking about the object in question you can say “between time X and Y it was somewhere between position A and B” because you know the object is within those bounds. Additionally, by knowing the two positions and tines you can find the speed the particle was going (technically its momentum but speed will do for the analogy) and its direction. In order to get a better idea of the object’s position you measure over a smaller area. You make A and B closer together and make the time period shorter; now the area where it might be is smaller and if you make the area infinitely small then you are no longer dealing with position A and B at all but with one, exact, position where the object is. The issue with this is that you can no longer use the distance between A and B, because now they are the same point in space there is no distance, to measure how quickly the object moved or its direction. The name for this is “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” which basically states that you can never know exactly where something is and where it is going at the same time (Momentum and direction together basically amount to the idea of “where it’s going”); in fact the more you know about one the less you can know about the other. This law of nature rarely comes into play in our normal lives or even “normal science” as we never actually know either exact position direction about anything. By looking at object we know roughly where they are a d where they’re going but we know neither exactly. The Uncertainty Principle only comes into play when our measurements are precise and completely accurate. That is, only on the very small scale: the quantum scale.

What impact does this have on Hamlet? Perhaps there is some insight to be gained from the idea that position and direction are so linked. Of course one apt analogy would be the present and the future. “Position” and knowledge of it may be seen as knowledge over the “Here and now”, the current state of being whilst “Direction” may be considered knowledge of the future and how things will turn out. From this we get the idea that the more you know of the present the less grasp you hold on the future, and vice-versa. Early in the play Hamlet’s thoughts seem focused on the present; he seeks information about what is happening around him. He puts on the play to learn the truth about his father’s murder; he deliberately confuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in order to learn of why his uncle called for them and what he wants. Even the great soliloquy focuses on his immediate actions; whether or not, right now, he should kill himself. As the play goes on he slowly finds his answers; he finds out about his uncle’s killing of old Hamlet and his plot to kill young Hamlet.

As you pointed out, by the end of the play Hamlet is making such comments as “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will” and “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…let be.” These comments suggest that matters of the future are something divine and out of our control. He suggests that there is a godly reason why thinks happened in this implies that he thinks there is a divine plan for the future. For a man who showed such passion in finding the truth of events around him he shows little interest in what events will come to pass, letting it be the business of gods rather than his own. Perhaps this is the uncertainty principle on display? As his knowledge of the present grows his knowledge and interest in the future diminishes until the point where he fully knows all he facts about his hated uncle and yet cares not for his own future (recklessly entering fencing competitions he knows are tipped against him) or for the future of Denmark (He knows about Fortinbras’ immanent arrival as he spoke with his soldiers and yet does not warn anyone in Denmark). Does focusing on either the past or future diminish your ability to view the other?


JS: Actually, Hamlet does not know of Fortinbras’ arrival—he thinks Fortinbras is taking his strong arm/s to conquer a tiny patch of Poland. The Norwegian prince double-crosses Claudius and doubles-back to Denmark, which was his plan all along. To know Fortinbras’ geographical ‘position,’ one has to observe it. To know his political position, one has to look into his scheming mind.

As for Hamlet’s shifting positions, they are legion. Especially when one observes him observing himself, as we have noticed above. His last chance to take a good look at himself—at his mortal ‘position’—is when he is both dead and alive.

HAMLET 
Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.
I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead;
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

The living/dead Prince of Denmark, ‘the observed of all observers’ (says Ophelia), now sees himself as dead, his reputation in jeopardy. Only Horatio—and the observant audience—can see what still needs to be ‘observed’ to Fortinbras, who can hardly believe his luck. We open the box of the play and find Hamlet both alive and dead. How momentous!


TN: Interesting that Hamlet now cares so much about the reputation left behind, how others will see what has happened. He asks Horatio to “Report” what he has seen. After this moment he then asks Horatio to not drink from the poisoned cup but to live and let people know what happened. A little hypocritical that Hamlet of all people is preventing a suicide! But in this moment Hamlet recognizes Horatio as the observer of the experiment, the scientist who will go on to write up his lab report when he comes to tell Fortinbras, and the people of Denmark, Hamlet’s story. In this way perhaps the entire events of Hamlet are their own quantum experiment: an experiment separate to Hamlet’s life/death duality.

Hamlet spends the whole play self-centred, grappling with his great “to be or not....” question. Indeed, with this quantum duality Hamlet is the observer and therefore the key to the answer. An observer is required to “open the box” and resolve the quantum state in any physical experiment; without an observer the cat remains quantum and the experiment is not altered. As Hamlet observes himself and his own mind, he is the only one who can discover if the cat is alive or dead: if Hamlet is alive or dead. As long as Hamlet is focused on answering this question he cares not about Denmark or anything else.

But, by the time of this speech in the play he has the answer: Hamlet is dead. By this I don’t just mean that he is dying. Earlier we have discussed that in his moments of self reflection Hamlet found the “cat” to be dead, the answer of his question to be “Not to be” and he rebels against it, thereby utilizing the quantum Zeno effect to preserve the quantum state and delay his answer. At his end, however, he is delaying it no more, he willingly goes to the duel he knows is a trap and he states “I am dead” as he finally accepts this answer to his great question. In this moment he no longer cares about his own quantum conundrum; instead he has finally noticed another: that of Denmark itself. As earlier discussed, the whole of Denmark exists in a stare of quantum duality when the play stars. There is a period of mourning/celebration as the Uncle/King marries the Bride/Widow and the Son/Heir/Nephew returns. Hamlet has only now, in his last few moments, noticed this quantum state and worked to resolve it. The key to stabilizing Denmark lies in the observer; the observer changes the result and without it the system remains perpetually quantum. The issue is that Hamlet is not the observer, not of this experiment. In the events of the play Hamlet is as thrown around and involved as any other character: he is linked to the events around him and cannot merely observe. It is Horatio who is the observer, never quite getting involved or being a true part of events. Nonetheless, Horatio has observed at every point. By telling Horatio to report events he ensures that everything has been observed, that the state of Denmark and all factors associated with it have been observed. And, by the nature of quantum physics, this means Denmark’s quantum state will collapse and all aspects of duality resolve to one thing or the other. Claudius is seen as the murderous brother not king, Hamlet as the avenging son not madman and, by drinking the poison, Gertrude as the mother not bride. In the very first soliloquy Hamlet shows how he despises the duality around him and in his final moments, through Horatio, he sees an end to it.

Fiction and even historical narrative often put a rather perplexing focus on a “fly on the wall” character who is always present in the story yet is unaffected and does not meddle. Indeed, there are often hints that the events unfolding are somehow influenced by this observing character. Now at last quantum mechanics has provided some physical analogy which may just add credit to this age old notion.