A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF’s “Alice in Wonderland”

A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF's "Alice in Wonderland" by Kelly BulkeleyBefore going to bed each night after a long day of rehearsals, the director of “Alice in Wonderland” wrote a letter, sealed it, and put it under her pillow. The letter was addressed to her theatrical hero, Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), a revolutionary figure on the American stage whose adaptation of the Alice stories was first presented in the early 1930’s at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which she founded with the mission of providing the highest-quality dramatic artistry for the widest possible audience.

The director, Sara Bruner, has for many years been one of the brightest creative lights at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a variety of acting roles.  The Le Gallienne adaptation of “Alice” is her first major directing opportunity at OSF, and she devised this pre-sleep practice of writing pillow missives as a way to gently soothe and channel her anxieties before sleep.  She would write to Le Gallienne about the challenges of the day, the unique demands of the production, and her creative hopes for the future.

This was one of the many intriguing insights to emerge from the panel discussion held at the recent regional meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Ashland, Oregon, May 31 to June 2. The panel was on Sunday morning and feature an ideal line-up: Sara, the director; Emily Ota, the actor who performs as Alice; and Amrita Ramanan, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF who helps Sara and the cast with the broader story-telling context of the “Alice” tales. Several people were curious about the role of the dramaturg in a theatrical production, and it was fascinating to hear Amrita describe the many ways in which she enhances the whole creative enterprise. It made me think of a dream studies analogy: at some level, a dramaturg enables what Jung called the process of amplification, helping the dreamer (or cast) recognize the concentric circles of biographical, cultural, historical, and mythological meanings surrounding the dream (or play), all as a way of enhancing its unique significance right now.

We did not record the session, alas, because we wanted to allow for more spontaneity in the discussion. (Passing microphones around in a small room is awkward, especially with professionals who are trained to project their natural voices.) But the panel certainly made it clear that the intersection of dreams and theater is a lively space for deep discussions about the nature of creativity, imagination, and the lived experience of an artistic life.

The panel was enhanced by Bernard Welt, a long-time IASD member and emeritus professor of Film and Humanities, who co-facilitated with me. Angel Morgan, the local host of the weekend gathering, also helped by asking great questions, as did Isaac Taitz, Stanley Krippner, and David Gordon.

In response to one of Isaac’s questions, everyone on the panel said they experience anxiety dreams about their work in the theater.  Emily even said she has found the appearance of such dreams to be an expected part of learning a new role: once she starts having nerve-wracking dreams about it, she knows the role has begun to sink in.

The panel also discussed at some length the stagecraft used to generate a sense of magical dreaminess in “Alice.” Without revealing any spoilers, I would say that Sara’s approach is deceptively brilliant, like a master class in the cognitive psychology of perception: it uses the simplest objects, shapes, and gestures to elicit in the audience a maximal response in their imaginations, prompting them to creatively join with the performers in (re-)telling a classic yet eternally new story.

This will not be the last such gathering to discuss dreams and theater with OSF artists. The annual conference of the IASD is scheduled for Ashland in 2021 (June 13-17), and there will likely be additional regional gatherings between now and then.  Think about coming to join us….

Dreaming and the OA: “Listen to the Dreamers”

Dreaming and the OA: "Listen to the Dreamers" by Kelly BulkeleyI want the OA to be real. I think maybe it actually is real.

A TV show of rare psychological insight and spiritual audacity (some have called it “bananas” and “bat-shit crazy,” but we’ll get to that), “The OA” reflects the brilliant creative collaboration of co-writers Brit Marling, who plays the eponymous lead character, and Zal Batmanglij, who directs most of the episodes. The second season of this Netflix original focuses directly on dreaming, leading to a revelation in the final moments of the last episode (no spoilers!) that radically alters the metaphysical stakes of the whole story. For anyone interested in dreams, this is truly peak TV.

Even though I have watched the whole series three times now, I am still discovering subtle, beautiful, profoundly intriguing moments in each episode that open up new dimensions of meaning. Several of these moments still echo in mind.

  • The OA’s horrible nightmare of drowning….
  • Karim’s vertiginous dream of falling….
  • Mary, Nina, and the big data dream study: “Listen to the dreamers”….
  • Poor Homer’s messy wet dream….
  • Eros as fuel for transformation….
  • The ancient network of trees….
  • Houses, open doors, and new rooms of the mind….
  • BBA’s painful education in the use of her innate hermeneutic gifts….
  • Hap’s mania for knowledge….
  • The enchanting power of stories, and our fear of disillusionment….

The show has many virtues besides being awesomely dreamy. Brit Marling’s performance across the two seasons is staggering in its range and raw emotionality. The sociological portrait of the San Francisco Bay Area is razor sharp (I can attest as someone who once dated a blond girl from Mill Valley), but also deeply sympathetic towards all the characters in their efforts to survive and find meaning in this version of reality. There’s no ironic detachment here, no judgment or malice directed toward even the most awful characters. Everyone is on a journey of discovering who they are, why they are here, and what they need to do right now. This journey is gracefully embodied (the “movements” are a central theme) and tangibly material (battered, beloved cell phones play a big role), yet it’s also metaphysically soaring in the way it initiates the characters into realms leading far beyond life, death, and anything that resembles the normal world according to post-Enlightenment rationality.

Certain developments in the second season brought to my mind a passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, the pioneering American philosopher and psychologist. This book was based on a series of lectures James gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902, and in the very first lecture he made a point that he considered essential in the study of religion and spirituality. He warned against “discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy,” and he coined the term “medical materialism” to describe misguided efforts to use physiology to debunk religious experiences. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary,” James said, because all of our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings are conditioned by the workings of our brains and bodies. The key question is not where a religious experience comes from, but where is it going, what does it do? What are its fruits in the world? What effects does it have on the individual and his or her surroundings? Is it life-affirming or life-negating?

Something to ponder as you’re watching the show.

As full disclosure, some time ago I had a conference call with the creative team of “The OA” during their preparations for season 2, and our discussion centered on the topic of dreams. They didn’t have a list of questions to ask, they were just interested in hearing what’s going on in current dream research. I was more than a little star-struck, so I rambled on about the most interesting findings I could think of and how certain artists have had (in my humble opinion) more or less success in accurately conveying to their audiences the deepest mysteries of dreaming experience.

This isn’t the first time I’ve offered advice to people putting together some kind of show or media project on dreams. Whatever else I discuss with these teams, I always feel that I’m basically on my knees, begging them:

Please don’t make dreams look stupid. Please. More people will see a single episode of your show than will read all the books on dreams combined. These people will watch your show, and it will subtly but meaningfully influence how they relate to their own dreams. Please don’t spread misinformation or harmful stereotypes.

With the team from “The OA” I never felt even a whisper of this sentiment. On the contrary, they totally get it. They get it that dreams are portals to other dimensions of ourselves and the cosmos. They get it that artists have a special power to open people’s minds and expand their sense of what’s possible. They get it that this reality, the world in which we are living right now, is in desperate need of reconnecting via dreams and other altered states of consciousness with existential truths we’ve always known but have somehow lost, or had taken away from us.

For some viewers, it’s all just too weird. There are characters, scenes, and interactions that violate any number of typical narrative expectations, which some critics have found confusing and disorienting. The show deeply respects its viewers, but it does ask a lot of them in terms of cognitive flexibility and openness to new experience.

Here’s the OA trying to explain her inter-dimensional travels to a skeptical Karim in the penultimate episode:

“You don’t think I know that sounds insane? That it’s difficult to hear? I’m asking you to imagine that reality is stranger and more complicated than you or I could possibly know. And sometimes we get glimpses of it, in dreams, or in déjà vu, when you feel like what’s happening has happened before well maybe it has, but a little differently, and somewhere else.”

The OA is asking the same of the audience. She is asking for a willingness not just to suspend disbelief for an hour or so, but to banish disbelief entirely, and to open our minds to dreaming, déjà vu, near-death experiences, and a whole host of paranormal phenomena that might seem random, crazy, or trivial from a conventional perspective, but actually offer us precious glimpses of other potential realities and other dimensions of ourselves, dramatically expanding our metaphysical horizons.

That’s as real as it gets.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 24, 2019.

The Art of Interpreting Dreams

 

The Art of Interpreting Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf you woke up one morning with a vivid dream in mind, who could help you understand it? Do you know anyone who specializes in dream interpretation?

In earlier times you could bring your dream to a local shaman, sage, or priest. During the 20th century you could consult with a psychoanalyst or some other kind of psychologist.

Today, however, few religious leaders have any interest in dreams. Most professional psychologists receive no training in dream interpretation. The same is true of neuroscientists, who tend to dismiss all dreams as random nonsense from the brain.

If you felt your dream was more than random nonsense, where else could you turn for help and insight?

Here’s a thought: Ask an artist.

Many artists have surprising skill and aptitude as dream interpreters. I just watched this in action with a group of international artists who gathered at a forest retreat in Estacada, Oregon for a weeklong workshop on dreams, art, and multicultural identity, co-facilitated with Alisa Minyukova. I was hoping the members of this group (we’re calling ourselves the Dream Mapping Theater) could offer feedback on my theory that dreaming is a kind of imaginative play in sleep. What I found was much more interesting—a glimpse of the possible future of dream interpretation.

The artists in the group came from many different cultural backgrounds, with a diverse array of creative talents.  Yet they all shared three key virtues that made them remarkably effective at exploring the meanings of dreams.

First, they were unusually curious and open-minded people, full of questions and willing to follow the conversation wherever it led. The bizarreness of dreaming did not bore them or make them anxious. On the contrary, they were especially interested in otherworldly dreams that transgress and transcend the boundaries of waking reality.

Our work together began two years ago with informal conversations about the weirdness of “immigration dreams,” in which a person born in one place and living in another has dreams that creatively merge their multiple cultures, languages, and identities. The artists were struck by the radical difference between their freedom in these dreams and their increasing constraint in the waking world, with hardening national borders and tribal identities.  They became curious to learn more about their dreaming selves and the wider range of movement and awareness they experience in dreaming. This kind of mental flexibility does not come easily to everyone, but artists may have more capacity for it than most.

Second, the members of this group were quick to see connections. They were hyper-associative, in the best possible way. They could rapidly identify dream images and themes with personal relevance to their families, friends, and early childhood experiences. They eagerly noted symbolic parallels in their dreams to movies, paintings, poems, and other kinds of art. They made lightning-fast references to history and politics, language and religion, mythology and metaphysics. Because each member of the group came from a different cultural tradition, we could discuss the potential meanings of each dream from an amazing variety of perspectives.

More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle said “the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Artists seem to possess this faculty in abundance.

Third, and most impressively, the members of this group knew how to bridge the conscious and unconscious parts of their minds. They were skilled at transforming subtle inner feelings into dramatic external works. Indeed, they all have professional training in communicating their deepest personal intuitions in forms that other people can perceive and understand. Once they realized they could apply this craft to their dreams, the ensuing creative explosion was a sight to behold.

Lana Nasser, a performer and story-teller born in Jordan now living in the Netherlands, shared an intensely realistic dream of “osmosing” with trees to diagnose their health from the inside. She spent much of the week exploring the forest and working with others to create an immersive robe of moss, lichen, and ferns. We filmed her one night slowly fading and morphing into a fantastically glowing green tree.

Victor Mutelekesha, a sculptor born in Zambia now living in Norway, told us a frightening dream involving fire. Early in the week he noticed an old burn pile in the forest, and before we knew it he had stripped down and buried himself in the deep, wide circle of black charcoal. (It was about 40 degrees and drizzling at the time.) The resulting footage of his Promethean emergence out of the ashes was a stunning creative response to the raging flames of his dream.

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez, a dancer and vocalist born in Mexico now living in Italy, described an eerie dream of being paralyzed and transformed into a “stone witch.” It sounded like a nightmare, but she connected the witch’s body posture with the ancient Aztec gods of her cultural heritage, making it an image of strength, not weakness. On the last night of the workshop we turned an old horse barn into a dream temple of the stone witch, with bonfires casting a wild reddish glow on Jennifer’s elaborately painted face and body.

It took a special set of circumstances, and a talented and mature group of individuals, to generate this kind of volcanic creativity. But I suspect that many artists could, with a little guidance and encouragement, also become excellent interpreters of dreams.

This might sound like what Sigmund Freud called “wild psychoanalysis,” a dangerous dabbling in realms of the mind that should be left to medical experts.  It’s true that sharing dreams requires a high degree of sensitivity, caution, and mutual respect. But it’s also true that people were safely talking about their dreams long before the rise of psychoanalysis in early 20th century Europe. Dreaming is a natural and healthy function of the human mind, available to everyone. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, sharing dreams has been a normal part of everyday life.

And artists are really, really good at it.

If you struggle with mental health problems, by all means bring your dreams to a psychotherapist. If you think your dreams might contain divine messages, go ahead and consult with a religious official.

But if you simply want help in exploring a strange dream and its possible meanings, try asking an artist. Think of it as a micro-commission in which you request (and pay?) an artist to give you creative feedback about the dream, providing a novel and illuminating portrait of your oneiric self.

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(Note: photo credit to Isak Tiner)

New Dream Research in 2019

New Dream Research in 2019 by Kelly BulkeleyDreaming, play, theater, science, religion, social and political crisis.

Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, a troupe of immigrant artists, Alice in Wonderland, Lucrecia de Leon, the US President.

These are the topics and the people I will be discussing most frequently in a series of presentations lining up for 2019.  Each presentation will speak directly to the interests of a particular audience, and each one will also connect to the other talks I’m giving in ways that I hope will lead to a greater interwoven whole.

(All of these conferences and gatherings are still in the planning stages, so details may change.)

 

Society for Psychological Anthropology

Biennial Meeting, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

April 4-7

This will be part of a panel on “New Directions in the Anthropology and Psychology of Dreaming” organized by Robin Sheriff and Jeannette Mageo.

“Dreaming, Play, and Social Change”

This presentation offers a novel theory of dreaming—as a highly evolved form of play—and discusses its implications for new research in psychology and anthropology. The theory integrates findings from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, religious studies, and developmental psychology (especially D.W. Winnicott). This approach moves beyond the fruitless debates over the “bizarreness” of dreaming. From the play perspective, bizarreness in dreaming is a feature, not a bug. In dreams the mind is free to play, to explore, imagine, and envision new possibilities beyond the limits of conventional reality. Of special interest to anthropologists, the content of dreams, i.e., what people playfully dream about, mostly revolves around social life. Many of the cognitive abilities vital to waking sociality are also present in dreaming, which correlates with research showing that dream content accurately mirrors people’s most important waking relationships. In some instances, dreaming goes beyond mirroring the social world to actively striving to transform it; the playfulness intensifies, and the dreaming imagination labors to create something new, to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. This visionary potential is often activated during times of social conflict and crisis. Three brief examples will illustrate the playful dynamics of dreaming in relation to a crisis in the dreamer’s community: 1) the prophecies of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain; 2) the creatively inspiring “big dreams” of a group of immigrant artists; and 3) the politically-themed dreams of present-day Americans about their current President.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Regional Conference, Ashland, Oregon

May 31 to June 2

This is the general description of the event, which I am helping to host with Angel Morgan. On Saturday morning I will give a talk on the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which will be performed that weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Theater, Dreams, and Art”

Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and Carl Jung wrote that a dream is theater in which the dreamer is the scene, player, prompter, producer, author, public, and critic. The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable. They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world. Many talented artists, as well as everyday creative people, have said they feel the same kind of freedom to explore their emotions in dreams that they do when they have an encounter with the artistic process. Many often connect the two by first logging their dreams, then drawing on the raw emotional content and imagery from their dream experiences to feed their art. That said, bridging dreams with theater and art tends to offer a wide variety of fascinating approaches. In this conference we hope to inform and inspire dreamers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who use theater, dreams, or art in their work, such as: parents, psychologists, therapists, counselors, writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Annual Conference, Kerkrade, the Netherlands

June 20-26

This is part of a panel I am organizing with Svitlana Kobets and Bernard Welt on “Visionary Dreams in Art, Religion, and History.”

“Vision and Prophecy in the Dreams of Lucrecia de Leon”

This presentation explores the visual imagery, religious symbolism, and prophetic warnings contained in the dreams of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Madrid who was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition as a traitor and heretic, despite the fact that many of her dream warnings came true.

This is part of a panel Jayne Gackenbach is organizing on the interplay of artistic practice and scientific inquiry.

“Dreaming Is Play: A Bridge Between Art and Science”

This presentation offers a theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the imaginative play of the mind during sleep.  This theory has directly inspired me in new activities with art and artists: supporting regional theater, collaborating with the Dream Mapping Troupe, and cultivating a forested dream library.

For more information, click here.

 

American Academy of Religion

Annual Conference, San Diego, California

November 23-26

This is a “call for papers” topic that will soon be posted by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) group of the American Academy of Religion, and open for submissions from all AAR members. If the CSR steering committee receives enough good proposals on this topic, there will be a panel session at the conference in San Diego with three or four presentations.

“Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) Approaches to Dreaming”

The rise of psychology of religion in the early 20th century was driven in part by Freud’s and Jung’s efforts to understand the nature of dreams. What would a new 21st century approach to dreams look like, using the resources of CSR? Specifically, to what extent do cognitive functions known to operate in religious contexts (e.g., memory, imagination, metaphor, teleological reasoning, social intelligence, agency detection, dual-systems cognition) also operate in dreaming? To what extent does this shed new light on the various roles that dreams have played in the history of religions (e.g., theophany, healing, prophecy, moral guidance, visions of the afterlife)? Proposals are welcome that draw together detailed accounts of religiously significant dreaming with specific CSR concepts and theories.

For more information, click here.

 

 

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Uncanny dreams and deathly sleep haunt the most famous lovers in literary history.

The woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo has several ominous references to beds, sleep, and dreams.  These nocturnal elements reflect the tension between the passionate yearnings of the young lovers and the tragic fate that awaits them.  As Friar Laurence vainly warns, “these violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet discover both ecstatic delights and annihilating ends in the darkest, dreamiest realms of night.

Romeo’s First Dream and Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” Speech

In one of the early scenes of the play (currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Emily Ota as Juliet and William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo), a moment of witty banter suddenly turns into a long, weirdly unsettling monologue about the nature of dreaming.  It is, I believe, the most extensive treatment of dreams in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it encapsulates in a single surreal passage the inspiring-yet-terrifying energies of human dream experience.

At the start of Act I, scene iv, Romeo meets with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio on a street outside the family house of the Capulets, sworn enemies of Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  The Capulets are hosting a feast and masquerade ball, and Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo have decided to wear masks and sneak into the party.  Just before entering the house, however, Romeo abruptly stops and questions the wisdom of their plan.  Even though the woman he desperately loves, Rosaline, will be attending the festivities, he worries that something bad will happen if they go forth.  Mercutio demands that Romeo explain his sudden misgivings, and the following exchange ensues:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio: And so did I.

Romeo: Well, what was yours?

Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.

Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

(1.4.51-56)

Romeo believes his dream is warning him of danger in the future.  Mercutio is more interested in the party, however, and he tries to deflect Romeo’s gloomy prognostication with a sharp-edged jest: he lures Romeo into asking him if he really had a dream, and then calls into question the veracity of anyone who claims to have a dream to tell.  But Romeo has a strong feeling about the potential significance of his dream, and he tries to persuade Mercutio to take it seriously.

Romeo gets more than he bargained for.  Mercutio launches into an elaborate and fanciful speech that covers more than forty lines of text, starting with this:

Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone…

(I.iv.57-59)

What follows is a strange, magical journey into the realm of the fairies and their nocturnal activities.  As he does at greater length in the romantic fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also written around this same time (1595-1596), Shakespeare draws upon popular folklore to envision a colorful world of tiny tricksters who, hovering just outside the range of our ordinary awareness, are busily influencing our lives in ways both fair and foul.  Despite her miniscule size and delicate nature, Queen Mab wields total power over us when we sleep and dream.  Mercutio goes on describe what happens when she visits various kinds of people in their slumber:

Mercutio: And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers knees, that dream on curtsies straight; O’er lawyers fingers, who straight dream on fees; O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream.

(I.iv.74-78)

What Mercutio describes is quite similar to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which states that people tend to dream most frequently about things that emotionally concern them in waking life. Lovers dream of love, courtiers dream of kneeling in court, lawyers dream of receiving money from clients—whatever is most important in a person’s life, that’s what they’re most likely to dream about.  Mercutio describes other examples of Queen Mab’s dream-stimulating activities: she tickles a minister’s nose, and he dreams of a financially secure job; she drives over a soldier’s neck, and he dreams of cutting enemy throats.  The common thread throughout these examples is that dreams are personalized reflections of people’s current concerns and not, as Romeo assumes, prophecies about the future.  In this regard, Mercutio’s speech is a remarkable anticipation of a modern psychological theory about dreaming.

Queen Mab takes mischievous delight in causing chaos and disorder, a fairy trait she shares with Puck, Oberon, and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  As Mercutio continues his speech, this quality comes to the fore, and at a certain point Mercutio seems to lose control of his own story:

Mercutio: This is the very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage. This is she—

(I.iv.92-98)

Here, Shakespeare condenses several folk-beliefs about the dark forces behind dreaming. Queen Mab morphs into a relentless incubus or night hag who tangles hair, presses on bodies, preys on fears, and forces sexual submission.  She is the embodiment of all the nightmarish powers set loose within our sleep, and she devotes especially malicious attention to the torments of “sluttish” young women.  The physiological effects described here could, in modern terms, be diagnosed as night terrors, with the sensation of pressure and feelings of overwhelming fear.  They could also be explained in terms of psychoanalytic theory: Queen Mab is the primal Id of the human unconscious, running wild through our dreams while the ego slumbers in blissful ignorance.

Most productions of the play have Mercutio delivering these final lines of his speech in a manic frenzy, as the fairies’ malevolent mayhem threatens to overwhelm him.  The OSF version, with the incandescent Sara Bruner as Mercutio, follows that traditional staging, but with an intriguing gender twist that gives the speech a deeper level of emotional resonance.

At this point, Mercutio has become so unhinged that Romeo steps forward to interrupt him and snap him out of the psychotic spell of his own words.  Now it’s Romeo’s turn to play down the significance of dreams, in an effort to calm his friend’s frazzled nerves:

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.

(I.iv.100-101)

Mercutio responds with another unexpected shift of tone and attitude:

Mercutio: True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant that the wind…

(I.iv.102-106)

After dwelling at such length on the wondrous exploits of Queen Mab and her fairy consorts, Mercutio abruptly concludes with a rejection of dreaming as a whole.  A modern materialist could not express any more eloquently the idea that dreams are sheer nonsense.  Here, Mercutio is anticipating the basic themes of neuroscientific reductionism, another strand of current thinking about dreams that treats them as the disordered and meaningless by-products of an “idle brain” during sleep.

In the context of the play and this particular scene, Mercutio’s claim is not very persuasive, since he just spent several minutes giving a highly detailed account of the meaningful connections between people’s dreams and their waking lives.  Indeed, his belated rejection of dreaming seems more like a desperate attempt to deny what he has just openly acknowledged to be real and true.  He’s trying to put the lid back on the magic box, but it’s too late.  The fairies have already escaped.

Benvolio finally draws their attention back to the matter at hand, and on they go to the party.  But Romeo has been deeply rattled.  More than ever, he feels a prophetic sense of darkening gloom ahead and the inescapable prospect of “untimely death.”

So this is Romeo’s frame of mind when he puts on his mask and walks into the party at the Capulets.  He is deeply depressed about his unrequited love for Rosaline; he just had a very worrisome dream portending some future ill; and his friend nearly goes mad talking about the supernatural powers of malicious mischief set loose in our dreams.  Plus, he knows that if his true identity is discovered, he will likely be killed.  By entering the party, Romeo is entering a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Juliet’s Merging of Beds, Sleep, and Death

We do not know what Juliet dreams about.  We only know what she does not dream about.  In her first appearance, Juliet’s mother calls for her to discuss an important question:

Capulet’s wife: Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet: It is an honor that I dream not of.

(I.iii.68-70)

Juliet’s reply is both modest and diplomatic.  As an obedient and virtuous daughter, she accepts that her parents will decide when, where, and to whom she will be pledged in the sacred bond of marriage.  Until that time, the topic is the farthest thing from her mind, something that does not even appear in her dreams.  Her reply also includes a subtle degree of reluctance to think about marriage at this stage of life.  Her nurse has just given a long and rambling speech, the upshot of which is that Juliet is not yet 14 years of age, barely past childhood.  But Juliet’s mother insists that other “ladies of esteem” in Verona are married by this age and already bearing children, as did she when she first married Juliet’s father.

This is preamble to dramatic news.  Her mother says that a well-regarded gentleman by the name of Paris has shown marital interest in Juliet (he “seeks you for his love”), and he has come to their house that very evening to win her hand.  Juliet’s mother gives her virtually no time to react—“speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” Juliet dutifully answers that she will try to like him, but no more than her mother says she should. The nurse shows no such reluctance, as she makes abundantly clear the sexual implications of this sudden turn of events: “Women grow by men… Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”

Juliet speaks very few lines in this scene, which is fitting since she really has no say in any of these choices or decisions.  She dreams of none of this because she has no agency, no creative investment in any of it; it all happens to her, by decree of her parents, leaving her imagination no reason to wonder about alternative possibilities.

So this is Juliet’s frame of mind when she puts on her mask and joins her family’s feast.  After dwelling on the fact that she is currently 13 years old, she is informed by her mother that she has reached a marrying age, that a particular gentleman has already expressed his romantic interest in her, and that said gentleman is present in their home right now, ready to secure her affections.  Thanks to the nurse’s bawdy commentary, she cannot avoid the reality that she will be expected to engage in sexual relations with him.  Thus when she goes to the party, Juliet enters a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

And once there, she meets Romeo.  Their magical first encounter surprises them both; this is not what they were expecting when they walked into the party.  Completely forgetting the people they were supposed to seek (Rosaline for Romeo, Paris for Juliet), they almost instantly fall in love with a masked stranger, in a moment of mysteriously intense romance.

When the gathering ends, Juliet anxiously begs the nurse:

Juliet: Go ask his name.—If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

(I.v.73-74)

This is the first of many instances in which Juliet and other characters make symbolic connections between beds, sleep, and death.  These references are also intertwined with the bed as a physical space for passion, love, and the creation of new life.  The grave and the wedding bed—they occupy opposite ends of an existential spectrum, and yet in this story they inexorably draw towards each other and finally merge into a tragic unity.

The early references are the happiest.  As Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s balcony exchanging vows of love, he marvels at the incredible magic of the moment:

Romeo: O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(II.ii147-149)

A few moments later he bids a final farewell to Juliet at her balcony:

Romeo: Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

(II.ii.202-203)

After the friar performs their secret wedding, Juliet eagerly anticipates her first opportunity to be alone with her husband:

Juliet: Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night; for thou wilt lie upon the wings of night whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back. Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; give me my Romeo…

(III.ii.17-21)

Romeo and Juliet finally get to celebrate their marriage with a “love-performing night” together in her bed (III.v), and they lament the coming of the day (Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”).

Now everything darkens, and fate closes in on the young couple.  After they part, Juliet learns that she will soon be wedded to Paris, while Romeo finds he has been exiled from Verona for the killing of Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a street brawl.  With the friar’s help, Juliet decides to take a sleeping potion that will “wrought on her the form of death”:

Friar Laurence: And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death thou shalt continue two and forty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant sleep. Now, when the bridegroom [Paris] in the morning comes to rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.

(IV.i.106-110)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

The friar promises to tell Romeo to go to Juliet in the Capulet tomb after she has revived, so they can secretly escape the city together.  Alas, the plan goes badly awry.  Paris gets to the tomb first, and mourns at what he believes to be the dead Juliet’s side:

Paris: Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones.

(V.iii.12-13)

Then Romeo enters the tomb.  Paris draws his sword and attacks; Romeo kills him.  He then goes to Juliet’s motionless body and falls for the deception, too: he thinks she is truly dead.  Unable to distinguish death from sleep, Romeo decides to join her in death.  Immediately upon his doing so, Juliet awakens.  The friar arrives at this point, and he urges Juliet to leave at once:

Friar Laurence: I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.

(V.iii.156-157)

Juliet refuses.  Instead, she decides to join her beloved Romeo in eternal slumber.  After a final kiss, she takes his dagger and presses its point against her chest:

Juliet: This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

(V.iii.175)

Romeo’s Joyful Dream

The agonizing conclusion to the story makes it all the more peculiar that, just before he learns of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo awakens with a happy dream.  His speech at the start of Act V is a final beam of light in the gathering darkness:

Romeo: If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne, and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead (strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!) and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!

(V.i.1-11)

What are we to make of this dream?  At one level it seems horribly misleading—Romeo is about to receive absolutely terrible news about Juliet, and death will soon consume them both.  The dream seems like a cruel hoax, and a painfully ironic example of why we should not “trust the flattering truth of sleep.”

But at another level, perhaps the dream is leading Romeo towards an awareness of a different realm of union with Juliet, a transcendent realm where he will be “an emperor,” and where life will conquer death.  For the truth is, there is no hope in the present waking world for him and Juliet, not with their families’ violent hatred of each other.  Romeo’s dream offers him an alternative way of understanding what the future is about to bring.  Their love is, by its very existence, a miraculous triumph over the rigid constraints that govern their lives.  They have successfully defied the social authorities and asserted their own desires for romantic fulfillment.  Their kisses have the power to transport them beyond the petty feuds of this world to a beautiful and joyful world all their own.

Romeo notes the strange element in his dream of a dead man thinking living thoughts.  Today we might call this a variation on metacognition in dreaming, a type of “thinking about thinking.”  Here, it’s Romeo thinking about what he would be thinking if he were dead.  This seems impossible from a conventional waking perspective, just as it’s impossible that he could ever actually become an emperor in the waking world.  But these things are possible in the realm of dreaming, and this suggests an expansion of normal awareness, a dissolving of ordinary boundaries, and the discovery of new potentials beyond the limits of the present.  That does seem to be the tangible effect of the dream on Romeo once he awakens.  It breaks through his fears, lifts his spirits, and stimulates a welcoming attitude towards the future. For one last moment he feels pure lightness and joy, and he revels in the wonders of his love for Juliet.

Is that a cruel deception, or a profoundly truthful vision?

Earlier in the play, Mercutio gives a variety of reasons why we should ignore dreams: dreamers lie, the fairies manipulate people’s minds, and anyway it’s all nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  But by the end of the play the references to dreams shift towards an emphasis on their accuracy in reflecting reality.  After killing Paris in the Capulet tomb, Romeo briefly wonders about something his servant, Balthasar, said to him on the way to the tomb:

Romeo: I think he told me Paris should have married Juliet: Said he not so? Or did I dream it so?

(V.iii.78-79)

Balthasar probably did say so, but for Romeo it could equally have been a dream; all are one in his mind now.

A few moments later, Friar Laurence encounters Balthasar outside the tomb.  Romeo had told Balthasar to wait for him, and under no circumstances to follow him into the tomb.  Now Balthasar anxiously tells the friar he fears something terrible has happened:

Balthasar: As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, and that my master slew him.

(V.iii.141-143)

The staging of the scene leaves Balthasar’s exact position unclear (“I’ll hide me hereabout”), so we don’t know if he saw or heard Romeo and Paris while they were fighting; either way, Balthasar’s dream accurately reflects what did in fact happen in the tomb.

In both instances during this final climactic scene of the play, the distinction has dissolved between dreaming and waking reality.  Dreams have become transparent to the actuality of what’s happening in this world.  That is the final, spiritually illuminating context for Romeo’s joyful dream and its flattering truth about the eternal love he shares with Juliet.

 

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Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Yew tree photo is from Roi.dagobert

 

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly BulkeleyShakespeare’s most cunning villain turns sleep and dreaming against his enemies.

At the center of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy is the cruel dynamic between Othello, a magnificent warrior and heroic leader, and Iago, his resentful subordinate. (In the current production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chris Butler performs in the title role, and Iago is played by Danforth Comins). Despite being a dark-skinned Moor, Othello has earned the trust of the white Christians of Venice because of his military valor and success in defending their city.  But Iago secretly hates Othello, and he launches a devilish plan to ruin, humiliate, and destroy him, all while pretending to be Othello’s most faithful servant.  A subtle weapon in Iago’s arsenal is his malicious manipulation of people’s perceptions of sleep, beds, and dreaming.

The play opens with an overwrought gentleman, Roderigo, furiously accusing Iago of betrayal.  Roderigo is in love with Desdemona (played in the OSF production by Alejandra Escalante), a Senator’s daughter, and he has been paying Iago for help in wooing her. Now comes the shocking news that Desdemona has already married Othello, and Roderigo demands to know how Iago could have let this happen.  These are Iago’s first words of the play:

“’Sblood, but you’ll not hear me. If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.” (I.i.4-5)

Iago tells Roderigo his suspicions are no more credible than the fleeting whimsies of a dream.  He relies on a kind of proverbial phrasing that equates dreams with something as far as possible from the conscious mind.  He’s telling Roderigo: Not only did I not know about this, but it was not even in the furthest reaches of my awareness.

In fact, Iago did know about it, and he may well have dreamed about it, too (more on that below).  He already knows about Desdemona, and he already has a plan for using her against the Moor.  While he and Roderigo have been talking about their mutual hatred of Othello, Iago has been steering them through the dark nighttime streets of Venice, straight to the home of Desdemona and her family. Their yelling brings Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to the window. Prodded by Iago, Roderigo informs the Senator that his daughter has secretly married Othello (Iago puts it in more inflammatory terms: “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115-116)).  Brabantio urgently calls for all the servants of his house to awaken, light candles, and search for his daughter.  For a moment he pauses to reflect:

“This accident is not unlike my dream, belief of it oppresses me already.” (I.i.141-142)

Iago slinks into the night before Brabantio confirms that Desdemona is missing, but his dastardly work is done.  Brabantio has awakened to his worst fear—the dishonoring of his daughter—and Iago has insured that all his paternalistic rage will be aimed straight at Othello.

It seems unlikely that Iago knew Brabantio was dreaming right before he awoke, but it certainly works to the villain’s advantage.  In a way, Iago both creates Brabantio’s dream and interprets it.  If he and Roderigo had not caused a noisy uproar, Brabantio would have kept sleeping, and might not have remembered this dream at all.  Once Brabantio is awake, if he had not been immediately confronted with the shocking news of his daughter’s betrayal, he might have associated the dream with something else in his life.  Although he seems slightly ambivalent about the dream’s relevance to the situation with his daughter (they are “not unlike”), it takes no time for the two to become fused emotionally in his mind (“it oppresses me already”).  This is just as Iago would want.  Iago has manipulated Brabantio into using the energies of his dreams to fuel his vendetta against Othello.

From Brabantio’s perspective, everything in the play turns out just as badly as he feared it would.  In that regard, his dream could be regarded as an accurate prophecy of the doomed future.  Even though he’s wrong about Desdemona’s virtue and integrity, he’s right about the danger to her posed by the Moor.  Iago is the interpretive agent of this realization, and he turns Brabantio’s insight into a weapon aimed straight at Othello’s heart.

Alas, the shot has no effect.  Brabantio cannot persuade the leaders of Venice to act against Othello, given their overriding need of his military protection, plus Desdemona’s sincere declarations of love for him.

Thus Iago must devise a new plan to destroy Othello.  In the final lines of Act I Iago is onstage alone, pondering the question “How? How?” In a burst of malevolent inspiration, he envisions an intricate plot using people’s fears and biases against them, all leading to a single violent end.  Iago revels in his own nightmarish brilliance:

“I have’t, it is engend’red: Hell and Night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” (I.iii.410-411)

Later, just before a key piece of action begins, Iago refers again to the nocturnal provenance of his plan:

“But here they come: if consequence do but approve my dream, my boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.” (II.iii.61-62)

He likens his scheme to a prophetic dream that predicts the future.  At one level this is quite ironic, since Iago is anything but superstitious.  His behavior reflects a pure form of willful, defiant individualism; he is determined to create his own chosen future, not wait passively for his fate.

But at another level this comment appears as an honest self-recognition of his unusual powers of imagination.  Iago’s “dream” is a detailed prediction about what will happen if certain people’s emotions are stimulated in specific ways and channeled towards certain other people.  He has set this dream in motion, and he can accurately foresee where it will lead.  He knows that Othello’s downfall will begin with the destruction of his sleep:

“Not Poppy, nor Mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou ow’dst yesterday.” (III.iii.320-323)

While he steals the sweet sleep of Othello, Iago adds bitter falsehoods to the sleep of the Moor’s top military assistant, Cassio.  To persuade Othello that Cassio has illicit desires for Desdemona, Iago tells the following story:

“I lay with Cassio lately, and being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep. There are a kind of men so loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter their affairs: one of this kind is Cassio. In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’ And then, Sir, would he gripe, and wring my hand, cry ‘Oh sweet creature,’ and then kiss me hard, as if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots that grew upon my lips; laid his leg o’er my thigh, and sigh’d and kiss’d, and then cried, ‘Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor.’” (III.iii.403-415)

This story serves Iago’s cause in several ways.  Because of the nature of the circumstances (it’s night, they’re asleep), it cannot be checked or verified.  It appears to be a special, unguarded insight into Cassio’s true character, and it fits with other clues Iago has laid before the Moor.  It allows Iago to insert the most blatantly sexual and jealousy-stimulating images into Othello’s mind, but from a source that can easily be dismissed as trivial and foolish.  Indeed, Iago bolsters his own credibility when he feigns skepticism about the waking-world significance of Cassio’s strange sleeping behavior:

“Nay, this was but his dream.”  (III.iii.416)

As Iago intends, Othello replies by insisting that he shall decide for himself what to think about Cassio:

“But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ‘tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.” (III.iii.417-418)

From here, Iago immediately pivots to the topic of the precious handkerchief that Othello gave as a present to Desdemona, and that Iago has stolen and is about to plant in Cassio’s possession.  Iago thereby weaves together “proofs” from various sources, each one small in itself but together forming a larger pattern of meaning, a pattern that, unbeknownst to Othello, has been predetermined to drive him mad.  The mighty warrior is no match for his malevolent servant’s interpretive reasoning.

For the most part, Iago acts as a mere assistant, letting Othello feel like he is in charge of determining what his wife has been doing and how he should respond.  But at one crucial moment Iago gives the Moor a shocking directive.  Othello has just decided he must kill Desdemona for her infidelity, and he asks Iago to get him some poison.  Iago replies:

“Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.”  (IV.i.214-215)

Iago makes this horrifying proposal because he knows that Othello’s rage is also mixed with sadness (“but yet the pity of it, Iago”) and might distract him from carrying out his deadly intentions.  By demanding that he kill Desdemona in their marital bed, Iago helps Othello perceive it as a heroic act with an epic meaning, a violent but noble triumph in the cause of restoring moral order to the universe.  Othello replies:

“Good, good, the justice of it pleases; very good.” (IV.i.216)

Iago has persuaded Othello to think of murdering his wife in their bed as pleasing, as “good, good… very good.”  This line is chilling testimony to Iago’s success in warping Othello’s soul.

This is the same bed that Desdemona, just a few scenes earlier, has playfully described as a “school” where she hopes to teach her husband about empathy and compassion for others (III.iii.24).  She is planning to devote herself to expanding his emotional self-awareness, but she never gets the chance.  The bed where she wants to cultivate their relationship in new directions becomes the place where he, in a single-minded rage, will destroy it.

Othello likes to think of himself in larger-than-life terms, as a legendary hero bursting forth from a realm of mythic dreams.  Desdemona loves him for his adventurous spirit, but she is also trying to temper his warrior instincts and bring out a fuller human being.  Iago, however, feeds his grandiosity, stokes his reflexive aggression, and encourages his naïve assumptions.  Othello, the proud and courageous veteran of so many fearsome battles, chooses, at this decisive moment in his life, to follow the easier, cowardly path.  Death and destruction for all is the result.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly Bulkeley