“A Mirror up to Nature”: Cosmos, Nature, and Culture in Shakespeare

“A Mirror up to Nature”: Cosmos, Nature, and Culture in Shakespeare

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In Act III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince, somewhat presumptuously, instructs a troupe of traveling players in the art of acting. The purpose of that art, Hamlet says, “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, a ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” (III, 2, 21-24)

Shakespeare’s plays provide especially strong examples of the way cultural works can truly hold a “mirror up to nature,” exhibiting systems properties that reflect the systems properties of cosmos and nature. Thus, understanding systems can lead to greater understanding of Shakespeare, enriching our experience of his works, both on page and stage. And understanding Shakespeare can lead to greater understanding of the systems, at all levels, that make up the cosmos.

During the last five years, I have taught an upper-level undergraduate course based on these two premises, a course on systems and Shakespeare, within an English department. I believe, with Martin Zwick, that system knowledge can become “personal knowledge.” In his 2007 Metanexus paper, he wrote:

Systems knowledge is about form and process in general, and everything that we have personal contact with exemplifies one or more archetypal patterns. We have access, not only intellectually but also experientially, to order and disorder, variety and constraint, predictability and unpredictability, complexity, morphogenesis, goal seeking and adaptation, competition and cooperation, system formation, and so on . . . .

Imagine if in our schooling, we were initiated into these ideas and trained in their use, not as an alternative to standard science, but as a supplement to it. (210)

I believe that these ideas of systems theory are important enough—both for their own sake and for the sake of our planet—that they should be learned as a supplement not only to standard science learning but to learning in the humanities as well.

When I said that cultural works such as Shakespeare’s plays can exhibit systems properties, I used the word exhibit in two senses: they can embody systems properties themselves, and (at least in the case of narrative works) they can depict properties of other systems: biological, social, and cultural.

I am not the first, of course, to look at cultural works through the lens of systems theory. Especially helpful are N. Katherine Hayles’s Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990), and her edited volume Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (1991). Zwick’s paper, cited earlier, mentions still other works.


Like other systems, cultural works are integrated and indivisible. Consider Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, university friends of Hamlet. These two men are not “major” characters, in the sense that Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude are, but they are not “minor” characters, on the order of Voltemand, Osric, the Norwegian Captain, and the priest at Ophelia’s burial. Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet omits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Without them, the court of Denmark becomes a different social system, and Hamlet becomes a different artwork. When Aristotle surveyed Greek drama, and called for what’s commonly known as “unity of action,” he was recognizing the indivisibility of cultural systems.

Shakespeare’s plays have always presented a problem to scholars and directors alike. Shakespeare was foremost a man of the theatre, who wrote his plays for the stage, not the page. Lacking videotapes of his performances—which would still reveal only one aspect of a live performance—we are left only with scripts, often in more than one version, but none in Shakespeare’s hand. For example, the script of Hamlet, in most of today’s editions, would take something like four hours to perform, so we know that it’s an amalgamation of various versions that were performed by Shakespeare’s company on different occasions. Each of those versions is a different artwork, a different system.

In the case of King Lear, the differences among versions are so great that the widely used and respected Pelican Shakespeare series publishes two separate volumes for the play, as if they were two separate works—as of course they are.


Just as most systems are composed of smaller systems, so some cultural works are composed of smaller works. Within a Shakespearean play, the acts, scenes, and individual speeches can have systems properties of their own. In Act IV, Scene 3, of Macbeth, Malcolm, heir to the murdered Duncan and leader of the rebel forces, tests Macduff’s loyalty. The scene is crucial to the play, because it establishes the character and motives of both men, affecting the way we view Macduff’s killing of Macbeth in the final act. But the scene is also a little system of its own, with most of the properties I’ll be identifying in entire plays.

Cultural systems both emerge from and create communities: in the case of literary works, discourse communities. And because members of those discourse communities create other works, literary texts become components of larger systems of texts. Many literary critics, notably T.S. Eliot and Northrop Frye, have approached literature almost as a single work. Shakespeare’s plays have created among the largest and most enduring discourse communities, placing them at the center of a vast network of many, if not most, other texts, at least in English.

Moreover, those plays constantly remind us that most systems are part of larger systems. In scene after scene, Shakespeare’s characters become aware of their role in larger systems. While these larger systems are usually social—families or kingdoms, for example—they are sometimes cosmic. Writing about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harold C. Goddard claimed that Shakespeare chose this play “to announce for the first time in overt and unmistakable fashion the conviction that underlies every one of his supreme Tragedies: that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled” (1951, 74). This Hermetic principle, “as above, so below,” is most memorably expressed by Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (I, 5, 169-70)


Systems exist in the relationships among their parts and have often been said to be “greater than the sum of their parts.” That is, they have “emergent” properties that are not properties of their parts but emerge only at the system level. Similarly, literary works exist in the relationships among their parts. William Paulson wrote:

Literary works exhibit the complexity of emergent systems . . . . Although texts are made of language, the passage from linguistic structure to textual effect cannot be described with anything like the regularity or predictability to be found in, say, the grammatical description of sentences. (1991, 47)

But even more important, literary works emerge truly from the interaction between text and reader, or between production and audience. Louise Rosenblatt, in The Reader, the Text, the Poem, spoke of this emergence:

The reader’s attention to the text activates certain elements in his past experience—external reference, internal response—that have become linked with the verbal symbols. Meaning will emerge from a network of relationships among the things symbolized as he senses them. . . . The reader’s creation of a poem out of a text must be an active, self-ordering and self-corrective process (1978, 11).

She continued with a precise critique of too much current literary criticism and teaching:

Critical theory and practice both suffer from failure to recognize that the reader carries on a dynamic, personal, and unique activity. Many contemporary critics and teachers evidently think that they are being “objective” when they discuss identifiable elements of the text. They do not include in their theoretical assumptions recognition of the fact that even the most objective analysis of “the poem” is an analysis of the work as they themselves have called it forth (1978, 15).

Shakespeare himself certainly understood this fact. In the last act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the duke Theseus and his new bride, Hyppolyta, are watching a short play performed by a group of local craftsmen: Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug, and Starveling. Hyppolyta becomes scornful:

This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.

Theseus, with a greater understand of the role of the audience in the emergence of a dramatic work, replies:

The best in this kind are but shadow, and the worse are no worse, if imagination amend them. (V, 1, 209-11)

Non-obvious entanglement

Connections among parts of systems are not always obvious. From the hidden connections within organisms to the entanglement of far-distant electrons, the universe has interconnections beyond our immediate awareness and understanding. Ervin Laszlo wrote:

The emerging vision of reality is more than theory, and it is of interest to more than scientists. It gets us closer than ever before to rending apart the veils of sensory perception and apprehending the true nature of the world. Even in regard to our life and well-being, this is a happy re-discovery: it validates something we have always suspected but in modern times could not express (nor, unless we were poets or lovers, did we even try). This something is a sense of belonging, of oneness. We are part of each other and of nature; we are not strangers in the universe. We are a coherent part of a coherent world; no more and no less so than a particle, a star, and a galaxy. (2006, 2)

And as Duane Elgin said in his most recent book, The Living Universe, “We each have an intuitive connection with the cosmos, even thought it may be largely recognized and undeveloped. . . . Consciousness is not confined within the brain but is an infusing presence throughout the universe that enables us, in cooperation with the brain, to connect meaningfully with the world beyond our physical body” (2009, 25-26). Even at the mundane level, system theorists are teaching business managers to be aware of, and to beware of, the potential unintended consequences of their decisions and actions.

In Shakespeare’s plays, we sometimes see non-obvious entanglement in such comedic formulas as having characters discover they are brother and sister or parent and child. But more important, Shakespeare’s characters often live in a world of magic, where events are entangled in ways that seem to lie far beyond ordinary, obvious cause-and-effect. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the fairy queen, Titania, contends that her husband’s, Oberson’s, jealousy is affecting all of nature, and the play’s resolution comes through the hilariously unintended consequences of a magical herb applied to characters’ eyes.


Open systems can be defined as those exchanging matter, energy, and information with their environment. Under this definition, artworks, including Shakespeare’s, exchange “matter,” “energy,” and “information” with their discourse communities.width=320

As a result, Shakespeare’s works have changed, and been changed by, other works. Because a play emerges from the interaction between text and reader, or between performance and playgoer, they change with each audience member, and with the other works he or she has experienced. For example, one who has read or seen Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead cannot read or see Hamlet in the same way, and King Lear is a different play for a reader of Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres, a retelling of Lear set in modern Iowa and involving incest.

Shakespeare himself recognized the importance of openness in keeping a social system alive. In the play Twelfth Night, the love-sick Orsino and the mourning Olivia have constituted a closed system until the arrival of energy from outside, in the form of Viola and, later, her brother Sebastian, shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. “What,” asks Viola in her second line, “should I do in Illyria?” (I, 2, 3), What she should, and does, do is bring life to a dying system.  


Nonlinear systems exist in a state “far from equilibrium,” between rigidity and randomness. As physicist Paul Davies wrote,

The cosmos is poised, exquisitely, between the twin extremes of simplicity and complexity. Too much randomness and chaos would lead to a universe of unstructured anarchy; too much lawlike simplicity would produce regimented uniformity and regularity in which little of interest would occur. The universe is neither a random gas nor a crystal, but a menagerie of coherent, organized, and interacting systems forming a hierarchy of structure. Nature is thus a potent mix of two opposing tendencies, in which there is pervasive spontaneity and novelty, providing openness in the way the universe evolves but enough restraint to impose order on the products. The laws of nature thus bestow on the universe a powerful inherent creativity. (2003, 10)

Successful artworks also exist between rigidity and randomness. John Barrow noted, in The Artful Universe Expanded, that successful music of all kinds exhibits a mathematically calculable balance between predictability and unpredictability (2005, 271ff). And Charles H. Bennett wrote:

Just as the intuitively complex human body is intermediate in entropy between a crystal and a gas, so an intuitively complex genome or literary text is intermediate in algorithmic entropy between a random sequence and a prefectly [sic] orderly one. (2003, 37)

In his book A Blessed Rage for Order, Alexander J. Argyros took the comparison between system and story even further:

Using the insights offered by chaos theory, it is tempting to speculate that traditional narratives are, in fact, far-from-temporal-equilibrium dynamical systems capable of generating global order simultaneously with local randomness. . . . The fractal folds of narrative, its self-similar and frequently tangled layers of plot, subplot, monologue, and dialogue, allow a culture to store tremendous amounts of information in a stable form while simultaneously freeing that information to vary according to historical influences. (1991, 319)

What Harold Bloom called Shakespeare’s “invention of the human” can be thought of as his capture of the right balance between predictability and unpredictability in his characters. John Briggs and F. David Peat wrote, “Where lesser Elizabethan playwrights used soliloquy to further plot and supply information, Shakespeare made it the arena of personal psychology in a way that would have been more than inconceivable a few centuries earlier—it would have been incomprehensible” (1999, 149).

Some of Shakespeare’s plays embody disequilibrium in a “trickster” character, living on a boundary, far from equilibrium, and opening new, creative possibilities—sometimes by presenting obstacles to be overcome. Sometimes this trickster is a “licensed fool,” a court jester, a commoner specifically given power to talk to the monarch or noble on his or her own level. Touchstone in the comedy Twelfth Night and the Fool in the tragedy King Lear both contribute greatly to their plays’ outcomes by telling their employers truths about themselves and opening the possibilities for change.

Because chaos theory was born, in part, from Lorenz’s study of weather, it’s especially interesting that Shakespeare, in King Lear and The Tempest, employed storms—complex dynamical systems—as enablers of new possibilities. And many, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as existing in the far-from-equilibrium tension of conflicting values, such as those accompanying the collapse of the medieval worldview, with its “great chain of being.”

Sensitivity to initial conditions

Complex systems may be “sensitive to initial conditions.” Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” is the most well-known example. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s plays small causes may have large effects. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the young lovers is the result not of some great “tragic flaw” (as some nineteenth-century critics claimed, and as many of us were taught in school), but of a chain of otherwise minor mistakes and accidents. Similarly, the slightest event in the reading and playgoing experience can change, recursively, the entire experience.

One result of sensitivity to initial conditions is that the behavior of complex systems cannot be predicted, only recorded. In his book Investigations, Stuart A. Kauffman wrote:

Astonishingly, we need stories. If, as I will suggest, we cannot prestate the configuration space, variables, laws, and initial and boundary conditions of a biosphere, if we cannot foretell a biosphere, we can, nevertheless, tell the stories as it unfolds. Biospheres demand their Shakespeares as well as their Newtons. (2000, 22)


Open systems can be said to change in cycles. The system is in a status quo, a steady state in which internal and external forces are balanced. When, from time to time, new external forces disrupt the system, it quickly “corrects” and settles back into the status quo. Sometimes, however, greater external forces—forces ultimately directed toward randomness and “death”—threaten the very existence of the system. The system is unable to correct itself, and so, at first, succumbs to those forces. But, in so doing, it uses them as a means toward reorganization. If this reorganization is successful, the system “evolves”; it emerges into a new steady state, one more resistant. In so doing, open systems can run counter to the general tendency of the universe to “run down,” to increase in entropy.

In Paulson’s words,

Out of the perturbations that threaten to destabilize organisms, to modify their structure and possibly undo their organization, they produce new and more complex forms of organization. (1991, 40)

Narratives, like Shakespeare’s plays, often seem to tell this same story. Their plots texts often move from organization, through disorganization, to reorganization. Although others preceded him, Joseph Campbell’s formulation of this pattern is doubtlessly the best known. He recognized the pattern in myths and other folk narratives from around the world, and borrowing a word coined by James Joyce, he named it the monomyth. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarized the monomyth this way, illustrating his summary with an almost complete circle, beginning and ending at the top:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (2004, 30).

Campbell labels these three stages of the hero’s journey “separation,” “initiation,” and “return.” He points out that the monomyth is often apparent in stories of entire communities as well as individual heroes or heroines. In tales and rituals often tied to the changing seasons of the year, communities see themselves as undergoing loss and renewal.

If the monomyth—as an individual or collective journey—is a Jungian archetype, a pattern inherited as part of our collective unconsciousness, it’s a small wonder. Humanity is the result (although, it is to be hoped, not the final result) of the precise process the monomyth recounts, over and over since the universe began. If any story is structured into our unconsciousness, it must surely be this one. In his book The Living Universe, Duane Elgin employed Campbell’s monomyth as a metaphor for the entire human journey (2009).

One of the lessons of the monomyth is that there’s no direct path from the beginning to the end except through the middle, with whatever terror that presents. This lesson, which can also be drawn from systems theory itself, can be expressed in Barry Commoner’s “Fourth Law of Ecology”: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Or as Lysander phrases it in the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

width=350Incidentally, particularly rich literary works, such as Shakespeare’s plays often display a self-similarity—the appearance of details similar in pattern to the whole—like that of fractals such as the Mandelbrot set. Many scenes and individual speeches in Shakespeare display the same cycle of organization, through disorganization, to reorganization that are displayed in their larger works. The scene from Macbeth that I mentioned earlier is a good example. I’ve also learned much from my colleague William J. Jackson, whose book Heaven’s Fractal Net: Retrieving Lost Visions in the Humanities (2004) is a brilliant exploration of fractal qualities in music, architecture, and poetry.

The result of the monomythic process, in nature or in culture, can be called evolution (at the scale of a species) or learning (at the scale of an individual), and every one of Shakespeare’s plots results in learning at some level. Aristotle called this learning “recognition” and believed it to be an essential element of a well-crafted play. Another word for this process is, of course, initiation: in fact, the stages of Campbell’s monomyth seem to be borrowed from anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s classic work, The Rites of Passage (1960). Dozens or more of Shakespeare’s characters—from the “lowest” (such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to the highest (such as Prince Hal in Henry V)—clearly undergo a kind of rite of passage or initiation. And we, as readers or audience members, also move through cycles of initiation or learning as we experience the plays. This initiation is perhaps what Aristotle meant by catharsis.

Although all of Shakespeare’s plays have a monomythic structure, they differ in their emphasis on that structure. The comedies focus on characters or societies that survive the cycle. The community restored at the end of a comedy is somehow preferable to the community disturbed at the beginning. In the words of Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill,
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well. (III, 2, 461-63)

But not all systems survive the evolutionary cycle. An estimated 99.9 percent of the species that have lived on earth are now extinct. And Shakespeare’s tragedies focus on characters, and sometimes their societies, that do not survive.


Throughout this discussion, I have—by necessity I think—emphasized how Shakespeare’s plays can provide examples of several ideas of systems theory. But, as I claimed at the beginning of this paper, system theory can enrich our reading of Shakespeare, as well. So I want to close with something I discovered about Hamlet when I started looking at the systems properties of, and in, that play. I make no claim that my discovery was original, only that it was new to me.

Perhaps the most recognizable image from all of Shakespeare’s plays is that of Hamlet contemplating a skull—the skull of Yorick, the court jester.

Why Yorick? I’ve come to understand one possible reason. The court of Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet’s father and usurper of his crown and bed, is a court without a jester—a court without anyone who can (to quote an old Quaker phrase) “speak truth to power.”

One of the ways that Claudius’s Denmark is corrupt is that information flow—essential to the continued existence of any system—has been distorted or blocked. (I count at least seven instances in the play of attempts to gather information through deceit.)

I’ll bet that after Yorick’s death, the elder Hamlet’s court continued to include jesters. But Claudius’s court does not—until young Hamlet comes home. Hamlet’s “Mousetrap” play can be seen as a replacement for the jests of a court fool. When this play-within-a-play restores some information flow, showing Claudius as he really is, Claudius panics and stops the show.

To paraphrase the soldier Marcellus, something is rotten in the state—the system—of Denmark. Hamlet tries to restore that system to health by opening communication channels again. But he’s too late, and the system collapses. Systems are often defined by contrasting them with mere heaps. The heap of bodies at the end of Act V provides a perfect illustration of the difference.

Hamlet and almost everyone around him are mortal victims of a lack of open communication. It’s no wonder that Hamlet’s dying request is that information be spread:

Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. (V, 2, 330-32)

And so we do.