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.

 

####

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

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?

####

 

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.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar by Kelly BulkeleyProphetic dreams of doom go unheeded in Shakespeare’s tragedy about violent political strife among the greatest leaders of ancient Rome.

In Julius Caesar, strange dreams and nightmares join with other frightening portents to besiege the people of Rome from all sides.  Terrible storms, weird avian behavior, and a haunting Soothsayer add to the pervasive sense of inescapable doom pressing down on the city.  The very foundations of the world, both political and cosmic, are cracking apart.  Forces of chaos have been set loose within the empire.  And yet, not a single one of Rome’s political leaders has the visionary capacity to recognize the signs of danger. For their failures to heed these warnings, they pay with their lives.

The great Caesar himself sets the tone in an early scene, when the Soothsayer gives him an unmistakable warning: “Beware the Ides of March.”  Caesar is the first character to make the grievous mistake of dismissing as trivial something that turns out to be a vital truth.  For the supreme leader of the Roman empire, the reason for rejecting the Soothsayer boils down to one word: he is a dreamer.  To be a dreamer, then, is to have nothing of significance to say to the ruling authority.  But as the play later reveals, it is the dreamer who had the most significant message of all for the ruler.  This complex polarity of dreaming and political power recurs throughout this play, and in many of Shakespeare’s other plays as well.

Though named after Caesar, the play focuses more attention on Brutus, the popular Roman senator who faces an awful moral choice: Should he stay loyal to his long-time friend and comrade-in-arms, who has shown no evidence of tyrannical tendencies?  Or should he defend the city and people he loves from the imminent threat of a dictator seizing total control of their government?  The agony of making a decision has disrupted his sleep, to the point where nightmarish feelings and images begin seeping into his waking mind, threatening his mental balance.

His sleep-deprived condition makes Brutus easy prey for the deception of Cassius, who fabricates the letter from the people of Rome urging Brutus to take charge of the rebellion against Caesar.  Brutus muses over the line about needing to “awake.”  What he really needs is to sleep, yet the letter urges him (metaphorically) to do the opposite. By taking the letter at its face value, Brutus compounds his mistake—accepting something as true that is in fact the opposite.

The most powerful prophetic dream in Julius Caesar is also the one that receives the most egregiously mistaken interpretation.  The dream occurs to Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, one of the only female characters in the play.  She does not narrate the dream herself; her husband tells it for her.  He relates that she cried out three times in her sleep about his murder, then woke up and told him about a dream of a statue with blood pouring out from all sides.  This is almost exactly what happens to Caesar later that day, and at first he accepts the dream’s warning and plans on protecting himself at home rather than going out.

But Decius has been sent by the conspirators for the exact reason of luring Caesar out of his palace and escorting him to the Senate, when they will lie in wait, knives at the ready.  Calphurnia’s dream poses a direct obstacle to their plan, so Decius must quickly devise an alternative reading of the dream, one that calms Caesar’s fears and persuades him to lower his guard.  Using a combination of fawning flattery and rank misogyny, Decius leads Caesar away from the dream’s true meaning and toward a false interpretation that actually facilitates the fatal fulfillment of the prophecy.

Immediately after this debate over the proper interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream, the next scene opens with the reading of a letter by a character named Artemidorus of Cidnos, a well-regarded teacher who finds out about the assassination plot.  His letter contains a true account of the plot, and if he had succeeded in giving it to Caesar, it would have saved the ruler’s life.  But as with all the other portents of impending doom, Caesar ignored this one, too, and Artemidorus calls for the ruler’s attention in vain.  The character of Artemidorus of Cidnos may have had a historical source, but at least some of the people in Shakespeare’s audience would also have associated him with Artemidorus of Daldis, another famous Roman teacher who wrote the Oneirocritica, the most influential manual of dream interpretation for many centuries.  The Oneirocritica was well-known in Shakespeare’s time, and most of the popular dream interpretation manuals available to the public were based on the system of Artemidorus of Daldis.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence that a scene with a failure to properly interpret an important dream about Caesar is followed by a scene in which a character named Artemidorus fails to convey an important message to Caesar.  But some of the audience, and maybe Shakespeare himself, would have followed a connecting thematic thread through these scenes, and many other as well, about the dangers of missing a warning of dangers in dreaming.

The murder of Caesar sets loose a similar dynamic in the streets of Rome.  A young poet, Cinna, awakens with a dream of feasting with Caesar, and like Caesar he hesitates in setting foot out of the house that morning because of the ill omen.  But some irresistible force compels him to go forth, where he encounters a mob of people inflamed by Marc Antony’s speech against Brutus and the other assassins.  The mob confuses Cinna the poet with another man named Cinna who helped the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even though the young poet tells the angry people of their mistake, they violently attack him anyway.  The madness of the vengeful crowd dispenses with the need to distinguish truth from illusion.

In the bloody battles for power that follow Caesar’s murder, the forces of Brutus are soon pushed to the brink of defeat.  Brutus senses his time has come because the ghost of Caesar appears to him in a quasi-dream state, terrifying him with the presentiment of his own impending death.  When the ghost departs, Brutus awakens Lucius and asks if he has been dreaming and cried out; Lucius confusedly says no, and Brutus struggles to process the uncanny reality of what he has just experienced. His epistemological uncertainty signals the further dissolution of his capacity to keep his waking and sleeping states from blurring into each other.

When the end comes, Brutus welcomes it as a long-desired rest.  Only now does he clearly foresee his future.  He conscripts the last of his friends, the slumbering Strato, to awaken and help ease him into an eternal slumber.

 

Contemporary performances:

The amazing production of Julius Caesar I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, directed by Shana Cooper, had a setting so abstract and desaturated it could have been anywhere, or everywhere. Untethered to any specific time period, it explored the dark psychological dynamics of male aggression, vanity, and ambition.  The bloody choreography of masculine violence overshadowed the fine speeches about political virtue.  By the end of the play all the physical structures on stage had been torn to pieces and cast to the ground.  Tyranny had been averted, but at the cost of chaos.

Two casting choices made this production especially powerful.  First, Brutus was played by Danforth Comins, who performed as Hamlet in last year’s OSF production of that play.  Like Hamlet, Brutus agonizes over existential questions of duty, justice, and personal loyalty, and Comins gave the character a tremendous depth of consciousness, especially during his scenes of sleepless brooding.  Second, the part of the Soothsayer was played by Brooklyn Williams, a 12-year old girl who wore a sleeveless green dress.  This was a brilliant move, jarring to audience expectations perhaps, but unforgettably effective in showing that true wisdom, and even a hint of future growth, may come from the most improbable of sources.

  

References to sleep and dreams in the play:

I.2.29

Julius Caesar waves away the Soothsayer (who has just told Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”): “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.”

I.2.203

Caesar says he prefers to be surrounded by agreeable men who are “fat, sleek-headed,” “such as sleep a-nights.”

II.1.4

Brutus tries to awaken his sleeping assistant Lucius, whose deep slumber he envies: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.”

II.1.48, 50

Brutus opens a letter supposedly sent to him from the people of Rome, encouraging him to lead the rebellion: “Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, and see thyself!”  He then repeats this line to himself.

II.1.64, 68

The stress of the conspiracy against Caesar has taken its toll on Brutus: “Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept.”  Brutus goes on to describe his agonized mental state as something “like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”

II.1.214

Cassius tells the other conspirators that Caesar has become more superstitious recently, a change from his previously skeptical views “of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.”

II.1.248-252

Brutus finds Lucius asleep again, and praises the youth for his innocence: “Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies/Which busy care draws in the brains of men”

II.2.1-3

At night during a terrible storm, Caesar comes out of his bedroom and says “Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out/’Help ho, they murder Caesar!’”

II.2.80-4

Caesar says he will stay home today because of the warning vision seen by his wife in her sleep: “She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,/Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,/Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

II.2.88-111

Decius, one of the conspirators, persuades Caesar that Calphurnia’s dream actually has a more favorable meaning: “This dream is all amiss interpreted./It was a vision fair and fortunate./Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,/In which so many smiling Romans bathed,/Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood, and that great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance./This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified.”  Caesar is more pleased by the interpretation of Decius (“And this way you have well expounded it”) than by his wife’s (“How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/I am ashamed I did yield to them”).

II.3.1

Artemidorus of Cidnos reads a letter of warning that he plans to deliver directly to Caesar.

III.3.1-4

Cinna the poet goes out in the streets despite having just had an unsettling dream: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar;/And things unluckily charge my fantasy.”  Moments later he is attacked by a mob who mistakes him for one of the conspirators.

IV.3.286

Brutus invites his comrades to rest before the next day’s battle: “I pray you, sirs, lie in my tent and sleep.”

IV.3.318-323

After Lucius and the others fall asleep and the candle burns low, Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar: “Ha, who comes here?—/I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition./It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?/Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?”

IV.3.333-350

Deeply startled, Brutus wakes everyone up and asks if they saw anything: “Didst thou dream, Lucius, that thou so criedst out?”

V.5.1

Facing the end, Brutus says to his weary comrades: “Come, poor remains of friends, rest on this rock.”

V.5.20-3

Brutus says he knows his “hour has come” because he has seen the ghost of Caesar “two several times by night.”

V.5.36-46

Brutus bids farewell to his friends, even one who has fallen asleep on the rock: “Strato, thou hast been all this while asleep,/Farewell to thee, too, Strato.”  By this point he welcomes death: “Night hangs upon my eyes; my bones would rest,/That have but labored to attain this hour.” A moment later, his other friends run away. Strato awakens, and holds the sword by which Brutus kills himself.

 

Updated notes:

Here’s an article by Mary Beard in The New Statesman about the unintended political consequences of the assassination of Julius Caesar.