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.

Lucrecia the Dreamer

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve just finished writing a new book about a young woman in 16th century Spain whose uncannily accurate prophetic dreams led to her arrest and torture by the Inquisition.  The book is titled Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition, to be published by Stanford University Press in early 2018. Lucrecia’s case is by far the most dramatic and compelling historical example of prophetic dreaming I have ever encountered.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Below is an excerpt from the first page of the Introduction.

This is the story of a young woman who was violently persecuted because of her dreams.  The fact that she dreamed frequently and vividly from an early age does not make her especially unusual since every society, from ancient times to the present day, has its share of such gifted people.  What makes her story remarkable and historically significant is that she focused her dreaming abilities on gaining insights into the most pressing dangers facing her country. She was born a big dreamer and then, with the help and guidance of various supporters, she amplified her oneiric powers to new levels of visionary intensity.

For that, she was condemned as a traitor and a heretic.

Her name was Lucrecia de Leon.  Born in 1568 in Madrid, Spain, she was the oldest of five children raised in a family of modest economic means… As her parents and neighbors later testified, Lucrecia was an active dreamer from early childhood.  In the fall of 1587, when she was not quite 19, she mentioned one of her odd dreams to a family friend visiting her house.  This friend later described the dream to a nobleman, Don Alonso de Mendoza, who was known to be deeply interested in mystical theology and apocalyptic omens.  Curious to hear more, Don Alonso arranged to record Lucrecia’s dreams on a daily basis.  For the next three years he collected her dreams, analyzed them in relation to passages in the Bible, and showed them to other people concerned about the future of Spain.  Public interest in Lucrecia’s dreams grew, and so did the disapproval of church authorities whose job it was to guard against political dissent and unorthodox spirituality.  In 1590 King Phillip ordered the Inquisition to arrest Lucrecia.  Now 21 years old and several months pregnant, she was brought to the Inquisition’s secret prison in the nearby city of Toledo and tried for heresy and treason.  The carefully recorded collection of her dreams became a primary source of evidence against her.

The first part of the book tells the story of Lucrecia’s life and dreaming and her upbringing as an illiterate but very pious Catholic young woman in the capital city of the most powerful empire in the world at that time.  The second part of the book focuses on her dream reports, which the Inquisition tried for five years to compel her to admit were fraudulent fabrications.  I make the case that the findings of modern cognitive science indicate Lucrecia was not lying but was telling the truth–she was honestly describing genuine dreams that accurately anticipated dangers to her country, specifically the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  If I could use a time machine to travel back four centuries to the Inquisition’s court in Toledo, this is the expert testimony I would offer based on my analysis of the evidence of her dream reports.

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly Bulkeley

I only wish the book were coming out sooner!  Actually, for a university press, the manuscript is racing through the production process, and I’m grateful for the care and attention of the editorial staff.  The text will be the first entry in a new series, “Spiritual Phenomena,” aimed primarily at academic audiences but also appealing to general readers interested in the creative interplay of mind, body, spirit, and culture.  I certainly wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer with the goal of making her story accessible to readers from all backgrounds.  The historical evidence of her extraordinary capacities for future-oriented dreaming has implications far beyond the relatively narrow concerns of academics. Her story highlights the existence of latent powers of the human imagination that have tremendous relevance today, during another era of unstable leadership and looming dangers for the reigning global empire.

 

Notes:

The first image is a funnel used by the Inquisition to torture prisoners by means of the “toca,” essentially a form of waterboarding.  I took the picture at the Museum of Torture (yes there is such a place) in Toledo.

The second image will be the basis of the book’s cover.  It’s a painting my wife and I bought in Amsterdam many years ago, and I’ve always felt it echoes something of Lucrecia’s story (no direct image of her remains).

Re the word “oneiric,” a friend who read a draft of the manuscript questioned whether I really need to use this term  in the first paragraph.  Here’s the hopefully clarifying endnote I added to the text at the end of the offending sentence: “The English word dream comes from a Proto-Germanic word, draugmaz, which meant dream, deception, delusion, hallucination, festivity, and ghost.  The Greek word oneiros comes from oner in Proto-Indo-European (the oldest known human language), meaning both dreams and the figures who appear in them.  The Spanish word sueño derives, like somnium in Latin and songe in French, from another Proto-Indo-European word, swepno, meaning sleep.”

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly BulkeleyIn August of 1991 I joined a group of dream researchers from the U.S. and Western Europe on a journey to Golitsyno, a conference center just outside Moscow in the former Soviet Union, where we planned to meet several Soviet researchers for a gathering organized by Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak.  Just hours after our plane landed in Moscow on August 19, the airport was suddenly shut down by the Red Army; a military coup against the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun.  All communications with the outside world were cut off.  Our only source of information was the state television, which offered nothing of substance and simply told everyone to stay calm. Alas, we didn’t.  As heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets, our jet-lagged brains struggled to process a surreal mix of fear, disorientation, and uncertainty about where this violent rebellion might lead.

But we had come to Golitsyno to talk about dreams, so that’s what we did, as reality itself took on a strangely dream-like quality.  Amid the various lectures and panel discussions, the most memorable session by far was a workshop on dream theater.  One person shared a dream, the rest of us chose a role to play based on an element from the dream–e.g., a character, object, setting, or emotion–and then we all performed the dream as a group, with the dreamer as the audience.  The process brought out incredible moments of insight, collaboration, creativity, and much-needed comic relief.  We were connecting with each other in a way none of the other conference sessions had allowed.  The attendees spoke a dozen different languages, so every verbal exchange involved a slow and laborious system of translation.  But here in the dream theater, we could act and react to each other immediately, spontaneously, right in the moment.  We found the best way to make sense of a world teetering on the brink of chaos was to play with each other’s dreams.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Among the many vivid impressions from Golitsyno, this workshop gave me a deep and lasting curiosity about the oneiric dimensions of live dramatic performance.  Plays are collective dreams. That has been my hypothesis ever since.  A live theatrical show provides a magical space where people can dream together, where shared imaginal experiences can be created, enjoyed, explored, and amplified.  

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

It turns out this hypothesis has a long history in the psychology of dreaming.  When Carl Jung (1875-1961) taught classes on dream analysis to graduate students at the University of Zurich in the late 1930’s, he told them to start the interpretation of a dream by treating it as the personal theater of the dreamer.  Many dreams have a “dramatic structure” that directly parallels the structure of a theatrical play.  Jung showed his students how to identify four elements commonly found in stage dramas: 1) the locale, where the dream is set and who is present as a character; 2) the exposition, what kind of problem motivates the characters and launches the plot; 3) the peripeteia, how the plot unfolds and changes over time; and 4) the lysis, how the plot ends, with or without a clear resolution.  Analyzing a dream in these terms does not automatically produce a definitive, unambiguous answer.  That was never Jung’s goal.  Rather, his theatrically inspired approach was aimed at opening up new vistas for interpretative inquiry, highlighting potentials for creative growth while making sure the meanings stay grounded in the dreamer’s lived experience.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

The Gestalt psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970) took Jung’s approach a step further.  In his workshops and seminars Perls taught his students to reimagine dreaming as a theater of their own minds: “Every part, every situation in a dream is a creation of the dreamer… Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto other objects.”  Perls emphasized the value of dreams in helping us become more aware of the alienated parts of our psyche, with the goal of eventually embracing those detached elements in a greater whole: “Dreamwork is the royal road to integration.”  By “dreamwork,” Perls meant a process of live psychodrama very similar to what we practiced in Golitsyno.  He asked for the dreamer to narrate his or her experience in the present tense, like a story happening right now, because “we want to bring the dream back to life.”  He gave the dreamer the title of “stage director” for an impromptu dramatic recreation of the dream, with various members of the group serving as characters, settings, and props.  Perls encouraged the performers to engage in spontaneous dialogues, the better to highlight unconscious projections and alienated parts of the psyche.

The dream theater method my colleagues and I learned in Golitsyno was not as directive and goal-driven as Perls’ approach, which focused on the therapeutic effects of provoking confrontations and reconciliations among the various elements of the dream.  Our practice was more open-ended, exploratory, and self-guided; it was not therapy, although it felt deeply therapeutic for many of us.

In his 1984 book Film and the Dream Screen, the literary critic Robert Eberwein used psychoanalytic language to account for the dream-like qualities of watching a movie.  Drawing on Freud’s theory that dreams reveal our earliest childhood memories of total fusion with reality, before there were boundaries between self and other, Eberwein claimed:

“Our experience of film permits us to return to the state of perceptual unity that we first participated in as infants and that we can know as dreamers. The ‘sleep’ in our experience of film, that is, will be seen to return us to the primal sense of unity with our dreams. As a result, we are able to watch and feel a sense of involvement in the images on the screen, the distinction between res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (external reality) having dissolved as we enter into the oneiric world of film.”   

I don’t entirely agree with his views of early child development (humans are relational beings from the start), but I do believe Eberwein’s approach is helpful in highlighting a powerful dimension of dreaming energy that becomes activated when watching a movie.  Indeed, I believe this argument can be made even more strongly in relation to attending a live theatrical performance, where the visceral immediacy of the drama comes closer than any other art form to invoking the startling beauty and electric intensity of an actual dream.  In a play, the audience and actors share an imaginal space they create and hold together.  Within this space, a story emerges that grows and takes a unique shape according to their dynamic interactions during the performance–the live presence of the actors intensifying the emotional responses of the audience, and the live presence of the audience stimulating the creative talents of the actors.  The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable.  They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Last year I joined the board of directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where some of the greatest theater on the planet is being created and performed.  From February to November, eleven plays (usually 4-5 by Shakespeare, one big musical, and the rest original commissions for OSF) are presented in three interconnected theaters.  The 2017 season performances began a few weeks ago, and just recently the 2018 season was announced, with favorable attention to OSF’s passionate commitment to presenting plays, both classic and new, that reflect the full range and diversity of the world in which we live today.  I’m very excited to do what I can to support the members of this amazing artistic community as they weave dreams and cast dramaturgical spells that transport audiences into imaginative spheres of beauty, wonder, and fiercely relevant insight.

 

Notes:

I wrote more about the Golitsyno experiences in a chapter titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” in my 1999 book Visions of the Night (SUNY Press).  My roommate at the conference center, Michael Dupre, wrote about his experiences in a 1992 article titled “Russia. Dreaming. Liberation.” (Dreaming 2(2): 123-134).

The Jung quotes come from the 2010 book Children’s Dreams (Princeton University Press).

The Perls quotes come from the 1970 book Gestalt Therapy Now (Harper).

In a future post I will write in more detail about the work of Robert Bosnak, who organized the “Dreaming in Russia” conference and who has done extensive work connecting dreams and theater, and Janet Sonenberg, who wrote the 2003 book Dreamwork for Actors and who has worked with Bosnak in theatrical contexts.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 4, 2017, and has been slightly revised.