William Shakespeare Dreams in Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Dreams in Shakespeare

To a degree, Shakespeare's varied and extensive use of dreams in his plays reflects the widespread currency of the motif on the English Renaissance stage—where it was a common feature, originating in the theater of classical antiquity. Yet, Shakespeare is also credited with imaginatively expanding and shaping the dramatic representation of dreams. The romances particularly have earned the attention of critics intrigued by their unique settings in dream-like worlds of fantasy, for example, in the bucolic forest of The Winter's Tale, Prospero's magical island in The Tempest, and the illusory, faerie world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In addition, Shakespeare has made significant use of dreams throughout his oeuvre, in many instances evoking the classical conception of the dream as a medium of supernatural powers or as a premonition of future events. This approach is a common feature in the early histories, notably Henry VI in which the Cardinal of Winchester experiences a dream that prefigures the Duke of Gloucester's death. Similarly, Shakespeare employs dreams and foreboding omens in Richard III Dreams also figure prominently in the tragedies. In Romeo and Juliet Romeo dreams of his own death only to imagine that Juliet has arrived, and with a kiss brought him back to life. Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear also offer dreams and visions that take on ominous, preternatural overtones as they herald the approach of ghosts, witchcraft, or madness.

Modern criticism of dreams in Shakespearean drama has tended to focus on psychoanalysis. Appropriately, several critics have observed the importance of Shakespeare's works as raw material for later, Freudian theories on the significance of dreams in human psychology. Among them, Frankie Rubinstein (1986) has located Shakespeare's dramatization of dreams as precursors of Sigmund Freud's "dream-material." Kay Stockholder (1987) has examined the unconscious blending of violence and sexuality in Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, uncovering the deep-seated and perverse motivations in the half-waking dreams of the play's title character. Further explorations of dreams in various plays have unearthed considerable material for psychoanalytic critics. Among them, Terrence N. Tice (1990) has commented on the implications of Calphurnia's dream portending the murder of Caesar in Julius Caesar, which Tice sees as a device for conveying the psychological state of depression to the viewing audience. Joseph Westlund (1993), meanwhile, has focused on Posthumus's dream in Cymbeline as a manifestation of his search for psychological integration.

Other critical avenues on the subject of dreams have included readings of particular plays as the dream-narratives of individual characters. Thus, Kay Stockholder (1991) has interpreted The Merchant of Venice as if its plot were the dream of Portia's dead father, using this unique perspective to discover the sources of the play's obsessive themes of wealth and desire. Likewise, Simon O. Lesser (1976) has discussed Macbeth as a play driven by the unconscious dreams and fantasies of its protagonist as they are brought to bloody fruition. The negative consequences of a blurred distinction between dream-fantasy and reality are the subject of Marjorie Garber's (1974) influential study Dream in Shakespeare. In it Garber surveys Shakespearean tragedy from Richard III to Antony and Cleopatra, uncovering the importance of dreams as the representations of internal landscapes in the early histories and the tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, and as symbolic—rather than psychological or naturalistic—manifestations in the later plays.

Overviews: Dreams And Psychoanalysis

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Frankie Rubinstein (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Dream-Stuff: A Forerunner of Freud's 'Dream Material'," in American Imago, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 335-55.

[In the following essay, Rubinstein explores the dream language and imagery of Shakespeare's dramas and the relation of these to Freudian psychoanalysis.]

"We are such stuff / As dreams are made...

(The entire section is 73,202 words.)