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”Not wond’ring at the present, nor the past”: Dreaming through Time and Space in Shakespeare

Claude Fretz


While the topics of time, space (including geography), and dreams in Shakespeare’s works have been examined individually by critics of different theoretical persuasions, this chapter moves beyond these studies by linking some of Shakespeare’s dizzying conceptions of time and space directly to his interest in dreams. The chapter shows that, in the plays of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), The Taming of the Shrew (c.1591), King Lear, and Cymbeline (1610), Shakespeare uses dreams and their topsy-turvy temporal and spatial logic to create moments of comic or tragic confusion for his characters. The chapter argues that, in these plays, the characters’ experiences of upside-down spatial and temporal structures as part of (or as a result of) their dreams are not simply tied to dramatic traditions like the comedic convention of misunderstanding and deception (which goes back to classical comedy) but rather reflect a broader cultural understanding of dreams. In fact, putting aside the Renaissance debates about the meanings of dreams (to which an abundance of scholarship has been devoted), the early modern experience of dreams was fundamentally one of temporal and spatial confusion. For example, prophetic dreams and dreams of visitations by the dead, by angels, or by gods – accounts of which abound in the Renaissance – constitute temporal derangements, because they bring the future or the past into the present. Such dreams are mostly found in texts influenced by classical culture or by scriptural passages where God or an angel speaks directly to the dreamer (e.g. Genesis 20:2, Matthew 1:20–23, Matthew 2:13, Matthew 2:19, Numbers 12:6, Job 33:14–18). Shakespeare’s plays themselves contain numerous instances of prophetic or seemingly prophetic dreams: Richard III has a dream in which his victims’ ghosts condemn him to “despair and die”; Calphurnia dreams of Caesar’s murder; Duke Humphrey has a dream that predicts the deaths of the dukes of Somerset and Suffolk; and Brabantio dreams of his daughter Desdemona’s elopement with Othello. While it is of course true that dreams in Shakespeare’s plays come in many forms – they can be not just prophetic or god-sent but also cautionary, demonic, psychophysiological, fictional, or metaphorical – this chapter suggests that Shakespeare repeatedly and consistently depicts the dream state as a condition of temporal and spatial derangement.


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hprints-03437608 , version 1 (20-11-2021)



Claude Fretz. ”Not wond’ring at the present, nor the past”: Dreaming through Time and Space in Shakespeare. Zeiterfahrung im Traum, Brill | Fink, pp.95-113, 2021, ⟨10.30965/9783846765722_007⟩. ⟨hprints-03437608⟩
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