Commentators who address the issue of Shakespeare and time do so from a broad range of approaches. They may discuss time as a thematic device, as a structural principle, or as a means of delineating character. The notion of time itself has a variety of connotations in Shakespeare scholarship. It may represent, among other things, the personification of destructive or restorative forces, the medium through which action moves, or the pace at which a story line develops. Critics such as L. G. Salingar (see Further Reading) evaluate Shakespeare's treatment or use of time in terms of his reliance on, or innovative adaptations of, medieval and Renaissance conceptions of time. Others, including Harold E. Toliver (1965), trace what they perceive to be a growing complexity in Shakespeare's scrutiny of time, from the sonnets to the romances. Ricardo J. Quinones (1965) also surveys many of the poems and plays in his assessment of the multiple functions of time in Shakespeare's works. By contrast, Irwin Smith (1969) concentrates on the rhythm of dramatic time in a smaller number of plays, especially Richard III. Jonas Barish (1996) addresses the question of Shakespeare's anachronisms, particularly in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline. Whatever the approach, commentary on Shakespeare and time deals most often with As You Like It, Macbeth, the romances, and the sonnets.

The depiction of time in sonnets 1-126 is the chief focus of David Kaula (1963), Frederick Turner (1971), and Robert L. Montgomery (1999). Emphasizing Shakespeare's resourceful manipulation of different views of time in these verses, Kaula analyzes the ways in which the poet employs these to enhance and modify the relationship between the speaker and his friend. Turner pays particular attention to the thematic link between love and time in the sonnets, and to its expression through imagery. Montgomery stresses the intense emotionalism of the poems, arguing that the notion of time's destructive capability is underscored here by Shakespeare's persistent and urgent cultivation of the present.

The contrast between the corrupt present at the court of Duke Frederick and the pastoral timelessness of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is the principal subject of Jay L. Halio's 1962 essay. He discusses the disparity between the materialistic, expedient world of court and city, on the one hand, and the meaningless of time in the forest, on the other, noting the discrepancies between individual characters' perceptions of time. Rawdon Wilson (1975) discerns a shift in the course of the play, rather than a disparity, between the temporal perspectives of the court and Arden. In his judgment, the play depicts an evolutionary change in attitude toward time, from the notion of it as an objective process to its conception as a relative one: an expression of private, individual worlds. Bart Westerweel (1993) explicates the chronological-spatial relationship in both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, emphasizing how this relationship highlights the contrast between pastoral and satiric modes in the latter play. Another Shakespearean comedy that has attracted a measure of critical attention to its treatment of time is Troilus and Cressida. Both Toliver and John Bayley (1975) note the sense of disordered time in the play, with Toliver stressing discontinuity and Bayley the lack of multiple dimensions.

In sharp contrast to that of Troilus and Cressida, the world of The Tempest is notably well-ordered. This romance deals integrally with the nature of time, as James E. Robinson (1964) and D. S. McGovern (1983) point out. Time is a central structural element in The Tempest, Robinson contends, but it is also Prospero's chief antagonist, limiting his attempts to reform others and compelling him to carry out his schemes with alacrity, before the critical present expires. McGovern argues that Prospero comes to terms with the notion that time represents both an occasion for human action and a limitation on that action; he also suggests that the way different characters view time is an important factor in shaping their individual identities. Similarly, in her commentary on The Winter's Tale, Theresa M. Krier (see Further Reading) points to the significance of Hermione and Perdita's conception of time as creative and redemptive; indeed, she remarks, the female characters in this play embody the objective reality that in human life, comedy and tragedy frequently coincide. Frederick Turner (see Further Reading) compares the dissonant relationship between characters and their temporal environment in the tragic first half of The Winter's Tale with the harmonious reconciliation of temporal and timeless worlds in the pastoral second half. He asserts that in the speech of Time, the Chorus—which he analyzes closely—marks the point at which the emphasis on time the destroyer unexpectedly changes to an emphasis on time the creator.

Whereas commentators on the romances frequently stress the importance in these plays of forging an accommodation with time, critics who interpret Macbeth accentuate the disastrous effects that ensue when the natural order of time is defied. Toliver, for example, suggests that Macbeth's powerful imagination induces him to try to thwart the present rather than enduring time's customary progression. Donald W. Foster (1986) also proposes that Macbeth attempts to break the laws of time and forcibly take the future into his own hands. Focusing on another Shakespearean tragedy, Lorne Buchman (1987) examines the principal characters' differing perceptions of time in Othello, arguing that while Iago sees time as changeable—and also as a force to be controlled and manipulated—the Moor regards it as orderly and eternal. But Othello also fears the mutability of time, Buchman contends, and this makes him particularly susceptible to his ensign's treacherous schemes. David Kaula (1964) similarly compares the various senses of time held by the protagonists in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting that Caesar concentrates on the future and regards time as a political instrument, Antony is oriented toward the past and feels harried by the relentless pressure of time, and Cleopatra focuses on the present while maintaining a strong belief in the continuity of life. Kaula calls attention to the differing rhythms of time in Rome and Alexandria, as well as to the discrepancy between the rapid tempo of the dramatic action and the slower-running undercurrent of historical time.

The topic of time in Shakespeare's English histories has drawn relatively little critical attention, but three commentators who have addressed this issue are Quinones, Wylie Sypher (1976), and Robert B. Bennett (see Further Reading). Quinones argues that in these plays time is an instrument of a reality that leads men to catastrophe and perhaps even oblivion, although, he adds, like the sonnets, the sequence holds out the hope of fending off disaster through the continuity of family lineage. Sypher considers the second tetralogy—Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—to be a portrayal of the vanity of history in a world where ascensions to political power are trivial when viewed in the context of the unfathomable expanse of time. All the major figures in these plays eventually realize that their achievements are insubstantial, the critic maintains, and come to understand that they're participating in a contest where the winners will be those who most skillfully employ the strategy of Machiavellian opportunism. Bennett's discussion of the second tetralogy is in marked contrast to Sypher's. Focusing on Shakespeare's presentation of how time shapes human action and history, he discerns a cyclical, sacramental progression in these four plays from initial harmony between man and nature, or God, to spiritual alienation, then redemption and a return to unity.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Harold E. Toliver (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Toliver, Harold E. “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 64, no. 2 (April 1965): 234-54.

[In the following essay, Toliver follows Shakespeare's increasingly ambiguous and complex treatment of the theme of time from the sonnets and early comedies to the late romances. He calls particular attention to the dramatist's exploration of the effectiveness and limitations of different strategies of resisting time.]

“For the Christian of the Middle Ages,” Georges Poulet writes in Studies in Human Time (New York, 1959), “the sense of his existence did not precede a sense of his continuance” (p. 3). His life was a...

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Ricardo J. Quinones (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Quinones, Ricardo J. “Views of Time in Shakespeare.” Journal of the History of Ideas 26, no. 3 (July-September 1965): 327-52.

[In the following essay, Quinones identifies three principal concepts of time in Shakespeare's works: augmentative time, whose potentially destructive power may be averted; contracted time, whose corrosive effects are inevitably tragic; and extended time, which works in league with nature to bring about auspicious resolutions.]

With Paul Elmer More one can say that “no single motive or theme recurs more persistently through the whole course of Shakespeare's works than [the] consciousness of the servile depredations of...

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Irwin Smith (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Smith, Irwin. “Dramatic Time versus Clock Time in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Winter 1969): 65-69.

[In the following essay, Smith directs attention to the compression and acceleration of dramatic time in several of Shakespeare's plays, discussing in particular the three different time schemes in Act IV, scene iii of Richard III.]

Wishing to scrape up a renewed acquaintance with Orlando, who fails to recognize her in her masculine attire, Rosalind asks him a question that still occasionally serves as an opening gambit when girl wants to meet boy. She asks him what time it is; and having thus introduced the subject of time, she keeps the...

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Jonas Barish (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Barish, Jonas. “Hats, Clocks and Doublets: Some Shakespearean Anachronisms.” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 29-36. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Barish examines anachronisms in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline, and argues that most of Shakespeare's anachronisms are unobtrusive, and that Shakespeare's original audiences were less likely than modern ones to notice them.]

Shakespearean drama, as we all know, is riddled with anachronisms. Repeatedly the plays jolt us out of the historical moment in which their...

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Criticism: Themes

Jay L. Halio (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Halio, Jay L. “‘No Clock in the Forest’: Time in As You Like It.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 2, no. 2 (Spring 1962): 197-207.

[In the following essay, Halio evaluates the juxtaposition of time-consciousness in the world of court and city versus the timelessness in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It.]

In As You Like It Shakespeare exploits timelessness as a convention of the pastoral ideal along with other conventions taken from pastoralism, but unlike his treatment, say, of Silvius and Phebe, his treatment of time is not so thoroughly satirical. Though neither will quite do, timelessness in Arden (on the whole)...

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David Kaula (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Kaula, David. “‘In War with Time’: Temporal Perspectives in Shakespeare's Sonnets.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 3, no. 1 (Winter 1963): 45-57.

[In the following essay, Kaula discerns two different time perspectives in sonnets 1-126, and analyzes the sonnets' syntax, rhetoric, and imagery in order to explain the disparate strategies these poems use to defy the tyranny of time.]

The figure of time which occurs so often in the sonnets Shakespeare addresses to the young friend (1-126) points to one of the central preoccupations of the sequence. Appearing as it does in several of its familiar allegorical guises—as thief, tyrant, devourer, and...

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James E. Robinson (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Robinson, James E. “Time and The Tempest.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 63, no. 2 (April 1964): 255-67.

[In the essay below, Robinson maintains that Shakespeare shows all the characters, but most especially Prospero, struggling against the urgent pressure of time to carry out their schemes within the brief duration of the present moment.]

In discussions of The Tempest, Shakespeare's use of the “unity of time” is usually dutifully referred to and then too often dismissed as unimportant or incidental. I propose to show, however, that the time of The Tempest is very much of the nature of The Tempest. Derek Traversi...

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David Kaula (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Kaula, David. “The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 3 (Summer 1964): 211-23.

[In the following essay, Kaula compares the various senses of time held by the protagonists of Antony and Cleopatra—Caesar is focused on the future and views time as an instrument that progresses linearly, Antony clings to the past and continually strains against the pressures of time, and Cleopatra regards time as a pliant, continuous present.]

Antony and Cleopatra opens with one Roman commenting to another on what is, to them, the deplorable change that has come over their general: the Mars-like warrior of the past has...

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Frederick Turner (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Turner, Frederick. “Time the ‘Destroyer’ in the Sonnets.” In Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, pp. 7-27. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the associated themes of love and time in Shakespeare's sonnets. He argues that even though these verses depict time as corrupting all material or external things, especially beauty, they also represent true love as a transcendent, spiritual relationship to which time is irrelevant.]

It is, perhaps, dangerous to ascribe a philosophy or a conceptual view of time to the sonnets. J. B. Leishman, in his Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets (1961), makes an...

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Rawdon Wilson (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Wilson, Rawdon. “The Way to Arden: Attitudes toward Time in As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly, 26, no. 1 (Winter 1975): 16-24.

[In the following essay, Wilson identifies two concepts of time in As You Like It: one that views time as an objective process of measuring change and another that perceives time as relative and subjective. The critic finds that objective time is associated with the world of commerce and exchange, while the subjective sense of time is associated with the Forest of Arden.]

In an essay on As You Like It published in 1940, James Smith argued that Celia's remark at the end of the first act, that Touchstone...

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John Bayley (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Time and the Trojans.” Essays in Criticism, 25, no. 1 (January 1975): 55-73.

[In the following essay, Bayley links the absence of value and meaning in Troilus and Cressida to the omission in the play of any sense of past or future in the lives of the characters.]

The weight and density of time is an impression generated by the nature of Shakespearean dramatic action. It is of course illusory, because a play consists of a number of words, which take a given period of time to recite in the theatre, or to read in the study. But the Shakespearean character appears to bring to the action in which the play involves him the invisible lifetime...

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Horst Breuer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Breuer, Horst. “Disintegration of Time in Macbeth's Soliloquy: ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.’” Modern Language Review 71, no. 2 (April 1976): 256-71.

[In the following essay, Breuer analyzes Macbeth's ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” monologue (Act V, scene v) with reference to the twentieth-century experience of despair and isolation. He proposes that the collapse of time as a symbol of stability and the ensuing disorientation expressed in this soliloquy are paralleled in the works of Samuel Beckett, and that they also reflect Macbeth's attempt to mediate medieval and modern notions of man and his place in the universe.]


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Wylie Sypher (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Sypher, Wylie. “Political Time: The Vanity of History.” In The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare, pp. 23-38. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Sypher reads the second tetralogy in terms of the notion that history is a spurious charade that fades into insignificance when viewed against the measureless backdrop of time.]

Richard III is a “history” play, but hardly in the sense that the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV: Parts I and II, and Henry V are “history” plays, for the latter deal with politics as Richard III does not. That is, the tetralogy revolves about the modern...

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D. S. McGovern (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: McGovern, D. S. “‘Tempus’ in The Tempest.English 32, no. 144 (Autumn 1983): 201-14.

[In the following essay, McGovern suggests that the title of The Tempest evokes not only the sense of a violent storm and emotional turmoil but also the sense of time or season. In the critic's judgment, the play deals significantly with the nature of time.]


It has been suggested that a more appropriate title for The Tempest would be The Island because the self-contained strangeness of Prospero's isle pervades the play, whereas the storm is limited to its opening scene.1 Although this suggestion does not...

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Donald W. Foster (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Foster, Donald W. “Macbeth's War on Time.” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 319-42.

[In the following essay, Foster contends that Macbeth is a slave of time, a man who questions whether his fate is predetermined yet whose boundless will to power leads him to seize the future on his own terms and create himself king. However, the critic proposes, Macbeth's failure to transcend the inexorable progress of time, his most pernicious enemy, ultimately leads him to a nihilistic conviction that his life—indeed all life—is meaningless.]

James I, in his preface to the Basilikon Doron (1603), notes that men must “be very warie...

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Lorne M. Buchman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Buchman, Lorne M. “Orson Welles's Othello: A Study of Time in Shakespeare's Tragedy.” Shakespeare Survey 39, (1987): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Buchman contrasts Iago's view of time as changeable with Othello's perception of time as an eternal, orderly continuum, and remarks that the Moor's underlying fear of time's power to destroy love and honor makes him particularly vulnerable to Iago's treachery. Buchman also demonstrates how Orson Welles, in his film adaptation of Othello, used various cinematic techniques to underscore the significance of time in the play.]

With the recent wave of scholarship on Shakespeare on film there is at...

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Bart Westerweel (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Westerweel, Bart. “The Dialogic Imagination: The European Discovery of Time and Shakespeare's Mature Comedies.” In Renaissance Culture in Context: Theory and Practice, edited by Jean R. Brink and William F. Gentrup, pp. 54-74. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Westerweel employs Mikhail Bakhtin's theoretical model of the chronotope (literally “time-space”) to analyze temporal and spatial concepts in Twelfth Night and, to a lesser degree, in As You Like It. Westerweel identifies a variety of time-space relationships in these two comedies that help define mood and genre, but his primary emphasis is on the distinctive chronotopes of each of...

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Robert L. Montgomery (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Robert L. “The Present Tense: Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Menaces of Time.” The Ben Jonson Journal 6 (1999): 147-60.

[In the following essay, Montgomery focuses on the depth and emotionalism of Shakespeare's conception of the present in the sonnets. In most of the sonnets to the young man, the critic contends, only the present is valued, though it is unstable and variable; by contrast, the imminent future promises only death, deprivation, and destruction.]

In Shakespeare's Sonnets time has structural and emotional functions that make it the dominant and most persistent of all the issues the speaker has on his mind. As such it has drawn...

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Further Reading


Bell, Arthur H. “Time and Convention in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (Summer 1973): 253-64.

Suggests that as Antony tries to come to terms with the relentless demands of time, he vacillates between three conventional roles: the courtly lover, the Homeric hero, and the man of political prudence. In Bell's judgment, Shakespeare shows that neither the lover's escapism, the hero's pursuit of honor and reputation, nor the politician's pragmatism is a sufficient means of coping with the force that controls Antony's destiny.

Bennett, Robert B. “Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's...

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