“Once a Caliph saw his teeth falling out in a dream. He called a dream interpreter and asked him about the meaning of his dream. The interpreter replied: ‘The entire family of my master will perish.’ The Caliph became upset, and called for another interpreter and told him the dream. The second dream interpreter replied: ‘The dream of my master, the prince of believers, is true, for he shall live the longest amongst his relatives.’ Immediately the Caliph embraced the man and rewarded him for his skill and tactfulness.” (quoted in Amira Mittermaier, “Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination,” p. 63)
In honor of the April 26, 1564 baptism of William Shakespeare and his death on April 23, 1616, I have gathered a few of the best quotes about dreams from characters in his plays. Let me know if you’ve got other good ones!
Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
The Tempest, IV.i.156-158
“All days are nights to see till I see thee/And nights bright days when dreams do show me thee.”
Sonnet 43, 13-14
Gloucester: “My troublous dreams this night doth make me sad.”
Duchess: “What dreamed my lord? Tell me, and I’ll requite it with sweet rehearsal of my morning’s dream.”
Henry VI, Part II, I.ii.22-24
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.”
Mercutio: “Oh, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife…”
Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.52-58
Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”
Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet: “To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”
Puck: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream.”
Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.425-430
Here’s a link to the search page for the OpenSource Shakespeare website, where you can type in “dream” and find all references to dreaming in Shakespeare’s works.
In February of 1815 a baby girl was born two months prematurely to Mary Godwin, seventeen years old at the time, and the poet Percy B. Shelley. Twelve days later Mary went to the child during the night and found she had died in her sleep. On March 19, 1815 Mary recorded the following dream in her journal:
“Dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.”
It would be easy to interpret this dream as a guilt-driven fantasy, a classic Freudian wish fulfillment. We don’t know for sure, but we can fairly assume that Mary felt deeply saddened and somehow personally responsible for her child’s death. The dream, in this view, satisfies her desire to defy death and magically restore her child’s life rather than tragically losing it.
The limits of that interpretation become apparent when the dream’s waking life impact is taken into account. The dream did not diminish or obscure Mary’s awareness of what had happened. On the contrary, the dream made Mary more aware of the reality of her child’s death and more conscious of her agonizing feelings of loss. Far from a soothing delusion, this dream’s message to Mary seems almost cruel in its stark honesty: “Awake and find no baby.”
A better interpretation, I believe, starts with the dream’s emotional impact on her waking life. Mary’s dream marks a significant moment in her mourning process, her psyche’s way of making sense of a devastating loss and trying to reorient towards future growth. Mary’s dream does not hide or disguise her child’s death. When she wakes up, her first thought brings a fresh sense of loss and sadness. But the dream also introduces a spark of vitality into Mary’s awareness. Warmth, fire, and vigorous activity do indeed stimulate the creation of new life. Mary’s dream is not delusional about that piece of primal wisdom. Mary may not have been able to bring her baby back to life, but she still had the drive, desire, and knowledge to create again.
Out of her mourning Mary did find new creative energies. In January of 1816 she bore a healthy son, William. That summer, she and Percy Shelley visited the poet Lord Byron at his villa beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where Mary conceived the idea for her first novel: “Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus.”
“Frankenstein” surely reflects the same wishful fantasy as Mary’s dream of the previous year, i.e., bringing the dead back to life. But the differences are significant: In her dream, a mother tries to reanimate her daughter, whereas in “Frankenstein,” a male scientist tries to animate a creature stitched together from many different bodies. The dream portrays a natural human desire for a personal relationship, while the story presents an unnatural and inhuman desire for impersonal control over another’s life. In “Frankenstein” Mary adds to her dream a dimension of horror and madness, along with a prescient critique of the self-destructive hubris and masculine grandiosity of modern science. I don’t know much about her relationship with Percy Shelley, Byron, and other male poets, but I would guess that “Frankenstein” also reflects Mary’s feelings about gender, sexuality, and literary creativity.
Mary’s dream of her baby daughter did not simply inspire the “bring the dead back to life” plot line of “Frankenstein.” The dream prompted a transformative deepening of her awareness about the creative tension between life and death, an awareness that enabled her to infuse “Frankenstein” with critical insight, emotional poignancy, and existential wonder.
1. “I heard the church organ playing as at a funeral. When I looked to see what was going on, a grave opened suddenly, and my father arose out of it in a shroud. He hurries into the church and soon comes back with a small child in his arms. The mound on the grave reopens, he climbs back in, and the gravestone sinks back over the opening. The swelling noise of the organ stops at once, and I wake up.”
Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, 1980), p. 18. Nietzsche had the dream at the age of 5, at the end of January in 1850, six months after his father, a Lutheran pastor, died from a long and painful “softening of the brain.” Nietzsche’s description continues: “In the morning I tell the dream to my dear mother. Soon after that little Joseph [Nietzsche’s infant brother] is suddenly taken ill. He goes into convulsions and dies within a few hours.”
2. “He saw the parsonage lying in ruins and his grandmother sitting alone among the debris. Waking up in tears, he was unable to sleep any more.”
From Hayman, p. 32. Nietzsche had this dream the night of August 2, 1859, when he was 14 years old, after a big family party celebrating the 70th birthday of his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor like his father. Hayman’s account continues: “In the morning he told Elisabeth [his sister] and his mother, who said neither of them must talk about the dream. Always robust, their grandfather was still in good health. But before the summer was over he caught a bad chill, which developed into influenza. By the end of the year he was dead.”
These two dreams prefigure Nietzsche’s later philosophy in several ways. They express a profound appreciation for the terrifying power of the unconscious, a tragic sense of fate and mortality, an openness to insights from “irrational” sources of knowledge, and a spiritual struggle with the death of God, the church, and His representatives on earth.
Hayman’s biography helps us see how Nietzsche’s early dream experiences gave fuel to the coming explosion of philosophical creativity. In 1870, as a 25-year old professor at Basel University, he wrote in his notebook, “In one half of existence we are artists—as dreamers. This entirely active world is necessary to us.” (p. 135)
These notes served as the basis for The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche’s first published book. The opening section of this work lays out an understanding of art, philosophy, and history that centers on the creative power of dreams.
“The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also. In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance; at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets….And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have likewise heard of people who were able to continue one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights—facts which indicate clearly how our innermost being, our common ground, experiences dreams with profound delight and a joyful necessity.” (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, 1967, pp. 34-35)
This is not the place to explore the influence of dreams on The Birth of Tragedy or other writings in Nietzsche’s later career. But it’s worth pointing out that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew of Nietzsche’s philosophy and wove his ideas directly into their new psychological theories. If you want to understand Freud and Jung better, go back to Nietzsche and his childhood dreams.
(Note: the picture shows Nietzsche in 1861, at the age of 16 or 17.)
From numbers to narrative: The SDDb makes it easier than ever to combine quantitative and qualitative modes of dream research. It’s possible to look only at numbers when studying dreams, just as it’s possible to look only at their narrative qualities. But now that digital archives provide the ability to do both in a variety of creatively coordinated ways, there’s no reason you have to choose one method or the other.
In fact, the burden is now on single-method researchers to explain why their investigations would not be enriched by the easy integration of other methods. For those of us who have long struggled to explain and defend the advantages of multidisciplinary research, this is a satisfying turn of the tables.
Back to the children’s dreams: After using the word searches to highlight some large-scale patterns in this set of 622 dreams, I’m ready to look into the dream narratives themselves.
Depending on your original question, you may want to start reading a set of dream narratives at the very outset, or you may want to extend the statistical analysis even further than I have up to this point. Given my initial interests, I have enough statistical information by now to feel comfortable going ahead and reading selected dream reports with a focus on details that relate to special themes I’m studying in terms of “big dreams.”
I start with death, in part because I’m curious what kids are thinking, feeling, and imagining about the end of life. I’ve also found in past studies that dreams relating to death are often connected to bigger religious/spiritual beliefs in the individual’s life. Guided by that, I often begin reading my way into a set of dreams through the reports using death-related words.
Here are some of the children’s dreams about death that illustrate recurrent themes found elsewhere in the set, along with my initial notes about what might be going on.
“I remember having a dream that my mom died. I couldn’t recall where I was. All I could think about was who was going to take care of us. I felt scared. I don’t remember how my dream ended.” (boy, 17)
Many of the death-related dreams involved a mortal threat to parents or family members. This surely reflects a primal fear in child psychology.
“I had a dream a couple of nights ago about my mom dying and I couldn’t save her. It was very hard to understand why I had a dream like that about my mom.” (girl, 9)
Here is the same theme, with an extra emphasis on the child’s futile efforts to stop death. The dream pushes her waking mind to consider something it does not understand but can’t help wondering about.
“My mom and dad were in the house with me and there were ghost versions of my mom and dad. The ghost versions of my parents let me play computer games and do whatever I wanted and they were yelling a lot. They shot the real versions of my parents and then my parents died. I cried but then Jesus showed up with me. This was a vivid nightmare i had when I was 8.” (girl, 15)
There’s more bizarreness in this dream, which may reflect metaphorical dimensions of meaning (hard to explore without the ability to dialogue with the dreamer). She is scared of the death not of her parents but of their disciplined care for her (their superego function?), which is then replaced by the companionship of Jesus. What does this say about the adolescent psychology of religion?
“One night when I was about 15 years old I had a dream that I was at home and everyone was sleeping when we got a phone call saying that my grandfather had died. The next morning after I had woken up from the dream I went downstairs and my mother was crying. My grandfather had been put into the hospital after a heart attack but luckily he made it through.” (girl, 15)
Strange things happen in families during times of grave illness and death. Perhaps the girl subliminally heard the phone call while sleeping and incorporated it into her dream, or perhaps her dreaming mind picked up on the emotional stress of her family through means we do not yet understand and wove it into an adaptive preparation for the crisis in waking life.
“I played with my dog Lita that died 2 years ago. i took her on a walk to our favorite rock and she licked my face. I was so happy. I wished it was real.” (girl, 10)
There are several visitation dreams in the set, some with family members and some with animals. It’s a dream of happiness and mourning that spurs waking reflection on the relation of wishes and realities.
“It was about my cat Nick he died over a year ago and I dreamt that he came back to life to hang with me and my family this happened about a month ago it felt so real that when I woke up and saw he was not there I was so sad.” (girl, 11)
A similar kind of visitation dream prompts waking feelings in relation to loss of a pet. Is this type of dream a cruel reminder that would be better ignored, or is it part of the lifelong psychological process of coping when loved ones die? Could it also be a dawning insight into the existential fact of mortality for all of us, animals and humans alike?
“I had a dream a few days ago that I was in Japan in the 40’s. I was there when one of the bombs dropped from either Heroshima or Nagasoki. I don’t know which one. But I remember seeing the huge mushroom cloud engulf the city the cloud was right in front of me. I didn’t feel afraid. I felt accepting of whatever death was about to come. I was 15 when I had this dream.” (girl, 15)
A spiritually precocious dream in which the girl imagines herself into the iconic scene of nuclear horror that defined the nightmares of the 20th century. She describes an unusual emotional calm as she accepts the inevitability of death. It would be very interesting to know more about this girl! Her experience resonates with the mystical dream traditions of many cultures, where apocalyptic imagery can herald moments of existential insight and self-transcendence.
Next: What can be learned from these findings