Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jealous paranoia cannot distinguish between dreaming and waking in one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest works.

There are several reasons why “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has generally been considered one of Shakespeare’s minor plays.  It’s an absurd, bawdy farce set in an English country village around 1600, bereft of any epic characters, grand locales, or soaring lyrical speeches.  Revolving around the rakish antics of Sir John Falstaff, the play comes across as an entertaining trifle filled with sexual puns, slapstick comedy, and a variety of ridiculous schemes, disguises, and deceptions.  This may all be true, yet it overlooks an interesting element of darkness in The Merry Wives, an element that elicits the only references to dreaming in the play.

Master Ford is the husband of one of the two wives of the title, and there is very little merriment about him.  On the contrary, he stands out among the other characters for the intensity of his one driving emotion—jealousy.  Master Ford also stands out for his moral rigidity and insufferable pompousness, but it’s the jealousy that really defines him and motivates his behavior.  He says as much in a brief soliloquy, after meeting the other wife, Mistress Page, and hearing her talk about Falstaff.  Master Ford immediately concludes that both his wife and Master Page’s wife are having romantic affairs with Falstaff, and he criticizes Master Page for failing to keep close enough watch over his faithless spouse: “Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure, they sleep; he hath no use of them” (III.ii.26-28).

Master Ford decides that, despite other people’s doubts, he will wake everyone up by revealing the true sinfulness of these “revolted wives.”  He will appear suddenly at his house and catch the lecherous Falstaff in the act: “There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go” (III.ii.42-45).

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Kelly BulkeleyIn the next scene a supremely confident Master Ford brings a group of companions to his house to apprehend Falstaff.  His wife, in the midst of sending out the dirty laundry, denies that Sir John is there.  Master Ford contemplates the laundry basket, which is about to be sent out for “buck-washing” (a traditional means of laundering clothes by soaking and rinsing them repeatedly with lye, ash, or urine), and utters some strange lines: “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck—and of the season too, it shall appear” (III.iii.155-157).

Several sexual allusions are compressed into Master Ford’s odd little speech.  Unfortunately for him, while he is fixated on the multiple meanings of “buck,” the laundry basket containing the hidden Falstaff is taken out of the house.  Now Master Page turns to his companions and makes a bold declaration: “Gentlemen, I have dreamed tonight. I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers; search, seek, find out. I warrant we’ll unkennel the fox” (III.iii.158-162).

His use of “dream” here, the first mention of the term in the play, is meant ironically.  It seems unlikely that Master Ford is referencing an actual dream; rather, he’s playing with the term, to enhance the impressiveness of his ultimate victory.  Master Ford is framing what he believes will be his triumphant discovery of Falstaff as a prophetic dream: last night he dreamed of something that will be revealed to his companions when they find Sir John, the implication being that Master Ford foresaw the infidelity in his dream, and now his companions will see tangible proof that his dream has come true and he was right all along.

But there are at least a couple layers of deeper irony to his “dream” that Master Ford does not seem to recognize.  First, his companions do not find Falstaff in the house, so his allegedly prophetic dream fails to come true as he so grandly predicted it would.  Second, the certainty he feels about this dream, and about his wife’s sinfulness, is actually based on his own vain and substance-free fantasy that he assumes is as solid as the earth itself.  And third, if he had not been so absorbed in his resentful musings (“buck, buck, buck!”), he might have noticed that Falstaff was in fact right in front of him; so Master Ford’s dream did come true, but he was too captivated by his jealousy to realize it.  By making the self-aggrandizing claim that he had received a miraculous dream revelation of Falstaff’s illicit presence in his house, Master Ford only magnifies the humiliating mockery he feared would be the result of his efforts to unmask the sinners all around him.

Perhaps Master Ford would have let it go at this point, but then he hears Falstaff (who is himself thoroughly deluded about what’s actually happening) brag that he has already enjoyed the delights of Mistress Page and is planning to return to her house as soon as possible.  This seems to confirm Master Ford’s worst fears, and his jealousy heats to a full boil.  In another brooding soliloquy right after Falstaff leaves, Master Page repudiates sleep and dreaming and forces himself to face what he thinks is a damnable reality: “Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole made in your best coat, Master Ford!”  (III.v.137-140)

Again, the irony is that by forcing himself to “awake,” he is actually descending even further into his jealousy-fueled fantasy.  By rejecting dreaming, he is rejecting something that could in fact provide him with accurate insight into the perception-warping effects of his violent passions and emotional insecurities.

The production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the actress K.T. Vogt as Falstaff, a brilliant piece of casting that breathed new life into the old rogue and his errant codpiece.  Master Ford was played by Rex Young, an OSF veteran whose evocation of fragile male pride was strong enough to drive the plot forward, but not so strong as to overwhelm the delightful antics of everyone else.  The aesthetic design of the OSF production was shaped by the giddy, gaudy 80’s, with pastel clothing and bouncy music, and in Master Ford’s second soliloquy, which ends with an angry pledge to fight back against his tormentors (“I’ll be horn-mad”), the musical accompaniment is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads—a perfect touch for the dramatic moment.  Master Ford is indeed committing himself to the darkest of purposes, and yet he does so to the beat of an irresistibly danceable song.

Perhaps “The Merry Wives” seems like a minor work because the shadow elements are limited to one character and never become so intense that they overwhelm the lighter elements of love, laughter, and play.  But those darker energies are there, and are a significant part of the story.  Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the seemingly illusory experience of dreaming provides a portal into hidden realms of emotion and desire that reflect the deepest and most honest realities of human life.

The final scene of the play is a festive forest spectacle in which the main characters disguise themselves as a troop of mischievous fairies and “moonshine revelers” in order to scare the poor Falstaff out of his wits.  This scene includes an evocation of sleep and dreaming that seems to reflect contemporary folk beliefs about the magical wonders and dangers of the night.  When Falstaff sees what he thinks are fairies coming, he falls to the ground and covers his eyes, because of the legend that fairies will kill those who look upon them without permission.  A moment later the first fairy (the parson Sir Hugh Evans) arrives and issues the following command to the other fairies:

“Where’s Bede? Go you, and where you find a maid

That ere she sleep has thrice her prayers said,

Raise up the organs of her fantasy,

Sleep she as sound as careless infancy.

But those as sleep and think not on their sins,

Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins.” (V.v.52-57)

Some versions of Shakespeare have “Bead” instead of “Bede.”  To me, “Bede” makes more sense as a reference to the 8th c. monk Bede and his famous work of astronomy The Reckoning of Time.  In Shakespeare’s time Bede was still considered an authority on lunar events and the impact of the moon on earthly life.  I don’t know what “Where’s Bead?” would mean in this context (there’s no reference to a character with that name), but “Where’s Bede?” could mean something like, “Where’s our authority on the moon, because this is certainly a realm under a strong lunar influence?”  It’s the kind of thing an Elizabethan might typically say upon first entering a beautiful moonlit glade at night.

The rest of the passage suggests a sharp religious dichotomy: prayers and spiritual humility can protect against fairy attacks and prompt restful sleep and inspiring dreams (“raise up the organs of her fantasy”), while people who do not pray or “think on their sins” will suffer sharp pains all over their bodies during sleep. This scene has strong echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written a few years earlier, and of other plays in which sleep and dreaming are presented as eternal battlegrounds between competing supernatural beings fighting over our souls.  This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s personal view, but it does reflect widely held beliefs among his culture and the members of his audience.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly BulkeleyTo be a king, one must give up sleep and dreams in favor of the ruling duties of waking life.

This is the grim truth that animates much of the action in Henry IV Part II.  The second chapter of prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V contains two of the most vivid references to sleep and dreaming in all of Shakespeare’s works.  Hal’s father, King Henry IV, suffers from an agonizing inability to sleep, prompting him to exclaim the famous line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  At the climax of the play, the newly crowned King Henry V publicly humiliates and cruelly disavows his old friend Sir John Falstaff, comparing him to a foolish dream—“but, being awaked, I do despise my dream.”

Below are all the references to sleep and dreams in the play, with brief comments.  The play is currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.  The outstanding cast includes Jeffrey King as King Henry IV, Daniel Jose Molina as prince Hal, and G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff.

 

I.ii.45

Falstaff: “Well, he may sleep in security; for he hath the horn of abundance, and the lightness of his wife shines through it…”

Sir John Falstaff is appearing here for the first time in the play, and he immediately becomes angry that a tailor will not accept his “security,” i.e. his pledge to pay his debts.  Falstaff cannot provide the security the tailor demands, so instead the old rogue pivots to a different meaning of “security,” insulting the tailor by suggesting he’s a cuckold (with horns), unaware of his wife’s infidelity (lightness) while he sleeps in apparent safety and ease.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

I.ii.111-113

Falstaff: “This apoplexy, as I take it, is a kind of lethargy, an’t please your lordship, a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”

The Chief Justice has just entered the scene, and he demands to speak with Sir John about his criminal behavior.  Falstaff avoids the question by asking the Chief Justice about the health of the king, Henry IV, who is reportedly ill with “apoplexy.”  The king has been losing his vitality and energy through a “kind of sleeping in the blood,” and Falstaff wants the Chief Justice to focus on what will happen when the king is dead—prince Hal, the good friend of Sir John, will ascend to the throne, and he will not look kindly on the mistreatment of his closest pals.  Falstaff’s medical diagnosis of the king is a thinly-veiled threat against the Chief Justice.

I.ii.153-154

Chief Justice: “But since all is well, keep it so. Wake not a sleeping wolf.”

The Chief Justice does not press the point, but he gives Falstaff a warning of his own.  The proverb suggests that a prudent person will recognize the benefit of allowing a violent beast to remain in peaceful slumber.

II.i.76-77

Hostess: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his. But I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o’nights like the mare.”

Falstaff: “I think I am as like to ride the mare, if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”

Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern, complains to the Chief Justice about the money Falstaff owes her and refuses to pay.  Having no other recourse, she threatens to harass the old rogue in his sleep like a nightmare.  Sir John deflects her anger by transforming the nightmare curse into a bawdy invitation.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

II.ii.86-88

Bardolph: “Away, you whoreson upright rabbit, away!”

Page: “Away, you rascally Althaea’s dream, away!”

Prince: “Instruct us, boy; what dream, boy?”

Page: “Marry, my lord, Althaea dreamt she was delivered of a firebrand; and therefore I call him her dream.”

Prince: “A crown’s worth of good interpretation. There ‘tis, boy.”

This scene starts with prince Hal and his disreputable companion Poins discussing the king’s illness, and Hal’s unwillingness to show his true feelings.  Then Bardolph and the young Page arrive, two bumbling fools with a message from Falstaff.  Poins makes fun of Bardolph’s red face (discolored from drink), and the Page reveals that Bardolph was recently with a prostitute.  The furious Bardolph chases after the Page, who calls him “Althaea’s dream.” Prince Hal takes interest in this, and asks what the boy means.  The Page responds by mistakenly combining two classic mythological tales.  Althaea was an ancient Greek queen who killed her own son by burning a brand (piece of wood) that, so it was prophesied at his birth, would cause his death if ever consumed by fire. Hecuba was a Trojan queen who had a dream while pregnant that she gives birth to a firebrand; the child she bore from that pregnancy, her son Paris, was the impetuous warrior who abducted Helen, sparking the war that led to the destruction of their city.  Several other Shakespearean plays make accurate references to the story of Hecuba, so it seems likely the Page’s conflation of the two stories is intentional and not a mistake of Shakespeare’s.  Does prince Hal know or care if the Page’s mythology is accurate?  Maybe not, but the prince does appreciate a fine display of wit.  Hal plays along with the dream theme by offering the Page a small payment (the crown) for the pleasing interpretation, just as if he were consulting a diviner in the marketplace.

II.iv.200-201

Pistol: “What! Shall we have incision?  Shall we imbrue? [Snatching up his sword.]

Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!”

The Ancient Pistol, one of the rowdy soldiers who hang around the tavern, gets in a drunken brawl with Falstaff.  The notion of death as a kind of sleep is pervasive in Shakespeare, and in classical mythology.

II.iv.382-386

Falstaff: “Farewell, hostess. Farewell, Doll. You see, my good wenches, how men of merit are sought after. The undeserver may sleep when the man of action is called on. Farewell, good wenches.”

Sir John was just about to go to bed with his female companions, but he is suddenly informed that a dozen of the king’s men are waiting at the door for him.  Falstaff realizes he can no longer escape the military service that a nobleman like himself must perform.  He thus turns necessity into a virtue and presents himself to his lady friends as a man of extraordinary importance whose sage presence the king desires immediately.  The moral contrast between he draws between a virtuous man of action like himself and a slothful “undeserver” is undercut by the fact that Falstaff was just about to retire for the evening, until forced by a troop of soldiers to do otherwise.

III.i.4-17, 26-31

King: “How many thousands of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,

And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile

In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch

A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?…

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The next scene occurs in the palace, where the aging king Henry IV appears “in his nightgown,” desperately desiring to sleep and yet unable to do so.  Falstaff’s fantasy of the wakeful “man of action” is belied by the painful reality of mighty ruler who is strangely impotent in the domain of sleep.  Alone with his insomnia, the king broods over the baffling irony of sleep bestowing its gifts to the lowliest of people in the worst of circumstances, and yet denying any comfort or rest to the greatest and most powerful man of all.  These ruminations prompt the king to utter perhaps the most famous line in the play, an honest reckoning with the cost he has paid for the power he seized and hopes to pass on to his son.

IV.ii.37-42

Archbishop: “I sent your Grace

The parcels and particulars of our grief,

The which hath been scorn shov’d from the court,

Whereon this hydra son of war is born;

Whose dangerous eyes my well be charm’d asleep

With grant of our most just and right desires…”

The Archbishop and the other rebels against the king have met to negotiate with his son, prince John.  The Archbishop diplomatically suggests that the monstrous violence of war, which once set loose can grow horribly out of control, may be “charm’d asleep” if the king will simply grant their legitimate grievances.  The prince seems to agree.  But it soon turns out he was in fact charming the Archbishop; as soon as the rebel troops are released, the prince seizes the Archbishop and other rebellion leaders and sends them to their execution.

IV.iv.65-68

King: “The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,

In forms imaginary, th’unguided days

And rotten times that you shall look upon

When I am sleeping with my ancestors.”

On the verge of death, the king sadly anticipates the wasteful, unruly behavior of his son Hal, who will inherit the crown once the king is gone.  Even when he is on the brink of succumbing to the eternal sleep of death, the king cannot help worrying about the world he will leave behind in the hands of his degenerate child.

IV.iv.135-138

Gloucester: “The people fear me, for they do observe

Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.

The seasons change their manners, as the year

Had found some months asleep and leaped them over.”

The ailing king’s closest allies gather in the palace and speak darkly about what will happen next.  The Duke of Gloucester describes strange omens and worrisome changes in the weather that seem to foretell conflict ahead.  Here is another metaphorical contrast between sleeping passivity and waking action.

IV.iv.20-21

Warwick: “Not so much noise, my lords. Sweet Prince, speak low;

The King your father is dispos’d to sleep.”

Now, at the very end of his reign and his life, sleep briefly returns to the king.

IV.iv.26-30, 39-42

Prince: “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! Golden care!

That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide

To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!…

My gracious lord! My father!

This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep

That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d

So many English kings.”

Prince Hal enters the bed chamber of his father, where the golden crown sits on a pillow next to the slumbering monarch.  Hal is initially puzzled by this, since he knows the bitter impact of this band of metal on his father’s sleep.  But then the prince thinks his father has slipped into an eternal sleep, and he resolves himself to honor his father’s noble death by taking up the crown and devoting his life to upholding their royal lineage.

IV.iv.73-74,

King: “Is he so hasty that he doth suppose

My sleep my death?…

For this the foolish overcareful fathers

Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care…”

After the prince leaves his father’s bed chamber, the king briefly awakens and worries that Hal has greedily snatched the crown before the king is even dead.  This fear sets up their final deathbed reconciliation, and Hal pledges that once he becomes King it will be time “to show the incredulous world the noble change that I have purposed.”  Reassured by his son’s promise to rule wisely and well, King Henry IV dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V.

V.v.52-56

Falstaff: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

Prince: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.”

Falstaff assumes his greatest wish has come true—his criminal protégé, the young prince, has become the new king, and he will surely give Sir John total freedom and license to indulge his many, many appetites.  This has been Falstaff’s plan and expectation since the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, and now at the end of Part II, he celebrates the rise of his “sweet boy” to the throne.  But this turns out to be the moment when Falstaff’s wishes are not only dashed but utterly annihilated in five cold, cutting lines of verse.  The newly crowned King repudiates everything having to do with Falstaff, using language that echoes a famous biblical warning against dreams in Psalm 73:20: “They are like a dream when one awakes, on awaking you despise their phantoms.” (RSV)  This particular psalm asks God why He allows wicked people to prosper in the world, and the psalmist concludes that God will eventually cause them to fall into ruin and be swept away, just as wispy dreams disappear in the light of morning.  The new king casts Falstaff in this biblical mold, and in so doing he both rejects Sir John and identifies himself as a traditional, righteous king who is a vigorous man of action, not a dreamer.  Even though he admits that this man has been a long-time presence in his life, Henry V is now focused entirely on his duties to the future.

As the play ends, I cannot help asking: will the new king suffer the same deep psychological damage, the same painful alienation from his sleeping and dreaming self, that plagued the old king?

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Sleep is both a gentle source of earthly pleasure and a stressful battlefield of military violence in Shakespeare’s stirring portrait of a young Prince.

The play opens with Henry IV, the 15th century English King, planning his military strategy against various enemies who are threatening rebellion.  One of the rebel leaders is Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s valiant son whose battlefield exploits have become legendary.  As the King reflects on Hotspur’s noble deeds, he cannot ignore the painful contrast with his own unruly, disobedient son, Prince Henry or “Hal,” who wastes his time in “riot and dishonor” with a lowlife gang of drunkards, thieves, and scoundrels.  The King’s first mention of his child is a wish to be rid of him:

O that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle clothes our children where they lay,

And called mine Percy, and his Plantagenet!

Then I would have his Harry, and he mine. (I.i.88-92)

In many cultures around the world, including early modern England, people have been terrified by the evil spirits that strike infants in their sleep.  To protect their children, parents have used prayers, rituals, amulets, and holy artifacts to ward off the malevolent beings who attack newborns during the dark of night.  In this context, it would be shocking for a parent to actively wish that a “night-tripping fairy” would come to steal his true child.  By so wishing, the King reveals the cruel extremity of his detachment from young Henry.

The next scene introduces Prince Hal’s scurrilous but intimate group of friends, led by Sir John Falstaff, a man of grand humor and bottomless appetites.  Hal’s first words make this clear: “Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon” (I.ii.2-4).  Here is a neat list of Falstaff’s chief vices, which include a gluttonous desire for sleep.  Falstaff enjoys sleeping for the same reason he enjoys drinking and whoring—they feel good.  But he denies the Prince’s moral condemnation of his chosen way of life, now and in the future:

“When thou art King, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.” (I.ii.23-30)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Even though Falstaff is speaking in prose, his words have a roguish poetry.  He casts himself as a member of a mystical lunar guild; he breaks the laws of the daytime not because he is a base criminal, but because he is a true and faithful servant of the “mistress the moon.”

Hal knows that Falstaff is no such thing, but he also knows the fun of hanging around with Falstaff is listening to him spin out absurd stories and fanciful lies.  Even more fun is playing a trick on Falstaff to provoke his boundless capacity for creative falsehoods.  Such an opportunity arises when Poins, a renowned highway robber, arrives and tells them of an excellent opportunity for profitable thievery.  A group of rich pilgrims will be traveling on a nearby road in the pre-dawn darkness, and it would be easy to ambush them and separate them from their valuables.  Poins declares, “We may do it as secure as sleep” (I.ii.132-133).

This analogy emphasizes the simplicity of the plan.  Just as it’s easy to go to sleep, it will be easy to rob the pilgrims.  Falstaff accepts this metaphorical reasoning, given how quickly and comfortably he can fall sleep (more on this in a moment).  Yet the analogy has another layer of meaning that Falstaff does not recognize, of sleep as a descent into a world of darkness and disorientation with strange reversals of identity and startling discoveries of truth and deception.  Falstaff doesn’t know it, but Poins soon confides to Hal that the real plan is to trick Falstaff during the robbery.  To be “as secure as sleep” will turn out to be not very secure at all.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

What ensues is one of the greatest scenes in literature as Hal and the other “minions of the moon” banter with Falstaff while he tells his thrilling, heroic, and completely fictional account of what happened during the robbery.  The Prince shares the old rogue’s giddy joy in his fanciful flights of imagination.  Despite their radical differences in age and station, they have this creative pleasure in common.  Their playful battles of wit generate an exuberant vitality that enlivens them both.

The jesting abruptly ends when the Sheriff arrives to inquire about the robbery.  Everyone scatters and hides while the Prince must resume his royal identity and assure the Sheriff the pilgrims will be repaid for what they have lost.  After the Sheriff has left, Hal tells Peto to find that “oily rascal.” A moment later Peto calls out, “Falstaff! Fast asleep behind the arras, and/Snorting like a horse” (II.iv.535-536).  The comedy of Peto’s discovery turns on Falstaff’s blithe lack of concern for anything but his own immediate bodily pleasure.  While the Sheriff is in that very room looking to arrest him for a capital crime, Sir John lays down in a dark place and slips into a deep, beastly slumber.  Unburdened by guilt or shame, having no ambition beyond the next bottle of sack, he is not even perturbed by Hal’s recent, ominous words about a future banishment (“I do, I will.”).  Falstaff enjoys sleep as one of the many sumptuous courses in the great feast of life, and he lets nothing distract him from consuming his fill.

At the other end of the spectrum, the relentlessly aggressive Hotspur treats sleep as another battlefield where enemies can be attacked, fought, and conquered.  In Hotspur’s opening scene he rages against the King for refusing to help his kinsman Mortimer and commanding no further discussion of it.  Hotspur imagines a nocturnal assault on the arrogant monarch:

He said he would not ransom Mortimer,

Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer,

But I will find him when he lies asleep,

And in his ear I’ll hollo ‘Mortimer.’” (I.iii.235-236)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

He may threaten to attack the King during sleep, but it’s Hotspur himself who has the most troubled slumber of anyone in the play.  His wife, Lady Kate, asks him why he is so agitated and disturbed: “Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee/Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?” (II.iii.41-42)  In contrast to Falstaff, Hotspur has lost all of his normal physical appetites.  Lady Kate goes on to describe in sorrowful detail the frightening spectacle of her husband’s sleeping body:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,

Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,

Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou has talked

Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,

Of palisades, frontiers, parapets,

Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,

Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,

And all the currents of a heady fight.

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,

And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream,

And in thy face strange motions have appeared,

Such as we see when men restrain their breath

On some great sudden hest. O what portents are these?

Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,

And I must know it, else he loves me not. (II.iii.48-66)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Lady Kate’s account opens a window into the war-obsessed, hyper-militarized mind of Hotspur.  Fighting is all he thinks about, day and night, in waking and sleeping.  Her description of his physical reactions have aspects of both sleep paralysis and night terrors, which are often triggered by frightening or unsettling situations in waking life.  His behavior may even reflect the repetitive nightmares symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder; his wartime experiences would have given him plenty of raw material.  But Lady Kate is trying to emphasize how frightening it is for her to watch her beloved endure such unconscious torments—he’s sweating, he can’t breathe, he’s in obvious distress.  Her plea for him to tell her what’s wrong is a plea for him to recognize the painful impact of his nocturnal suffering on her.

This passage offers the closest approximation of a full dream report available in the play.  Dreams are mentioned elsewhere twice in turns of phrase (“that thou dreamst not of,” II.i.69-70; “before not dreamt of,” IV.i.78) meant to emphasize something that’s vitally important yet beyond normal reckoning.  Hotspur at one point says he hates foolish talk about “the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies” (III.i.161).  Besides that, the only other reference to dreaming is indirect, in the pre-battle scene where the rebel lords take leave of their ladies.  Mortimer’s wife, who can only speak Welsh, invites her husband to enjoy a final, private reverie together:

She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down

And rest your gentle head upon her lap,

And she will sing the song that pleaseth you

And on your eyelid crown the god of sleep,

Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness,

Making such difference ‘twixt wake and sleep

As is the difference betwixt day and night

The hour before the heavenly-harnessed team

Begins his golden progress in the east (III.i.230-239)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

This is a beautiful image of sensual slumber, and one of the most poignant moments in the play.  A woman who cannot speak her husband’s language offers to ease him into a lyrical space of soothing comfort, away from the sharp edges of waking reality.  Indeed, I wonder if she is subtly helping him incubate a dream to guide him in the coming battle. The liminal state she is trying to evoke, just before dawn when sleep is about to yield to waking, is in fact the time when the human brain typically enters its peak phase of REM sleep, generating the highest frequency of remembered dreams.

What about Prince Henry?  How will he sleep and dream?  We do not know yet.  He is still unformed, his identity still in the process of becoming.  He has two more plays to go.  Will he learn from Falstaff and the “gentlemen of the shade” to sleep easily and well, or will he fall prey like Hotspur to the wrenching, inescapable violence of a militarized dreamscape?

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Contemporary performances:

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Last week I saw a powerful production of Henry IV Part I at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, with Daniel Jose Molina as the young Prince, G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff, and Alejandra Escalante as Hotspur.  The scenes with Molina and Thomas were magical; at several points in their comedic jousting I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks.  The intimate space of the Thomas Theater enabled both actors to draw the audience into their merry band of criminal conspirators, making everyone feel a part of their antics, adventures, and jests.  I truly lost track of time during the riotous fourth scene of Act II.  When the Sheriff suddenly arrived it felt like a harsh and unwanted intrusion into our fun times, like an alarm clock jarring us out of a good dream. A buzz-kill, in other words.

The casting of Escalante as Hotspur gave a fresh look at Shakespeare’s classic portrait of a young warrior, inflamed with a righteous rage for vengeance.  Escalante’s intense performance decoupled Hotspur’s aggression from gender, which is perhaps another way of saying her performance humanized this aspect of Hotspur’s character. I found the effect especially strong in the scene where Lady Kate (played by Nemuna Ceesay) described Hotspur’s frightening behaviors in sleep.  Escalante and Ceesay had a vibrant and mutual romantic rapport that seemed to subtly change these lines from a shameful revelation of cowardly fear into an honest admission of the burden of fighting to uphold one’s ideals.  Instead of driving them apart, this deeply emotional exchange brought them closer together.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 18, 2017.