'Westworld' is Lit: Hunting HBO's Literary Reveries

The new HBO show deals with A.I. and the future but also references The Great Books.


The first episode of HBO’s new series Westworld, “The Original,” contains almost a dozen major literary references. Shakespeare is heavily cherry-picked, but Gertrude Stein, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Saint John make cameos. Some quotes serve as intellectual seasoning, but others could hint at what’s to come.

The highbrow references make sense: Westworld is expansive and ambitious. The show cobbles together science fiction and westerns to a messy form of near-future speculative fiction. And Westworld itself, the amusement park of the future, is heavily scripted by well-read authors. As the old writing workshop chestnut goes: Good writers borrow, great writers steal. And there’s almost as much stealing as there is sex and violence.

Many of the quotes come from the robot Peter Abernathy, who — along with other hosts — begins to malfunction. It’s unclear if he understands what he’s saying, but Dr. Robert Ford, who created Westworld and programmed the material in the first place, sure does. It’s haunting stuff, but he’s dismissive of it, chalking it up to a coding bug. “No cause for alarm,” he says. “Simply our old work coming back to haunt us.” The references are more a feature than a bug for the show itself.

Here are the most interesting allusions from episode one:

William Shakespeare.

Wikimedia Commons


King Lear

“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.” — Peter Abernathy

When Dolores’s father Peter Abernathy has the robotic version of a nervous breakdown at the end of “The Original,” part of his monologue comes from King Lear. Fittingly, it’s from Act 4 when Lear is at the heights of his own madness.

Henry IV

“By most mechanical and dirty hand…” — Peter Abernathy

Another part of Abernathy’s monologue when he meets his enigmatic maker, this one is from Henry IV.

Romeo and Juliet

“These violent delights have violent ends.” — Peter Abernathy

In the play, this line comes right before Romeo and Juliet’s marriage. We all know how that ends. The rest of the speech, which is uttered by Friar Lawrence, is as follows:

These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder / Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey / Is loathsome in his own deliciousness / And in the taste confounds the appetite. / Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so. / Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

As Dolores reveals, this is what her father urgently whispered to her on the porch. She later tells Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) it meant nothing to her.

The Tempest

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here” – Peter Abernathy

This is another part of father Abernathy’s speech to his daughter Dolores, when he becomes aware of his world’s true nature. Fittingly, in The Tempest it is said by Ariel, a spirit who is bound to serve Prospero, the magician, just as Abernathy is bound to serve his makers and the whims of the park guest.

Arthur Conan Doyle

“…deep and dreamless slumber.”

These are the keywords that management uses to make the hosts go to sleep. The line comes from A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, the first book to feature Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

John the Evangelist

“Call forth Lazarus from his cave.” — Dr. Ford

In the Gospel of John, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, who’s been dead in a tomb for four days.

Jesus, calling forth Lazarus from his cave.

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The quote could also be interpreted as a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from the Republic: In the allegory, prisoners are shackled up at the bottom of a cave. A fire and some figurines cast shadows on the wall in front of them, and they come to take these shadows as their reality. They argue amongst themselves, make predictions about which shadow will come next, and so on. One prisoner is freed, and begins climbing upwards to the cave’s entrance. He sees the fire, and begins to understand that what they took for reality was merely an illusion. Once outside, free at last, he is temporarily blinded, but comes to understand that even the figurines themselves were illusions, not the truth.

The Westworld microcosm seems to exist underground, and the robots must likewise work their way out of captivity and upwards if they hope to access the truth.

Gertrude Stein

“Rose is a rose is a rose.” — Peter Abernathy

This one comes from Gertrude Stein, the American novelist and poet. Stein herself references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which in essence contains the same line: “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

Dr. Ford, as he lists off a few of Abernathy’s unexpected literary references to Lowe, says the following: “He liked to quote Shakespeare, John Donne, Gertrude Stein. I admit the last one [Stein] is a bit of an anachronism, but I couldn’t resist.” Stein published Geography and Plays in 1922, which is later than the fictional setting of the Westworld world, but Ford “couldn’t resist” including the reference.

John Donne

Death Be Not Proud

“To meet my maker.” — Peter Abernathy

This is a relatively common expression these days, but the show’s authors seem to think it came from John Donne. After Abernathy loses his cool in the lab, Dr. Ford asks him what his itinerary is. Abernathy’s unsettling response, “To meet my maker,” is the only quote attributable to Donne. Since Ford thinks Abernathy quoted Donne, we must assume the Westworld writers made a gaffe.

A similar quote — “I will meet my Maker face to face” — is referenced in Light From Many Lamps, a book of inspirational quotes. But Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10”, the poet being cited, does not include anything about meeting makers in most printings.

Winston Churchill did say something similar, though: “I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

Maybe they should have gone with that.

“To Sir Henry Wotton”

“You’re in a prison of your own sins.” — Peter Abernathy

Another Abernathy-goes-mad quote, and another Donne contender. Unfortunately, the closest Donne got to writing this was in a poem called “To Sir Henry Wotton,” in which he writes: “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”

Many thanks to Lauren Sarner for catching the references I missed.