illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23332

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...

(This entire section contains 23332 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep."

The Tempest, IV.i

"Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire, and begot / A father to me; and thou hast created / A mother . . . Gone! they went hence as soon as they were born; / And so I am awake . . . and find nothing. 'Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen / Tongue and brain not; either both or nothing; / Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such / As sense cannot untie. Be what it is / The action of my life is like it . . ."

Cymbeline, V.iv1

What Freud calls the "material" of dreams, Shakespeare had earlier called the "stuff," knowing that many in his audience would recognize in this word his frequent double entendre on coital stuffing and the stuff of semen and brothel occupants. They would know these puns from many plays; for example, Timon of Athens, where Apemantus's father "in spite put stuff/To some she beggar and compounded" him; Pericles, where the Bawd describes her brothel wenches as "the stuff we have"; Much Ado About Nothing, where Beatrice who complains she is "stuffed" and "cannot smell," meaning only that she has a cold, nonetheless has her chastity jestingly challenged by Margaret, who responds, "A maid, and stuffed!"; and Cymbeline, where the diseased "hired tomboys" with whom Iachimo accuses Posthumus of fornicating, are called "boyl'd stuff," a pun on their being the boiled stuff of a stew, a word Shakespeare used for both a vessel for boiling and also a brothel, like the very "stew" that, a few lines later, Iachimo is accused of having come from. There is also the implication that they have boils and are candidates for the sweating tubs of boiling water that were used to treat venereal disease; and there may be a hint of sexual deviance (since Iachimo has a "beastly mind") in that the "boyl'd stuff may be boyl'd boys; TOMBOYS,2 by which Shakespeare meant masculine girls or effeminate boys. In using a word that has a potential for bawdy, like "stuff," Shakespeare can establish a certain distance of ironic detachment from a however thoughtful character speaking however earnestly, as in the above quotations from The Tempest and Cymbeline.

Freud's pioneering contribution to contemporary studies that utilize psychoanalytic concepts for interpreting Shakespeare was enormous. He revealed certain larger dramatic themes and fleshed out certain characters, as Shakespeare had understood them or had unconsciously recognized them to be, as in his seminal concept that Macbeth is only secondarily a study of overweening political ambition and that the play's unbridled violence stems from its being primarily a drama of father-son relations and the curse of barrenness.3 And his perceptions and theories have been enriched, as well as redefined and revised, by the detailed verbal analyses in contemporary psychoanalytical criticism.4

In King Lear and The Merchant of Venice, Freud saw the presentation of an old mythological and folk dilemma, that of man's necessity to choose among three women, the choice devolving on the third, whom he likens to the third spinner of man's Fate, Atropos, the inevitable, or death.5 Crucial to an understanding of the choice in both plays is the specific quality shared by the chosen: dumbness. Cordelia, whose voice was "ever soft, / Gentle, and low," will "Love, and be silent"; and Portia, hidden in the third casket (where the casket, an old symbol for the essential part of woman comes to represent woman herself), says of herself that "a maiden hath no tongue but thought." Portia, whose eyes once gave "speechless messages" to Bassanio, is not "contained" or concealed in caskets of clamorous gold or silver, but in silent lead, now chosen by him because its "paleness [alternate reading: plainness] moves me more than eloquence."6 In dreams, Freud explains, "dumbness" familiarly represents death, as do "concealment" and "striking pallor"; and such are their meanings here.

These Freudian significations can be detected in other of Shakespeare's plays, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Thisbe's comic plaint, "Speak, speak. Quite dumb! Dead, dead?"; and most telling in Henry IV, Part 2, when Suffolk says, "Gloucester is dead," and Carlyle responds, "I did dream tonight / The duke was dumb." Paleness, too, is often linked to death: "death's pale flag" (Romeo and Juliet); "pale-dead eyes" (Henry V). In Pericles, the trio of dumbness, paleness, and death are linked: "["martyrs"] tell thee, with speechless tongues and semblance pale . . . with dead cheeks." And in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the comic vein, it is "The Sisters Three . . . With hands as pale as milk" who "shore / With shears his thread of silk" when Death claimed Pyramus. Many of Shakespeare's audience, knowing well their Bible, may even have heard in these metaphors echoes of the "pale horse" whose rider is Death (Revelation 6:5).

On the lead casket lies a message from Portia's dead father: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." In the sixteenth century gambling game of hazard (and this choosing among the three caskets is certainly a gambling game), the hazard (Arab, al zār, the die) was the die, singular form of "dice" (Shakespeare quibbles on "the hazard of the die," Richard III). Portia's "picture" was contained in lead, a frequent Shakespearean symbol for death, its instrument and final home; for example, all the "leaden" swords, shot, daggers; the "leaden mace of murderous slumber"; the corpse that might "burst his lead and rise from death"; and in The Merchant of Venice, the surmise that it is not possible "lead contains her . . . it were too gross / To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave."

Freud explained that the symbolism in plays, like that in dreams, often seems to lack literal applicability to the immediate story line because of inversion, a tendency of the mind to replace an element with its exact opposite. Thus, of the last scene of King Lear, in the English war camp, when Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms, Freud tells us:

Cordelia is Death. If we reverse the situation it becomes intelligible and familiar to us. She is the Deathgoddess who, like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield. Eternal wisdom, clothed in the primaeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.7

In interpreting The Merchant of Venice, Freud again used inversion or "reaction-formation" to explain why the third casket, the lead one, is Portia, the fairest woman. Rebelling against his subjection to the inevitability of death (the third Fate), man constructed derivative myths wherein the chosen Goddess of Love takes the place of the unavoidable Goddess of Death, a not difficult substitution since this replacement by the wish-opposite derives from the ancient identity of the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who was once also goddess of death and the underworld. (In Hinduism, Nataraj, the dancing god with four arms, carrying a drum, is he who both creates and destroys the universe.)

Knowing that dreams show a "preference for combining contrasts into a unity or for representing them as one and the same thing,"8 let us look a little closer at the allegory of the three caskets. In addition to all the other clues that Portia illicitly gives Bassanio—who at one point says, "my torturer / Doth teach me answers for deliverance!"—she tells him she would detain him "Before you venture for me." Venture, which literally means hazard, risk oneself, is almost an open directive to Bassanio to go with the lead casket that requires him to "give and hazard all," the one he recognizes "threatenest." Portia says, "I am lock'd in one" of the caskets, and "I stand for sacrifice." Her musicians conclude with a little song that toys with the contradictions in "fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies"—disguise: death and birth, caskets and cradles; and Bassanio, who had asked "Promise me life" and been told "Live thou I live," opts for lead or death. And under it all flows the current of a religious metaphor, the choice of a death that leads to life: "sacrifice" and "deliverance"; a "new-crowned monarch" and a "bridegroom": the "Lord Bassanio."

In dreams, inversion functions to further wish fulfillment. Shakespeare recognized that dreams tell us what we wish to hear: "Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter—/ In sleep a king, but waking no such matter" (Sonnet 87). In his study of the sonnets, Joseph Pequigney argues that this flattering "matter" or dream material is libidinal: the sonneteers has "had" a lover who "gav'st" his self but ultimately proved too dear for "possessing"—three words that signify carnal possession.9 I would add that MATTER is a Shake-spearean pun on the penis and semen.10 Since Pequigney argues that Shakespeare's sonnets describe his love for both a man and a woman, it may be worth nothing here that Freud commented on the frequency with which inversion occurs in dreams that derive from repressed homosexual impulses.

Elizabethan writers recognized the contrariness of dreams, a proverbial view as old as The Golden Ass of Apuleius:

the visions of the night do often chance contrary: and indeed to dream of weeping, beating, and killing is a token of good luck . . . whereas contrary, to dream of laughing, filling the belly with good cheer, or dalliance of love, is a sign of sadness of heart, sickness of body, or other displeasure.11

Shakespeare's fellow playwright John Lyly tells us in Mother Bombie: "they that in the morning sleep or dream of eating, Are in danger of sickness or of beating." Similarly, Shakespeare writes in Much Ado About Nothing: "I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness and wak'd herself with laughing"; and in Julius Caesar, before the mob "Tear [Cinna] to pieces," the victimized poet says, "I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar / And things unluckily charge my fantasy."

Shakespeare's plays are full of incongruities, equivocations, verbal antitheses, contradictions, oxymorons; the shifts in person, sudden reversals and contradictory moods within a single poem, clashing elements in a single scene that are typical of the Elizabethan style.12 According to Patrick Cruttwell, seventeenth century writers developed this new "psychological impressionism" to convey their awareness of the ever incongruous states of the human being; hence John Donne's "contraryes meet in one" in his "Holy Sonnets" and Shakespeare's "compounds strange" in Sonnet 76. He maintains the futility of trying to decide which of any two opposing attitudes, such as levity or seriousness, is the intent of a poetic phrase or line, since only by recognizing the fusing of both elements within one metaphor can we grasp the entirety, the full meaning that is beyond the scope of either separately.

Freud likewise speaks of arrangements of words that permit the expression of more than one dream thought, it being the very nature of a word to be the junction of a multiplicity of ideas, to possess an inherent, a "predestined" ambiguity. The particular words taken up into dream content are chosen, he says, because they are nodal points, the meeting place of several trains of thought and because they are of manifold significance.

A quotation from King Lear ( may serve to illustrate the similarity between the productions of dream-work and Shakespeare's puns that function consistently, coherently and simultaneously on two or more levels, his metaphors whose dramatic service is. not at all impeded by but, in fact, derives from their ambiguity. I have chosen the seemingly simple lines, "I will die bravely, like a smug bridegroom. What! I will be jovial. Come, come, I am a king" for several reasons: (1) they contain (as Edgar says of Lear's madness) "matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness"; (2) Cruttwell described the first half as having a "queer tightrope affect almost beyond analysis, with bawdy on one side and heartbreaking pathos on the other"13 and (3) my own conviction that Shakespeare's bawdry usually has specific relevance and particular meaning for the play in which it occurs.

Freud's caveat about interpreting the symbolism that disguises repressed sexual material, namely, that like Chinese script, its correct meaning can be provided only by context, applies as well to any attempt to understand Shakespeare's sexual metaphors. So we shall examine Lear's sentence in its immediate context; the context of the entire play, where similar wordclusters appear; other of Shakespeare's plays in which the same elements occur and where repetitive patterns of association emerge; and, finally, how the word or phrase was used by Shakespeare's contemporaries and in the several languages and literatures that he, like so many of the poets and playwrights of his day, had an acquaintance with or knowledge of.

Earlier, Lear had come to terms with his failure as a king and evinced a sympathy of sorts for the downtrodden, but he still did not accept personal responsibility for his ills, still saw himself as "more sinned against than sinning." Self-pitying to the end, Lear says, "I am mightily abused. I should e'en die with pity, / To see another thus" (IV.vii). Blame for his own evil doing he lays at the doors of "fortune's blows" and his daughters, who "Have . . . done [him] wrong" though "cause, they have not." Lear conveniently forgets the emotional games he has played with his daughters, and the obvious favoritism he displayed toward Cordelia: "I loved her most"; and he is blind to the hate this engenders in the two older girls. He remains an egotist, bitterly cynical and at war with all sexuality. "Adultery" he accepts as the way of the world: "Let copulation thrive" in man, since it is natural to all other creatures—and besides, "I lack soldiers!" Sexually biased, he reviles women, whose genitals revulse him: "nor the soil'd horse goes to't [lechery] / With a more riotous appetite . . . Beneath ["the girdle"] . . . There's hell [the vagina]; there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit [vagina] / Burning, scalding, stench, consumption.14" The stench is such that he needs an "ounce of civet [perfume derived from a cat's anal glands] . . . to sweeten my imagination" and needs to "wipe" his hand, for "it smells of mortality." Lear concludes this section saying he is ready to "kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill."

Shakespeare exploits the conventional Elizabethan word play on dying as meaning the end of life and the orgasm: Lear is ready for either death. Let us for a moment entertain the possibility that Lear, who had railed against the "simular man of virtue / That art incestuous," harbored (and perhaps even acted out) incestuous feelings for his daughters. Their hatred, then, may have the "cause" he refuses to acknowledge, and it becomes salient that his excessive emphasis on killing is directed specifically toward his "sons-in-law," two of whom are quite loyal to him. In the other plays where the word "incest(uous)" occurs, it has direct bearing on a relationship within the play; in Hamlet, the five times it is used, it denotes his mother's incestuous marriage with an ex-brother-in-law and may well be a projection of the other union Hamlet unconsciously desired; in Pericles, it denotes the achieved incest of a father and his daughter; in Measure for Measure, it is used metaphorically for the degree and kind of love between a brother and sister: "Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice? / Is't not a kind of incest for a brother to take life / From his own sister's shame?" Her questions refer to Claudio's taking, i.e. rescuing his own life at the expense of her submitting to an adulterous act. However, Shakespeare pointedly does not say rescue or save but "take," a word he repeatedly used to mean copulate with. And in the erotic context of incest and her brother's being made a man out of her vice (which is not only sin, but also a Shakespearean pun on the pudendum and closed thighs), one realizes that her "shame," too, has overtones of her privy members—the Biblical and sixteenth century usage.15 But even saving life can be a sexually symbolic concept according to Freud: "Under the laws governing the expression of unconscious thoughts, the meaning of rescuing may vary" depending on whose fantasy it is. If a man's, it can mean "making a child," if a woman's, "giving birth" to it.16 Since in each of these other examples, the word "incest" has specific pertinence for some aspect of the play, is King Lear, then, the only play in which incest is gratuitously, as it were, dragged in—and by the main character.17

To kill, like to die, was a sexually charged phrase, as it is to the present in the sentiment that women kill men with their sexual demands, that expending semen weakens man, that men kill women with the weapon of their phallus ("You slay me") and so on.18 In "Venus and Adonis," the passion-driven Venus tells Adonis, "O thou didst kill me; kill me once again." And when her rival, the boar, "the loving swine / Sheathed unaware the tusk in [Adonis's] soft groin," she says, "Had I been tooth'd like him, I must confess / With kissing him I should have killed him first." And in Othello, the anguished Moor madly alternates killing and loving: Kissing her, he says, "Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, / And love thee after" (V.ii). His last words in the play are, "I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee; no way but this; / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." One of the most explicit identifications of killing and coitus is in John Donne's "An Anatomie of the World":

For that first marriage was our funerali; One woman at one blow, then kill'd us all, And, singly, one by one, they kill us now. We doe delightfully our selves allow To that consumption; and profusely blinde, Wee kill ourselves to propagate our kinde.

Lear embellishes this concept with the particular addition that he will die "bravely," that is, with masculine valour in the feats of the marital bed and courage in deeds leading up to a death bed—bravely or with bravery, a word that connoted wedding finery and also mere show or bravado. The ambiguity continues in Lear's use of 'smug,' meaning trim and gay but also complacent. Both the moods of bravado and complacency fit his character.

In the wider context of the play, the words in this line stand revealed as nodal points and as over-determined.19 Whereas here Lear speaks of himself in a seemingly positive tone as the "bridegroom," "jovial," and a "king," a very similar constellation of these three elements had established a contrary mood in an earlier scene in which his daughters, current possessors of his wealth and power, figuratively emasculated him. Thus Kent wonders why the king had "come with so small a train." And Lear says Goneril has deprived him of "half my train," and can not believe that Regan would "cut off my train . . . scant my sizes / And in conclusion to oppose the bolt / Against my coming in."

In these capsule comments, we find five sexually suggestive terms that are recurrent Shakespearean puns: a TRAIN is literally a tail or tail feathers, hence a pun on man's tail or penis; SIZE, from French taille, evokes tail/tale, one of the most common public-anal puns;20 CONCLUSION signified coitus as far back as Chaucer, and in Othello Iago described lechery thus: "They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together . . . [then] hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, the incorporate conclusion;"21 BOLT, meaning any stout pin with a head and also to discharge, is a pun on the penis and ejaculation; and "come" was a standard Elizabethan word for sexual emission.

The emasculation imagery continues when Goneril and Regan decide they will leave him "not one follower." "What need one?" They say that Lear's "injuries"—these physical deprivations, when they "cut off his "men" (manhood)—must be his "schoolmaster," a phrase conveying his reduction from the state of virile manhood to the impotence of childhood.22 Lear will be deprived of his "train" or tail; his "size" or taille will be "scanted"—made short, insufficient or lacking—as in Freud's report of a dream in which a tailor caught a wolf by his tail and pulled it off, which Freud said was undeniably an allusion to the castration complex.23 Not even one of his followers, those "men of. . . rarest parts" (I.iv), the rare/rear parts that make up his train, will be left—not one symbol of power or potency.24

But Lear defies their treatment, saying he will not "bear it tamely . . . let not women's weapons, water-drops, / Stain my man's cheeks!" They can not TAME him (literally, cut, carve out, prune), make him less wild, with its connotations of sexual ardor. He will not be effeminized and "bear it," Shakespeare's customary phrase for the female role, in which bearing refers to the coital position and child-bearing. The Fool had been wise: "fathers that bear bags / Shall see their children kind"; fathers should retain their power, bear only two things: money bags and the bag of their scrotum.25

Since in some dreams a general reversal takes place, so that the male organ is represented by the female and vice versa, Freud recommended caution in interpreting bisexual symbols. Shakespeare's metaphors require equal alertness. Lear will not use women's weapons or water-drops; he will use man's "weapon"—for Freud and Shakespeare a phallic symbol.26 Be-cause of its context, Lear's metaphor suggests dream language, where bodily secretions such as tears, mucus, urine and semen are interchanged, the "indifferent" one replacing the significant one, such as semen.27 Waterdrops,by they tears, urine, or semen, will not stain—a word Shakespeare uses for sexual defilement and uncleanliness—Lear's cheeks, a common displacement for the buttocks, in dreams and in seventeenth century literature.28 Lear's preoccupation was always with his manhood, maleness;29 and these are specifically his "man's" cheeks.

Lear's metaphor could be innocent; but on a deeper level, it could also reveal his desire to dispel the image of impotence. He will not permit those "unnatural hags," his daughters, to make him also unnatural, to stain his cheeks with tears; he will not wet his cheeks/buttocks by urinating like a woman or in futile ejaculation. In a parallel scene of the emasculation of the old and once powerful Gloucester, Regan turned to her husband who had "set his foot on the eye" (Freudian symbol for penis) of Lear's close friend and said, "One side will mock another; the other too" (a one, two quibble having genital implications), after which they threw the "eyeless" (displacement for castration) Gloucester out of doors, just as they had shut their doors on Lear.30

Threatened thus, Lear remembers his third daughter, Cordelia, whom he felt had also denied him love and married "the hot-blooded France," another king, not himself Staying with his two castrating daughters is as hateful to him as if he had to kneel to France and "beg to keep base life afoot" (Folio: a foot)—beg to keep his life (sexuality) a FOOT, common pun on French foutre, to coit (cf. similar pattern in 3 Henry IV: "A foutre for . . . worldlings base!" Italics added). He would rather be a "slave and sumpter / To this detested groom," he says, pointing to Oswald, the DETESTED/de-teste-d, expressing his fear of an encroaching threat of kinship with his daughter's servant, whom he had earlier called "slave" and "beggar," the same terms with which he now describes himself Since a sumpter is a beast of burden or a porter, it seems that one way or another, Lear fears he must bear, be effeminized.31 Nevertheless, for reasons we shall soon see, this al-ways vengeful man (who a few lines later plans "revenges") says his daughters need not fear he will tell "tales to high-judging Jove" of their wanting to cut off his tail or train.

As we peel away the layers of his thoughts and discover that the "hot-blooded France that . . . took" Cordelia (and took her sexually) is ever on his mind, then the appropriateness of the French puns is even more apparent.

Three crucial elements from Act II, "groom," "king," and "Jove," the superior judge of all men, reappear, again clustered, in the line from Act IV that we originally set out to analyze. Now Lear is all three, groom, king, and jovial (i.e. merry and Jove-like). This king who is going to die, to marry death, the third of the Fates, his chosen third daughter Cordelia whom he carries in his arms at the play's end, still thinks of himself as a brave and lusty bridegroom. This is the same Lear who, when the play began, had wanted to know which of his daughters "doth love us most." As Freud said, though old, though dying, he is not "willing to renounce the love of women" and insists on being told how much he is loved.32 When speaking of Cordelia's suitors, there may be ambiguity in Lear's saying, "The princes, France and Burgundy, / Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love, / Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn." True, they were rivals to each other, but is Lear not also expressing his own part in the rivalry for Cordelia's love: their amorous presence seemed "long" to him in his "court" (court = French for short), a quibble on their virility and his lack of it. When he addressed Burgundy, "who with this king / Hath rivali 'd for our daughter," presumably he looked toward France, but this king is also himself. He was certainly furious with the reprimand to him implicit in Cordelia's question, "Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?" and with her promising to give "Half my love" to her husband: "I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all."

It is this truth that precipitates his dismissing Cordelia with the revealing phrase, "I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery." Annotations usually say this refers to a card game and means I stand pat or I stake my all. That gloss, however, ignores several emotive phrases. First, let us consider that Shakespeare and his contemporaries made puns on "rest" as sexual repose, with the penis in its desired place of rest.33 Second, in the context of the emotional argument on degrees and kinds of love, Lear's hope to set his rest on Cordelia's "kind nursery" brings to mind Shakespeare's habitual associations of a nursery with a breeding place, a womb: "nurse and breeder" (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), "This nurse, this teeming womb" (Richard II)—-consistent with the "child-changed" Lear's saying (IV.vii) Cordelia "must bear with" him. Third, there is Shakespeare's frequent use of "kind" in its sixteenth century meaning of sex, as in "the deed of kind" (The Merchant of Venice) or "to be after kind," to seek sex (As You Like It). Lear himself told of a man who "hotly lust'st to use" a whore "in that kind / For which [he] whipp'st her" ( He also spoke of his daughter Regan as "kind and comfortable," as having eyes that "Do comfort," as knowing "The offices of nature," and not being one "to oppose the bolt / Against my coming in." Comfortable is another of Shakespeare's sexually charged phrases; for example, Portia asks Brutus is she only to "comfort your bed" (Julius Caesar) and Juliet's new husband will "Ascend her chamber . . . and comfort her" (Romeo and Juliet). Certainly, at least in his unconscious, Lear substitutes his daughters for the wife he does not have.

When Lear compares himself to Jove, another king, does Shakespeare not mean the archetypal "lusty Jove" of Much Ado About Nothing, his "multipotent Jove" of Troilus and Cressida? This is how Lear wishes to see himself. Now we understand why he need not tell tales about his daughters to "high-judging Jove." He is that king of heaven; he will be Jovial; he will pass judgment on his daughters—as he has always done, as he did when the play opened and again in his simulated arraignment and trial of them (

This man who sees himself as a smug bridegroom had just finished reviling women's sexuality: "Down from the waist they are Centaurs," a comparison to their being the half-men, half-horses known as symbols of sexual bestiality; and a pun on their physiological CENTERS, Elizabethan word for the vulva, called the "centrique part" by poet John Donne and the "Garden's Centre" by poet Charles Cotton. In this attack he gave unconscious expression to a sexual aspect of himself. King Lear is Jove, heaven's archadulterer and sometimes bestial lover, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Jove "wast a bull for Europa" and committed "a beastly fault" seducing her in the form of a bull, and then a "foul fault in the semblance of a fowl," seducing Leda in the form of a swan.

A line of thought in Pericles may be pertinent to our understanding the dynamics of King Lear. By alluding to Jove's incestuous history, a cautious Pericles conveys to King Antiochus his knowledge of the king's incestuous relationship with his own daughter: "Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will; / and if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill." The mad Lear also feels impervious to censure: "They cannot touch me for coining: I am the king himself." Coining was often used figuratively, "esp. in a bad sense 1561" (OED); and Shakespeare has several puns on coining or stamping children, as in Measure for Measure, II.iv: "these filthy vices . . . [to] coin heaven's image / In stamps that are forbid," that is, to beget children illicitly.

Here then, in those two deceptively simple lines of Lear's is material quite similar in function to "dream-material," subjected to compression and displacement, and requiring for its understanding an approach akin to dream analysis. A vital difference, however, is that the productions of the dream-work were "not made with the intention of being understood, "34 whereas Shakespeare's productions were. Of course, just as the dreamer often utilizes verbal wit for the purpose of disguise, and the political writer resorts to Aesopian language to outwit his censor, so Shakespeare may have at times intended that his wit be fully understood only by an inner circle.35 Freud had asked himself whether many of the symbols representing sexual material might not have permanently established meanings like "short-hand" signs; and it is interesting to note how many of the substitutions he identified had been used several centuries earlier by Shakespeare as sexual puns and metaphors.

That the symbolism used by Shakespeare, Joyce, and others, consciously and unconsciously, is very often the same with which we disguise our dream thoughts may be a partial explanation of the resistance it arouses, the reluctance to probe critically beneath the surface of what is apparent, the resentment toward the disclosure of multi-layered meanings, as if what is remote must be sinister. Hence the question to what extent a Shakespearean pun or metaphor is a conscious literary device is raised most often and assumes a particular urgency when it is a specifically sexual one, the implication being that if it is unconscious, then it is irrelevant, can be dismissed and not heard.

However, bawdry (too frequently omitted in texts and productions) can be expunged only by doing violence to the vitality of the plays.36 Unfortunately, Shake-speare's amazing word-play is not always recognized as being verbally and conceptually related to the serious elements of the play, but on the contrary often meets resistance akin to that put up by the dreamer who says that the particular stuff of dreams has no meaning and can be adequately explained as deriving from an attack of indigestion or the inchoate remains of the last conscious thoughts of the day.

This bias against attributing meaning is exemplified in a comment made by literary critic A. P. Riemer, who, of Shakespeare's comedies, has written, "exegesis they resist":

Comedy is sport; to go beyond that statement is to risk perverting the essentially meaningless nature of these plays . . . The function of the profundities and significances contained in them is almost always abstract and "aesthetic". . . .37

Riemer relies on a quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream," following which he says that "Critics have not taken . . . sufficient heed of Bottom's warning." But certainly the critical attempt to find meaning in the apparently meaningless is attempted by analysts who see that the "warning" was delivered by Bottom, who calls himself and is called by others an "ass"—whereas his dream is the creation of Shakespeare, who is not one.

In a section on "Absurd Dreams," Freud observed that the presence of the ridiculous in some dreams was the chief ammunition of the opponents of dream interpretation. But, he explained, it is just where the dream seems most absurd that it may have its profoundest meaning: "In every epoch of history those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have eagerly assumed a fool's cap."38 To illustrate that it is only with an aim that the dream-work produces anything ridiculous, Freud cited an absurd dream whose purpose was to show that this is a "topsy-turvy" world where society is "crazy" and those who do not care for a thing get it while those who deserve it do not.39

In this, Freud could not have been talking more to the point of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which develops the folly of aspects of love (including "too high to be enthralled to low") and the irresponsibility of lovers who flee offered love and seek those whom they conquer by force, those who are forbidden to them, or those who reject them. And one integral element of the play is the topsy-turvy dream of the lowly artisan who agrees to "undertake" a part in a small play where he, "Nick Bottom"40 is "set down for Pyramus" (italics added). During the preparations in the wood, where Bottom expected to "rehearse most obscenely and courageously" he is "changed" and "translated" and falls asleep a few feet from four foolish lovers who are having equally confused dreams. And there "Bully Bottom," whose "chief humour" was to play "a tyrant"—but who settled for a role he describes as that of a "poor knight"—has a midsummer night's / knight's dream in which he may wear an ass's head and eat an ass's food, but a queen, the wife of a tyrant who instigated her adultery, becomes "enamour'd" of him! Only when the shamed woman agrees to give up a beloved child to her bullying husband is she released by him from her dream bondage. Then Bottom, who in real life is lucky to earn "sixpence a day," awakens from his dream of luxury and mismated love with a woman too high to be enthralled to lowly Bottom. And though he says it is "past the wit of man" to understand his dream, still he would like to sing it at "the latter end of a play" in which he is an actor.

This is not meant to suggest that Shakespeare realized symbolic dream language served to disguise repressed sexual material. Nevertheless, it is interesting how many times he does directly link dreams to sexuality: in Cymbeline, he alludes to the unlikelihood that Diana, goddess of chastity, "had hot dreams"; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ford dreams of his wife's infidelity in terms of a "hole made in [his] best coat"; in Henry VIII, a constant woman is defined as "One that ne'er dreamed a joy beyond his [her husband's] pleasure"—pleasure being a favorite euphemism for sexual joy;41 in Othello, there is the open eroticism of Cassio's alleged dream of sexual intercourse with Desdemona, as recounted by his male bed-companion Iago, in which Cassio laid his leg over Iago's thigh and did "kiss me hard"; and in Coriolanus, there is the homoeroticism of Coriolanus's entry into the house of Aufidius, whose enraptured heart then "dances"42 more "Than when I first my wedded mistress saw / Bestride my threshold"; and, Aufidius continues, "I have nightly since / Dreamt of encounters ["love-bout": Partridge; "amatory meeting, Shaks.": OED] 'twixt thyself and me; We have been down together in my sleep / Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throats"; and so on.

Modern scholars agree that the Elizabethans heard words in ways that we do not and that many of Shakespeare's double entendres are overlooked by modern audiences. What can be counter-productive is to stress the dichotomy "between 'unconscious' and 'conscious' meaning . . . What we really experience instead of either of these extremes is a range of different ways of being aware."43 And even in those cases where Shake-speare's word-play was not conscious or was a habitual verbal association, as through consonance or assonance, we, his audience, also have "unconscious minds."44

One cannot emphasize too strongly the need to give full weight to each of Shakespeare's words, asking why the line is so and not otherwise. Shakespeare's creative material was, after all, not paint or clay or the musical note, but the color, form and sound of "Words, words, words," "wild and whirling words," "hard words," and "Words of so sweet breath composed / As made the things more rich" (Hamlet). On them he relied for the conveyance of his creative impulse; they were his material and his stuff.


1 Each of these reflections that life is (like) a dream,brief, its meaning eluding us, followed a masque that spoke of love, the marriage blessing and increase: "the womb" and "nature [that] Moulded the stuff so fair." They draw on familiar Shakespearean symbols: beginning with the sleep in the womb, life is "rounded" ("round-wombed," King Lear), comes full circle, with the final sleep—and perhaps rebirth—in another womb, the grave ("The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb; / What is her burying grave that is her womb," Romeo and Juliet). Sleep, that "rounded," "begot" and "created," began life in another sense also, for it meant then, as now, lie with in sexual intercourse: the eroticism of "two branches . . . whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in" (Titus Andronicus) is meant to connote not only Lavinia's arms but her legs ("my legs like loaden branches," Henry VIII) with their circling (pudendal) shadows. For other examples that circle = vulva, see Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1968) and E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974). Hereafter, these books will be cited respectively as Partridge and Colman.

2 Words that are printed in capital letters are discussed fully in Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984), hereafter cited as Rubinstein.

3 Sigmund Freud, "Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work," in St. Ed. 14, p. 321. I would add that the child-parent motif—"Mac," a Gaelic prefix = son (of)—starts with Macbeth, "wayward son" of the "weird [O.E. wyrd = fate] sisters" (italics added); and culminates in the childless, "unmann'd" Macbeth's ultimate impotence against another fateful son, Macduff, "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd."

4 For example, Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

5 Freud, "The Theme of Three Caskets," St. Ed. 12, pp. 291-301. See Shakespeare's comic employment of the Fates in 2 Henry IV: "Untwine the Sisters Three! Come Atropos, I say!"

6 "Pale as lead" was a familiar simile, as in "The King and the Beggar," a ballad cited in two of Shakespeare's plays. However, "plainness" has the conceivable advantage of punning on the plainsong that "moves" (also a musical term) Bassanio (with its flagrant rhymes on lead and references to birth) to realize that the plain (can = belly: Partridge) lead casket is the plein (French for full) casket, the belly or womb that "contains" / "contained" Portia, or that Portia contains (by the process of inversion in dreams and wit). See Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, St. Ed. 4, p. 154: German Büchse = box and a vulgarism for the female genitals.

7 Freud, "The Theme of Three Caskets," St. Ed. 12, p. 301.

8 Freud, "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words," St. Ed. 11, p. 155.

9Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love (Chicago: Uni-versity of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 1, 46, 47.

10 For example, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "how stands the matter with them?"—"Marry, thus; when it stands well with him, it stands well with her."

11The Golden Ass of Apuleius, trs. W. Adlingt(New York: The Modern Library, 1928), pp. 94-5.

12 Patrick Cruttwell, The Shakespearean Moment (New York: Random House, 1960), Chapter 2.

13Ibid., p. 51.

14 John Florio, A World of Words (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Microfilms, n.d.): fossa, a pit, woman's pleasure pit. Hereafter cited as Florio. See Rubinstein, s.v. Pit; and Partridge, s.v. Hell: a symbol for the vagina, as in Boccaccio's story of "putting the devil in hell" (Tales of Decameron, Day 3, Tale 10). The "burning" of venereal disease (Oxford English Dictionary, hereafter cited as OED) is also suggested in Sonnet 144, where the vaginal "hell" will "fire" the man in it. "Consumption" (as in the Donne quote, p. 343) means sexual absorption—by woman's con/cunt. See Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 231, on the "potential for suggesting "vulva" . . . that Shakespeare was ready to hear in any word containing con, or cun, or a similiar sound"; also Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), s.v. Con. Hereafter cited as Kökeritz.

15OED defines shame as the privy members, quotining Isaiah 47: 2 . . . 3. Cf. Randall Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1950) s.v. vergongne, shame and the privy parts. Hereafter cited as Cotgrave. Shakespeare used "to take" in the sense of to admit the male sexually; of the male, to possess carnally (Colman, Partridge). See Partridge: Make, Man.

16 Freud, "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men," St. Ed. 11, p. 174.

17 See Meredith Skura in Schwartz and Kahn, op. cit., p. 205, for the significance of the "hinted" threats of incest between Leontes and his rediscovered daughter (The Winter's Tale) and in Prospero's jealousy of a potential son-in-law (The Tempest) and Cloten's desire to wed his step-sister (Cymbeline).

18 Madelon Gohlke, in Schwartz and and kahn, ibid., pp. 172-182, gives important expression to a feminist psychoanalytic interpretation of "sexual intercourse" as "a kind of murder."

19 David Willibern, in Schwartz and Kahn, ibid., p. 245, states that "Shakespeare's overdetermined language typically includes bawdy meanings," as in Cordelia's "nothing" (no thing or phallus) and the "ubiquitous anxieties in the play concerning bodily injury or losses, such as Gloucester's eyes, Lear's 'cut-off train of soldiers . . . Lear himself as nothing ('an O without a figure')."

20 Partridge; and Colman, s.v. Tale: "speake to her, a woman has ever a hole open to receive a man's tale" (1640).

21 Thomas W. Ross, Chaucer's Bawdy (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), s.v. Conclusioun. Hereafter cited as Ross. Note the innuendo in hard at hand, a phallic symbol to Freud and a pun on the penis to Shakespeare (Kökeritz, p. 59).

22 Joel Fineman, in Schwartz and Kahn, op. cit., p. 100, speaks of the "viperish sexuality" of Lear's daughters, two of Shakespeare's "horrible women" whose males are "correspondingly emasculated, infantilized, almost (and the language of the plays bears this out) feminized by their relationship" to these women.

23 Freud, "The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales," St. Ed. 12, p. 285.

24 Rear/RARE were spelling doublets, hence subject to quibbles as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Bottom says he could play an actor's part "rarely"; and relates his "rare" vision of having been an ass.

25 Cf. The Winter's Tale: "No barricado for a belly; know't; It will let in and out the enemy with bag and baggage." Partridge: bag = scrotum; baggage = penis or scrotum. See Frued, The Interpretation of Dreams, St. Ed. 5, p. 358: "luggage often turns out to be an unmistakable symbol of the dreamer's own genitals."

26 Freud, ibid., pp. 354, 356. Romeo and Juliet: "Draw thy tool . . ."—"my naked weapon is out."

27 Freud, ibid., p. 359. Shakespeare and his contemporaries also interchanged these elements: milking, masturbating and urinating produced comparable ejaculations. Ben Jonson, The Alchemist: "For she must milk his epididimis [a duct of the testicle]." John Wilmot, "The Disappointed:" "May'st thou ne'er piss that did'st refuse to spend [emit semen]." In All's Well That Ends Well, Parolles, who sat in the stocks all night, "weeps like a wench that had shed her milk; he had confessed himself"—a condensed picture of a man who had poured out at every orifice: his eyes, his mouth; had probably wet himself and may have ejaculated, for he is as wet as the wench whose milk was, not spilt—the expected word—but SHED, literally to ejaculate semen or cast seed out of a receptacle. She reminds one of a similar wench in The Tempest: "as leaky as an unstanched wench."

28 Freud, op. cit., p. 387: cheeks (German Backen) are a dream symbol for the buttocks (Hinterbacken, back-cheeks). See Dekker and Webster, Northward Hoe: "If I catch master pricklouse ramping so high again . . . I'll make him know how to kiss your blind cheeks sooner"; A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Bottorn (a "tender ass") has "yellow cowslip cheeks"—YELLOW (the color of ordure) as cowslip, Old English cu-slyppe, cow-dung.

29As early as I. 1, behavior the others call mad, Lear calls his "power," "nature," and "potency made good." By I.iv, he defines his rejection in terms of emasculation: he is "ashamed" his daughters can "shake my manhood thus . . . Thou shalt find / That I'll resume the shape which thou dost think / I have cast off for ever." In the context of weakened "manhood"—Latin virilitas, common euphemism for the male organ, usually occurring "in contexts in which castration is at issue" (J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982], pp. 69-70)—SHAKE assumes its sixteenth century coital implications, and Lear's cast off SHAPE takes on its meaning of male as well as female sex organs (OED, s.v. shape; Ross, s.v. shap). See Partridge and Ross, s.v. Man(ly), for link to copulatory service. Also see Gohlke, op. cit., p. 231: for Lear "tears threaten not only the dreaded perception of himself as feminine, and hence weak, but also the breakdown of his psychic order."

30 Freud, "The Uncanny," St. Ed. 17, p. 231: a "substi-tutive relation between the eye and the male member" exists in dreams, myths and fantasies. In blinding himself, Oedipus was "carrying out a mitigated form of the punishment of castration."

31 For these euphemisms and frequent word associa-tions, see (a) Colman and Partridge, s.v. Foot, Foutre; (b) Thomas Nashe's erotic poem "The Choice of Valentines," with its pun on sexual satisfaction, her "content'Vcunt and his "life"/penis: "O not so fast! my revished mistress cries, / Lest my content that on thy life relies, / Be brought too soon"; and (c) the "barren detested" vale where "nothing breeds" (Titus Andronicus, II.iii).

32 Freud, "The Three Caskets," St. Ed. 12, p. 301.

33 A lance in rest was in position for the charge. Tho-mas Dekker, The Comedy of Old Fortunatus: "set your heart at rest, for I have set up my rest . . . to get a young king or two . . . of you." He set up his rest to beget a child, as in Romeo and Juliet, IV.v: "Sleep for a week; for the next night . . . County Paris hath set up his rest / That you shall rest but little."

34 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, St. Ed. 5, p. 341.

35 Philip Edwards writes in Sir Walter Raleigh (Lon-don: Longman, Green, 1953), p. 52, that many courtly poets of Shakespeare's age wrote only for their own circles, which "provided an attentive audience with sensibility" like their own; and many of Shakespeare's plays were written for performance before the sophisticated audiences in The Inns of Court, the house of some nobleman, or the royal court.

36 A persuasive argument against literary abridgement is that of Isaac Disraeli, Amenities of Literature (New York: W. J. Middleton, 1874), edited by his famous son Benjamin Disraeli: "Great writers admit of no abridgment. If you do not follow the writer through all the ramifications of his ideas . . . you can receive only interrupted impressions, and retain but an imperfect and mutilated image of his genius."

37 A. P.Riemer, Antic Fables (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), pp. 223, 228.

38 Freud, op. cit., p. 444.

39 Freud, ibid., p. 435.

40 Nick = breach and slit (vulva): Colman s.v. Nick, and Kökeritz, pp. 72, 131, 133.

41 Partridge, s.v. Pleasure: "Th'incestuous pleasure of his bed," Hamlet, II.iii.

42 Dance is an old euphemism for fornicate; see "the oide daunce" (Ross, s.v. Daunce); and Thomas Dekker, The Honest Whore, Part 1: the bawd "guard'st the dore / Whiles couples go dauncing."

43 Skura, op. cit., pp. 203-204.

44 M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Metheun, 1979), p. 17.

Terrence N. Tice (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Calphurnia's Dream and Communication with the Audience in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar," in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 37-49.

[In the following essay, Tice comments on the importance of Calphurnia's dream in Julius Caesar, especially as it is used to communicate the psychological state of depression to the viewing audience.]

Shakespeare's 1599 play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, though a mere year away from Hamlet, is only a bridge to the more deeply existential later plays; and, as such, it has won less thoroughgoing attention among recent critical scholars.1 Yet, as Harold Bloom has recently stated, it is "a very satisfying play, as a play, and is universally regarded as a work of considerable aesthetic dignity."2 Moreover, this drama bearing the name of the historical figure most often mentioned by Shakespeare, and about whose life circumstances the playwright showed sustained interest, continues to move audiences profoundly. Certainly it evokes strong feelings of recognition and concern during any time marked by high anxiety about the public's future, by revelations of self-justifying evil connivance among powerful men in whom the public has placed its trust, and by ambitious, prideful, incautious decisions on the part of leaders. These conditions would appear to be even more pronounced and worrisome for present-day audiences than for Shakespeare's own. Thus the play bears a special capacity to connect with contemporary moods encompassing failure, loss, hurt, or impending disaster.

I wish to use some remarks on the dream of Caesar's wife, Calphurnia, a dream portending his murder, in order ultimately to suggest an underlying depressive theme in the work and, along the way, to indicate where both merits and limits in psychoanalytic contributions to interpreting literature may be found. The focus is placed on communication of affect-laden awarenesses to the audience—first by the writer, then by subsequent directors and actors. Sometimes, I believe, this occurs by extraordinarily subtle means, even in a reputedly "simple" drama like Julius Caesar; often the awareness is absorbed unconsciously by the audience, and occasionally it appears to be purveyed unconsciously by the author or later surrogates.

Analysis of Dream Material in Shakespeare

Calphurnia's dream itself has attracted very little notice in the literature. The chief reasons are probably that its function as a portent has been thought to be self-evident—sufficient in itself—and that psychoanalytic interpretations of Shakespeare have tended to focus on Shakespeare and his characters rather than on other material that is to me more fully and legitimately analyzable: notably, relations between events in the plays and expectable audience responses. The latter I take to be an important, more nearly supportable function of such interpretation, which has often tended, without real warrant, to import schema normally suitable only for an extended analysis of a living person.3 I have selected Calphurnia's dream precisely because extremely little is told of her, so that the interpreter must look almost exclusively at its actual manifest content and at plausible associations within the play as a whole.

Over the past three decades and more, three books have purported to emphasize dreams and visionary content in Shakespeare, and a search for articles has yielded only bits and pieces (e.g., Camden and Rubenstein). Only one, by Marjorie Garber, has dealt with dream in Julius Caesar, of necessity referring to Calphurnia's dream, though John Arthos also alludes to the dream and many others mention it in passing. Arthos winsomely interprets a poem and four plays, including Julius Caesar, as conveying "metaphysical matters"—"the sense of realms of being across the threshold of the waking sight" (13, 9). Kay Stockholder cleverly offers a psychoanalytically informed interpretation of the plays, but not specifically treating Julius Caesar, as "dream works." In doing this she attempts to show "ways in which the most private passions depicted in Shakespeare's figures are shaped by and expressed in the most public conventions and ideological conflicts" (x).

Garber's 1974 chapter "Dream and Interpretation: Julius Caesar" aptly expounds the following thesis: "The play is full of omens and portents, augury and dream, and almost without exception these omens are misinterpreted. Calpurnia's [sic] dream, the dream of Cinna the poet, the advice of the augurers, all suggest one course of action and produce its opposite" (see, ).4 Her state-ment is not quite accurate, in that such material, as she herself indicates, is used accurately to foretell disaster and its aftermath and in that the material itself does not "produce" the opposing actions, but reactions to the material, both deliberate (Decius Brutus) and unconsidered (Caesar), do.

The theme of misinterpretation is important nonetheless, though to my mind the varied, numerous interactions between interpretation and event are what loom large throughout; the chief transactions of play and audience follow. As Garber herself contends: "More and more it becomes evident [in the play] that signs and dreams are morally neutral elements, incapable of effect without interpretation. By structuring his play around them, Shakespeare invites us to scrutinize the men who read the signs—to witness the tragedy of misconstruction" (Bloom 47). As she points out, this is "the last of his plays to use dreams and omens primarily as devices of plot" (Bloom 52), whereas in the later plays the movement is to dream as a universalizing, transcendent state of mind, which ultimately serves powerfully in metamorphosis of the self through imaginative effort. Thus it is of value to see exactly how Shakespeare carries out this earlier use.

Calphurnia's Dream

By the second scene of Act Two, plans, omens, and portents of Caesar's impending death have already built up to a high pitch, but so far his household has not been touched by them. As the scene opens Caesar reports:

Nor heaven nor earth have been at peace to-night: Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out, "Help, ho! They murther Caesar!"


Calphurnia enters, and in pleading for him to stay home speaks of signs that should deter him; he at first resists, then relents. She says to him:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies, Yet now they fright me. There is one within, Besides the things that we have heard and seen, Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch. A lioness hath whelped in the streets, And graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead; Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds In ranks and squadrons and right form of war, Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol; The noise of battle hurtled in the air, Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan, And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. O Caesar, these things are beyond all use, And I do fear them.


When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

(2.2.13-26, 30-1)

Then comes a discussion with Decius Brutus, wherein Caesar lays out the dream Calphurnia has related to him, but Decius offers a flattering counterinterpretation and Caesar decides to go forth to the Capitol after all. This is the dream itself, as Caesar gives it:

She dreamt to-night 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. And these does she apply for warnings and portents And evils imminent; and on her knee Hath begg'd that I will stay at home to-day.


Such is the dream and its setting in the play, which embellishes greatly on the report by Plutarch though following his outline of events: the sleep-talking and a dream, both portending Caesar's death, Caesar's fear and indecision, his consulting augurers, and Decius' fateful influence. In Plutarch she was simply reported to have "dreamed Caesar was slain and that she had him in her arms" and, regarding a pinnacle that the Senate had placed on the top of Caesar's house, that "she saw it broken down." Decius there advises Caesar to make only a brief appearance to salute the Senate "and return again when Calpurnia should have better dreams." The rest, including the recital of signs, is all masterfully Shakespeare's.

Interpretation of Calphurnia and her Dream

Calphurnia, Cato's daughter, was Caesar's fourth wife, probably younger than Caesar, who was then fifty-six. She had borne no child, and Caesar's only legitimate child, Julia, whom he had given to the great Pompey in marriage, had died. All that we learn of her earlier in the play, however, is that Caesar has humiliated her by asking Antonius to "touch" her in the Lupercalian race (to strike her with white leather thongs carried by the naked runners, explains Plutarch), in order to rid her of her "sterile curse," as was the custom (1.2). This is the same occasion wherein Caesar thrice refuses the laurel crown that the runner Antonius would place on his head, to indicate his kingly status. Brutus reports that Caesar is angry and "Calphurnia's cheek is pale" (1.2.183).

Apart from Zelda Teplitz's unpublished paper presented at the 1972 annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Garber's 1974 chapter employs Calphurnia's dream more fully than any study I have encountered (see in ). This is what she does. She regards the dream as a crux of the play; it is a portent, among others, of unnatural events, "an apocalypse of sorts, the last judgment of Rome." Calphurnia has been established as an accurate and lyrical prophetess. As is the case in other Shakespearean dreams, hers makes the dead man into a statue, and she views the spouting of blood as death. The ambiguity in her dream enables the irony that Decius' interpretation, "that from you great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood," is "as true in its way as Calpurnia's." Its significance lies not only in its functional role of furthering the action but also in that it "symbolically foreshadows events to come, supporting the theme of 'all amiss interpreted' which is central to the play's meaning." However, Garber finds the later scene of Cinna the poet, who also has a portentous dream, "the most symbolically instructive of the whole play," for he has the premonition but chooses to disregard it, and when he goes out he meets a bad end simply through a playing with his name (like Caesar, the private and public name). Thereby "the whole myth of the play is concisely expressed."

In contrast, I do not believe that this highly complex play can be reduced to a single myth, though Garber's reading of the scenes involving Calphurnia and Cinna seems entirely accurate and helpful short of that claim. Although a great many associations to Calphurnia's dream and to the other signs she indicates can be made throughout the play, alongside those by Casca, Cinna, and others, I shall restrict myself to a few additional features of special importance.

First, partly through her earlier, 1958 work on sleep-talking, Teplitz was able to discern what hidden hostility the barren Calphurnia might have felt toward Caesar, who sports aspirations to supremely royal status, wishes for a blood heir, and has humiliated her publicly. That is, her active sleep-talking would replace more passive fears regarding hostile, murderous impulses toward her husband. In possible support, one might add that Plutarch, though he does not mention Calphurnia among the noble women to be touched, tells of Calphurnia's dreaming that she held the slain Caesar "in her arms" (perhaps at once wife, mother, and fantasied murderer?). This detail Shakespeare omits, but it could well have influenced him. The possible feature is plausible, given the action of the play, but it is only weakly supportable.

Second, it would also be relevant to expand on the following: on the association Shakespeare (but not Plutarch) has her give of a lioness reported to have "whelped in the streets," one of the "horrid sights seen by the watch"; on the lion Casca describes as glaring at him on the Capitol, where Caesar would be murdered, but passing by without harming him (in Shakespeare's day lions were a tourist attraction at the Tower of London, an edifice it was said Julius Caesar had bestowed); and on Caesar's symbolic description of himself as a twin lion "littered in one day" with danger yet danger's master. These and the numerous other interlocking images of augury and fury to be found in the play intensify the sense of frightening danger that often accompanies murderous or ambitious feelings. So do the conflicts that Caesar experiences over his decision to go to the Capitol. Decius the flatterer—similar to those who served the childless, aging Queen Elizabeth, who was in 1599 over sixty-five years old—tries to smooth it all over with a "vision fair and fortunate" of the living king from whom Rome shall draw revitalizing substance. Caesar had been sufficiently affected by his wife's dream and the servant's report from the augurers to think that he would play it safe and stay home. Were it not for his regard for Decius, he could scarcely have admitted this to him as the occasion for his decision. However, Caesar claims to make the decision, either way, as an expression of his own sovereign will. Thus he blunders into disaster just as those closest to him (Decius, Brutus, perhaps Calphurnia as well) secretly or openly desire him to. Of such human frailties—his and theirs—is tragedy made.

Third, strictly speaking, Decius' interpretation of the dream denies and obscures the bloody criminal result of Caesar's decision, both for him and for his assassins. Decius largely fails to perceive the revengeful quality of Caesar's ensuing immortality. Robed in flattery, Decius' interpretation accentuates the problems that Caesar's immense ambition, popularity, and pretentiousness are seen to create for virtually everyone in the dream: Caesar's conspiring rivals, his wife, his alarmed friends, and later on even Cinna the poet, the innocent bystander. Were the play's structure not so wonderfully complicated—every image and relationship that emerges creating ripple effects throughout the remaining scenes—it might even be appropriate to suggest that Decius' interpretation bespeaks the earlier conspiracy scenes and that Calphurnia's interpretation foreshadows the scenes that follow. However, it does not appear that Shakespeare really prepares us for the literally mortifying ironic immortality of Caesar's spirit by either interpretation: for the agonizing outburst of short-lived triumph and sudden revenge, or for the ghostly, inexorable presence of Caesar even beyond the play's end. Calphurnia's dream and her attendant anxieties have such a powerful effect precisely because they reveal the terribly confused, uncertain consequences of letting Caesar have his way—consequences nonetheless so intractable that even his wished-for death cannot halt their influence.

Fourth, unquestionably Shakespeare used Calphurnia's dream and its interpretations to deepen the integration of the play. The second scene of Act Two is especially well placed for that effect. However, he used other structural devices as well: (1) an unparallelled close description of vitality (the exciting, never gruesome or disgusting talk of blood; fire; eating, drinking, waking from sleep, the brother of death; spirit effort; even the details of peoples' clothing and faces)—of vitality versus disorder, sickness, and infirmity;6 (2) cold-blooded resolve versus sympathizing tears; (3) the favorite Elizabethan conflict of immortal spirituality, nobility, and reason with unruly passion and the attendant consequences of self-deception and misjudgment; (4) a continuous mixture of mythic savagery and ceremony, of emplacement and displacement; (5) the long shadow of Pompey, himself never present but constantly alluded to; (6) men's proud, twisted construing of events versus the surprising, promiscuous determination of destiny by the events themselves; (7) a series of exciting, explosive encounters; (8) the cumulative contrasts between public and private life, between stoic invulnerability and the outbreak of emotion, between willful detachment and forced involvement, as well as the monstrous exploitation of friendship for imagined honor or glory; (9) the redistribution of the dominating personalities and their conflicts from act to act; (10) the orations of Brutus and Antony; and (11) the continuing dread disturbances of the night. All but a couple of these devices are spread throughout the play, eliciting a direct emotive response from the audience. It is striking to notice how raw and elemental, how full of what Freud called primary process most of this material is, as is true in the dream. In this sense, there is a distinct dream quality about most of the play, so that Calphurnia's actual dream fits right in place.

Fifth, I have already referred to the theme of blood, which also serves as a powerful connection between Calphurnia's discourse and the rest of the play—not least to the self-bloodletting of Portia, the wife of that other powerful man, Brutus, whose presence dominates much of the play. In his 1951 study The Imperial Theme G. Wilson Knight makes much of the blood imagery and of this general connection (45-51). As he points out, the loss of Caesar's blood is a costly business, the loss of a noble, vital, spiritual force. In the end, however, Caesar bleeds to death, but his spirit lives on to haunt and inspire. More is to be said about this blood. For one thing, David Shelley Berkeley has surveyed the characteristics and means of diminishing high, noble, superior blood in Shakespeare's work and in other related English literature. "Shakespeare's plays suggest with few exceptions," he summarizes, "that the poet especially desiderated the potentialities inherent in the bright red, hot, thin, fast-flowing, sweet-tasting blood of divinely sanctioned kings, and rated every departure from this blood, by the extent of its divergence, as a diminution in human quality" (14). Likewise, in his plays no gentle person is ever said to smell (52). Berkeley comments further:

Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play, although not a king because of Rome's republican traditions, is physiologically fit to occupy this exalted place because, although old enough to be Brutus' father and therefore supposedly possessed of little blood, he bleeds so much at his stabbing that the conspirators bathe their hands in his blood . . ."up to the elbows." Moreover, Calpurnia's dream of Caesar's statue, "Which like a fountain with a hundred spouts / Did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans / Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it" . . ., implies by its strong emphasis on abundant, flowing blood, rendered even more prominent by Decius' interpretation, that Caesar is physiologically legitimate (and therefore naturally legitimate) to be king or ruler of Rome. The conspirators are ill advised to tamper with the primate of nature. (87)

Another sign of high blood, Berkeley notes, is the ability to experience heartbreak, like Lear:

In Julius Caesar, Antony tells the mob that Caesar, who had lost much blood from his several wounds in the Forum, yet possessed enough blood to "burst his mighty heart" (3.2.186) if grief at the sight of Brutus among his murderers had not overcome him. The implications is that Caesar's age is no bar or hindrance to his being worthy of being ruler of Rome, crown or no crown, because he has the cachet of being able to experience heartbreak in the autumn of his life. (88-9)

This information from Berkeley's study is the kind that enables accurate reconstruction and an understanding of what an original audience was likely to have in mind. Less successful in this respect, though highly suggestive nonetheless, is Gail Kern Paster's attempt to equate the then-supposed demeaning, grotesque, unstoppable menstrual flow and lactation with Caesar's blood and thus his planned feminization and diminution as a person. These characteristics of the blood could possibly be listed among the many determinants of meaning by play's end. They by no means comprise all, or, by all evidence, even set the main point. The blood in this play is variously feminine and masculine, ordinary and regal; above all, it is exciting, vital, plenteous in its outflow toward death and life, and even ritually redeeming. All these latter qualities, save the very last, Shakespeare has the anxious Calphurnia announce.

Finally, we must ask why Calphurnia, a woman, should serve these functions? Juliet Dusinberre emphasizes that despite Shakespeare's inherited skepticism about women in view of his society's notion of women as a separate, inferior species, he took the best of the Calvinistic Puritanism of his time and tended to see them as equal with men. Thus, for him both men and women express "an infinite variety of union between opposing influences" (308). In this perspective, she reports, he was at one with the general trend in drama within the 1590-1625 period, "feminist in sympathy" and treating women as individuals (5). Juliet Cook, in seeming agreement, emphasizes the striking "independence" of Shakespeare's women and (for his time) the unmatched variety of roles he gave them. In the historical plays they have "very subordinate roles," however; and in the Roman plays, drawing from Plutarch, Shakespeare makes all of them relatively insignificant and powerless compared to the men—in short, they are typical Roman wives (all but Volumnia). Calphurnia and Portia are "classic vignettes of the Roman wife," though in Calphurnia Shakespeare emphasizes women's "intuition and even foreknowledge of events" (64-5). In a study of gender in Shakespeare's writings, Linda Bamber adds still another feature: "In the comedies Shakespeare seems if not a feminist then at least a man who takes the woman's part. Often the women in the comedies are more brilliant than the men, more aware of themselves and their world, saner, livelier, more gay. In the tragedies, however, Shakespeare creates such nightmare female figures as Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and Volumnia" (2). R. S. White points to other female characters as "innocent victims." Understandably missing from each contrasting treatment of female figures is the middling but focal figure of Calphurnia.

Perhaps the most secure answer to our question—why Calphurnia, a woman, serves these functions—is threefold. (1) Plutarch has her there. (2) Shakespeare had been developing an interest, as Caesar is made to do, though less trustingly, in the intuitive aspect of things, represented in his mind especially by women. (3) The audience was sufficiently varied and open to sympathetic portrayals of women's contributions for him to make at least this slight venture. All these statements are, in any case, quite true. In Julius Caesar, moreover, neither Calphurnia nor Portia is a nightmarish figure, but as wives of powerful men they are indeed set in the midst of nightmarish events.

The major thrust of this play, dealing as it does with the conflicting mortality/immortality of Caesar, is patently a deliberate design of its author, enriched not by one but by many unconscious meanings. These often ambiguous meanings the action of the play partly nudges into consciousness. These meanings, along with what remains unconscious but is nonetheless communicated, become the audience's possession however they may have arisen for Shakespeare, however Shakespeare may have imagined them to arise for his characters, or however they may have emerged for the historical figures themselves.

As a philosopher greatly interested in the arts and in educative impacts of aesthetic means, I feel that the major contribution that psychoanalytically oriented criticism can make to the interpretation of art is to focus not so much on the artist or on the artist's characters as on the ground for vital communication between artist and audience.7 As with an actual psychoanalysis, one wants to keep as close to the current derivatives of the more deeply lodged material of experience as possible. One must hover over the material listening for unconscious themes, not jumping too quickly to an ad hoc interpretation of symbols and actions. One must expect the material to be multiply determined, thus subject to several layers or facets of interpretation. Thus, interpretation can arise variously and afresh with each new generation because the grounds of communication, continuously opened up though also limited by the actual material of the art work, are ever shifting with changes in experience.

In closing, I should like to point out something else that, to my knowledge, no interpreter has yet indicated in psychoanalytic terms. I refer to the overwhelming depressive, sometimes alternatively manic mood that pervades most of this play—precisely in all the details that Edith Jacobson brilliantly outlines in her 1971 papers on moods and depression. According to Jacobson, a depressive mood necessarily involves aggressive conflict. This becomes amalgamated with an experience of loss or failure or the like and may persist through various narcissistic identifications. Moods tend to flood ego functioning. They are a "barometer of the ego state," displaying detachment from specific object cathexes and effecting blanket appraisals of self and object representations (notably alternating dependence on an idealized love-object and pseudo-independence of superego functioning). They may express themselves in words and actions as well as in affects. Now in a more general sense, as Charles Brenner has more recently indicated, the more depressive and the more anxious side of our affects are temporally two sides of the same coin, the one tending to point back and the other to point forward; furthermore, the two qualities of affect as they emerge within a mind in conflict may be closely associated and are probably never wholly isolated from each other.

It is this general feature of the affective quality in our experience that enables us as audience to apprehend representations of depression and anxiety in art, not only their occasional existence as moods. In Julius Caesar we see the characters under a cloud of depression interspersed with elation. As the pivotal second scene of Act Two opens, Shakespeare has Caesar himself depict the all-encompassing mood by crying: "Nor heaven nor earth have been at peace to-night." Caesar himself does not seem to experience much of a sense of failure or loss or hurt or disaster, though the aggressive, strutting, expansive qualities of his conflicts are obvious enough, but we the audience are made to feel this both through the other characters and through the very setting of Shakespeare's play. What is communicated above all, as has been only partly indicated in the themes outlined in this essay, is a set of moods and their underlying, largely hidden conflicts.


1 The occasion for an early version of this essay was a paper on Calphurnia's dream by Zelda Teplitz, a psychoanalyst and devoted Shakespeare scholar, at the American Psychoanalytic Association annual meeting in New York, December 1, 1972. I was then a candidate at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and offered some extended comments. To my knowledge, her paper remains unpublished. I am grateful for the stimulus of her work, though I must take responsibility for my own, rather different, ideas. As a philosopher-historian who works especially with educators and planners, my critical interest in the possibilities and limits of psychoanalytic interpretation has continued to grow in the intervening years. This essay is intended to serve as a brief indicator of what I have learned. In immediately practical terms, I hope that the findings presented here may be of particular help to secondary school teachers, since Julius Caesar is in the curriculum of almost every high school in America, as frequently elsewhere, and does contain elements of special appeal to adolescents.

2 Harold Bloom, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,1. Bloom here collects nine of the best among studies on the play from 1969 to 1985. In 1951 Harold C. Goddard had already depicted the play as Shakespeare's "bridge" to the later tragedies, explaining this in these terms: "From Julius Caesar on, his greater characters and greater plays are touched with the dream-light and dream-darkness of something that as certainly transcends the merely human as do the prophets and sibyls of Michelangelo" (308). Of unusual breadth among earlier psychoanalytic essays treating of the play is a 1966 study by Andrew Wilkinson in which he pays comparatively greater notice to Calphurnia than usual but not so much in psychoanalytic terms.

3 In his 1966 Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare and later works Norman N. Holland has taken a position close to mine, except that he prefers to use psychoanalysis on our own reactions as readers or audience. I believe that it can also serve purposes of historical reconstruction and in detail, subject both to rigorous canons of evidence and to provisos, recently emphasized by Marjorie Garber, having to do with the "uncanny," multi-determined, in-varying-degrees-lost origins of authorship. Also compare Holland's The Shakespearean Imagination, wherein Chapter 8 is on Julius Caesar.

4 For convenience, page references are to Garber's chap-ter included in Bloom, as probably the more accessible source. Her entire work, however, is of one piece and is an outstanding account of the changing nature and function of dreams in Shakespeare's writings.

5 Compare these lines from Hamlet, a year later: "In the most high and palmy state of Rome, / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, / The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" (1.1.113-6).

6 G. Wilson Knight, who had a great eye for meta-phoric detail, notes that "nearly everyone in the play is ill" (40).

7 For example, though not resorting to psychoanalytic tools, Phyllis Rackin offers a substantial analysis of "The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II" Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 262-81.

Works Cited

Arthos, John. Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1982.

Berkeley, David Shelley. Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare's Plays. Graduate Studies, No. 28. Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 1984.

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Brenner, Charles. The Mind in Conflict. New York: International Universities P, 1982.

Camden, Carroll, Jr. "Shakespeare on Sleep and Dreams." Rice Institute Pamphlet 23 (1936): 106-33.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Harrap, 1980.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Garber, Marjorie B. Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

——. Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. London: Methuen, 1987.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951.

Green, David C. Julius Caesar and Its Source. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1979.

Holland, Norman N. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

——. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Jacobson, Edith. Depression: Comparative Studies of Normal, Neurotic, and Psychotic Conditions. New York: International Universities P, 1971.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays. London: Methuen, 1951.

Paster, Gail Kern. "'In the spirit of men there is no blood': Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar"' Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 284-98.

Rubinstein, Frankie. "Shakespeare's Dream-Stuff: A Forerunner of Freud's 'Dream Material'." American Imago: A Psychoanalytic Journal for Culture, Science, and the Arts 43 (1986): 335-55. [The subject matter is similar to that in the author's book, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984), not on dreams in the plays.]

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar, The Arden Edition, 6th edn., ed. T. S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1955. [Compare this volume in The Oxford Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, ed. Arthur Humphreys (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984).]

Stockholder, Kay. Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987.

Teplitz, Zelda. "The Ego and Motility in Sleepwalking." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 6 (1958): 95-110.

White, R. S. Innocent Victims: Poetic Injustice in Shakespearean Tragedy. Rev. edn. London: Athlone P, 1983.

Wilkinson, Andrew M. "A Psychological Approach to Julius Caesar." Review of English Literature 7 (1966): 66-78. [Rpt. in Melvin D. Faber, The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare (New York: Science House, 1970), 63-78.]

Kay Stockholder (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Dreaming of Death: Love and Money in The Merchant of Venice," in The Dream and the Text: Essays on Literature and Language, edited by Carol Schreier Rupprecht, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 133-56.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1991, Stockholder reads The Merchant of Venice as the dream of Portia's dead father in order to unravel the play's psychological and social concerns with wealth and sexual desire.]

Psychoanalytic criticism over the years has generated a refined understanding of the ways literature renders the complex, dynamic organization of human emotion. However, there are two persistent grounds on which most forms of psychoanalytic literary practice have been censured. The first is that they detach literary portrayals of human complexities from the social and political institutions, conscious values, and cognitive systems in which literature embeds them. In concentrating on a presumed latent content, psychoanalytic criticism tends to ignore the interaction between the unconscious emotions and ideas, those that would derive from the past of persons like those represented, and the present world they are depicted as confronting. By limiting meaningfulness to unconscious motivations, this critical approach depreciates representations of social reality, consciousness, and cognition. The second charge against psychoanalytic criticism is that it fails to account for the formal characteristics and aesthetic dimensions of literature. This omission generates criticism that reduces literature to authorial biography, or to characters' case histories; to projecting screens for its audiences' predilections, or to sets of rhetorical manipulations of its readers.1

The mode of criticism that this chapter will bring to bear on The Merchant of Venice includes these otherwise excluded dimensions by taking the protagonist as the dreamer of his play.2 To regard the entire configu-ration of the drama as the protagonist's dream renders significant all that he confronts as external to himself, and reads the genre form itself as expressive of the dreamer's habitual stance towards his or her emotional life. He is analogous not to us dreaming, but rather to the figure in our dreams that we identify as ourselves when we awaken. As well, the play's conclusion reveals the desire implicit in its beginning, and provides thereby the psychological concomitant to the sense of inevitability that contributes to the aesthetic force of fiction. The play's formal properties, the discourse in which the story is articulated, express the modes by which the protagonist mediates between the demands of unacknowledged desires that shape what he confronts as an external world, and his consciously espoused values. This approach makes appropriate some Lacanian and semiotic vocabulary, that is, to trace the ways in which various aspects of the text, including what one normally thinks of as characters, function as a chain of interlocking signifiers. However, unlike Lacanian approaches it centers the work in subjective human experience. Seeing each component as a signifier that collects the affect of multiple signifieds allows one to trace the changing ways in which aspects of works that are generally the focus of psychoanalytic study are linked to, or signify, the dominant ideas that constitute the social and cultural nexus of the worlds that produce them. The entire work becomes a picture of the protagonist's strategy of signification as he negotiates between the demands of unconscious drives, his conscious value systems, and what he experiences as his external worlds. The work becomes a chain of the protagonist's associations that reveals the way his self-experience is interconnected to the structure of signification that constitutes his culture (Silverman 1983). Therefore, to regard the play as the protagonist's dream keeps us closer to and takes more account of the play's surface than does a conventional psychoanalytic account. It addresses the formal patterns of action without losing sight of an experiencing human consciousness within them. By attending to the relationships between conscious and unconscious states, rather than regarding the products of consciousness as clues to what they conceal, one can ascertain some possible emotional correlates of lives shaped within a historical reality other than one's own.

While in principle one can regard any figure as the protagonist of the play, to choose a figure at the periphery of the action is to read the play as the dream of one who defines himself as observer rather than as participant in her or his world. In tragic or serious literature things fall into place more simply by choosing a figure who is at the play's emotional center, so that the choice of whom to regard as protagonist is relatively straightforward. It is, however, the nature of comedy to obscure its emotional center, and to substitute plot for feeling in a way that renders comedy, viewed in this way, as revelatory of more deeply repressed material than is tragedy. That is, while watching a tragedy we are more engaged in the action as it affects the central characters than for its own sake, while the reverse is so for comedy. Therefore, in comedy one often more deftly penetrates the play's emotional center by attending to whomever or whatever functions as the moving force of the plot, however obscure the figure may seem, rather than by focusing on the most emotionally heightened figure. In The Merchant of Venice, the central focus of this chapter, all the action stems from Portia's dead father. He arranges his daughter's marriage, and sets in motion all that flows from it. Therefore I will regard this shadowy figure as the dreamer of the play.

This choice is more heuristic than substantive. That is, one could select any of the characters, Shylock, Antonio, Portia, Bassanio, or even Lorenzo. Ultimately one would be telling the same story from different perspectives; for each figure the others would signify repudiated aspects of his or her emotional configuration. For example, if one chose Portia as dreamer, the dead but still influential father would reveal her ambivalence about the paternal authority that she contests in assuming power over the other male figures. Her psychological drama would be the mirror image of her father's, whose ambivalence about male authority is manifested in his retreat from it and in his substitution of Portia for himself (see ). However, designating the Father as dreamer draws one in more immediately to the male psychodynamic that generates the play and choosing him rather than one of the other male figures highlights the significance of the plot line that derives from his initial retreat. All the action flows from his move to control his daughter's marriage and the transmission of his wealth.

Therefore to think about the play as the Father's dream relates the central concerns with wealth and money, which shape the figures and actions he defines as external and separate from himself, to the psychological significance of the emotionally heightened aspects that more readily suggest psychodynamic meanings. To bring Portia's father from the obscurity of his grave is to locate in a subject what otherwise appear as textual gaps and breaks, and to read them as links in a semiotic chain that is bounded within the single text. In this way one can penetrate most efficaciously what one might call the play's social psychology, or its political unconscious, in relationship to the more usual concerns of psychoanalytic criticism.

To foreground this occulted figure casts light on otherwise obscure links between this play and others, some of which I will indicate in the process of the argument that follows. As the attributes of characters combine and recombine into a variety of figures in other plays, Shakespeare adopts different strategies to harmonize the conflicts that in his world inhere in romantic marriage. These links suggest that the concern with money that is so obvious in this play has submerged importance in other plays by Shakespeare, and that the conflicting ideologies of this play were not resolved, but rather were submerged in his later work. However, to move in this way from a textual to an intertextual frame, and to relate the experience of one protagonist to that of another, one clearly must consider Shakespeare to be the dreamer, and the various protagonists as avatars of one who casts himself as an invisible observer to his own vast dream.

To think about Shakespeare as the dreamer does not imply that the plays, like dreams, took shape without conscious intention and craft. Rather, to do so assumes that in addition to conscious decisions about what kind of play to write and what ideas it was to incorporate, an intuitive sense of what was fitting guided Shakespeare in making the myriad of choices from the ways his world made it possible for him to accomplish his goals.3 Such intuitive choices, ranging from the largest components, such as genre, convention, and dramatis personae, to the smallest details of language, draw on the psychic forces that shape dreams out of the contents of our waking lives. In order to elucidate these links between personal psychology and public ideology, the last part of this chapter will place in their historical context the interrelated concerns with marriage and money that emerge from this study.

Considering Portia's father as the dreamer renders The Merchant of Venice like a dream of one for whom only such a radically self-denying strategy as dying could provide a compromise between contradictory ideas and desires. His having dreamt himself dead suggests self-hatred and condemnation so intense that he cannot live with himself. Having thus avoided the challenge to become conscious of his psychic drama, he idealizes himself as a beneficent magical power reaching into the world from beyond the grave. He reveals Portia's centrality to the conflicted emotions from which he retreated by the central role he assigns her. His desires pull in two contrary directions. On the one hand, his desire that she join him in the grave to which he has retreated appears in the world-weariness of her opening words, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world" (I.ii.1-2). She makes a more oblique but more trenchant connection between death and marriage, or death and sexuality, when she says that she would "rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth" than to her suitors. This grotesque image adds a sexual dimension to Portia's world-weariness, which indicates that the Father has initiated, but not completed, a version of a love-death romance such as is suggested when Lear wants to "crawl towards death" while living with Cordelia, and is explicit in Pericles between Antiochus and his daughter. The Father's concentration on Portia's marriage reveals not only his denied incestuous desires; the fact that his sexuality is expressed through incest connotes his association of sexuality in general with the debasement of family affection, violation, evil, and death. This last association is made through his own dream death, as well as in the risk of death incurred by those who seek Portia's hand.4 This aspect of his mentality remains submerged,but it is the opposite side to the idealization of Portia, who, once married, becomes the Father's surrogate magical agent to preside over Belmont, which functions as a Neoplatonic alternative to the commercial Venice.

While Portia's language manifests the Father's pull on her, his revulsion from his own desires forces a compromise formation in which he substitutes for his forbidden erotic desires control over her marriage choice and the disposition of his wealth. The tension between these contrary pulls appears in Portia's lament that she "may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father" (I.ii.25-7).5 The Father jus-tifies his hold on her by defining himself as a benign magus whose power will serve her interests when Nerissa says that only one "who you shall rightly love" (I.i.36) will choose the right casket. By thus idealizing himself as a benign magical force, as Prospero more overtly does later, the Father achieves a sleight-of-hand reconciliation between his craving for control, which functions as a devious expression of and substitute for sexual desire, and a romantic conception of marriage. That is, Portia's father cannot forgo his paternal dominion, which is energized by his denied sexual desire; but he cannot assert it explicitly because his ideology of marriage incorporates romantic love. He exonerates himself by defining his control as a magical emanation from the grave that serves not only Portia's best interests, but also her desires. By these means the Father achieves a trickster's reconciliation of the usually mutually exclusive desires both to control his daughter's will and have her marry for love.

However, marriage based on romantic love conflicts not only with the Father's erotic claims; it conflicts as well with the function of marriage as a means of ensuring the transmission of wealth. The pivotal place of wealth in the Father's psyche first appears when Nerissa rebukes Portia for failing to appreciate the abundance of her fortunes (II.i.4-5). It is inscribed more deeply in the casket device that inaugurates the play's major action. Here the Father expresses both his espoused ideal of romantic marriage uncontaminated by material concerns and his sense of the danger of such contamination. The underlying equation of love and money appears in the elaborate denial of the casket device, which associates Portia with valueless lead and gold with "carrion death." In this configuration the Father radically separates love and marriage from money and wealth, but reveals the hidden links by associating Portia with the golden fleece. On the one hand that image presages Portia's function as representative of spiritual gold, but the denied material desires condition the plot in which Portia is a material golden fleece for Bassanio. Bassanio's need for money in order to achieve status and wealth and Antonio's presumed indifference to the money he has acquired from commerce (that is, from buying cheap and selling dear) show the opposed levels of material concerns sliding into and representing each other. The sleight of hand by which the Father reconciles the competing claims of romance and the transmission of inheritance reveals not only his erotically charged concentration on controlling his wealth, but also the self-hatred occasioned by desires that would destroy his self-image should he espouse them. The only compromise he has found for these convoluted desires has been to retreat into death while designing a fairy-tale world to perpetuate images of himself that defend him from self-hatred and self-condemnation.

As we will see later, the Father's psychological dilemma has its roots in the consequences of a romantic ideology of marriage. While marriage was conceived primarily as a financial arrangement between families, a father of daughters was required to part with some of his wealth for their dowries, but he could substitute for forbidden erotic desires an intense connection to a daughter through controlling her will. If a daughter is to marry for love, then her father loses the compensatory satisfaction of control. As Cordelia later puts it, not only will she give her husband half her heart; her love rather than only her father's choice will determine the destination of the dowry. Portia's father, however, has not only accepted romantic marriage, but spiritualized it. Having rendered it symbolic of transcendent, as opposed to material, gold, he must drive his material concerns into his unconscious where they join the guilt and shame associated with forbidden incestuous desires. Having thus fused love and wealth, the Father becomes an aristocratic version of Shylock's confusion of daughters with ducats.6

The emotional strife between desires and the values that render them guilty shapes the two paternal surrogates into which he splits himself, Antonio and Shylock, each of whom becomes the other's alter ego. The self-image generated by his denied desires generates Shylock, the Jew denied by society. His possessiveness of Portia appears as Shylock's of Jessica, while his shame for conflating Portia with wealth appears in Shylock's explicit equation of the two—"My daughter, my ducats." In caricaturing Shylock's ugliness and grasping possessiveness, the Father portrays his repressed self-image and the concomitant self-loathing that forced him to repudiate his desires. Though the Father foregrounds Shylock's hatred of Antonio and his love of money, it is Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo that triggers the climactic action. The play obscures whether it was in jest only that Shylock made the bond with Antonio, but it is certainly only after Jessica's marriage that the jest turns to earnest. The linked sexual and monetary components of Shylock's claim on Jessica also appear when Shylock laments that she has stolen her mother's jewels, in effect stealing the dowry that the court later forces him to give her. This configuration reveals the Father's fears that unless he retains extraordinary powers, his daughter's free choice of a husband will wrest his wealth from him and debase his family.

In a self-splitting more radical than that of King Lear, who victimizes Cordelia while victimizing himself to Goneril and Regan, in the despised Shylock the Father embodies his fierce possessiveness of both daughters and ducats, and in the melancholy Antonio he expresses his grief and drift toward death. This is the emotional consequence of having repressed both his erotic and monetary passions. He also embodies in Antonio a short-circuited quest for a homoerotic alternative to his embattled heterosexuality. However, he associates homoeroticism with a depletion of life energies that is expressed in the loss of money. Antonio betrays the same associations of love with wealth that are expressed in the casket motif. Just as the motif betrays the equation of love with money that it is intended to conceal, so do Antonio's answers to his fellow merchants when they ask why he is melancholy. To their suggestion that he is melancholy because he cannot cool his soup or go to church without bringing to mind the rocks upon which the winds might drive his ships, Antonio denies that all his wealth is at hazard. He denies as well their suggestion that he grieves for Bassanio's imminent departure. But the action belies both denials, for were all his wealth not at hazard he would have been able to meet the bond that he would not in the first place have had to make. And were he not grieving for Bassanio, he would not cast himself as competitor with Portia for Bassanio's love, as he does in the trial scene when he uses his predicament as a means by which to draw Bassanio away from Portia.7 He explic-itly contrasts his self-sacrificing love to Portia's when he tells Bassanio to, "Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death; / And, when the tale is told, bid her be the judge / Whether Bassanio had not once a love" (IV.i.276-78). As well, when he urges Bassanio to part with Portia's ring, he demands that Balthazar's "deserving, and my love withal / Be valu'd gainst your wife's commandment" (IV.i.454-55).

The action in which Antonio's coffers are drained by Bassanio's pecuniary needs associates the Father's homoerotic move with loss of wealth, which is in turn associated with the loss of the life's blood that will drain from Antonio should Shylock cut his pound of flesh. The two are further linked by the image in which Bassanio tells Portia that "I freely told you all the wealth I had / Ran in my veins" (III.ii.255-56).8 In Antonio's melancholy, then, the Father expresses the emotional consequence of having repressed both forms of erotic satisfaction, along with the desire for money that signifies them both. Antonio's apparently unmotivated self-denigration as a "tainted wether of the flock" surrounds his figure with an aura of self-loathing and death that reveal him as an emanation from the Father's grave.

But the intensity of hatred between the wolfish Shylock and his natural prey, the flock's tainted wether, Antonio, is so great that it raises the possibility of another and darker level of homosexuality than appears in the gentle relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. As we have seen, in Shylock the Father manifests the repressed conflation of incestuous desire and ruthless greed and consequent self-loathing that bars his access to heterosexual love. Shylock's remoteness from his own figure, both socially and in the topography of his dream, manifests his underlying vision of himself as a social outcast. Having marginalized Shylock in this way, he also expresses through the intensity of the mutual hatred of Shylock and Antonio, out of which they forge their "bond," his most deeply buried homosexual eroticism. In turn, homosexuality is also associated with Shylock's open display of the greed and possessiveness for which the Father despises himself. This complex of feeling appears in the configuration created by Bassanio, Antonio, and Shylock, in which he rejects as debasing and disgusting his unconscious desire for his socially outcast alter ego, and masks it with his attachment to the more socially acceptable Bassanio. In the figure of Bassanio he asserts his rights to membership in the aristocratic world in which generosity and insouciance about the money upon which its display depends is a necessary symbol of rank and status (Stone 1967). Representing in Antonio the frustration and self-hatred that surfaces in consciousness only as melancholy and ennui, he forges a compromise between frustrated desire and fear by moving towards a nightmare version of sexual fulfillment. In Shylock's refusal to accept reified money in lieu of Antonio's literal flesh, the Father desublimates his desire, and in the culminating scene in which Antonio bares his breast to Shylock's knife, he reveals his terror of and desire for an enactment that will simultaneously punish and gratify his guilty desires. Furthermore, by casting Antonio as Shylock's victim with Bassanio as audience he has additional gratification of seeing Bassanio feel guilt for taking his daughter and with her his wealth, while, through Antonio, simultaneously enjoying being the object both of his horrified and loving gaze and of Shylock's terrible intimacy. He assuages his guilt through Shylock's punishment, and through Antonio gets the masochistic reward of being victimized, as well as the delight of being the object of Portia's compassionate concern. In this way the Father's dream exemplifies Freud's depiction of the way the superego taps the resources of the id.9

The strategy of splitting enables the Father to keep both his surrogates in the land of the living, but the inadequacy of the compromise appears in the fact that both Shylock and Antonio are in the end comforted only by the wealth, without which they would, in Antonio's words, "view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow / An age of poverty" (IV.i.271-72), an odd conclusion to a play that thematically opposes Venetian reified value to Belmont's spiritual gold. Shylock has only enough money to survive in his bitter humiliation, and the Father generates no fourth female to sweep Antonio into the comedic celebration of multiple marriages. To the end he remains an isolated and melancholy figure. These hidden links between the hero and the villain, two figures who are on the surface so radically opposed, reveal that the Jew is not as alien as the Father would like him to be. The failure to resolve the conflicts that generate the play appears as well in Shylock's unsettling comparison of his rights to Antonio's flesh to the Venetian rights over their purchased slaves. The ambivalence about the commerce that characterizes Venice and that her laws are designed to protect also generates sympathy for Shylock. The underlying sense that Antonio and Shylock are twin births, that Shylock functions as scapegoat for the love of money upon which Venice is founded and Belmont is dependent, wells up in Shylock's assertion of his humanity and justifies his vengefulness.10 It also reflects the Father's ultimate unwillingness completely to forgo his unacknowledged desires, as well as his underlying rage at having been forced to repress them.

The Father's ambivalence about the ideology in terms of which he conceives his cure fractures the light that plays around Portia and problematizes the play's emotional impact. In order both to inherit her father's mantle and to remain a desirable sexual object, she must demonstrate feminine submissiveness, first to her father's will and then to Bassanio. However, her submission of herself and her estate must be token only; she must be heir to her father's power in order to cure in Venice her father's ills. The virtue that is to be therapeutic or redemptive is compassion, as it is in Desdemona, Cordelia, and Miranda, though they are denied Portia's shaping power. Portia shows her compassion first in her eagerness to rescue Antonio, and later in pleading for mercy that is "as the gentle rain from heaven." However, compassion and mercy are private and quiet virtues; to heal a sick world and the Father from whom that world has issued, these virtues must be wedded to the more active and difficult public virtue of justice. Therefore, while protecting the feminine image by having Portia don male disguise, the Father ascribes to her the wisdom and power by which he defines himself, as well as the trickster mentality that allows him to give the illusion of reconciling the conflicting demands of justice and mercy. But justice is a harsh virtue, one easily confused with cruelty. The cunning Portia inherits from him empowers her compassion, but it also entails a capacity for cruelty that threatens to tarnish her image as advocate of mercy and agent of harmony. This capacity also relates her to Shylock in a way that threatens to merge her image into his in ways dangerous to the entire configuration. Furthermore, since she punishes Shylock for his greed and cruelty, and he functions as a stand-in for repudiated aspects of the father, her punishment of Shylock fulfills the Father's fearful desire for the punishment he thinks justice demands. The Father's misgivings about the only compromise formation he has been able to generate are expressed in the precarious comedy of the trial scene when Bassanio and Shylock in turn celebrate Portia as "a Daniel come to judgment."

Portia's money also links her to Shylock. Shylock's gold allows Bassanio to win Portia and endangers Antonio, while Portia's money is the necessary, though not sufficient, condition for her activity. The final action links the two more closely, when, without explaining the source of her knowledge, Portia informs Antonio that his ships are returned and his wealth secure. This odd circumstance reveals the complicity of the idealized Neoplatonic Belmont with the commercialized Venice to which it is posited as a spiritual alternative. The polarized images of society are represented by polarized images of Portia as at once compassionate and cruel. The split in woman's image is not fully realized here, since both sides inhere in the same figure.11 In King Lear the split is more radical; Cordelia,who will not give love for money, symbolizes a transcendent idealization of traditional order, while Goneril and Regan's greed, and the wealth and status to which Edmund aspires through them, demonize the actuality. Since sexuality is associated with the evil sisters, male heterosexual desires come to signify desire for every kind of violation, all of which are in turn signified by incest. As we will see later, incest taboos concern the transmission of wealth as do other marital prohibitions.

All of these motifs are inextricably knotted into the pound of flesh around which the action turns. In Freudian terms it is an overdetermined dream element; in Lacanian terms it is a floating signifier hungry for signifieds, which in turn function as signifiers for it. Its most obvious signified is the money for which it is substituted, but money, as we have seen, has been equated with both Portia and Jessica. Therefore, the passion for money is fueled by the desire for woman's body, Portia's "little body," that it also represents. Shylock's desire for it then expresses the Father's denied desire for both money and his daughter, equated with each other. The Father has also associated money with the relation between Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio's denied desires for Bassanio being signified by the money which enables him both to send him to Portia and to call him back. Shylock's refusal to accept money as a substitute for Antonio's flesh expresses the ambivalent homoeroticism with which the Father has tinged Antonio's figure. The fears that render the homosexual element elusive between Antonio and Bassanio appear in the ferocious hatred between Shylock and Antonio. Antonio's willingness to sacrifice his pound of flesh for Bassanio and Shylock's desire for it associate homosexuality with castration. In turn, castration signifies death when Portia exposes Shylock's murderous intent. In the death to which Antonio is so ready to go, the Father expresses both his self-punitive impulses and the desire to kill in Antonio the idealized self-image (generously indifferent to money and unpossessive in love) that renders guilty his desires both for money and for his daughter. At its most general level the pound of flesh represents the reified values of Shylock's Venice, whose laws are designed to protect Antonio's commerce. These values the Father contrasts to those of Neoplatonic Belmont, which express his self-idealization. But the father's dream shows self-condemnation and self-idealization to be two sides of a single coin: the self-aggrandizement by which the Father defends himself against his desires amplifies their power to defile what he defines as sacred.

In the union of Bassanio and Portia, the father envisions releasing Portia from the orbit of his desire into the arms of a younger version of himself, so finding vicarious compensation for his loss. However, his vexation about passing Portia on to another man remains apparent in the thinness of Bassanio's characterization, as well as in the postponement of the nuptial celebration beyond the limits of the text. Not only is the wedding night disrupted by Antonio's letter, but the consummation of their marriage retreats into infinite futurity when the last act substitutes for a conventional romantic reunion a more playful version of the court scene in which Bassanio replaces Shylock as Portia's victim, and is punished for dividing his allegiance between her and Antonio. In Portia's privileged knowledge of her identity, by which she reconciles the dilemma she has devised for Bassanio, the Father repeats, in a lighter vein, the earlier configuration in which his magic reconciled otherwise incompatible values. However, the improbability that defines romantic comedy expresses the father's awareness that the conflicts that generated the configuration are still in place, that he has substituted daydream fantasy for genuine dream resolution of conflicts. The incommensurateness of the conclusion to the magnitude of Shylock's figure reveals the Father's dissatisfaction with his own strategy. Shylock's resistance to containment within the comic frame reveals the pressure of the Father's desires toward fuller actualization, a pressure that appears as well in the exclusion of both Shylock and Antonio from the domestic resolution.

That these conflicts remained unresolved appears in the fact that the sleight of hand by which Portia's father generates an illusory resolution of competing value systems most fully characterizes Prospero, who even more trickily contrives to leave his daughter free to choose according to his will, and then celebrates his cleverness in having stage-managed her rebellion. Whereas Portia's father withdraws into death, Prospero withdraws into his study; whereas Portia's father bathes his world in a quasi-magical aura, Prospero emerges from his study with explicitly magical powers on which he bases the superiority that shapes his self-definition. Like his dramatic progenitors, he has only a daughter through whom to control the destiny of his lineage. Sexual passions remain linked to money, for the ideal commonwealth to issue from Ferdinand and Miranda's union is contrasted to the ordinary world in which Sebastian, Antonio, and Stephano anticipate making commercial capital out of Caliban. Caliban represents the unruly sexuality that renders him at once a lump of deformed flesh and a marketplace commodity.

The persistent, if attenuated, ways in which monetary concerns are woven into later plays suggest that Shakespeare, no more than Portia's father, could not remove the taint of money from his imagination of redeeming love and ideal authority. In various ways in different plays he tried to envision a generative heterosexual love that would inseminate a just kingdom with redeeming nurturing compassion, but he could not prevent grotesque images of cruelty and greed from attaching to the active side of multidimensional female figures. Having only daughters to inherit the considerable fortune he acquired in the process of writing and staging plays that deplored the erosion of the traditional hierarchy by the tide of commerce and related ambitions, Shakespeare himself might well have been overwhelmed by the self-loathing and world-weariness he depicts in characters from his royal merchant to his triumphant magiciap.

The momentous psychological importance I have found related to money may seem to contradict a Freudian conception in which the primacy of sexual concerns derives from their infantile sources. But as Freud often reminds his readers, the unconscious knows no time. In his topographical model of the unconscious, temporal precedence does not endow events with more affective power than later accretions to which affect may be transferred, and a literary use of the dream model is necessarily concerned with the dynamic interplay of factors within the textual time frame rather than with conceptual origins. Furthermore, though modern sensibilities may be slow to perceive money and wealth as the locus of severe psychological tension, the picture changes when one allows the plays to give emotional resonance to the relationships that existed in their own time between money, wealth, and marriage. Further to widen the frame of reference in this way, to attach signifieds from the time in general to signifying figures within the plays, is to regard Portia's father and his creator as persons experiencing and shaping the age's conflict-ridden nexus of marriage, money, and traditional wealth and status.

In a general way Georg Simmel facilitates an understanding of the pychological stresses in the Renaissance. He argues that the significance of money is that it "expresses the relativity of objects of demand through which they become economic values" (Simmel 1978, 130). Such a fear that the money nexus erodes a social system that authorizes itself on the basis of absolute value is classically expressed by Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II when he accuses Richard of becoming "England's landlord, not her king." Gaunt's accusation resonates more deeply in view of Simmel's statement that,

The powerful character of money . . . appears at its most noticeable, at the least at its most uncanny, wherever the money economy is not yet completely established and accepted, and where money displays its compelling power in relations that are structurally antagonistic (p. 244).

He adds that the "utilization of such a mysterious and dangerous power as capital necessarily appeared as immoral, as criminal misuse" (p. 244). Lawrence Stone's study of complex interrelations between traditional wealth and the rising tide of commerce shows the relevance of this general comment to sixteenth-century England. Stone discusses the sleight of hand necessary to bring new blood into a hereditary aristocracy, and particularly the ways in which the sale of titles by James I inflated the honours of the established orders (Stone 1967, 54). Though he says that Elizabeth was parsimonious in creating new titles, in her reign the busy market in land sales enriched a large group of people who became contenders to entry into noble ranks in the next reign (p. 76). At the same time that wealth, accumulated in commerce, might through marriage provide entrée into the ranks of the elite, membership in that elite still entailed scorn for the money that had both provided access to elite status, and that remained indispensable for maintaining the display of generosity and grandeur that "served as symbolic justifications of rank and status" (p. 266). The consequences of this dilemma can be seen in the configuration of King Lear, in which an idealized version of traditional wealth is represented by Cordelia, the "unprized precious maid," while greed for the luxury on which status depends is represented by Goneril and Regan, whose gorgeous clothing scarcely keeps them warm.

The situation Stone describes is one in which persons of trditional welath, like Portia's father, might well despise themselves for coveting money. On the one hand they required money to maintain a display that signified their status, while that same status required of them their indifference to the money upon which it depended. Money was clearly important: for the landed aristocrats it was the despised conduit that underwrote their status; for the aspiring it promised access both to status and privileges they both despised and envied; and lacking money entailed the social death envisioned by Antonio and Shylock or experienced by such "poor naked wretches" as Poor Tom. But money can be acquired by any clever trickster, by the worthy and the unworthy alike, and when land is for sale money can buy it, along with the honors associated with its ownership, and the hands of noble heiresses. Furthermore, the confusion of status and money went in two directions and threatened to erode the distinctions among the social orders as the aristocracy participated in commercial enterprise. Stone observes that it was the noblemen "still traditionalist in their views . . . and not social groups more deeply affected by the spirit of capitalism, who provided the economy with just that element of risk money without which it could not have moved ahead" (p. 182). He does not discuss the psychological conflicts possible between absolutist values and financial activities, but the situation he envisions is consistent with the weary psychology of bad conscience I have attributed to Shakespeare's characters and, more hypothetically, to Shakespeare.

Some more intimate dimensions of these economic issues are brought into focus in complementary ways by the work of Georges Duby and Jack Goody. Duby describes the conflict in twelfth-century France between the knights and the priests, or between what he calls the lay model of marriage and the clerical model that gradually gained ascendancy. The knights were engaged in a struggle to build up the wealth that would establish their families as honourable, and straight-forwardly looked upon marriage as a means of doing so. In the situation Duby describes, one son only was allowed to contract a legal marriage and to have legitimate offspring. Wives who did not produce offspring were easily discarded, for knights and princes, as well as kings, paid little heed to church regulations. In his discussion of the importance the aristocracy placed on controlling their family lines so that their honor would be inherited by their progeny, Duby comments on the difficulty facing a man who had no sons. The solitary heiress was a "target for matrimonial intrigue" among the disinherited younger sons in constant search for wealthy wives (Duby 1977, 110, 145). In this world a father of daughters might well wish he had magic at his disposal, but would feel no guilt at using whatever means he deemed expedient.

However, two factors combined to bring pressure upon what Duby calls the lay model of marriage. First, the younger sons who could not marry within the system pursued wealthy married women, often trying to abduct them. These marauding young men, who valued adventure and daring exploit and who justified their amours in the name of love, formed, Duby argues, the social base from which arose the ideology and literature of courtly love (Duby 1978, 14). Second, between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries the Church struggled to establish its authority over marriages. Condemning sexual pleasure, certainly outside of marriage and even within it, the Church defined marriage as instituted by God in order to ensure propagation. It

emphasized the union of two hearts in marriage and postulated that its validity rested more on the betrothal (desponsatio) than on the wedding, and especially on the consent (consensus) of the two individuals concerned. (Duby 1978, 17)

An unintended, and ironic, consequence of the Church's success was to encourage love matches at the expense of arranged marriages, for it was by defining marriage as a sacrament performed by consenting partners that the Church gained ascendancy over the knights (Duby 1978, 17). As the priests became more powerful, they added "certain acts of benediction and exorcism to all the solemn rites, whose climax they imperceptibly shifted from the house to the entrance gate of the Church, and eventually to its interior" (Duby 1978, 19). In the process of rendering marriage sacred in this way, the Church increased its power to define legitimate marriage. It condemned remarriage, even by widowers, as well as the practice of repudiating wives who failed to produce progeny; it undermined paternal authority over marriage by requiring the children's consent. It opposed "closed marriage," often involving marriage between first cousins, by which great families consolidated their fortunes, and asserted its authority simultaneously extending the range of prohibited relationships and inculeating a deep horror of incest.

Duby emphasizes the long struggle between these competing conceptions of marriage as the Church gradually shaped men's consciences. In the midst of such conflict a man could maintain his authority over the will of his children, as well as his rights to put aside a wife who produced no sons, but he would do so with increasingly conflicted feelings. A man who had only daughters might well encounter internal as well as external opposition in the pursuit of a new wife to give him a male heir; at the same time as his control over the destination of his wealth through his daughter would be constrained both by the increasingly wide definition of incest, and by pressure to give some measure of attention to her preferences. By the time one gets to sixteenth-century England, these developments have merged. The Church's success in redefining marriage as inclusive of love, which carried over into Protestant England, made it possible for the Church to gather in the romantic ideals spawned by courtly love. Furthermore, as Spenser's work makes clear, this combination of romantic ideals and the Christian ideal of married chastity was further spiritualized by being merged with the Neoplatonic tradition that had developed through the Florentine Platonists. One can see in the progress of Shakespeare's plays, from The Merchant of Venice to the late romances, the enormous significance of marriage as the center of spiritual value for both the participants and the society at large. However, the economic aspects of marriage were subject to the same tensions and ambivalence that Stone describes in the economic aspects of status. That is, marriage was at once a sacrament and the means by which great families controlled the transmission of wealth. It was a means of acquiring money necessary to maintain or to acquire status, and an ideal consummation of spiritualized romantic love. In this circumstance, in which the social realities are at cross-purposes both with the ideology of love and marriage and the strong emotions that ideology fuels, the bad conscience of Portia's father is comprehensible, as well as the desire to have recourse to magic to resolve otherwise intractable conflicts.

A further dimension to this murky mixture of love and money is suggested by Jack Goody. He argues that the Church served its own interests in its efforts to Christianize marriage. Its advocacy of mutual affection as the basis of marriage lifted clerical above secular authority. As well, it benefited materially from its success in preventing second marriages, for in the failure of progeny it often was the beneficiary of a dying line. Its efforts to inspire a horror of incest and to broaden its definition were also in its own interests. By complicating and enlarging prohibited degrees of kinship, it interfered with the claims of extended kin over land donated to the Church by a kinsman seeking his soul's salvation (Goody 1983, 153). As well, by acquiring power of judgment over whether a proposed or contracted marriage lay within interdicted degrees of relationship, it also secured the power to grant, and to set the price for, exceptions. Goody concludes,

For the Church to grow and survive it had to accumulate property, which meant acquiring control over the way it was passed on from one generation to the next. Since the distribution of property between generations is related to patterns of marriage and the legitimization of children, the Church had to gain authority over these so that it could influence the strategies of heirship. (p. 221)

Goody's analysis of the intermingled pecuniary and spiritual motivations behind the Church's strictures on marriage not only supports the argument that as marriage took on the aura of the sacred, the material interests of the parents could be driven underground and rendered guilty by the increasingly powerful clerical definitions. It also follows that those caught in the bad conscience engendered by competing value systems would be aware, in dim or acute ways, that their consciences were being manipulated in the interests of the Church's struggle for power and wealth. Portia's father is like a person who has internalized both value systems and at the same time resents being forced to suffer the consequent bad conscience and its related agonies. Neither Duby nor Goody explores the psychology engendered by these conflicting value systems, but the issues I have discussed in The Merchant of Venice and their links to later plays give evidence that both value systems were internalized sufficiently to survive into Protestant England and to torment the consciences of Protestant Englishmen.12

The assumption of this chapter has been that there are two ways by which Shakespeare drew his psychological landscapes from an inner life shaped by the contradictions inherent in his time. That is, his unique childhood experience within his particular family was conditioned by the social institutions and values governing families at the time, and as he grew his modes of dealing with his personal life were both limited and shaped by the social and cultural milicu he confronted. His way of being an artist was conditioned by the nature of the theater, the dramatic conventions, and literary traditions he inherited. All of these elements became part of the fabric of his plays. It follows from this that the kaleidoscopic recombinations of characteristics into different dramatis personae confronting their various worlds represent strategies to resolve or come to terms with conflicts that have both personal and social dimensions.13 Approaching literature in the way that I put forward here provides an efficient way to penetrate that which is historically distant, and to capitalize both on what makes us different from those who lived at other times and places, and on what makes us similar to them. Though there must be continuities in human experience in order for us to appreciate and respond to the products of distant times and places, the ways in which people experience common or fundamental human desires must differ in relation to different social realities. Though the dreams of people in Elizabethan England would in some respects resemble those of people living now, in other respects they would differ. Both then and now one's dreams might express resentment of authority, but an Elizabethan person's expression of that resentment would be imbued with the dense emotional matrix of the family upon which political structures were modeled. Such a person might dream of killing the king, or of killing his or her superior in the local hierarchy, but he could not dream of a president failing to win an election. That we have such an option has more psychological significance than one might suppose. Our abstract and depersonalized conception of authority renders objections to and resentment of it less guilty, because less charged with infantile emotion. Both our modern dream of unseating the president, and the older dream of killing the king, may have their roots in animosity towards one's father, but in the modern context that animosity itself involves less psychological stress because the world provides more legitimate outlets for it. There is no way to prove it, but one might well suppose that contemporary dreams reflect our relatively positive attitude towards ourselves as freely aspiring individuals, or even as potential rebels, and show less intense conflict around these issues than those of our forebears. We may dream of losing or stealing or accumulating money, and money in our dreams may express our conflicted attitude towards giving and receiving love. But money in our dreams is unlikely to carry shame so intense as to augment the infantile conflicts that initiated the dream, as it does for Portia's father, and possibly for Shakespeare, who enriched himself and advanced his status by writing plays that condemned undue social aspirations and the mercantile values that nurtured them.

To ordinary ways of thinking there can be no two realms as remote from each other as the values that are inscribed in our political and cultural institutions, and the deeply private images we recall when we awaken from our sleep. But to trace in literature the connections between them brings home to us what postmodern theory calls the social construction of reality. To approach the plays as the dreams of their protagonists is to unite a historical understanding of experience with the emotional immediacy of dreams. In this way the polarity between traditional humanist criticism and deconstruction softens, and the question of meaning is differently framed. What a work means has to do with what the structure, array of characters, language, etc., means to the protagonist, just as a dream's meaning has to do with what the various elements of the dream signify for the dreamer. A fiction, then, is like a dream that contains within itself all associations necessary for its unraveling, and the method of interpretation I have applied to The Merchant of Venice does not differ greatly from the way one might think about one's own dreams, if one thinks about them as including the associations to the dream report one has generated later. Without having associations from a dreaming person one would not know how his or her dreams related to the reality of his or her life, but one would know something about the dreamer's self-definition and strategies for dealing with other people. With associations, particularly in connection with the day's residue that occasioned the dream, one starts to know something about the ways in which the actual circumstances of the dreamer's present life signify, for the dreamer, the emotional forms of the past. One starts to know something about the dreamer's structure of signification, just as one comes to know that of a literary character. It is true that most psychoanalytic approaches to dreams deemphasize the manifest content, the aspect of the dream that is usually more present-oriented and more immediately related to the day's residue, in order to concentrate on the latent, or past, content. That is, analysts tend to be interested in early causal traumas, rather than in the linkages that can be traced between past and present forms, or the way in which one's experience of past forms is shaped by the particularities, both personal and cultural, of the present. But in principle, Freud's dream theory does not preclude such an approach, and there is considerable interest and perhaps gain to be had from the angle of vision towards one's life circumstance such a way of thinking engenders.

Finally, a word on the difference between art and dream. I do not want to give the impression that they are the same in my view. They differ not only because, as I have said, literary work incorporates and integrates the author's conscious values into the unconscious or dream dimensions of the creative process. They differ also in that an art work offers itself for judgment by standards that have nothing to do with the process of its creation or its creator. The nature of those standards constitutes a subject beyond the scope of this chapter. However, this chapter does involve the belief that the age-old intuition, expressed first in our culture by Plato, that art and dream have something to do with each other is based on a psychological reality. That psychological reality has to do not only with the process by which artists draw on their unconscious drives to advance their conscious purposes in the specific ways I believe I have demonstrated; it also has to do with the reception of the work. Immersion in a work of art combines in a unique way the unmediated experience that we have while we dream with the conscious, cognitive and esthetic values that we bring to it and judge it by. Therefore to both experience and to reflect upon an art work may be thought of as training us in self-reflection and perhaps increasing our awareness of the devious ways by which we channel, for good or ill, our inward being into the outward world.


1 There are two exceptions: Jameson clearly attends to political and social dimensions of literary work, but denigrates the personal realm, which he regards as epiphenomenal. Holland (1968) attends to formal aspects of literature, regarding them as defense strategies which simultaneously conceal and reveal the work's core fantasy. Though my theory overlaps with Holland's in important ways, his conception of the formal is less inclusive than mine, which, by eliminating the latent/manifest distinction, renders all aspects equally expressive of the compromise between competing desires and fears.

2 For a full explanation of and rationale for this mode of criticism see Stockholder, pp. 3-25.

3 As will become clear in the course of this argument, I do not agree with the perspective on Shakespeare's relation to his time favored by most new-historic ist critics such as Greenblatt, Cartelli, and Meller. While it may be true, as Cartelli says (25n), that an orthodox Shakespeare was created rather than discovered by Tillyard's school, it is just as likely that a subversive Shakespeare is created, rather than discovered, by the new-historicists.

4 The close parallels between this scene and the one in Pericles in which the suitors risk their lives on a correct guess suggest that the death's heads that adorn the chamber in the later play, and the overt incest of Antigonus and his daughter, make explicit what here hovers in the interstices.

5 Freud in "The Theme of the Three Caskets" dis-cusses Portia as a figure representing death for Shakespeare but seeing the play from my perspective renders Freud's insight more specific and relates it to the rest of the play. The father associates Portia with death because it is only in death that he can allow himself to imagine having her.

6 A related approach to the intertwined themes of love and money is taken by Engle, who argues that the theological terms in which economic issues are articulated "also define a system of exchange or conversion which works to the advantage of . . . those who, by religion or social situation, are placed to take advantage of exchange patterns" (Engle 1986, 21). Engle, however, sees no problem generated by the disparate value systems. A view closer to my own is held by Shell who says that "the beautiful marriage bond is not far removed from the ugly bond that made it possible in the first place" (Shell 1979, 91).

7 Engle also believes that Antonio lies here (Engle 1986, 22). He sees Antonio's sadness as a "market-linked phenomenon" (p. 28), and he associates his self-sacrificing stance with homosexuality (p. 24).

8 Whigham equates Bassanio with Shylock as a fellow social climber (Whigham 1979, 102). However, Bassanio's equation of wealth with family blood, as well as the father's apparent approval of him, makes it more plausible to think of him as an impecunious aristocratic younger son. The merchant's love of Bassanio, then, makes him, rather than Bassanio, vulnerable to the charge of social climbing. See below for the significance of this attribution.

9 In "The Ego and the Id," Freud's discussion of the ways in which the superego taps the repressed desires of the id and merges them with the guilt that occasioned their repression seems particularly apt for this play (Freud 1987, 394-50). As well, in the configuration of Bassanio, Shylock, and Antonio, the father nicely confirms Freud's observation that "in mild cases of homosexuality" the identification with an esteemed figure "is a substitute for an affectionate object-choice," which in turn has substituted for erotically imbued hostility and aggression among siblings (p. 377).

10 The links between Shylock and the Venetian world, and Shylock's role as scapegoat, have been seen in various ways. See Engle, Shell, Whigham, Meller, Cartelli, Sharp, and Girard.

11 To regard Portia as the dreamer would be to see her as one who tries to mediate between maintaining a self-image that conforms to the conventional demands for femininity and repressing rage at men who would control and possess her. Her rage would also contain an erotic component that mirrors her father's association of sex with incest and death.

12 Stone argues that the English clergy's emphasis on sacred marriage functioned similarly as a way to ensure social control (Stone 1977, 144), and Goody argues that despite the reduction of prohibited degrees in 1540, the Reformation had little impact on the English forms of marriage until the mid-seventeenth century (Goody 1983, 152). The persistence of the tensions from these earlier times into a Protestant England where marriage increasingly took on the sanctity that had once inhered in Catholic sacraments, suggested by Barber, is evident in the literature. Whatever gulf existed between literature and social practices, the mental sets that created literary characters formed part of the social ferment. Stone ignores this complexity in his assumption that literary renderings of romantic love had no bearing on people's management of their lives (Stone 1977, 181).

13 I would not, however, claim that one can construct an author's biography from his or her work. We can never know from writings the exact balance and proportion that constitute a lived self, and it should be kept in mind that the simplest person is vastly more complicated than any literary figure.


Barber, C. L. "The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness." In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 188-202.

Cartelli, Thomas. "Ideology and Subversion in the Shakespearean Set Speech." ELH (Spring 1986): 1-25.

Duby, Georg. The Chivalrous Society. Translated by Cynthia Postan, London: Edward Arnold, 1977, 110, 145.

——. Medieval Marriage. Two Models from Twelfth-Century France. Translated by Elborg Forster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Engel, Lars. "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 20-37.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Theme of the Three Caskets," (Collected Papers, vol. IV).

——. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (SE vol. VIII, 1905).

——. Character and Anal Eroticism, Collected Papers vol. II, 45-50.

——. On Metapsychology: Theory of Psychoanalysis (vol. II, Pelican Freud Library, 1987) 350-408.

Girard, René. "'To Entrap the Wisest': a Reading of The Merchant of Venice." In Literature and Society, edited by Edward Said. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 100-19.

Goody, Jack. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 153.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Holland, Norman. Dynamics of Literary Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Hyman, Lawrence W. "The Rival Lovers of The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 109-16.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Meller, Horst. "A Pound of Flesh and the Economics of Christian Grace: Shakepeare's Merchant of Venice." In Essays on Shakespeare, edited by T. R. Sharma. Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986, 150-174.

Sharp, Ronald. "Gift Exchange and the Economy of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice," Modern Philology 83 (1986): 250-65.

Shell, Marc. "'The Wether and the Ewe': Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice." Kenyon Review (Fall 1979): 65-93.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money. Translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Stockholder, Kay. Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1641. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

——. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Whigham, Frank. "Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice." Renaissance Drama (1979): 93-115.

Dreams And Imagination

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17529

Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "A Dagger of the Mind: Dream and 'Conscience' in the Tragedies," in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 88-138.

[In the following excerpt, Garber analyzes the blurring of dream and reality in the tragedies Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra.]

Conscience is but a word that cowards use.

Richard III V.iii.310

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Hamlet III.i.83

Richard III. . . is Shakespeare's first truly psychological play. The long, self-revelatory soliloquies, the apparitions, and the narrated dreams all create a reality both inside and outside Richard, wedding the subjective condition of consciousness to the objective conditions of London and Bosworth Field. The word "conscience" echoes repeatedly throughout the play: Margaret rails at Richard "the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul" (I.iii.221); one of Clarence's murderers, though he acknowledges "certain dregs of conscience" (I.iv. 122-23) in himself, concludes that conscience is a thing he'll "not meddle with," since it "makes a man a coward" (136-37). Richard himself, badly shaken by the parade of apparitions at Bosworth Field, for a moment concedes that

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

[V.iii. 194-96]

But the play is really a systematic rejection of conscience, the tragic record of a failed self-knowledge. Richard's last defiant assertion, that "conscience is but a word that cowards use," is a denial of that interior reality, a desperate attempt to obliterate from mind all the reflective events of the play. We have been preparing for this rejection since the play's first moments: the refusal by Clarence to heed the warning of his own dream, Hastings's disregard of omen, the apparent emptiness of Margaret's curse—all of these are failed recognitions, moments when the realm of self-conscious awareness tries and fails to assert its primacy. It is appropriate that all of these moments are part of that complex of supernatural occurrences, omens, ghosts, and warnings, which we have come to associate with the world of dream. The dream world is able to exercise a controlling power beyond that of any of the play's characters, although none of them acknowledge its sovereignty. The undervaluing of conscience becomes, for the play as a whole, a sign of a larger misunderstanding. For, like those of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the characters of Richard III are affected by the subconscious and the dream state without ever fully realizing it. We see the play largely through Richard's persona, as a simultaneous portrait of his history and his soul; but he himself refuses to accept the correlation of the two spheres, and his final flaw is lack of self-knowledge.

"Conscience" in Richard III is predominantly a moral term, having its modern meaning of "sense of duty" or "remorse." When Richard associates conscience with cowardice, he is talking about feelings of guilt and responsibility, essentially societal values internalized into a moral system. But "conscience" in Shakespeare's time also carried the primary meaning of "consciousness." Hamlet's "conscience does make cowards of us all" is a tacit recognition of the primacy of "consciousness" in the human spirit; "conscience" in his phrase contains both of its root meanings and yet goes beyond them, to express the essential condition of man. To Richard, only cowards capitulate to conscience; by the time of Hamlet, though Richard's meaning is retained, "conscience" in the sense of "consciousness" has reversed the terms; and cowardice, if one equates it with a sensitivity to the subjectiveness of human experience, is finally the condition which draws us all together. That man should be in this state, confronting rather than avoiding the problem of his own consciousness, is a prelude to the tragic experience. And in the great tragedies from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare develops the theme of consciousness to a point where the world of one man's imagination, the psychological dream state, takes over the landscape and the characters of the drama.

The relationship between subjective and objective experience, the thing thought and the thing done, is a constant concern in Shakespeare's plays from the earliest histories to the last romances. Of all the plays, Hamlet perhaps best illustrates the problem of subjectifying experience, the reduction of "what happens" to "what is thought," the temporary, often playful, yet always significant exchange of the fictive for the "real." This is a reversal we have considered at some length in relation to A Midsummer Night's Dream; in Hamlet the means of exchange is subtly different, because it has its root in Hamlet's own conscience. Dream here, as in the other great tragedies of the middle period, is most nearly equivalent to consciousness, the world subjectively glimpsed through the lens of imagination. At one pole this encompasses all that is terrifying, irrational, inexplicable: the ghost of old Hamlet, the Macbeth witches, the storm on the heath in King Lear. At the other, equally true, are the redemptive moments, grounded in common experience uncommonly viewed: Cleopatra's dream vision of Antony, the awakening of Lear. Literal, encapsulated dreams of the sort of Clarence's dream have almost entirely disappeared: the only traditionally "told" dream in all these plays is the supposed dream of Cassio, and significantly it is not really a dream at all, but rather a fiction crafted and controlled by Iago. This replacement of the episodic dream by the dream state is a dramaturgical advance, permitting a steady flow of plot and language without the interruption of artificially impacted flashbacks or recapitulations. At the same time, however, refinement in dramatic construction is paralleled by refinement in thematic development, as the dream state more and more encompasses the entire world of the play. The theme of consciousness, which unites the inner world of private vision with the outer world of visible reality, deliberately blurs distinctions between the factually "real" and the purportedly "imagined," so that the audience, as much as the protagonist, is forced to make wholly subjective choices among equally possible truths.

The familiar supernatural background of shaded omen and sign is established for Hamlet by the remarkable opening scene. The time is midnight, midway between dusk and dawn, and the night so dark that the sentries cannot see. That they tensely mistake one another for intruders is our first symbolic indication of a danger which lurks within Denmark, rather than without. Almost immediately the subject of the ghost is introduced, together with the crucial question "Is it real?"

Marcellus: What, has this thing appeared again tonight?Barnardo: I have seen nothing.Marcellus: Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, And will not let belief take hold of him Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us; Therefore I have entreated him along With us to watch the minutes of this night, That, if again this apparition come, He may approve our eyes and speak to it.Horatio: Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.


The terrifying vagueness of "this thing" immediately intensifies the mood of mystery: the ghost is unclassifiable uncontrollable, and therefore frightening. Barnardo replies with the factual "I have seen nothing," which is meant to convey the fact that the ghost has not yet appeared. Yet our experience of the word "nothing" and its potential for ambiguity should alert us here; behind Barnardo's assertion is the covert meaning "I have seen a ghost; I have seen something made of 'nothing.'" Barnardo, of course, does not intend this meaning; the poet's adroit manipulation of language preserves verisimilitude on the literal level while permitting the audience a glimpse of deeper symbolic significance. It is a pattern we have seen before, and it here once more reinforces the important fact that dream goes beyond reason into the subjective realm of poetry. Having lightly but unmistakably established this theme, the scene moves away from it with superb economy. Horatio, rational man in his most attractive guise, is also present on the ramparts, and Marcellus makes it clear that he finds the idea of the ghost incredible. According to him it is "fantasy," meaning not creation but delusion, a phantom vision induced by an atmosphere of terror. For a moment we are drawn to agree with him, as we are meant to; the reassuring finality of "tush, tush" is a prosaic and welcome assertion of the boundary between the actual and the fantastic. But the well-bred control which is later to caution against considering "too curiously" is almost immediately demonstrated as the limited gift it is, as the appearance of the ghost on the platform abruptly negates all Horatio's scholarly assumptions.

Each of these independent figures represents an aspect of the mind of Hamlet; it is part of Shakespeare's astonishing craftsmanship that he should be able to present characters and settings simultaneously as subjective interior perceptions and objective exterior realities. In its treatment of the dream state Hamlet may therefore be viewed as an internal landscape projected by the protagonist, a shadowy world inhabited by figures inseparable from the "conscience" of Hamlet himself. Thus the ghost can be interpreted both as superego and as old Hamlet, guardian of ancient values; Horatio, both as Freudian censor and as the wise and temperate scholar from Wittenberg. Laertes and Fortinbras also appear in the play as alter egos for Hamlet—Laertes a skilled fencer and fiery champion of Ophelia, Fortinbras a "most royal" prince—and Hamlet's progress toward self-knowledge in the play depends in large part upon his readiness to recognize these identities within himself.

The metaphorical equivalency of interior and exterior worlds is set forth with great clarity in an early exchange between Hamlet the father and Hamlet the son. Fading from the battlements, the ghost enjoins at the last, "Remember me" (I.v.91), and Hamlet cries

Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe.


Clearly, the phrase "distracted globe" here carries a primary meaning of "confused mind"; metaphorically, Hamlet pledges to remember as long as he has a memory, which is to say, as long as he lives. But the literal meaning of "globe" is also appropriate here, since the world of the play is likewise "distracted" by the murder of the king, all the personae of the kingdom blighted in language and action; the madness Hamlet assumes when he puts on his "antic disposition" (I.v.172) is a madness already present in the state of Denmark. Moreover, the "distracted globe" may well carry a third relevant meaning, since the theater in which the play's Elizabethan audience "held a seat" was also called the Globe. Hamlet's pledge thus takes on the added meaning "as long as the play is remembered or performed," a sense enriched further by the traditional belief that Shakespeare himself appeared in the original production in the role of the ghost: not only will old Hamlet be remembered, but so too, through him, will the playwright and the play. The mysterious world of theatrical illusion of course becomes itself a principal subject for the play as a whole, and it is a "distracted" world in part because of the difficulty of distinguishing actor from audience. Claudius thinks of himself as merely a spectator watching a play in the "Mousetrap" scene (III.ii); he is not aware that he is at the same time a character in a larger play of Hamlet's devising, or that he and Gertrude are soon to be revealed as an actual "player king" and "player queen." Polonius, considering that "more audience than a mother" (III.iii.31) should hear Hamlet's conversation with the queen, conceals himself behind the arras in her chamber; he is tragically transformed into an actor when his shouts for help provoke Hamlet to stab him blindly through the curtain. Everywhere reality has become elusive, as we have already seen in Horatio's confident rejection of the supernatural and the immediately subsequent entrance of the ghost. Just as boundaries between Norway and Denmark, youth and age, life and death seem to be constantly shifting in this play, so too do boundaries between reality and illusion. "My father, methinks I see my father," exclaims Hamlet to a startled Horatio. "Where, my lord?" "In my mind's eye, Horatio." "My lord, I think I saw him yesternight" (I.ii.184-85, 189). This sudden transition from conventional recollection to supernatural vision, especially when voiced by the supremely rational Horatio, is a leap into the world of illusion.

Hamlet himself is of course perfectly capable of distinguishing in basic terms between the actual and the dreamlike or fictive. The challenge of the ambiguity comes in his conscious refusal to sort these aspects of experience according to conventional classification. There is something electric in the emotion which seizes him when confronted, suddenly, with the denizens of the imagination. It is important to keep in mind that in Hamlet the ghost and the players are parallel entities, compounded of fact and fiction, reason and something beyond reason. In Richard III the characters of dream were ghosts, apparitions, omens which impinged upon the passive consciousness of Richard and of Clarence; in A Midsummer Night's Dream the dream world was inhabited by creative and fertile sprites whose presence was inseparable from concepts of play and imagination. In Hamlet, fittingly, the two senses come together, fused by the imagination of Hamlet himself, now in the condition of Everyman, the man of "conscience" or consciousness. Thus there is a strange but unmistakable triumph in his reply to Horatio, as the ghost cries in the cellarage:

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.

[I.v. 164-67]

Horatio's exclamation is an admission that the appearance of the ghost violates his canons of experience. We would expect this to be more or less the same for Hamlet, as it has been for the other members of the watch. But the effect of the apparition on Hamlet is in fact one of liberation rather than of amazement. In part this is because the reality of the ghost is validated by his own imagination. "Touching this vision here, / It is an honest ghost" (137-38), he assures the frightened watchmen. Its message, in fact, has apparently been subconsciously suggested to him before the actual apparition—"O my prophetic soul!" (40), he cries out at news of the usurpation, in a phrase at once wonderfully expressive and remarkably condensed. The foreboding of prophecy, which in the earlier plays required the extensive narration of monitory dream, is here magically contained in a moment.

Hamlet's exchange with Horatio is made even more significant, however, by the addition of the element of wordplay. "And therefore as a stranger give it welcome," he urges. He alludes in part to the courtesy proverbially accorded to visitors from foreign parts, a category in which he affects, somewhat whimsically, to include the ghost. Horatio is thus urged to accept the presence of the apparition without question, extending his cautiously delimited concept of the logical and the real. But at the same time the resonant word "stranger" in folklore denotes "something foreboding the arrival of an unexpected visitor," in effect an omen or sign. The ghost is an apocalyptic forecast of a later revelation. As such it represents the rich and proper sphere of dream, implicitly contrasted by Hamlet with the conventional things "dream of," or envisioned, in Horatio's study. The puns and double meanings here are of great importance, as they will be throughout the play. Hamlet, an inveterate punster and wit whose caustic, ribald humor resembles that of Mercutio, repeatedly attempts to control his environment and indeed the entire external world through the manipulation of language. In doing so he asserts the primacy of the imagination, the dream state of creation in which "words, words, words" are greater than and different from the mere "matter" they contain.

His starting point, of course, has been the message of the ghost, a message itself delivered in a tone strikingly different from that of the surrounding drama. The ghost of old Hamlet has within the play a dual reality: as an apparition he is really more closely related to the omens and oracles of earlier plays than to spirits of imagination, and he appears only to give his fateful report, reappearing once to Hamlet to "whet [his] almost blunted purpose." (III.iv. 112) He is a "real" illusion in the sense in that he can be seen, not only by Hamlet, but by Horatio and the sentries. Yet the queen will see "nothing at all" (III.iv.133) when he appears in her closet; though the audience, once more included in Hamlet's interior consciousness, can both see and hear him. The ghost is in fact an intuition or perception in the mind of Hamlet at the same time that he is corporeally distinct from him, and a willingness to accept this seeming paradox is essential to an understanding of the dynamics of dreaming throughout the play.

A revenge figure descended not only from Elizabethan and Senecan models but also from Patroclus of the Iliad, old Hamlet comes, like his Homeric predecessor, to press his dilatory champion to action in an epic world. His associations with the epic are manifold: he is dressed in "complete steel" (I.iv.52), and his mode of warfare is the single combat in which he defeated old Fortinbras; both costume and martial demeanor contrast as sharply as possible with the luxurious furnishings of the Claudian court and its twin weapons, the rapier and the "painted word." His language, too, is epic in style: "List, list, o list," he intones, (I.v.22); "Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched" (75); "unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled" (77); "O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!" (80); and finally, "Adieu, adieu, adieu" (91). We have heard these portentous triplets before, in "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby," where Shakespeare was clearly burlesquing the language of early tragedy in a play obviously intended by its actors to rival the best of the genre: "Thou wall, 0 wall, O sweet and lovely wall" (MND V.i.176); "O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black! / O night, which ever art when day is not!" (170-71); "And farewell, friends. / Thus Thisby ends. / Adieu, adieu, adieu" (344-46). The voice of the ghost in Hamlet, of course, sounds quite a different note; his incitement to revenge is a plea for Hamlet to return to an Old Testament world as well as to a world of epic values and heroic wrath. But with the murder of the king and the ascension of the political Claudius such a return is rendered impossible, as it will be after the death of Hector in Troilus and Cressida or the defeat of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra—both, like old Hamlet, epic heroes anachronistic in a modern world.

Yet the voice of epic is close to the voice of myth, and the tale of horror the ghost comes to tell has the spare authority of myth and the symbolic form of dream. Significantly, it is a tale of a sleep and a visitor to sleep; equally significantly, it is a tale which has been misconstrued and which requires a new interpretation.

'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown. . . .

. . . Sleeping within my orchard, My custom always of the afternoon, Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole With juice of cursed hebona in a vial, And in the porches of my ears did pour The leperous distillment. . . .

[I.v.35-40; 59-64]

This is an Edenic myth of corrupted innocence, the invasion of a medieval hortus conclusus. In the ghost's interpretation, the metaphorical "serpent" is replaced by the specific "thy uncle," Claudius, the literal invader of the peaceful orchard The version of his death widely accepted in Denmark is unmasked as a fiction which hides the truth through metaphor: "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown." The tale is important because it interprets the dream which deludes Denmark; its images will recur repeatedly throughout the play and dominate its plot and imagery, constantly reminding us—as well as Hamlet—that old Hamlet was killed in a garden, by a human serpent, who poured poison in his ears. "'A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate" (III.ii.265), as Hamlet will gloss the play-within-the-play.

The garden or orchard assumes the character of a despoiled Eden of the purer past, a garden of attempted innocence which is literally associated with its biblical antecedents by the gravedigger's punning joke about "Adam's profession" (V.i.31), now shared by "gard'ners, ditchers, and grave-makers" (30). It is a garden in which Gertrude's marriage to Claudius "takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love, / And sets a blister there" (III.iv.43-45), bringing together the themes of garden and poison. Ophelia calls Hamlet "th'expectancy and rose of the fair state" (III.i.153); she herself, addressed as a "rose of May" (IV.v.158) by Laertes, sings mad songs which are all too apt in their scattering of telltale flowers, and her watery death, "When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook" (IV.vii.174-75), seems to translate into action the language of Hamlet's first bitter soliloquy on self-slaughter: "Fie on't, ah, fie, 'tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed" (I.ii. 135-36).

The "serpents" who infiltrate this garden are many: not only Claudius, but also his willing instruments, the insinuating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Hamlet vows he will trust "as I will adders fanged" (III.iv.204). The poison administered by such "serpents" is that which is rotten in the state of Denmark: the ulcers beneath the skin, cosmeticked over with lies, the contagion that spreads unwholesomely through the night, and above all the poisonous language of deceit and pretense which is everywhere in the play poured into unsuspecting ears. There is, too, the "certain convocation of politic worms" (IV.iii.20) to whom Hamlet consigns the body of Polonius, and the all-conquering Lady Worm, a special and victorious serpent who abides as the genius loci of that ultimate garden, the graveyard.

The ears of the ghost's tale are also omnipresent in Hamlet: in the advices of fathers to sons which occupy so much of the first act; in the "ear of Denmark" which is abused by the false account of the king's death; in the constant practice of eavesdropping: Claudius and Polonius behind the arras listening to Hamlet and Ophelia; Polonius again concealed, this time in the queen's chamber; Claudius sending for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to eavesdrop on Hamlet's plans; Polonius dispatching Reynaldo to ascertain "by indirections" Laertes' reputation in France. Words enter like daggers into Gertrude's ears; Hamlet seeks to know if the king will "hear this piece of work" (III.ii.46-47) as he prepares the play; and the ghost himself, who has initiated the theme, enjoins his son to "List, list, O list."

Indeed there is a sense in which, by the very act of telling his tale, old Hamlet pours poison into the ear of young Hamlet, inflaming him to agony, soul-searching, and revenge, so that the "antic disposition" and the protective cloak of "words, words, words" become for him a temporary but necessary means of escape from the sudden burden of fact and responsibility for action. Thus we find in Hamlet the same triple pattern we have elsewhere observed, from exterior "real" world to interior psychological landscape and back—in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the journey from court to country to court. Here it emerges as a journey into the world of art, play, and fiction, whose own proper personae are the players—players who almost seem to materialize out of his own sudden awareness that the world about him is replete with posture and pretense. Hamlet's journey is a journey into the mental territory of the irrational, and the later "real" voyage to England, where the gravedigger will jest that all men are "as mad as he" (V.i.154), becomes its metaphorical counterpart.

The interior landscape is deftly described by Hamlet himself in a deceptively playful dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the subject of his "bad dreams," (II.ii.243-70), a dialogue which ends with the defiant assertion, "I cannot reason." The entire scene is highly reminiscent of Mercutio's dry disquisition on Queen Mab, contained within a verbal pattern closely analogous to dream logic. But unlike the amiable linguistic duel of Romeo and Mercutio, this contest of wits is a mask for pointed accusation and revelation. There is a heady recklessness in Hamlet's tone, for he is playing with his schoolmates as skillfully as he later intercepts their attempt to "play upon" him. He is wise enough to recognize the limitations of rationality in a world in which fear and death play major roles. His delight in badinage sharpened by double meaning is especially keen when the recipients of his verbal thrusts—Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, Osric—perceive only the deceptive surface. In his remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the form with which he is playing is argumentum, or syllogistic reasoning, a favorite university game and one well suited to the occasion. His final abjuration, "I cannot reason," rejects not only the triviality of the argumentum but also the self-interest, policy, and cold-blooded "reasoning" of these "indifferent children of the earth" (230). For Hamlet himself is far from indifferent. In an attempt to discover meaning and moral values in a world without them, he places the boundaries of that world metaphorically within himself. Thus he argues that the world is a "prison" (255) not because of the "ambition" suggested by the ambitious Rosencrantz, but rather because he has "bad dreams." He is confined not by physical boundaries, but instead by boundaries which are psychological, part of the realm of imagination. His "bad dreams" are a clear reversal of outer and inner worlds, for the "dreams" are not dreams at all, but rather intimations of the truth behind real events in Denmark. Unprotected by a "nutshell" to insulate him against the pain of sensibility, he moves forward into an area of willed subjectivism, in which "dream" becomes a term synonymous with his own vision. "I cannot reason" thus announces his readiness to abandon logic for emotion. Verbally, at least, he embraces the irrational, preferring Guildenstern's disparaging "dream," and Polonius's "madness," to a world in which logic has replaced human values.

We have noticed that the world of Denmark contains at least three distinct, if related, kinds of illusion: the apparently real illusion of the ghost, verified by the evidence of Hamlet's eyes and ears; the patently false illusion which is the common language of pretense in Claudius's court; and the deliberately fictive illusion of the players, whose world is the world of creative imagination, and whose materials are the same materials as those of the larger play, Hamlet, which contains them. In choosing the world of the creative irrational, the players' world, Hamlet attempts to penetrate the atmosphere of "seeming" which so vexes the court. The instinctive desire to play a part, to escape from the prison of unyielding reality into the interior world of dream and illusion, is a fundamental aspect of his character, and nowhere is it more clearly shown than in his sincere affection for "the tragedians of the city" (II.ii.336). The players' stock-in-trade is this very business of illusion, and it is clear that he feels far more comfortable in their world than in his own. When they are announced, Hamlet once more assumes that strange gaiety which informs his other moments of "playing." Yet he remains mindful of his own limitations; while urging the first player to recite a half-remembered speech, he is suddenly struck by the contrast with his own reaction to actual events. As in Richard III, the soliloquy here becomes the instrument of his own psychological revelation; it is yet another indication of the unity of physical and psychological worlds in Hamlet's persona that we hear his thoughts as if they were spoken aloud:

Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wanned, Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit?


"Dream" is here explicitly equated with "fiction," and also with the poetical terms "forms" and "conceit."

Hamlet is appalled that the player can evince more emotion in a fictive circumstance than he himself in a real one. But once more the implication is of the strangely extended power of dream and creative imagination over reality. The players' element is dream; Hamlet for a moment covets both the element and the response. Later in the same speech he will deprecate himself further, drawing the parallel directly:

Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing.


The short line is a pivot turning the subject from the player to Hamlet himself. Where dream in the player's world was a powerful creative tool, dream in Hamlet's bitter estimate of himself is the nonproductive daydream of the village idler, concomitant of inaction. Yet we might observe that the self of whom Hamlet speaks has ceased in part to exist some thirty lines before, at the point when he determined to become not only an actor but also a playwright and director. In conceiving the plan to play "The Mousetrap" before the king, he has begun to exchange the unprofitable musings of John-a-dreams for "dreams of passion" which will provoke passion itself. His self-castigation is once again couched in terms of utterance: he "can say nothing." Yet when he asks for "The Mousetrap," he calls for speech in its most carefully crafted form; and with the insertion of "some dozen or sixteen lines" of his own he speaks through the play, transforming it into a new and private artifact of his own. "Nothing," as always, is a clue to ambiguity here. But what is most significant is that Hamlet has chosen poetry, the realm of the imagination, as the most congenial instrument here; he, too, will "by indirections find directions out" (II.i.66), controlling the world of dream for a moment to make it reveal a hidden truth in the realm of reality.

In all of these instances, concepts of truth and reality have become subjective quantities, controlled and defined by Hamlet's consciousness. It is often remarked that the entire play is full of questions, verbal and thematic, which are never satisfactorily resolved, and which seem to exist for the sake of the question rather than in the hope of any answer. Maynard Mack, in his classic essay "The World of Hamlet,"1 points out that "Hamlet's world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood," and that this is an aspect of a prevailing mood of "mysteriousness" throughout the play. Indeed it is this very atmosphere of mystery which is most hospitable to the world of dream. Dreaming for Hamlet becomes a kind of private and individual myth-making, in which we are included through the vehicle of the play, but which remains a closed system of coordinated symbols and images all related to one fulcrum: "conscience," the moral and spiritual dilemma of man.

This central question of conscience and its relation to the dream state is explicitly introduced in the great soliloquy which marks the play's midpoint, the "To be or not to be" speech of act III, scene i. As in so many cases we have examined, the position of the speech is of extreme importance; for a moment Hamlet stands suspended between the real and the illusory, the returning and the going o'er. His is a position very like that described by Keats in a letter to J. H. Reynolds (3 May 1818)—a letter which itself takes the form of a modern dream vision. In it Keats recalls

that tremendous (effect) of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing one's nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression—whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist. We are now in that state—We feel the "burden of the Mystery."2

The "burden of the Mystery" is exactly what grips Hamlet at this moment; he will accuse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of wanting to pluck out its heart. He, too, "see[s] not the ballance of good and evil," for his view of life, like his view of reality, is rendered wholly subjective by the workings of his mind. Yet even in the extremity of moral crisis he plays with verbal images, drawing out a long conceit to make it yield a cryptological solution. The image he chooses, significantly, is once more the central metaphor of sleep and dream.

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. There's the respect That makes calamity of so long life: For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns, That patient merit of th' unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveler returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment, With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.


Even here both language and meaning suggest that the "undiscovered country" of dream is more real to him than his immediate surroundings. The magic of sleep is here made metaphorically equivalent to death, so that "to dream" means to take part in some life after death. It is striking that to him "what dreams may come" are more real and more terrifying than the physical fact of dying, just as the world of playing is more real than the world of fact. Yet there is a curious academicism here, a verbal detachment in the midst of this Mercutian catalogue of wrongs. In this speech Hamlet speaks as the philosopher of Everyman, articulating the crucial questions of the human spirit. For all its solitude, it is a formal and public utterance in which the fears and discouragements of all mankind are brought forward and examined. Denmark is a prison; so is all the world. Even the "dreams" of the afterlife are frightening and limiting images, the ultimate case of the embodied irrational. What Hamlet speaks in these lines is a manifesto of the human condition, a subjectivism so far advanced that he identifies with all men rather than with his individual conscience. He is well on his way to the graveyard scene, where the dust of Alexander may be discovered stopping a bunghole.

What happens to Hamlet—and it is a paradigm, in part, for what will happen in each of the tragedies—is that out of his subjectivity grows acceptance and consequent strength. His victory lies in the fact that at last he is able to perceive both the world of dream and the world of reality, the inner world of conscience and the outer world of event. It is this comprehension upon which the drama depends. Hamlet's triumph is an equivocal one, compact of sorrow and resignation, but grounded in an increased self-knowledge. For there comes to him at the last a species of revelation—as Brutus says of himself, his state, "like to a little kingdom, suffers then / The nature of an insurrection" (Julius Caesar II.i.68-69). Most appositely, the revelation comes in the graveyard scene, when Hamlet's confrontations with the world of dream and the supernatural have expanded from the individual (the ghost) to the collective (the human condition) and so to the spiritual or eternal. The eternity of the graveyard is the ultimate leveler, in which Lady Worm claims indifferently the homage of lord and jester. Once more the tone of Hamlet's serious wit may remind us of Mercutio, as he catalogues the residents of the place: politician, courtier, lawyer, jester—again, all aspects of his own complex role. The gravedigger is his final and most telling counterpart, succeeding the ghost and the first player as a repository of values against which he consciously measures himself.

Yet the gravedigger's language differs sharply and significantly from the sonorous epic triplets of the ghost and the mimetic rhetoric of the player; his is no voice of fiction or illusion, but rather one of uncompromising fact, and he speaks a determinedly literal language of spades, shrouds, and skulls. The Hamlet whom he addresses, much altered by his confrontation with the world of dream, is an apt pupil whose psychological landscape may now be identified with the churchyard in which he finds himself; he is at last prepared to accept the literal realities of human frailty and the mortal condition. That he comprehends the lesson of the gravedigger's determined literalism is made plain by his approving aside to Horatio:

How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.


The state of equivocation, or ambiguity, has been his own dominant characteristic for much of the play and is of course central to the processes of dream. But in act V the "absoluteness" of the churchyard enforces a rejection of metaphor, euphemism, and verbal disguise; Yorick's skull is literally "chapfall'n" (192) as well as figuratively so. The apparently reductive and often disconcertingly comic literalism of the gravedigger's language, like that of the equally literal and equally comic clown in Antony and Cleopatra, carries with it an insistence on viewing things as they are. Civilizing fictions are stripped away and seen from the perspective of eternity: "let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come" (193-94), just as Claudius's "painted word" will be belied by his deeds.

Hamlet's return to the "real" world, the world literally of things, is made possible by his experience of "equivocation" in language and action—of doubt, fear, misunderstanding, subjectivism, and deliberate ambiguity and pretense. At the play's close he is able to reenter the political world of action because he has made this private journey through the transforming world of dream. And just as a chapfallen skull is remembered because it "had a tongue in it and could sing once" (75-76), so the world of the mortal and "real" is immortalized in the world of art. Thus Hamlet's dying request to Horatio,

Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story


is in a political sense an instruction to inform Fortinbras and the English ambassador of the true state of affairs in Denmark. In another, equally valid sense, however, it is an injunction to perform the play, to tell The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. We have seen parallel resolutions to recount in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and we will see them again in Othello, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. The play as an artifact—"my story"—becomes in each case a surrogate and an example, precluding the necessity for a literal repetition of human tragedy. As life becomes history and history becomes "story," both the audience in the theater and that on the stage—in Hamlet's phrase, "mutes or audience of this act" (337)—are offered a new opportunity for self-knowledge; just as Claudius and Gertrude were the play Hamlet watched, while they themselves watched a play, so we as audience watch ourselves in Hamlet. By viewing the world of Hamlet's interior imagination as dramatically and symbolically equivalent to the exterior political world of Denmark, and the personae of the play as aspects of his consciousness, Shakespeare explores a new dimension of the nature of dream; by further resolving those worlds into a self-conscious fiction, he hints once more at the inseparability of dream from what we loosely call "reality" and suggests that redemption can be approached, and perhaps achieved, by transmutation into art. . . .

In the later tragedies . . . Shakespeare moves . . . toward a new treatment of dream: a transitional stage in which symbols greater than the facts themselves overtake and dominate the world of the play. It is a movement from the particular toward the universal, from the story of one man to the story of all. W. B. Yeats, in an essay called "Emotion of Multitude," perceptively suggests that "there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it."6 This second "life," that of the "half-seen world" be-yond the fable, is dream as we have described it. Yet Yeats's two kinds of artistic life can hardly be separated; as he says elsewhere in the same essay, they copy one another "much as a shadow upon the wall copies one's body in the firelight."7 It is the merging of these two lives, the growing unity of dream and fable, that takes place in the last plays. And in the last of the "great tragedies," Antony and Cleopatra, this unity is in part achieved by the continued growth of subjectivity, the eradication of the boundaries between seeming and being in the consciousness of the protagonists.

It has frequently been pointed out that Antony and Cleopatra is not a tragedy of the same type as [Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear]. The most popular alternative designation has been "Roman play," a category which includes Julius Caesar and Coriolanus as well as Antony and Cleopatra and which seems to stress a classical as opposed to a Christian framework. With equal validity, perhaps, we may regard it as the last and greatest of the chronicle plays. For our purposes we may accept a mixture of categories without strain, since we are predominantly concerned with a chronological development, and observe that Antony partakes at once of tragedy, chronicle, "Roman play," "problem play," and even, to a certain extent, comedy. This mixture of modes is in fact exactly what we should expect of Shakespeare at this time: it is just this bold synthesis of major tropes which makes the play so vast, a many-colored tapestry of titanic actions and gorgeous language. Shakespeare is at the top of his powers here, and the broad canvas of Antony and Cleopatra gives him scope to incorporate much of what he has previously learned.

Perhaps the most obvious and yet important change from the sequence of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear is that this play's title links two characters, in the pattern of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida. Our attention is thereby drawn to the linking "and," the connection between the two, rather than to either specific consciousness without the other. We are not concerned only with love, even with the titanic love of Antony and Cleopatra, which in its imagery as well as in its oscillation from Rome to Egypt bids fair to encompass the world. Instead we may perhaps conjecture that the entity "Antony-and-Cleopatra" in itself has meaning—essentially, that these two majestic figures, towering over the play which bears their names, are aspects of a single conscience, a single—and outmoded—way of looking at the world. Theirs is an ancient world of heroic values, not unlike that of old Hamlet, or, indeed, of Hector. They are, we might say, older than the thrones upon which they sit; their view of the world, and the extent to which it is controllable and manipulable by their own private actions, is a view which must give way to the practical, colorless reason and "high order" of Octavius Caesar. "Conscience" connotes awareness of self, and of all characters in Shakespeare perhaps none are more intrinsically self-aware than Antony and Cleopatra. "The nobleness of life / Is to do thus;" says Antony,

When such a mutual pair And such a twain can do't, in which I bind, On pain of punishment, the world to weet We stand up peerless.


The fact that there are two of them means, in dramatic terms, that they are more often than not characterizing one another; even more significantly, characterizations of them are extremely alike. "She makes hungry / Where most she satisfies," (II.ii.239-40) says Enobarbus, Antony's closest companion, of Cleopatra; and Cleopatra in her great dream vision of Antony says of his bounty, "an autumn 'twas / That grew the more by reaping" (V.ii.87-88). Their relationship to the world of dream as we have described it is an extremely close one: they, like Othello, are votaries of dream, believers in prophecy and the supernatural. Antony's exchange with the soothsayer is paralleled by the augurers in Cleopatra's retinue. Dreaming is looked upon by the practical Romans as superstitious delusion: "he dreams," scoffs Pompey, dismissing a false report (II.i.19). The dichotomy we have previously observed, between the scoffers who try to control dream and the believers who are controlled by it, is softened here because of the concentration on character, or what we have been calling "conscience." Antony's encounter with the soothsayer is a good example, because it simultaneously sets a thematic tone and gives us a rapid insight into Antony's overwhelming strengths and weaknesses.

The soothsayer appears at a pivotal moment in Antony's thought. We have met him before at Cleopatra's palace, where in the play's second scene he performed the oracular dramatic function of forecasting in riddle the course of the drama, predicting to Cleopatra's attendants that they will outlive their mistress. Characteristically, the attendants misinterpret this as an omen of long life; yet it is literally true in another sense, since they will die within a few moments of one another and, indeed, within moments of their mistress. In this first encounter the soothsayer is thus parallel to the soothsayer of Julius Caesar or to the earlier monitory dreams. "In Nature's infinite book of secrecy," he says, "A little I can read" (I.ii.10-11); and the fact that it is "Nature's book" will assume a growing thematic importance as the play proceeds. His second appearance, however, is markedly different in tone. We have by now accepted the official place of soothsayers and augurers in the Egyptian court as a major distinguishing factor between the worlds of Egypt and Rome. When the soothsayer appears again, however, he is in Rome; and this subtly but completely alters the comfortable climate of belief. Antony has just accepted the hand of Octavia in a political marriage calculated to bring peace between him and Caesar. With her goodnight to him the soothsayer enters and is catechized by Antony on the prospects of the future.

Antony: Now sirrah: you do wish yourself in Egypt?Soothsayer: Would I had never come from thence, nor you thither.Antony: If you can, your reason?Soothsayer: I see it in my motion, have it not in my tongue, but yet hie you to Egypt again.Antony: Whose fortunes shall rise higher, say to me, Caesar's, or mine?Soothsayer: Caesar's. Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side. Thy daemon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable, Where Caesar's is not. But near him thy angel Becomes afeard, as being o'erpow'red: therefore Make space enough between you.


Plainly, this is in part an internal monologue. . . . The soothsayer has a corporeal existence and even a dramatic history in the play; he is not imaginary within the play's terms. But the voice of warning we hear through him is Antony's own voice, projecting a brooding internal premonition of disaster. The soothsayer, like the witches, is here simultaneously an internal and an external character. Maynard Mack, in "The Jacobean Shakespeare," points out that when the soothsayer says, "I see it in my motion," he means "intuitively," and that this is also true of Antony. Mack acutely calls this prediction a "visual surrogate for Antony's own personal intuition."8 As such it follows the patterns of many similar supernatural or irrational happenings we have already noted in the tragedies: to put it in its simplest form, the personae and the loci of the drama are themselves consistently surrogate, or complementary, to the operations of conscience in the main characters themselves. We should also note the incorporation of an older theatrical device—the good and bad angels, familiar from the moralities and Doctor Faustus—into the soothsayer's language of metaphor. Once more the irrational is, so to speak, domesticated, made plausible. When later we hear that the "god Hercules, whom Antony loved" (IV.iii.15) leaves him, the effect is the same: a set of character traits—courage, boldness, integrity—have been concretized into a character with a name, though that character's appearance, like that of the "daemon" above, is entirely allusive in the drama itself.

We have touched upon the fact that Antony and Cleopatra are associated with old heroic values which their world can no longer support. In its tacit relationship to myth-making, this tendency is clearly related to the concept of the dream state. Nowhere is the confrontation between this world of heroic gesture and the real, tactical, and unromantic political present made more evident than in Antony's desire to meet Caesar in single combat. He has lost the battle of Actium, and, desperate to regain his honor, he sends a challenge back to Rome for Caesar to meet him "sword against sword, / Ourselves alone" (III.xiii.27-28). The mode of the challenge recalls the world of old Hamlet, who "the ambitious Norway combated" (Ham. I.i.61), and that of Hector, who seeks to settle the seven years' Trojan conflict by meeting singly with a champion of the Greeks. Both in Hamlet and in Troilus and Cressida these heroic moments are relics of a past age; old Hamlet falls victim to the wily and politic Claudius, and, despite the dreams of his wife and the warnings of Cassandra, Hector is slaughtered by the terrifyingly modern-seeming Myrmidons of Achilles. Antony's challenge is no less doomed to failure. Enobarbus murmurs aside on hearing it:

Yes, like enough: high-battled Caesar will Unstate his happiness and be staged to th'show Against a sworder! I see men's judgments are A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward Do draw the inward quality after them To suffer all alike. That he should dream, Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou has subdued His judgment too.


Enobarbus is another of those interpreter figures we have found so frequently in the tragedies, who perceives and reports the facts uncolored by imagination. He knows that Antony's behavior is wholly unrealistic; that, unlike Hector, he will not even receive the satisfaction of an affirmative reply. For Antony's mind dwells with the heroism of an earlier age. "Things outward / Do draw the inward quality after them"—this is precisely the movement toward subjectivity we have been recording. Fittingly Enobarbus calls it "dream," and although for him, as for so many, this means "delusion," it is a strength in Antony as well as a mortal weakness. His "judgment," that omnipresent marked boundary of reason, is perhaps his least reliable attribute.

However, it is not for his judgment that we seek to admire Antony, but rather for his superb imagination, which turns all things to dream. His imagination is incommensurate with the exigencies of reality, and what is real to Antony is properly dream to Enobarbus. Yet Antony's self-awareness, his conscience, is by and large adequate to apprehend these shifting realities. His remarkable capacity lies in a kind of negative capability, what in the Antony of Julius Caesar was a strong impulse toward chaos; he is not afraid of metamorphosis. Consider his self-analysis to an only partially comprehending Eros, after the second defeat of his forces:

Antony: Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish, A vapor sometime like a bear or lion, A towered citadel, a pendant rock A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory With trees upon't that nod unto the world And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs: They are black vesper's pageants.Eros: Ay, my lord.Antony: That which is now a horse, even with a thoughty The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct As water is in water.Eros: It does, my lord.Antony: My good knave Eros, now thy captain is Even such a body: here I am Antony, Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.


Antony's metaphor is clearly related to Hamlet's teasing of Polonius, as well as to Theseus's speech on "airy nothing" and imagination. The play metaphor ("black vesper's pageants") suggests the fictive quality of the visual metamorphosis he is describing; the effect is once more that of a reversal of categories, the "air" here as in A Midsummer Night's Dream a mockery of reality, which imitates and simulates the real objects of nature. The apparitions of tree and horse shift under the scrutiny of the imagination "even with a thought"—a temporal notation which recalls Lysander's "short as any dream." Antony is acutely aware of his own role-playing existence; the "real" Antony is as indistinguishable from the many momentary shapes as the "real" cloud from rock or dragon. He looks upon himself as a quicksilver entity in a real world—as protean as Puck, but burdened with the mortal substance of Hamlet. He is torn between conflicting sets of values, neither of which he can wholly embrace, and both of which are by this point largely corrupt. When, only moments later, he receives the false message of Cleopatra's death, his personal pattern of reversal becomes complete. Reduced to a sense of total subjectivity in the cloud passage above, he is now moved to action once more, but an action which is still conditioned by the dream of an older age. Convinced by this crowning illusion—that Cleopatra is dead—he makes it come true by killing himself in response. His method of suicide, the ancient Roman custom of running on his sword, is like the earlier impulse to single combat, a heroic gesture which belongs to another time. For Antony's personal dream is a kind of myth-making, the translation of the mortal to the immortal. It is what T. S. Eliot has called "the point of intersection of the timeless with time." And the defeat of time, as we have seen, is a major achievement of the world of dream.

Antony's death comes at the close of act IV, and the whole of the fifth act is therefore Cleopatra's. Cleopatra's sense of self is very acute; she is a constant manipulator of illusion and reality, herself the embodiment of the irrational, the ultimate exception to all rules:

she makes hungry Where most she satisfies; for vilest things Become themselves in her, that the holy priests Bless her when she is riggish.


She, too, shows an intuitive understanding of the workings of dream, the degree to which reality is only a partial truth. When the clown brings her the "pretty worm of Nilus" in a basket, he warns her not to touch it, "for his biting is immortal" (V.ii.246-47). The malapropism, "immortal" for "mortal," is precisely the impulse we have been tracing in both Antony and Cleopatra; as in so many similar cases, subjective truth comes to the audience in the guise of error, and the clown speaks better than he knows.

Cleopatra's choice of a death is the heroic alternative to a demeaning captivity, a captivity which she particularizes for her attendants by means of the play image:

The quick comedians Extemporally will stage us, and present Our Alexandrian revels: Antony Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I' th' posture of a whore.


The image is that of a downward metamorphosis, a rude translation back from the splendid world of Egypt to the shallow imitations of the stage. A version of the play-within-the-play incorporated into natural allusive speech, Cleopatra's verbal picture is a mirror of what has actually been happening upon the stage, but a mirror with a basic distortion. In a sense the reversal is reversed. Sigurd Burckhardt, in Shakespearean Meanings, puts the matter clearly: "What happens here is that we are compelled, against common sense and the everyday certitudes about truth and falsehood, to accept illusion as illusion, trickery as trickery, and in this acceptance find truth."9

But while dramatic reality is boldly exposed for itself, magically without destroying the spell of the play, there is another kind of reality which is deliberately undercut. If there is a truth about Cleopatra, it lies in the "serpent of old Nile" and not in the squeaking boy. For Cleopatra, like Antony, projects what is in a sense a myth of herself, which is incompatible with political fact and yet transcends it. She is too large for the world which tries to contain her. And Antony and Cleopatra, like the chronicle plays of the second Henriad with which it has so much in common, is compelled to suggest the impossibility of a coexistence between dream and "reason" in its limiting sense of "order." "The air," says Enobarbus

but for vacancy, Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too, And made a gap in nature.


The air would have—if it could have. But it could not. Order in nature must be maintained. The "airy nothings" of Theseus, the "air . . . thin air" of Prospero and even the "piece of tender air" of Posthumus's riddle must give place in this play to natural law, just as the dream world of Antony and Cleopatra themselves is forced to give way to civil law. Reality, as exemplified by the coming of the sober order of Caesar, is in itself a significant limitation. And yet Cleopatra, conscious of so much, is conscious of this too. In her last magnificent dream vision of Antony she confronts the problem of art and nature, vision and reality; her answer, which is both a tortured and a transcendent one, is our direct and proper portal into the dream world of the romances.

Dolabella is Cleopatra's confidant here, as Eros and Enobarbus have been Antony's; significantly, a great deal of the play's character analysis is verbalized through the device of a major character speaking to a subordinate. It is a more sophisticated dramatic device than that of soliloquy, and in effect it externalizes the interior dialogues of earlier protagonists with t hemselves. As concrete evidence we may note the comparative simplicity of syntax, as compared, for instance, with an extreme example like Hamlet's "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy, which contains eleven rhetorical questions, nine exclamations, and twelve sentences in direct discourse. By contrast Cleopatra, though her words are mostly for her own ears, is fairly straightforward.

Cleopatra: You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams, Is't not your trick?Dolabella: I understand not, madam.Cleopatra: I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony. O, such another sleep, that I might see But such another man.Dolabella: If it might please ye—Cleopatra: His face was as the heav'ns, and therein stuck A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted The little O, th' earth.Dolabella: Most sovereign creature—Cleopatra: His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm Crested the world: his voice was propertied As all the tunèd spheres, and that to friends; But when he meant to quail and shake the orb, He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty, There was no winter in 't: an autumn 'twas That grew the more by reaping. His delights Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above The element they lived in. In his livery Walked crowns and crownets: realms and islands were As plates dropped from his pocketDolabella: Cleopatra—Cleopatra: Think you there was or might be such a man As this I dreamt of?Dolabella: Gentle madam, no.Cleopatra: You lie, up to the hearing of the gods. But if there be nor ever were one such, It's past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t' imagine An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy, Condemning shadows quite.


Cleopatra's dream is a waking dream, but it is a true one—true, at least, within her own "conscience" and communicating itself to us. She acknowledges the generally low reputation of dream among the forthright Romans; "boys or women" are the dreamers there. Her description of Antony, however, is no weakling's delusion, but rather virtually a theogony in little. In her eyes he becomes a figure like Mars or Thor—related indeed to the Julius Caesar of Cassius's disgruntled description, who "doth bestride the world like a colossus." When we look closer, however, we can notice that a great deal of her description is actually natural imagery: the "sun and moon" in his eyes, his anger like "rattling thunder," his generosity of spirit a constant harvest, with "no winter in't." He is a relative of Adam Kadmon, the sum of the world's inheritance rather than a beneficiary. "Realms and islands were / As plates dropped from his pocket." The structural principle of this description is of considerable interest, for it is actually the reverse of what we have been calling "internal landscape." Where in King Lear, for example, the heath mirrored an aspect of Lear's state of soul, here Antony's soul is the subject, and the world of nature the applied metaphor. This is the creative function of dream again, the dream work producing a verbal artifact. The literal man is indeed, as Dolabella gently implies, not wholly recognizable here; but the dream has an independent verisimilitude of its own. It is the last and greatest production of Cleopatra's conscience. Derek Traversi has remarked, apropos of this subject, that "Cleopatra is living in a world which is the projection of her own feelings. That world, while it lasts, is splendidly valid, vital in its projection; only death, which is the end of vitality, can prevent her awakening from it."10 The connection we have been striving to demonstrate between conscience and dream is here made manifest.

Even the pacing of this remarkable scene is nothing short of brilliant; just at the point when Dolabella's exasperation begins to communicate itself to us, in the middle of a breath-taking virtuosity of creative description, Cleopatra finely turns the dialogue back to her listener for a moment, before drawing the lesson of her own vision. She is dreamer and augurer in one, expounder and interpreter, and her hyperbole is so instinct with vitality and conviction that she carries us with her through an extraordinary train of reasoning: if there had ever been anyone like the dream—Antony she has described—and there has been and is from the moment she describes him—he would be "past the size of dreaming," since the process of dream itself is not capable of such a creation. Things of nature are not as wonderful as things created by the fancy, she continues; yet to imagine an Antony— as she has, and as Shakespeare has—gives nature for once a creature more extraordinary than those of fancy, defeating the fictive, the "shadows," by means of the real. The circle is complete, the exchange of the dream for the reality translated back into a new form of reality which includes and transcends "shadows." At this level of the imagination the two categories at last flow into one another unimpeded. We have had a hint of the same transcendence in Enobarbus's earlier description of Cleopatra, "O'erpicturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature" (II.ii.202-03). And it is most fitting that in their ultimate enshrinement they should be again equal, as they have been throughout.

The new concept of nature here beginning to make its appearance is one which includes both dream and reality. It is characteristic of the language of Antony and Cleopatra, and indeed of all the tragedies, that Cleopatra should state the concept in terms of argument: "Nature's piece 'gainst fancy." To Perdita and Polixenes it will become "great creating Nature," incorporating without strain the one pole into the other. For in the romances a renewed and expanded nature will in a sense become equivalent to the world of dream, a temporary but transcendent stage of regenerative awareness; the "art" which "itself is Nature" will encompass for a significant moment the antinomies of illusion and reality.


1Yale Review, 41 (1952), 502-23.

2The Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Lionel Trilling (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951), p. 99.

6 In Ideas of Good and Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 341.

7 Ibid., p. 340.

8 In Jacobean Theater, Stratford-upon Avon Studies, No. 1 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1960), p. 27.

9 "The King's Language" (Princeton: Princeton Uni-versity Press, 1968), pp. 281-82.

10An Approach to Shakespeare, 2d ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), p. 258.

Joan Ozark Holmer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'Begot of Nothing?': Dreams and Imagination in Romeo and Juliet," in Classical, Renaissance, and Postmodernist Acts of the Imagination: Essays Commemorating O. B. Hardison, Jr., edited by Arthur F. Kinney, Associated University Presses, 1996, pp. 195-210.

[In the following essay, Holmer examines Romeo and Juliet, investigating Shakespeare's imaginative transmutation of Thomas Nashe's ideas on dreams and dreaming in the play.]

Critics have seen the witty Mercutio's Queen Mab speech as his most imaginative flight in Romeo and Juliet. But the extent to which Shakespeare himself is imaginative in his fusion of dream lore and a diminutive demon has not been fully understood. The idea of small fairies does not originate with Shakespeare. They appear in old folklore traditions, recorded in the late Middle Ages by authors such as Giraldis Cambrensis and Gervase of Tilbury, and particularly in Welsh lore; John Lyly often is credited with being the first to introduce into Elizabethan drama the small fairies, who would be aptly played by the smaller of his boy actors.1 Lyly's language, however, reveals that his small fairies in Endimion are not meant to be imagined as extremely diminutive, but rather as childlike in their stature because he calls them "fair babies."2 Shakespeare breaks new dramatic ground in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet when he combines the subject of mortals' dreams with small fairies (Titania and Oberon, who can assume mortal size) and with very diminutive fairies (in Dream the courtly attendants who can wear coats of bats' wings and in Romeo the agate-stone-sized Queen Mab).

This originality of Shakespeare's coupling of fairy and dream has been overlooked. In An Encyclopedia of Fairies Katherine A. Briggs presents comprehensive information about fairies, but there is no entry for dreams as a subject directly related to fairies.3 Indeed, Shakespeare's description of Queen Mab as "the fairies' midwife" (1.4.54)4 —the fairy whose role it is to bring to life the dreams of sleeping mortals—should surprise us. The idea of a fairy playing midwife to humans reverses the popular idea, recorded by Briggs, of mortal women who act as midwives to fairy mothers in the delivery, not of dreams, but of fairy offspring.5 Is Shakespeare's demon-dream association "begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (1.4.98)?

I suggest that Shakespeare's stylistic habit of borrowing and transforming material found in other literary sources applies as well in this situation. The source I propose for considering Shakespeare's imaginative transformations is also markedly original in presenting the first literary association of extremely diminutive spirits and their causative roles in the dreams we mortals have: Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night, or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594).6 In his work Nashe greatly develops much of the earlier work on demonology done for his Pierce Pennilesse (1592),7 but his two most substantive additions are diminution and dream lore as he spoofingly expatiates on his wide-ranging single "theame . . . the terrors of the Night" (1:360). Just as Robin Goodfellow in A MidsummerNight's Dream provides his audience with the option to think they "have but slumbered" and "this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream" (5.1.403-6), so also Nashe with a puckish gesture of self-depreciation dismisses his work as "but a dream": "& to say the troth, all this whole Tractate is but a dreame, for my wits are not halfe awaked in it" (1:360-61).

To begin, dreams and the Romeo-Mercutio exchange about dreams are Shakespeare's innovative additions to the acknowledged source for his play, Arthur Brooke's poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).8 Despite extensive critical discussion of the possible influences on Mercutio and his Queen Mab speech on dreams and despite a growing awareness of Nashe's influence on Shakespeare,9 it is surprising that Nashe's The Terrors of the Night, with its satirically spirited use of diminutive demonology and dreams, has been overlooked as a possible source for Shakespeare's paradoxical use of dream and his characterization of Mercutio as a dream-mocker and Romeo as a dream-believer. Mercutio's very debunking of dreams, those "children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (1.4.98-99), closely apes Nashe's own dismissal of dreams as "fragments of idle imaginations" (1:355) or "ridiculous idle childish invention" (1:356) of "the phantasie" (1:354). When Romeo interrupts Mercutio's supportive spoof on dreams, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.95-96; my italics), he echoes Nashe's denouement: "But this is nothing (you will obiect) to our journeys ende of apparitions" (1:377). And Romeo's conclusion regarding his belief about his dream, that "with this night's revels" (1.4.109) begins some dire consequence, changes the mood but recalls that phrase from Nashe's conclusion: "my muse inspyres me to put out my candle and goe to bed: and yet I wyll not neyther, till, after all these nights reuells, I haue solemnly bid you good night . . . and sleep quietly without affrightment and annoyance" (1:384; my italics).

Perhaps one reason that might help explain the oversight of Nashe's possible influence is the impoverished reputation of The Terrors of the Night. Ronald B. McKerrow concluded about Nashe's piece, "It is a slight production . . . a hasty piece of work . . . and on the whole of very little importance either as regards Nashe's biography or the history of letters in his time" (5:23). McKerrow's dismissal rests chiefly on his view that Nashe's work is very unoriginal: "a mere stringing together of matter taken from elsewhere"; most of it "might well have been gathered by miscellaneous reading" (4:107). But as Donald J. McGinn rightly observes, McKerrow "admits being unable to identify any of these sources."10 Especially for Nashe's dream lore McKerrow can cite no particular source.11 Even Briggs dismisses Nashe's work: "He has, however, nothing to add to our knowledge except a remark on the small size of spirits, which makes them even smaller than Drayton's fairies."12

G. R. Hibbard revises this negative appraisal. Although he does not suggest any connection between Shakespeare's Romeo and Nashe's Terrors, he praises Nashe's work—its spirit and style—in terms suggestive for recalling Mercutio's spirit and style in his Queen Mab speech:

This combination of over-wrought description on the one hand, and mocking skepticism on the other, is the outstanding characteristic of the whole pamphlet and the real unifying factor in it, for The Terrors of the Night is essentially a jeu d'esprit . . . one of the most sophisticated prose-works of the age . . . too sophisticated for Nashe's contemporaries; only one edition of it appeared during his lifetime. . . . It seems to me, further, that The Terrors of the Night, although it had no influence on anything written after it, does have its place in the history of letters in Nashe's time. . . . It is one of the first, if not the first, prose works in English that exists for no other end than to give pleasure a discriminating reader can find in a . . . display of stylistic ingenuity that carries with it the impress of a personality. . . . In essence, The Terrors of the Night is a piece of literary clowning, and good clowning in writing, no less than in the theatre or the circus, is neither a common nor a contemptible thing.13

Shakespeare is precisely the sophisticated audience, the "discriminating reader," on whom Nashe's "literary clowning" was not lost. Shakespeare reshapes it to develop Mercutio's character as a mirthful scoffer, not unlike Tom Nashe himself, and to craft the tenor, tone, and function of his Queen Mab "improvisation."14

Shakespeare uses much of Nashe's dream lore, but he also recasts what he borrows, chiefly through the cultivation of paradox, personalization, and tragic irony, all elements conspicuously absent from Nashe's work. His adaptive borrowing from Nashe covers a wide range: tone (chiefly Mercutio's satirical stance on credulity); text and context (the opposition between serious belief and comic nonbelief regarding spirits and dreams as species of nightly "terrors"); and language (the lexicon used to describe these terrors and how they are interrelated). Even the tonal framework for Nashe's work, which shifts from a serious and religious tone (1:345-48) to witty spoofing (1:349-84) and back again to a graver concluding tone of admonition (1:384-86), might have provided Shakespeare with a hint for comic-tragic juxtaposition, a hint that Shakespeare improves upon throughout his scene by inter-playing these opposing moods between melancholic Romeo and mirthful Mercutio.

Within this context the purpose for the Romeo-Mercutio exchange on dreams reveals itself. Romeo clearly believes in the truth of dreams, and because his love melancholy has been the butt of Mercutio's humor from the beginning of this scene, Mercutio probably anticipates some ominous announcement when Romeo implies why they show "no wit" in going to this mask, "I dreamt a dream tonight" (1.4.50). Mercutio attempts to deflect Romeo's gravity, "And so did I" (1.4.50), to which the polite Romeo falls pat, "Well, what was yours?" (1.4.51). Mercutio's rejoinder concisely expresses his attitude "that dreamers often lie" (1.4.51), which Romeo refutes in a clever pun, "In bed asleep, while they do dream things true" (1.4.52). Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is a loquaciously witty rejoinder, even a jeu d'esprit, wherein he tries to laugh Romeo out of his lover's melancholy and restore him to his "sociable" (2.4.73) self by debunking Romeo's belief in dreams as cleverly as he can. Mercutio's sportive wit that seeks to uplift Romeo's downcast spirit informs all his previous rejoinders in this scene—"You are a lover, borrow Cupid's wings. / And soar with them above a common bound" (1.4.17-18)—because Mercutio, eager to go to the Capulet feast, seeks to draw Romeo from "the mire, / Or (save your reverence) love, wherein [Romeo] stickest / Up to the ears" (1.4.41-43).

Mercutio's wittily skeptical attitude toward dreams and Queen Mab, who delivers these fancies, parallels Nashe's treatment of dreams and diminutive spirits in both language and thought as Nashe seeks to counsel his reader about nightly terrors, even to the point of providing a good-night prescription for how to avoid bad dreams. In his pamphlet Nashe's shift from a serious to a comic tone begins with his introduction of tiny spirits who inhabit the four elements, as well as humans whose humors correspond to those four elements and indeed inhabit everything in our world, and who are so diminutive as to be almost microscopic: "In Westminister Hall a man can scarce breath for them; for in euery corner they houer as thick as moates in the sunne" (1:349). Mercutio's extremely diminutive depiction of Mab as "in shape no bigger than an agate-stone / On the forefinger of an alderman" (1.4.55-56) is a very similar, if more elaborate, version of Nashe's description of men who "haue ordinarily carried a familiar or a spirite in a ring in stead of a sparke of a diamond" (1:350). Shakespeare's use of "an alderman" as the "spritely" ring bearer seems to be his specification of Nashe's general "man" likely to be found in Westminster Hall.15

But far more telling than these verbal parallels is Shakespeare's debt to Nashe for the idea and imagery that lie behind Shakespeare's imaginative depiction of his Mab as the fairies' midwife. Hibbard implies that Nashe merely juxtaposes spirits and dreams because Nashe "rambles on" so that "ultimately spirits lead to melancholy and melancholy back to dreams."16 But Nashe actually forges the causative relation between the tiniest of spirits and dreams; he uses language of birthing to define the causal relationship in which diminutive, elemental spirits use melancholy to "engender" dreams in mortals: "the spirits of earth and water have predominance in the night; for they feeding on foggie-brained melancholly, engender thereof many vncouth terrible monsters . . . engendereth many mis-hapen objects in our imaginations . . . many fearfull visions . . . [and] herein specially consisteth our senses defect and abuse . . . [that] by some misdiet or mis-gouernment being distempered . . . [they] deliuer vp nothing but lyes and fables" (1:353-54). Friar Lawrence echoes this concern about distemperature when he sees young Romeo up too early, suggesting such behavior "argues a distempered head," a Romeo "uproused with some distemp'rature" (2.3.32-40) or imbalance of humors. Mercutio's view, however, that dreamers "lie" (1.4.51) is more satirically dismissive and parallels Nashe's quip: "What heede then is there to be had of dreames, that are no more but the confused giddie action of our braines, made drunke with the innundation of humours?" (1:370). For Mercutio's sporting with fairy and dream, Shakespeare enhances Nashe's causal relationship by personalizing the diminutive earthly spirits into one chief figure who is both "queen" and "quean," who is specifically named as "Mab," and whose function is to be the fairies' "midwife" in the delivering of mortals' dreams.

Nashe interrelates tiny spirits (chiefly earthly ones, whose identifying element of earth corresponds in Renaissance psychology to the humor of melancholy), mortals' melancholy, and dreams in order to mock dreams as "ridiculous idle childish invention" (1:356), "trifling childish" (1:371), "toyish fantasies" (1:373), "froth of the fancie" (1:355), "an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations" (1:355), and "but the Eccho of our conceipts in the day" (1:356). Nashe rambles but manages to sum up concisely: "When all is said, melancholy is the mother of dreames, and of all terrours of the night whatsoeuer" (1:357; my italics). Shakespeare cultivates Nashe's generalized use of "childish" by personifying dreams as "children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (1.4.98-99). But Shakespeare probably derives his "midwife" image from Nashe's "mother of dreams" and his linguistic emphasis on "engendering" for how spirits use melancholy to create dreams.

Various sources have been suggested for Mercutio's descriptions of different dreamers and their appropriate dreams (1.4.70-88n). Shakespeare's depiction of Mab as a midwife who delivers dreams that are dreamers' wish-fulfillments finds an analogue in Nashe's far less succinct but similarly satiric and decorous presentation of the elemental natures of spirits and their corresponding inhabitation of like-minded mortals who live, and who, it is implied, dream accordingly. For example, "terrestriall spirits" ally with soldiers and "confirme them in their furie & congeale their mindes with a bloodie resolution" (1:352). Spirits of the air are "all show and no substance, deluders of our imagination," and "they vnder-hand instruct women" in how "to sticke their gums round with Comfets when they haue not a tooth left in their heads to help them chide withall" (1:353). Nashe's violent soldiers and comfit-comforted women are not far from Mercutio's throat-cutting soldier and his ladies whose eating of sweet-meats (or "kissing-comfits") cannot cover up their blistered lips and "tainted" breaths (1.4.75-76). This descriptive matter immediately precedes Nashe's explanation of how spirits engender dreams (1:353). But Shakespeare also refashions Nashe's hints into his own imaginative dreamscape by appropriate amplification, and he attributes all power specifically to Queen Mab's role, deftly versified, in the delivery of appropriate dreams, such as the lovers' dreams of love, the ladies' dreams of kisses, and the soldier's dreams of violence.

Although Romeo dismisses Mercutio's words, "Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.96), and Mercutio concurs, "True, I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (1.4.96-98), their exchange is not for naught within the context of the play. Fundamental to their exchange is the opposition between two views of dream that frame their dialogue: Mercutio's belief that dreams are lies or fantasies and Romeo's belief that dreamers "dream things true" (1.4.52). Nashe's general attitude toward his subject as trivial and his view of dreams as delusions, ensconced in a variety of popular superstitions (1:361-62), parallels Mercutio's dismissal of Romeo's apparent belief in the truth of dreams as prophetic. Some of Nashe's remarks are quite pertinent for Shakespeare's treatment of dream in his play; he imitates Nashe and improves Nashe's associations chiefly through tragic effect heightened by irony and paradox. In Nashe's attack on excessive credulity, he debunks some popular superstitions concerning dreams—for example, the belief that a happy dream foreshadows misfortune and a sad dream good luck (1:362). Nashe develops his double-pronged view of dreams as caused immediately by melancholy and ultimately by night-dominant spirits when he adds his cautionary emphasis on the danger of emotional extremes that induce "most of our melancholy dreames and visions" (1:377). Romeo's susceptibility to dreams correlates with his temperamental imbalance due to excessive extremes of grief and joy, inviting our sympathy for his plight. The danger of excess is a philosophical idea that Friar Lawrence expounds, chiefly in proverbial terms (2.6.9-15).

Romeo has two dreams that resemble Nashe's dream psychology. His first dream probably is caused at least partially by his too-much-changed emotional state that his father so fears: "Black and portentous must this humour prove, / Unless good counsel may the cause remove" (1.1.132-33). Romeo's persistent suffering of love melancholy is Shakespeare's significant change of Brooke's handling of Romeus's decision to attend the Capulet feast. Brooke's Romeus responds positively and immediately to his friend's advice that he forswear his unrequited love and seek another love; his healing process is well underway before he goes to the Capulet feast (11. 141-50). Although Shakespeare's Romeo may appear fickle to us and even to Friar Lawrence, who persists in seeing him as but a "young waverer" (2.3.89), Romeo does intend at least, unlike the far more fickle Romeus, to remain true to Rosaline until experience itself, the vision of Juliet, thwarts his faithful intention. Shakespeare's change here effectively keynotes one of his recurrent themes, that experience often changes intention, and in many ways Romeo and Juliet gains tragic poignancy through the persistent pattern of good intentions that run amuck. In Romeo's unhealthy state of love melancholy his dream of ill portent could be interpreted as being engendered by his continued grief over Rosaline's rejection of him. Nashe commonsensically observes that when "a solitarie man [lies] in his bed" (1:376), he tends to think over his recent experiences. If his experiences have been sad, then he feels overwhelmed by misfortune. Given the popular superstition that dreams prove contrary, "that euery thing must bee interpreted backward . . . good being the character of bad, and bad of good" (1:361), an idea that Romeo seems not to know, his sad dream of "untimely death" that begins "with this night's revels" (1.4.109-11) should foreshadow good luck. And in one respect it does. That very "blessed, blessed night" (2.2.139) Romeo doffs his inky cloak of melancholy to wrap himself in the joy of Juliet's love, despite his fear that this might be "but a dream / Too flattering-sweet to be substantial" (2.2.141).

On the other hand, Shakespeare invests his use of dream with more paradox than Nashe because the same dream can be interpreted as false and as true. This same seemingly blessed night does begin, for various reasons, the cycle of time that will ultimately cost much more than just the "vile forfeit" (1.4.111) of his life. Although Nashe argues against "the certainety of Dreames" (1:371) and focuses on the folly of "anticke suppositions" (1:378), he does not completely deny the prophetic power of all dreams, especially of those heaven-sent "vnfallible dreames" foretelling the deaths of the saints and martyrs of the Primitive Church (1:372), or even some of the historical "visions" that were "sent from heaven to foreshew" the rise and fall of "Monarchies" (1:361), the usual stuff of tragic drama so foreign to Shakespeare's new matter here, the rise and fall of young lovers. And Nashe closes with "the strange tale" of an English gentleman's "miraculous waking visions," which are left to the reader's judgment to decide whether they be "of true melancholy or true apparition" (1:378). But Nashe believes that fearful dreams provoke much more terror than the reality they foreshadow: "the feare of anie expected euill, is worse than the euill it selfe" (1:376). Romeo's dream proves an exception to this general truth when the audience finally sees the stage as a graveyard, littered with dead bodies—Romeo, Juliet, Paris, and Tybalt—and knows of the deaths of Mercutio and Lady Montague, with Lady Capulet's death imminent. Although Romeo, like Hamlet (2.2.256), is susceptible to bad dreams because he is melancholic enough to refer to his life as "a despised life" (1.4.110), his "terror of the night" proves no idle apparition by the play's end.

Nashe makes a point of focusing exclusively on the time of night for his "terrors," and Shakespeare adapts this setting of night, the time when dreams usually occur, to suit the genre of the play he is writing. In the romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, night becomes the time when friendly fairies help to resolve the waking nightmares of mortals. But Shakespeare's use of night in Romeo and Juliet is more complicated and parallels his paradoxical presentation of dream. Nashe strikes the expectant tragic chord regarding night: "When anie Poet would describe a horrible Tragicall Tragicall accident; to adde the more probabilitie & credence vnto it, he dismally beginneth to tell, how it was dark night when it was done, and cheerfull daylight had quite abandoned the firmament. Hence, it is, that sinne generally throughout the scripture is called the workes of darknesse; for neuer is the diuell so busie as then, and then he thinkes he may aswel vn-discouered walke abroad, as homicides and outlawes" (1:386). But in the benighted world of Verona's hateful feud, night contrarily becomes the lovers' friend so that Juliet's knight can come to her safely, and "civil Night," their "sober-suited matron," can teach them how "to lose a winning match / Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods" (3.2.10-13). "Love-performing Night" (3.2.5) is love's traditional element. On the other hand, the joyful nights of their first meeting and marital consummation change to the contrary when Romeo returns in the night, once again as a torchbearer (5.3.25, 283), this time, however, going not to life's celebratory feast with his fears submitted to the guidance of a higher power (1.4.11-12, 35-38), but rather journeying passionately in a spirit of defiance to death's feast to be feasted upon:

. . . then I defy you, stars! . . . Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth, Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open, And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.

(5.1.24, 45-48)

When Romeo first saw Juliet, he found her beauty brilliant: "O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!" (1.5.43). Likewise in death her beauty makes the vault "a feasting presence full of light" (5.3.85-86). Romeo's own mood, "a light'ning before death" (5.3.90), may recall for the audience, through memorial wordplay, Juliet's premonitory warning about the "lightning" nature of their love (2.2.117-24).

Shakespeare adds Romeo's dark dream, which, like the opening choric Prologue, signals the genre of tragedy within the predominately comic context of the first two acts. Brooke warns that Romeus would have remained happier if he had never forsworn his first love (11. 151-54), but he presents no dream of ominous premonition. With the Mercutio-Romeo exchange over dreams, Shakespeare heightens dramatic tension for the audience's hopes and fears, and he also elevates the sense of mystery involved in human tragedy and the problem of epistemology. Whence comes Romeo's dream? If heaven-sent, then no mere delusion, or as Nashe might say, it is "true melancholy or true apparition" (1:378). Romeo links his mysteriously fatal dream to "some consequence yet hanging in the stars," and this imagery reflects the "star-crossed" motif of the Prologue and anticipates "a greater power" (5.3.153), a punitive "heaven" that kills with love (5.3.153, 293), to which Friar Lawrence and Prince Escalus submit. Romeo resolves to journey onward by committing his direction to a higher power (1.4.112): "But He that hath the steerage of my course / Direct my sail!" (1.4.111-12). Likewise Nashe, in his discourse on nightly terrors, comforts the reader by indicating that "looking to heauen for succor" (1:346) is the only way to fight the blinding power of darkness.17 Nashe illus-trates this idea with the true story that partially motivated him to write his treatise, the story of a sick English country gentleman who had various visions that took the form of temptations (1:379). The gentleman, whose physical eye could not determine whether the seductive apparition was an angel or fiend, relied on his "strong faith" in God "to defie & with-stand all his iugling temptations" (1:380).

Although Romeo has no waking visions, Juliet does have one, the germ of which is in Brooke's poem, while the superstition regarding such a vision is recorded by Nashe. The articulation of this palpable vision is Shakespeare's own, however, and he uses it for negative premonition that begs to be construed correctly by the audience as it vacillates painfully between fear and hope for the lovers. Juliet's soliloquy as she deliberates whether she should or can take the sleeping potion, with all its attendant dangers, climaxes with a vision that so fires her imagination that she resolves to drink immediately. Like Romeo, Juliet is now suffering from deep melancholy, and her feverish state also makes her susceptible to such apparitions. Juliet's waking vision might prompt some members of an Elizabethan audience to fear for her life. Nashe mentions one popular superstition that "none haue such palpable dreames or visions, but die presently after" (1:383). In Brooke's poem the provocative part of Juliet's vision is the vivid reseeing by "the force of her ymagining . . . / The carkas of Tybalt, / . . . in his blood embrewde" (11. 2378-82), which in turn spawns her fear of "a thousand bodies dead" (1. 2393) around her; before she can lose her nerve, she frantically drinks the potion.

But Shakespeare goes beyond Brooke by having his Juliet drink to save her beloved from Tybalt's hate. She thinks she "see[s]" (4.3.54) the rancorous ghost of Tybalt carrying the feud beyond the grave in order to revenge himself on "Romeo that did spit his body / Upon a rapier's point" (4.3.56-57). This specific recollection of their duel ironically anticipates the next deadly duel. Juliet's palpable vision proves paradoxically true and false, and as Nashe might gloss it, Juliet's vision is born of her own fears and her overwrought psychological state. It is not dead Tybalt but live Paris who seeks Romeo when he misconstrues Romeo's intention—"Can vengeance be pursued further than death?" (5.3.55)—and who pays with his life for his misguided but well-meant interference. However, as a gentleman Romeo honorably seeks both Paris's and Tybalt's forgiveness (5.3.101).18 Tybalt does not seek Romeo's life; Romeo seeks his own. One principle of dreams in Nashe, which Shakespeare only partially acknowledges, concerns the role of personal responsibility in the shaping of one's fortunes and one's dreams: "of the ouerswelling superabundance of ioy and greefe, wee frame our selues most of our melancholy dreames and visions. . . . Euerie one shapes hys owne fortune as he lists. . . . Euerie one shapes his owne feares and fancies as he list" (1:377). In his desperate torment Romeo unwisely reasons: "O, what more favour can I do thee [Tybalt] / Then with that hand that cut thy youth in twain / To sunder his that was thine enemy" (5.3.98-100). But there is no friendly hand present this time to stay his own.

Romeo's second dream, this time with the contents specifically relayed to the audience, also fulfills Shakespeare's paradoxical perspective and complements the dramatic structure, where "all things change them to the contrary" (1.4.90), from "ordained festival" to "black funeral" (4.5.84-85). Romeo's dream, unlike his first one, is joyful so that despite his concern again about "the flattering truth of sleep," his dream uplifts him "with cheerful thoughts" that "some joyful news [is] at hand" (5.1.1-11). Given the popular superstition described by Nashe, this dream should foreshadow misfortune. Nashe warns: "He that dreams merily is like a boy new breetcht, who leapes and daunceth for joy his pain is past: but long that joy stays not with him, for presently after his master the day, seeing him so iocund and pleasant, comes and dooes as much for him againe, whereby his hell is renued" (1:356). Right on cue Balthasar enters with the tragic news of Juliet's death that initiates Romeo's defiance of the stars. Because Balthasar is described in the stage direction of the first quarto as "booted,"19 he has apparently left Verona in such great haste, once he saw Juliet laid low, that he must not have gone to Friar Lawrence to obtain the promised correspondence of "every good hap" that the Friar and Romeo had agreed would be carried between them by Balthasar (3.3.169-71).

To underscore the paradoxical significance of Romeo's dream, Shakespeare changes the role of Romeo's servant in the sources by having Friar Lawrence prudently assign him the function of letter-bearer and go-between.20 Romeo asks Balthasar for such letters twice, once before and surprisingly once after he hears Balthasar's tragic news. But Balthasar, curiously, never explains his hasty departure from Verona. The audience might expect Romeo's first inquiry, but his second intelligent one, "Hast thou no letters to me from the Friar?" (5.1.31), intensifies the tragic tension because the audience knows Friar Lawrence sent "with speed" the important letters to Romeo by means of a fellow friar (4.1.122-24); the friar could not risk waiting for Balthasar's return to Verona once he and Juliet had decided on their desperate plan with the potion, intended to achieve Romeo's secret rescue of Juliet for their sojourn together in Mantua (4.1.105-17). But the plague unexpectedly delays Friar John, and Lord Capulet's joyful resolve to hasten the intended wedding day from Thursday to Wednesday, the very next morning, also complicates this desperately hopeful plan.21 On his way to Friar Lawrence, Balthasar sees the funeral and returns swiftly instead to Romeo. Had Balthasar consulted Friar Lawrence as originally planned, he would have returned with the good news that would rightly interpret the meaning of Romeo's joyful dream.

In Romeo's dream the life and death positions of Juliet and himself appear to be reversed from what ultimately will happen, but Nashe reminds us that the nature of dreams is chaotic and "a Dreame is nothing els but the Eccho of our conceipts in the day" (1:356). However, despite apparent contradiction, Romeo's happy dream would prove true if he had not resolved upon suicide when he received Balthasar's unwittingly false news. Juliet would have revived the spirits of "a dead man" (5.1.7; 5.3.87), such as he describes himself when he is without her, and she would breathe "such life with kisses in [his] lips" (5.1.8) that he would triumph like "an emperor" in his sweet possession of love (5.1.10-11). Shakespeare's puns make Romeo's expectations and Balthasar's news all the more painful for the knowing audience: "Nothing can be ill if she be well" (5.1.17), and she is well in fact because Balthasar, speaking more truly than he knows, reminds us that her body only "sleeps in Capels" monument" (5.1.18). Instead, Romeo's "misadventure" (5.1.29) as "a desp'rate man" (5.3.59) leaves Juliet to find him literally dead. Her kisses cannot restore him to physical life, but if "some poison yet doth hang on" Romeo's lips, her kiss or "restorative" will enable her to die and lie with Romeo (5.3.165-66). "Thy lips are warm" (5.1.167) may be the most tragic utterance in the play as Juliet realizes how close has been the hamartia of tragedy. Because the audience has just witnessed the deadly duel between Romeo and Paris, Balthasar's lines on his dream might seem superfluous:

As I did sleep under this yew tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, And that my master slew him.


Nashe explains that noises that a dreamer subconsciously hears can inspire a dream: "one Eccho borrowes of another: so our dreames (the Ecchoes of the day) borrow of anie noyse we heare in the night" (1:356). But that does not explain Shakespeare's choice of the yew tree, which for Elizabethans could symbolize death. As John Gerard's Herball clarifies, the yew tree is common in many countries, including Italy and England, but it "is of a venemous qualitie, and against mans nature . . . and that if any do sleepe under the shadow thereof, it causeth sicknes, and oftentimes death."22 While not prophetic, Balthasar's dream is nontheless true. He is probably inspired by the noise of the duel between Paris and Romeo to dream things true; his master did indeed fight and slay another. Thus Shakespeare allows for the truth, as well as the delusion, of what may or may not be an illusion.

If we grant any of these arguments, then we should also grant that Shakespeare's imaginative power of unifying into a more complex whole that which he finds separate or scattered in his source materials helps to demonstrate that he is very much an artist of Renaissance temperament. His ingenious use of sources favors the Renaissance ideal of "imitado," whereby the combination of old .material with new is expressed in an original manner. According to Renaissance critical theory regarding the operation of the poetic imagination, the imagination's transforming or "feigning" power is guided by reason to create art: the poetic feigning of images is described in the sixteenth century as a process of severing and joining things real to form things imagined.23 As O. B. Hardison argues, "Shakespeare seems to have known what he was doing," deriving his "sense of artistry . . . from the experience of writing plays."24 Romeo and Juliet, Hardison reminds us, are "among the most poignantly charming characters [Shakespeare] ever created."25 And they are so attractive partly in relation to their dramatic world, which derives partly and complexly from Shakespeare's strikingly original use of Nashe. For the intricately unified world of his play, Shakespeare imaginatively transmutes and integrates various ideas, images, and intentions from Nashe's work on demons and dreams. Shakespeare's range of invention broadens our more limited sense of "source" because he mines the literary convention of "sources" in such unconventional ways. In dramatizing the story of Romeo and Juliet as only he can, Shakespeare's imaginative art takes us "past the size of dreaming" (Ant 5.2.97) so that when we leave the theater and wake from the suspension of our disbelief in the imaginative act we have just experienced, like Caliban, we wake only to cry "to dream again" (Tern 3.2.143).


1 See Katherine A. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 6-7; The Anatomy of Puck (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), 18, 44, 56-70; An Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 120-21, 275, 295, 368-69. See also Harold F. Brooks, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1979), lxxii and n.; R. A. Foakes, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 6-7.

2See John Lyly, Endimion, in The Dramatic Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 3:4.3.166; cf. 4.3.132. See also Lyly's Gallathea 3.2.5-7, where no specific size is indicated. Lyly does not directly connect fairies and dreams, nor does he use extreme diminution or the detailed and fanciful description that appears in both Shakespeare's Dream and Romeo.

3 Briggs praises Dream as "our greatest fairy poem," especially its "shining unity of so many different materials." See Briggs, Puck, 44; cf. 45-50. But curiously overlooked is the new connection between fairy and dream in Dream and even more directly in Romeo. In her Encyclopedia Briggs hypothetically attempts to connect diminutive fairies from medieval tradition with a sleeper's dreams, based on the fairies' connection with the dead (not the living) and the idea of the sleeper's soul as a tiny creature whose extracorporeal "adventures are the sleeper's dreams" (98-99). This hypothesis does not relate to Shakespeare's presentation of diminutive fairy and dream in either Dream or Romeo. For different interpretations of dream in Romeo and Juliet, see Warren D. Smith, "Romeo's Final Dream," MLR 62 (1967): 579-83, and Marjorie B. Garber, Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), 35-47.

4 All quotations are from Romeo and Juliet, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Quotations from other plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Evans.

5 See Briggs, Encyclopedia, 296-98.

6 See Nashe, The Works of Thomas Nashe,ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, 5 vols. (1904-10; reprint, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), 1:339-86. References to volume and page are cited parenthetically.

7 See ibid., 1:227-39.

8 All references to Brooke's poem are documented par-enthetically in my text and refer to Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), 1:284-363.

9 For critical commentary on Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, see H. H. Furness, ed., Romeo and Juliet, Variorum Shakespeare (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1899), 61-67; Brian Gibbons, ed., Romeo and Juliet, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), 67: 1.4.53-54n; Evans, 21-22, 1.4.53-54n. 199 and note on 1.4.53; Joseph A. Porter, Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 104-5, 121, 124, 156, 245, n. 5 and passim. For arguments discussing Nashe's influence on Shakespeare, see Evans, 3-6; Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), 9, 93, 67, 75.

10See McGinn, Thomas Nashe (Boston: Twayne Pub-lishers, 1981), 63.

11 It seems likely that Nashe's dream lore would draw on some popular traditions; he himself dismisses other authors on dreams, such as Artemidorus, Synesius, and Cardan, whom he has not had "the plodding patience to reade" (1:361). Reginald Scot, whose Discoverie of Witchcraft Nashe admits he has read (1:351), is cited by McKerrow for mentioning the proverb in England that dreams prove contrary. See McKerrow, 4:204. 32n. But even if we could identify all the popular traditions behind Nashe's lore, not just this particular one, we can not underestimate Nashe's collection of all these theories and his combination of them with the subject of diminutive spirits, dreams, and melancholy, as well as the sportive tone that characterizes Shakespeare's Mercutio.

12Briggs, Puck, 23. But Briggs does suggest that Nashe's playful granting of a spirit to all things, including mustard, may provide a hint for Shakespeare's naming of "Mustardseed" (23).

13 See Hibbard, Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 12, 115, 117, and 118.

14 Regarding the inspiration of Nashe for Shakespeare's characterization of Mercutio, see my essay "Nashe as 'Monarch of Witt' and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, " Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37 (1995): 314-43.

15 Evans cites verbal borrowings from Nashe (4, 169,173, 203).

16 Hibbard, Nashe, 114-15.

17 Cf. Nashe's Pierce Pennilesse regarding the power of prayer as the only sure way to prevail against evil spirits (1:238-39).

18 For gentlemanly behavior in the honorable duello, see my essays "Shakespeare's Duello Rhetoric and Ethic: Saviolo Versus Segar," ELN 31 (1993): 10-22, and "'Draw, if you be men': Saviolo's Significance for Romeo and Juliet, " Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 163-89.

19 For the servant's hasty departure in the sources, see Brooke: "(Alas) too soone, with heavy newes he hyed away in post" (1, 2532); see Painter: Pietro "incontinently tooke poste horse." For Painter, see William Painter, trans., The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs (1890; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1966), 115.

20 In Brooke (1, 2529) and in Painter (114), it is Romeo who originates the idea to have this man (Peter/Pietro) be a spy for him in Verona and to do his father, Lord Montague, service.

21 See Evans, 4.2.23n, p. 203. Shakespeare contracts time (that is, he moves up the wedding date) and adds details to heighten tragic timing, eliciting more sympathy from well-intentioned characters caught in time's juggernaut. Friar Lawrence, for example, takes precious time to write again to Romeo to communicate "these accidents" (5.2.26-30), given Friar John's mishap, even though Juliet will awaken "within these three hours" (5.2.25). The Friar arrives before she awakens, but a "full half an hour" (5.3.130) after Romeo has entered the vault.

22 See Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London: John Norton, 1597), 1188. Cf. Shakespeare's other references to the fatal yew: Tit 2.3.207; R2 3.2.117; TN 2.4.55; and Mac 4.1.27.

23 For Renaissance critical theory, see William Rossky, "Imagination in the English Renaissance: Psychology and Poetic," Studies in the Renaissance 5 (1958): 49-73, esp. 58-59. Cf. also, Sir Philip Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, ed. J. H. Van Dorsten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 24, 32, 36; John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1962), 5. 100-21.

24 Hardison, "Shakespearean Tragedy: The Mind in Search of the World," The Upstart Crow 6 (1986): 80.

25 Ibid.,79.

Dreams And Violence: Macbeth

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17910

Simon O. Lesser (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Macbeth: Drama and Dream," in Literary Criticism and Psychology, edited by Joseph P. Strelka, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, pp. 150-73.

[In the following essay, Lesser argues that Macbeth is to a great degree written in "the language of the unconscious, " and interprets the play as a dramatization of "its protagonist's dreams, fantasies, and thoughts. "]

With the exception of Hamlet, and perhaps King Lear, more may have been written about Macbeth than any other play, yet some of the most significant aspects of the drama have gone unremarked—or noted too casually to provoke curiosity and analysis. Consider the many loose ends and apparent inconsistencies in the play, for example. Lady Macbeth speaks of having "given suck," but Macbeth has no son and no further reference is made to his wife's child, or children. Although Macbeth sees apparitions even before the murder of Duncan and, in general, seems unsure of his course and plagued by guilt, it is his strong-willed wife who breaks down first; though it is he who feels that "all great Neptune's ocean" cannot wash Duncan's blood from his hand and balks at returning the daggers, it is his wife who returns them and belittles the deed. It is she who futilely tries, while walking in her sleep, to rid her hands of the smell of blood. Or consider all that is made of the fact that Banquo has a son who may become king and father to a line of kings. For a time Macbeth regards Banquo and Fleance as the obstacles to the content he expected to feel as king and he steeps himself more deeply in blood to have them killed. Though Fleance escapes and the prospect that Banquo's descendants will rule is visualized during Macbeth's second visit to the weird sisters, nothing further is made of this plot thread. It is Duncan's older son, Malcolm, who is to be crowned king as the tragedy ends.

Even among the critics who show some awareness of Macbeth's defects, few conclude that the play is badly flawed. This is a more remarkable tribute to the play than it may seem, for, as I shall try to show, some of its strengths have also gone unremarked. Shakespeare does such a superb job of storytelling in Macbeth that we read it in an almost trancelike state and refuse to be distracted by this or that apparent flaw. To be sure, this is true to some extent of all of Shakespeare's plays and for that matter all competently written imaginative literature. Fiction is usually read with a willing suspension of disbelief, or to put Coleridge's insight into the language of our century, with a suspension of the vigilance normally exercised by the ego. But it is inadequate to regard Shakespeare's achievement in Macbeth as merely quantitative. Here as in some other cases a quantitative difference becomes qualitative—and of decisive importance. In most instances the extent and number of the departures from realism which occur in Macbeth would cause a reader to withdraw the trust he has provisionally granted the drama and to begin to read it detachedly and critically. Shakespeare does not permit this to happen. He induces a regression so deep that we read Macbeth as though it were an account of a dream.

More accurately, it is an account of a series of dreams, fantasies, and thoughts—a chain of mental speculations, mostly of the "What if. . . ?" kind. "What will happen if my valor comes to the attention of Duncan?" "What if he rewards me by making me one of the most powerful men in the land?" "What if he were to die and by some series of events I become king?"

It is remarkable that Macbeth can provide this sense of being privy to its hero's most secret thoughts and dreams, for drama is the most objective of all genres and may seem to have no devices save soliloquies and asides, which are somewhat awkward for taking a reader inside the mind, where thoughts and dreams are born. Shakespeare not only surmounts this difficulty with ease; he simultaneously accomplishes something which some might say is impossible in a drama; he tells his story largely from what today would be called the point of view of one of its characters. Macbeth's dreams are the basic subject of the play, and we see those dreams taking shape not only when he is on stage but often even when he is not. In scenes in which Macbeth plays a part, other characters—to say nothing of witches and apparitions—often talk and act as if they were enactments of Macbeth's dream-and-thought-fabric. More amazingly, when Macbeth is not physically present, other characters sometimes behave as if they were acting out his dreams. Macbeth may seem to be written in the same fashion as the other tragedies, but a close look reveals that it is not. Whole scenes, or crucial parts of scenes, are dramatized, not objectively (as they are, for example, in Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello) but as Macbeth would imagine them. Present or absent, he dominates almost the entire action. Macbeth is developed by what might be called, anachronistically, an objectified stream-of-consciousness technique.

Another important difference between Macbeth and Shakespeare's other plays, a formal one, is still less likely to be noted. To an astonishing extent Macbeth is written in the language of our dreams and daydreams, in what Freud calls the language of primary process thinking.1 This is appropriate, but I am not sure it was deliberate. It would be my guess that Shakespeare let things well up from the unconscious to an exceptional degree while writing Macbeth, and that—allowing for the cuts, interpolations and loose ends, discontinuities and other changes believed to have been made by others—this is the main factor responsible for blemishes.

Whatever the genetic explanation may be, extensive use of primary process thinking in Macbeth contributes to an achievement of the highest order. It gives the play an organic quality it might otherwise lack. It lulls us into a state of relaxation in which we not only brush off inconsistencies, many of which, we sense, are only apparent or unimportant, but also understand the play much better and more easily than we would if we were more alert. It is largely responsible for our reading the play subliminally as a tissue of Macbeth's dreams, fantasies, and thoughts as well as an objective drama—this without becoming aware of the many violations of objectivity. Finally, it is responsible for the fact that we feel no need to choose between these two ways of apprehending the play. The shift back and forth between them is unconscious and effortless because the two ways of viewing the material of the play reinforce and enrich one another. At points the objective confirmation of some dream or desire is synergistic in its effect.

The claim that almost every scene of Macbeth can be experienced as a dream and an event dramatized, not objectively but from the hero's point of view, can be illustrated by glancing at the first three scenes. These fall into a pattern of increasing complexity. Other scenes will also be discussed, but the consideration of the opening three should show how almost any scene of the play can be understood simultaneously as dream and as event.

Perhaps Macbeth's second encounter with the weird sisters (IV. iii) is the scene which can most obviously be read as a dream. Until the appearance of Lennox at the end, the only characters besides Macbeth are witches, who are easy to see as embodiments of Macbeth's thoughts, and apparitions, whose claim to existential reality is more tenuous still. The fact that Macbeth does not even have to voice his questions to the apparitions confirms the impression that he has evoked them into being, and other characteristics of the scene help to establish its dreamlike quality.

Only a little less obviously, the first scene of the play is also a dream of Macbeth's, or a fragment of a dream: the witches are planning a meeting with him. What they will propose—that is, the exact nature of the desires stirring in Macbeth—is undefined; but the fact that the proposals are projected onto witches shows that they are felt to be evil. The "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" motif applies, not to those desires, but to Macbeth's battles, which are not only lost and won, but have evil as well as good effects.

It is not easy for a modern reader also to perceive the scene as objective. However, most Jacobean spectators evidently did not have this difficulty. They found it relatively easy to accept the existence of witches, perceived as embodiments of the evil in the world. As a corollary to this, they apparently found it no more difficult than the Greeks to think that such spirits would be concerned with mankind and individual people. The three witches in Macbeth are clearly concerned with the play's hero: this one touch suggests that the play is not wholly objective but often developed from Macbeth's point of view. Modern readers too, I believe—if not at the beginning at any rate by the time they are under the spell of the play—provisionally accept the existence of the witches as incarnations and agents of evil. This does not interfere with their perception of them as externalizations of the evil gestating in Macbeth.

The second scene is more easily read as objective; indeed, readers are seldom aware of having understood it in any other way. Unconsciously, the scene is read as a classic wish-fulfilling dream. Evidently Macbeth's desire to have his valor praised by everyone, and recognized and rewarded by the King, involves no conflict or self-reproach. In his dream, his exceptional bravery is not only brought to the attention of the King but singled out for special praise by the Captain. Duncan asks a question which couples his generals, but his only other interruption of the Captain's account is to praise Macbeth. And the scene ends happily, as a wishful dream should, with Duncan dispatching Ross to inform Macbeth that he has been named thane of Cawdor—and praising him once again.

The very factors which make the scene so satisfying to read as a dream tilt the scene so far in Macbeth's favor that, if we were not already in a quasi-trance-like state, we would be dissatisfied with it. Evidently Banquo is also an able and courageous general. If we were more alert, the desire for both justice and formal symmetry would make us feel that he should be accorded more praise and that there should be some indication that he too will be rewarded. (So far as we are informed, he never is.)

Scene iii reads equally well as dream or as objective but actually Macbeth-dominated dramatization. The most obvious basis for apprehending the scene as a dream is the reappearance of the witches. This together with Macbeth's immediate reference to "foul and fair" may make us think of the scene as a continuation of the dream begun in scene i. Subliminally, we may also be struck by the close correspondence between the material in this scene and what Macbeth would be thinking at this very time.

We know that he is walking to see his sovereign and if, as I believe, we are by now inside his mind, we know that one of the things he is thinking about is how he will be rewarded for his valor and his victories. We even know what Macbeth has dreamed but perhaps momentarily forgotten, that one of his rewards has been decided upon. And we have no doubt that it is Macbeth's dream which is unfolding. The first part of the scene tells us that it is Mecbeth the witches are awaiting. When he and Banquo appear, Banquo addresses them at length, but it is Macbeth they respond to. Not only the substance of what they say but the incantatory way they express themselves show that it is Macbeth they are thinking of—or projections of his thoughts.

Even Banquo may be part of Macbeth's dream fabric. If Macbeth were walking alone to see his sovereign and speculating about how he is to be rewarded, it would be natural for him to think of his fellow general. Banquo is a rival claimant for the recognition and honors for which Macbeth longs. Moreover, Macbeth fears Banquo. One of his fears is alluded to in the scene: Banquo has a son who may someday rule Scotland; Macbeth has no son. The second fear is not mentioned until III.i, an example of the extent to which the play follows primary process logic. (In other instances explanation also follows thought or act—or is not given at all.)

Much of I.iii revolves around two prophecies the witches make to Macbeth: they call him thane of Cawdor (this may be no more than an announcement), and promise him he will be king "hereafter." We may assume that both statements express wishes of Macbeth. No explanation of either wish is offered, and I will postpone discussion of speculations about the motives afforded by the play. What should be noted without delay is that the scene can also be read as a dramatization of actual events; though here, perhaps to a greater extent than in scene ii, the occurrences are presented as Macbeth would imagine them. This is obviously true up to line 50. Banquo, beginning with his second speech, acquires substantiality. He alerts us to Macbeth's reactions to what the witches tell him, as he does later to Macbeth's reactions to what he learns from Ross and Angus. Banquo also induces the witches to notice him and prophecy to him. The prediction is interesting to Macbeth and Banquo, who does not hesitate to warn Macbeth of the dangers latent in the prophecy that Macbeth will become king. Each general confirms the prediction made to the other, as though neither can quite believe what he has heard.

With the entrance of Ross and Angus the scene acquires additional substantiality. Here also, however, developments are dramatized from Macbeth's point of view and/or the focus is on him. The news the emissaries bring (I.iii.89-107) is all too obviously presented as Macbeth would imagine it. Although Banquo is present he is given neither praise nor a share in the King's bounty; indeed, he is utterly ignored. A critically alert reader would realize that this part of the scene would be embarrassing to all four participants. But being so completely under the spell of the play, the reader does not engage in reality testing. Shakespeare further protects the material by displacing our attention from the news Ross and Angus bring to its connection with the prophecies of the witches.

This scene illustrates Shakespeare's ability to induce the reader to slip back and forth between the two ways of apprehending the play. The first fifty lines of the scene are probably understood as being predominantly a part of Macbeth's dream-thought-fabric and, as mentioned, the Second Witch's speech, "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to Thee, Thane of Cawdor!"2 is apprehended as an expression of his wish. In contrast, the King's emissaries seem to be real visitors from a real world. Ross's news that Duncan has actually named Macbeth Thane of Cawdor is such a startling coincidence that even Banquo is profoundly affected by it. To Macbeth the news is like a sign from fate. It seems to validate—and legitimatize—his most secret dreams, the whole pattern of desire of which becoming Thane of Cawdor is a part. It casts shadows beyond itself, appearing to sanction even the wish to become king. Macbeth's first words after Angus explains the fate of the previous thane tells us it has had this magical significance for him: "Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is [to follow]."

The coincidence may make a modern reader think of a similar incident in a great nineteenth-century work of fiction—the apparently chance discovery by Raskolnikov that at precisely seven o'clock the next evening Lisaveta will be absent from her sister's apartment—a discovery that makes him feel he must go through with a murder which up to that point has seemed dreamlike and unreal. Shakespeare uses another conjunction of this sort in the very next scene of Macbeth. Duncan's decision to visit Inverness is interpreted by both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a sign that they should proceed with the terrible act they are contemplating. However, whereas it is a clear "go" signal to Lady Macbeth, it simultaneously imposes another constraint on her husband—and reminds him of all the other arguments telling him to abstain from the unjustified murder. But this attempt to strengthen his defenses is ineffectual. What he wants appears within easy reach and his scruples are overcome, or lost sight of, in a matter of minutes.

Shakespeare's double vision of almost every scene of Macbeth may have been inadvertent. Since he had two potential male heroes, he probably felt a need to emphasize Macbeth so that Banquo would simply be a foil to him, not a rival claimant for our interest. The emphasis was also necessary to induce audience identification with Macbeth.

The half-"real," half-dreamlike world Shakespeare conjures up in Macbeth is so enthralling that we feel no disposition to choose between alternatives, to decide on a single attitude toward the play, which would break its spell. It is helpful of course that Macbeth dominates both ways of perceiving the story, so that the gap between them is not great. Each kind of reality, or unreality, that of dreams, that of the actual, comes to suffuse the other. Thus we are not even taken aback when, in IV.i, Macbeth asks Lennox, "Saw you the weird sisters?" But we could wonder how Lennox even knows what Macbeth is talking about.

The deep suspension of disbelief with which we read helps to explain our refusal to pay much attention to other slips, gaps, inconsistencies, and the presentation of material in apparently illogical sequence. We do not question the primary process language and we tend to be uncritical even in thinking about the play after reading or viewing it. To accept I.iii as realistic would involve provisional belief either in witches or in the rare psychological occurrence of folie à deux. Few readers, or critics, seem troubled by such considerations.

The only casualties of our uncritical reading of the play are parts of it which do not admit of double vision and whose single strand of reference takes us away from Macbeth for what seems a considerable time. Parts of scenes which seem wholly objective—for example, II. iii up to the appearance of Macbeth—do not suffer, for they are swiftly traversed. Nor do objective, highly dramatic scenes which introduce appealing characters; the scene at Macduff s castle (IV.ii) will serve as an example. It is only when a scene is objective and takes us away from Macbeth for an extended period that our interest tends to flag. The scene in which Malcolm tests Macduff s loyalty (IV.iii) is perhaps the only good example. We may explain our dissatisfaction on some other basis, such as lack of realism, but its chief source, I believe, is our impatience to return to Macbeth.

Since Macbeth appears to have been written in a state of regression, it is not surprising that there are delayed explanations and numerous omissions. In particular, little attention is paid to motivation, even in Macbeth's case, despite the fact that we are often inside his mind. We are never told, for example, why Macbeth dreams of being named thane of Cawdor. Nor are we told why Macbeth wanted to be king. Some of the immediate determinants of the desire are fairly easy to surmise. From dreaming of being rewarded by the King to dreaming of becoming king is but a short and pleasant step. The skill and courage Macbeth displayed in the battles, which in a sense begin the tragedy, influence him in a more direct way. They may make him think of himself, probably with warrant, as preeminent on the fields of battle. Why not then preeminent during peacetime also? Almost certainly, Macbeth's victories bolster his sense of his own worth, make him feel that his countrymen in general will now esteem him more. This in turn makes the idea of higher station seem a realistic possibility. In a sense the criminal dreams which undo Macbeth are born of success. But as we shall see, that is not their ultimate source.

It is important to note that this first intimation that Macbeth will become king arouses fear rather than satisfaction. There could be no better evidence that the idea of murdering Duncan is already gestating in his mind. A little later he does face the need for this murder—only to be overcome by such fears that he falls into a trance in which he becomes oblivious to the presence of Banquo, Ross, and Angus. He shies away from the idea of killing Duncan with the wish that chance will crown him, but it seems that neither the reader nor Macbeth has any faith in this solution. Before his crime is named, Macbeth begins to suffer from guilt. The Crown is not golden even in anticipation, but mottled and tarnished.

The most strenuous objection to the way of reading Macbeth being developed here will come, I suspect, from those who believe that Lady Macbeth is a stronger character than her husband and maintain that she dominates him and the action of the early part of the play. Of course, she is not a stronger character or she would not collapse completely before her husband—and for that matter the play would not be called Macbeth. The failure to understand the nature of the interaction between Macbeth and his wife must stem in part from failure to read the work with sufficient care or to recall all we sensed as we read, in part from ignorance of ourselves and human nature generally—or temporary lack of access to what we know.

If we read the play carefully and have some experience of life and knowledge of ourself, it seems to me we can hardly fail to perceive that, far from Lady Macbeth dominating her husband, Macbeth skillfully enlists and uses his wife's help. In I.iv Macbeth encounters an apparently new obstacle to his desire with far less fear and ambivalence than he showed in the preceding scene. At the same time, before we so much as meet Lady Macbeth, he diagnoses the weakness in himself which may make it impossible for him to attain his desire:

The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires: The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.


What Macbeth is hoping for is some way of outwitting conscience—or to use the language of twentieth-century depth psychology, the superego. His attempt to secure his wife's help is the most ingenious of the devices he employs, and her goading and participation reduce his guilt to the point where he can go through with the murder. Still, he is just barely able to do so; and after the first murder his efforts to circumvent or mollify his conscience are still less successful. To be sure, his superego does not stop him from murdering Duncan or others, but it does prevent him from deriving any satisfaction from the murders. Even this formulation is inadequate: as we have seen, Macbeth is tormented by guilt and anxiety before the murder of Duncan—even before the crime has assumed definite shape in his mind. At the time he plans the murder of Banquo and Fleance, he deliberately tries to harden himself in order to be impervious to the stings of conscience. Although he does in fact become harder and his sensibility dulls, this stratagem is no more successful than the others. He is guilt-ridden when he reluctantly enters the combat with Macduff which ends with his death. He goes to his grave without having achieved any satisfaction or even respite from self-reproach from his career of crime. Each murder augments his guilt, increases his self-condemnation, deepens his depression, and intensifies his fear of, and even desire for, punishment.

The fact that Macbeth has a severe superego must be stressed in order to correctly understand the play. Macduff and his other enemies talk of him as a devil, but they do not know him from the inside, as we do. Shakespeare does not want us to accept their judgment without important qualifications. I have no wish to extenuate, much less excuse, Macbeth's crimes, but he is a murderer of the Brutus or Raskolnikov kind, not the Richard III kind. The killing of the grooms perhaps excepted, he is never able to murder cold-bloodedly. He is never able to deceive himself by justifying his crimes.

Despite his inability to distort reality, it seems that his ego is crippled in some respects. It behaves like the ego of a person suffering from an obsession or compulsion. Otto Fenichel writes: "In all psychoneuroses the control of the ego has become relatively insufficient. . . . In compulsions and obsessions, the fact that the ego governs motility is not changed, but the ego does not feel free in using this governing power. It has to use it according to a strange command of a more powerful agency, contradicting its judgment. It is compelled to do or think, or to omit certain things; otherwise it feels menaced by terrible threats."3 The hypothesis that Macbeth's ego is impaired in some such way as this helps to explain the anomaly of a man with a conscience like his being able to murder. The hypothesis also explains the feeling the play gives that the agonizing inner struggle Macbeth undergoes is between id and superego, with practically no mediation by the ego. As a result of its weakness, he is victimized by both of the opposed and never reconciled parts of his psyche: he yields to his impulses but is lashed before, during, and after each surrender.

Macbeth realizes that he must do everything he can to deceive his conscience, and, immediately after expressing the vain wish to be blind to his own acts, he writes to his wife. Although sequence is not always a reliable guide in Macbeth, it does occasionally help in establishing causal connections. One does not have to examine Macbeth's letter searchingly to see that one of its aims is to induce his wife to persuade him to murder Duncan. If she persuades him, Macbeth believes he can claim that the idea comes from outside and he can deny his own responsibility. The ending of the letter is seductive in tone. It tries to recruit his wife not simply as a helper but as an accomplice in crime, and twice offers her an incentive for giving him her support. "This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell" (I.v.11-15).

Macbeth wants to create the illusion that external forces are impelling him onward. The attempt to secure his wife's involvement is of a piece not only with his later use of hirelings to commit his crimes; it squares also with his tendency to externalize temptations, wishes, and fears in the forms of witches and apparitions.

The mechanism Macbeth hopes to take advantage of in enlisting the help of his wife must be older than marriage—as old as continuing close relationships of any kind between two people: a person communicates something to a confidant in order to provoke an anticipated and desired response.4 Often a person wants encouragement to do something which he wants to do but which arouses so much conflict that it cannot be done without outside support—or support which appears to come from outside. Alternatively, help may be desired in resisting a course of action which is tempting, but which is perceived to be wrong and/or likely to lead to trouble.

Macbeth's situation and procedure fall into a common pattern. His desire to be king is so overpowering that he is almost willing to kill Duncan to attain his goal, though he recognizes he has no justification for such an act. He acquaints his masculine, aggressive, not overlyscrupulous wife with his dilemma on the assumption that she knows him well enough to identify his dominant wish and to give him just the kind of encouragement and active assistance he needs to gain it. (He is right about this, though it seems to me that Lady Macbeth never recognizes the basis of her husband's hesitancy as clearly as his speeches permit us to recognize it.) Whether his reasoning is conscious or, as is more likely, unconscious, Macbeth must feel that the letter is an important step in doing what he senses to be necessary—overcoming the inner resistances which keep him from killing Duncan. Meanwhile, the very act of sharing his tempting but frightening dream with his wife may somewhat reduce his guilt feelings.

Once aroused Lady Macbeth does such a vigorous job of persuasion we may forget that it was her husband who enlisted her support. The intensity of her desire that he become king may be a surprise to him and to Lady Macbeth herself. In the great invocation in I.v, which begins, "Come, you spirits / that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here . . . " she appears to be summoning strength from reserves never before tapped. There can be no questioning .of Lady Macbeth's wifely devotion. She mobilizes all her strength to play the role she feels she must play to bring happiness to her husband and herself.

It is necessary to ask why Macbeth should want to kill Duncan, whom he cannot find fault with as man or king and who has been particularly gracious and generous toward him. Neither Macbeth nor, interestingly, Lady Macbeth ever makes an attempt to extenuate, much less justify, the murder. But if we did not feel that there was an adequate explanation for what Macbeth does, we would not have a high opinion of the tragedy.

Perhaps Macbeth is actuated by unconscious hostility. Some psychoanalytic interpretations of the drama have been based on this hypothesis: Macbeth is seen as a bad son acting out some unextirpated hatred for the father upon a surrogate. But apart from the fact that Macbeth at no point seems to be a son figure, unless the murder of Duncan itself admits of no alternative explanation, there is no trace of such hatred, either before or after the crime. When at the end of the superb after-the-murder scene with Lady Macbeth, he exclaims to the unknown person knocking at the gate, "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" we have no doubt that he means it. There is more reason to suspect his public comment on Duncan's death in the next scene (II.iii.93-98), since he is here trying to make himself one with the others lamenting the murder, but I believe that, ironically, the occasion provides a welcome opportunity to say something he deeply feels; and his prognosis of his own situation is uncannily accurate.

What circumstances, what motive or motives, could drive a man like this to kill when there is no excuse for killing? As we have seen, it was success which crystallized and gave urgency to the desire to be king; and rewards stemming from success, such as being named thane of Cawdor and being visited by Duncan, seemed like signs from fate that he should act to attain his desire. But Lady Macbeth's reaction to her husband's letter—her lack of surprise as much as what she says—indicates that unrest and amorphous ambition antedate the action of the play.

Those feelings were born of failure, not success. Macbeth went through with an act for which he knew himself unqualified and killed a man he loved because he was an unhappy, discontented, even desperate man, who found life sterile and empty. And because he was desperate, he nurtured the absurd, groundless hope that being king would somehow change everything. When the play begins, Macbeth is already a thane of Scotland and a renowned general; but he is also middle-aged, childless, friendless, and loveless. Moreover, though an intelligent man, he is without any interests which might make his life seem meaningful.

The claim that Macbeth is loveless seems to be contradicted by his closeness to his wife during the early part of the play, but it is possible, even likely, that their partnership in crime brought them closer together than they had been for a long time, or perhaps ever before. The crime offered the vaguely defined but alluring promise of curing their discontents, of making their lives more fulfilling. During the planning of the murder of Duncan, as G. Wilson Knight points out, they are "in evil with" one another, just as Antony and Cleopatra are in love with one another. Even during this period of closeness, however, though Lady Macbeth is loyal and devoted to her husband and each of them is dependent to some extent on the other, there is no indication of passionate love, past or present, on either side. It is possible that Macbeth has had no children by his wife because he is impotent. His complaint about the "barren scepter" (III.i.62) the weird sisters have put in his grasp may include this second meaning. There are more definite indications that his marriage, like so many middle-aged marriages, has deteriorated into a kind of business partnership. Perhaps it had never been more than that.

If these speculations are correct, Macbeth is susceptible to the dream of becoming king because for a long time before the play opens he had been oppressed by a discontent so profound that he felt almost any change would be for the better. Perhaps Macbeth's willingness to court death was born of desperation, of a feeling that matters might as well be either better or worse. He fights Macduff with the same fury at the end of the play when he is not only desperate but hopeless. Interestingly, two of the murderers Macbeth enlists to kill Banquo and Fleance, the First Murderer in particular, express the very psychology I am describing as they accept their assignment:

And I another So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune, That I would set [risk] my life on any chance, To mend it or be rid on't.


Later there is firmer evidence that Macbeth was impelled to his first crime by discontent. He reminds his wife that the purpose of killing Duncan had been to gain their peace, but the statement, the most explicit the play offers, is embedded in a speech of such eloquence ("We have scorched the snake, not killed it . . .") that, bewitched by its beauty, we may not take in the plain sense of much that is said:

better be with the dead, Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, Than on the torture of the mind to lie In restless ecstasy [frenzy].

(III.ii. 19-22)

The placement of the revelatory phrase, "to gain our peace," may also keep it from attracting the attention it deserves.

Just before Macbeth's entrance, his wife had soliloquized: "Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire is got without content." This too suggests that the hope for something like peace, a feeling of satisfaction and well-being, gave birth to the desire of Macbeth and his lady to become king and queen.

The still more famous "She should have died hereafter" passage (V.v. 17-28) also may be evidence of this motive. The passage is usually viewed as a set piece, with no important relationship to the play as a whole, but I believe that the feelings of the emptiness, sterility, and meaninglessness of life it expresses are feelings Macbeth was trying to combat from the very beginning. To be sure, now that his wife is dead and the mistakenness of his course is becoming more apparent with each new development, the feelings are being reexperienced with greater poignancy.

Even with goading from his wife, Macbeth proceeds with the murder of Duncan only with great difficulty. With the hysteric's facility for converting thoughts and feelings into somatic or external terms, he conjures up a dagger, and a little later sees it covered with gouts of blood. Not only these hallucinations, but various things he says show that he is already tormented by guilt: yet his crime is still "but fantastical." In I.iii, once he began sensing what he would have to do to become king, he took refuge in wishful thinking:

If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir.

Although he now realizes that this is a vain hope, he has not otherwise made much progress. He is still hoping that the "sure and firm-set earth"—and by this I think he means the gods and destiny, not simply the human beings at Inverness—will remain ignorant of his deeds. Revelatory also is the phrase, "I go, and it is done." He glides over, is unwilling to visualize, the murder itself.

What he tells his wife in II.ii makes it clear that during or immediately after the murder—here as elsewhere time indications are uncertain—his guilt deepened further. Even more significant is the way his unconscious desire to be caught and punished discloses itself in the very execution of his crime: he has forgotten to smear the grooms with blood and to leave their daggers near them, and he has brought the daggers to his own chamber. Now he is so overwhelmed by guilt that he cannot return them and bloody the grooms. It is Lady Macbeth who undertakes these repugnant errands. His speeches when he hears the knocking confirm the intensity of his guilt: he is continuing his self-punishment and clearly plans to punish himself further.

Macbeth again receives desperately needed help from his wife after the murder of Banquo. But after killing Duncan, Macbeth never again asks for her help. It is important to observe what causes this turnabout. His own inner feeling is the primary factor. He had unjustifiably hoped that his wife's help would enable him not only to go through with a wanton murder, but to kill his King-benefactor-cousin-guest with little or no guilt. Instead he is flooded with guilt. His disappointment may make him realize that he has been unrealistic in his expectations and that his wife cannot give him the escape from self-reproach he had hoped for. After III.iv, he no longer gives her his full confidence, and the reader feels that some of his endearments are perfunctory. He thinks of her less and less thereafter. Once it is committed, the crime that was to bring them together and make their marriage more fulfilling isolates them further.

The banquet scene (III.iv), the last scene in which Macbeth speaks with his wife, or imagines himself doing so, may also be understood as a dream. Indeed, if we had not by this point abandoned reality testing we could scarcely accept it in any other way. It is hard to explain how the banquet guests could fail to note Macbeth's conversation with the First Murderer, harder still to explain how they could avoid overhearing the exchange between Macbeth and his wife, whose second speech to him (61-69) makes it plain that he is the murderer of Duncan.

We do not see Lady Macbeth again until the sleep-walking scene (V.i), and that is the last time we see her. In V.iii, the doctor gives Macbeth a report of her illness, and in the final speech of the play we learn that she may have killed herself. The sleepwalking scene does not seem to be part of Macbeth's dream fabric, but rather something which took place after he became so immersed in his anxieties that he seldom thought of his wife. It is possible, however, that, preoccupied as he was, he had become aware of his wife's disturbed and depressed state of mind and even of her sleep-walking. In that case Macbeth could have dreamt the sleepwalking scene to deal with the anxiety he felt about others learning of his wife's condition—and, what was more frightening still, learning of his crimes from what she said and did while in a somnambulistic state.

Although Macbeth has become separated from his wife, it seems to me that his responses to the news of her illness and the news of her death both show that he feels deep sympathy for her. His response to the account of the "thick-coming fancies / That keep her from her rest" is rich in feeling. It is obvious here (V.iii.39-54) and in the speech he makes when he learns of her death that some of the regret he expresses is for himself. He is in fact confusing his wife's situation and his own. Nothing could show more clearly that the tie with her is still not severed. To be sure, the second speech seems dry and impersonal, but its tone is a defense against feeling. Although Macbeth is controlled and detached, what he says expresses regret, and self-reproach, for such separation as has occurred between him and his wife, for the futility and meaninglessness of their crimes and their lives, and for her suffering and disappointment no less than for his own.

Certain parts of the group of scenes we have been considering—the Porter's soliloquy and exchange with Macduff and Lennox, and the exchange between Ross and the unnamed Old Man—do not seem to be products of Macbeth's mind. They lack resonance in consequence. Here and throughout the play the most intense scenes seem to be both parts of Macbeth's thought fabric and accounts of events. Their intensity derives in large part from the fact that they are apprehended in both ways.

Although Macbeth renounces the idea of using his wife a second time to deceive his superego, he tries to achieve the same end by different means. He never ceases to hope that, should he have to kill, he can find some way of doing so without being crushed by guilt.

In the final speech of the conversation with his wife which follows the planning of the murder of Banquo and Fleance, he invokes "seeling night" to "scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day." I think he is also expressing the wish that he may be blindfolded. Although the ambiguous "bond" he wants night to "cancel and tear to pieces" almost certainly refers to the prophecy that Banquo's sons will someday rule Scotland, it may also refer to his bond to his fellow general and to mankind.

Indirectly and obscurely Macbeth is expressing the old wish that he can be blind to his own acts and he reverts to it once more in III.iv. 140-41. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that he still has any real faith in this possibility. As we know, however, he has employed three murderers to get rid of Banquo and Fleance, and he appears to hope, in this way, to reduce or eliminate his own feeling of responsibility. He tries to prove his innocence to the Ghost of Banquo by claiming that he had not killed him. But the very fact that he conjures up the Ghost, whether in a hallucination or a dream, shows how ineffectual this new stratagem is in evading guilt.

In III.ii and again, more sharply, in III.iv, he expresses the wish that by deliberately hardening himself, by immersing himself more deeply in evil, he can make himself impervious to guilt:

My strange and self-abuse Is the initiate fear that wants hard use. We are yet but young in deed.

(III.iv. 143-45)

At the time Macbeth makes this speech he is evidently already contemplating the murder of Macduff. By this point he has coarsened a great deal, and he coarsens further before our eyes in IV.i as a result of the rage and fear he feels when he learns that Macduff has fled to England. He again employs murderers, this time to do away with Macduff s family. But the combined effects of these mechanisms for hoodwinking the superego or becoming indifferent to its reproaches is nil. Whatever his actions may suggest, he never achieves cold-bloodedness and indifference to conscience. We learn this from Macbeth's first comment to Macduff on the battlefield before Dunsinane:

Of all men else I have avoided thee. But get thee back! My soul is too much charged With blood of thine already.


Although against his will, Macbeth is a moral man to the very end of the tragedy, and this is his real problem: the source of his efforts to deceive conscience and keep himself in ignorance of his own deeds. Those efforts are foredoomed to failure. He is unable to keep any aspect of his behavior from awareness; he is compelled to perceive not merely his acts, but their wrongness and their consequences. From the time he subterraneously reaches the decision that murder is not too high a price to pay for being king (in the play seen as an action), his situation is probably hopeless. Certainly it is hopeless from the moment when, against the dictates of his own mind and heart, he goes through with the crime. He commits a murder for which he knows there is no excuse, and his punishment, whether "actual" or imagined, is Dantesque: he becomes a murderer.

His situation is irremediable and he knows it. The scorpions which have taken possession of his mind are an integral part of his punishment: he is plagued incessantly by self-reproach and the feeling that, to achieve a sense of security, he must murder again and again. The death he finally achieves is a release as much as a punishment. Two speeches in V.iii, 19-29 ("Seyton!—I am sick at heart . . .") and 39-45 ("Cure her ofthat . . ."), corroborate what the very tonelessness of the "She should have died hereafter" speech tells us more subtly: for some time he has been ready to welcome death.

Macbeth's feeling that he must do away with Banquo and Fleance may easily be perceived as another part of his dream fabric. His rivalry with Banquo and fear of him can be sensed in I.iii and is of course expressed explicitly in III.i. His fear of Banquo's descendants is unmistakable even in the earlier of these scenes and is heavily emphasized in lines 57-72 of the later scene. In dreams no less than in real life, even if he finally succeeded in killing Duncan and Banquo, he would continue to worry about the prophecy that Banquo's descendants would eventually rule Scotland.

Act IV, scene i, can be read like an account of an actual dream. Shakespeare had to be deeply inside the mind of Macbeth to write the scene; in addition to flowing like a dream and dealing with the worries which preoccupy Macbeth at this point, the scene expresses them in the logic and images Macbeth would fall into. If Macduff is not a friend, then he is an enemy. Thus the apparition of the Armed Head, which expresses his fear of Macduff.

We might suppose that at this point the dreamwork would attempt to provide reassurance against the warning. If so, the attempt is unsuccessful. It is ominous to begin with that Macbeth conjures up a Bloody Child. We know that as early as I.iii he feared the Crowned Child he is soon to see. The Bloody Child extends this fear to a still-to-be-born or just-born child; it must seem to Macbeth that he must fear all children, even those not yet conceived. At the same time the Bloody Child represents the retributive fears he has as a result of the murder of Banquo and the attempt to murder Fleance; and, equally, of the consequences of the "strange things" taking shape in his mind which crystallize at the end of the scene—the decision to kill Macduff s wife and children.

Nor do the words of the Bloody Child succeed in reassuring Macbeth. The way its promise is phrased—"none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth"—seems calculated to allow for loopholes. As we read, we notice this, if at all, only subliminally, but Macbeth's response shows clearly that his fear has not been quieted:

Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee? But yet I'll make assurance double sure, And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live; That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies, And sleep in spite of thunder.


The image of "a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand" condenses Macbeth's deepest and most terrifying fears. From the beginning the realization that some other man's child would succeed him has galled him, making him aware of his childlessness and perhaps his impotence, and it has intensified his guilt by making his crimes seem selfish and futile. The tree the Child has in its hand is a fertility symbol, contrasting with Macbeth's "barren scepter." Inevitably, the apparition calls to mind the promise the witches have made to Banquo. He asks the apparition about this just before it disappears; and it paves the way for the heartbreaking image of the eight kings and Banquo—the "family tree" which the weird sisters show him immediately afterward. In an only slightly hidden way the apparition also voices Macbeth's growing fear of "conspirers." At some level he realizes that he is creating the coalition of forces which will ultimately destroy him.

We may become consciously aware of the hedged nature of the promise that Macbeth shall not be vanquished until "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him." It is not until the play is analyzed that we are likely to realize how natural it is that Macbeth, a general used to sizing up terrain and developing strategies of attack and defense, should have thought of the trick which later occurs to Malcolm. The connection between the tree the child carries and fertility gives another implication to the moving wood, which later exposes the futility of Macbeth's hopes and leads to his death. Shakespeare wants us to feel that a sterile and death-oriented man like Macbeth cannot prevail for long against life-affirming forces.

Just as the news Ross and Angus brought after Macbeth's first encounter with the witches seems to confirm his hopes and justify the terrible act he is considering, so Lennox's news that. Macduff has fled to England confirms his fears and is seized as an excuse to proceed with murders more wanton and useless still. I have had to scant the artistry of Macbeth. The formal symmetry of I.iii and IV.i is another example of how pervasive it is. The artistry is all the more remarkable if, as I suspect, Macbeth was written while Shakespeare was in a distraught state.

To a greater extent than any other drama I know, Macbeth is "written" in the language of what Freud calls primary process thinking, the language of the unconscious. This would perhaps be more apparent if the play were less concerned than it is with Macbeth's anxieties and fears. Primary process thinking is usually under the sway of the pleasure principle; its common function is to provide the hallucinatory gratification of desires. But there are anxiety dreams and fantasies as well as wish-fulfilling ones. Even when Macbeth seems preoccupied with his anxieties, numerous characteristics of primary process thinking are clearly in evidence.

If Shakespeare were less of an artist, gross content elements would make us aware of the extent to which primary process thinking prevails in Macbeth. Readers not only accept, but quickly begin to take for granted the strange world the play conjures up. In this world the prophecies of supernatural creatures and apparitions often correctly foreshadow and even seem to bring about events. Prophecies hinge upon such things as a wood moving or a person being invulnerable to someone born of a Caesarian operation, but not to someone born in the ordinary way. Our credulity is explained in part by our intuitive ability to understand primary process language—in particular, to perceive the subjective meaning of something apparently objective.

Other things besides unrealistic story elements suggest the extent to which Macbeth is written in the language of the unconscious. Like our fantasies and dreams the play is a rebus in which cause often follows effect and explanation often follows act. Equally significant is the almost complete disregard of time. Psychoanalysis has taught us that the idea of time does not exist in the unconscious. Similarly, in Macbeth there are practically no clues to the passage of time, though this plays an important part in the Holinshed account upon which Shakespeare drew. Not only have we no idea of how long a period of time the play covers; we seldom have a sure idea of how much time elapses between any two scenes. Such references to time as appear are often vague or careless. In the banquet scene Macbeth refers to charnel houses and graves sending "Those that we bury back," but in fact when he speaks there would not have been time to bury Banquo.

Perhaps more significant still is the extent to which a tendency to picture everything manifests itself in Macbeth. Wishes, fears, means, and guilt feelings (the bloody dagger, the Ghost of Banquo) are externalized, often personified, shown, and/or voiced. Figures of speech abound, pour out in such profusion that more than one metaphor seems mixed, more than one speech incoherent. As Cleanth Brooks shows, however, the images and symbols which run through the play are (like many of our dreams) better organized than they appear to be.5 Moreover, the more we penetrate the surface of the play, the more unified and understandable they become.

As we have seen, Macbeth can be read as a tissue of its protagonist's dreams, fantasies, and thoughts. Even when viewed as a dramatization of events, those events are often shown as they would be imagined by Macbeth: to some extent nearly every scene reflects his wishes or fears. Thus there is really little difference between the two ways of apprehending the play, and we feel no disposition to choose between them. Moreover, the play is written to an exceptional extent in the language of our dreams and fantasies. Although Macbeth has rivals in our century, for example, Six Characters in Search of an Author, it may remain the most subjective play ever written. We read it in a state of relaxation, in much the way we read fairy stories in childhood. However it is apprehended, we accept it primarily, I believe, as a dramatization of psychic reality.

Still, Shakespeare brings off the miracle of persuading us provisionally to accept Macbeth as an account of "real" events. A priori, nothing seems more improbable than the idea that a man with such an unrelenting conscience as Macbeth's would embark on a career of crime. Yet Shakespeare makes a play based upon such apparently irreconcilable plot elements believable. However understood, Macbeth is among other things one of the world's greatest cautionary tales. Even a person of probity and strong conscience might dream of committing an unjustified murder to obtain something desperately desired. Moreover, even such a person might find it impossible to relinquish the dream. Against his will he might find himself returning to it night and day, embellishing it, visualizing ways and means, imagining this or that vicissitude and contingency until, to his horror, a whole series of crimes had been thought through from beginning to end. As Shakespeare has shown, however, what would be upper-most in the mind of such a person is not the crimes or their rewards but the punishment to be endured. Again and again the dreamer would in effect be telling himself, "Only evil and suffering would come of this." The result, if not the purpose, of the dream-thought-fabric would be to pare down the temptation and emphasize its consequences, so that the feared impulse could be controlled. In most cases only the dreamer would profit from this, but when the dream fabric is embodied in a work of art readers and spectators share in the benefits.

Considered as a dramatization of actual occurrences, Macbeth is probably a still more effective cautionary tale. When events seem less contingent and more real, tragedy has its maximum impact on us-though the events are experienced vicariously. The vicarious gratification of impulses, which plague us no less than Macbeth, would make them less urgent and hence more amenable to control, especially if the gratification was apparently real. The emphasis, or overemphasis, on punishment would remind us of the terrible price the gratification entails and hence provide a constraint against yielding to desire.

It is of the utmost importance that Macbeth's first crime, which is the one that fathers all the others, is the murder of his sovereign, who is important in his own right and is the symbol of order in the state. Moreover, it is a murder he knows to be unjustified. No crime could better symbolize what might be called the sacred crimes, the violations of the primeval taboos upon which civilization rests. Nor could any crime better illustrate the strength and tenacity of our anarchistic desires. Many of those desires and the tendency to put the satisfaction of the desires above everything else go back to childhood, but neither the desires nor this tendency is ever completely relinquished; they may still be troublesome when we are grown-up. In our minds and hearts we have all experienced the temptation to which Macbeth was subjected, or temptations analogous to it, and at one time or another we have yielded to them, in thought if not in deed. The fact that Macbeth has this reference to a wide range of our most primitive desires and conflicts helps to explain its unshakable hold on the imagination of mankind.


1 Primary process thinking is largely in the service of the id, secondary process thinking in the service of the ego. It is easiest to understand the first mode of thinking by comparing it with the second, the kind of thinking dominant most of the time in maturity. Secondary process thinking is "ordinary, conscious thinking." It is "primarily verbal" and it follows "the usual laws of syntax and logic."

In contrast, primary process thinking "is characteristic of those years of childhood when the ego is still immature." This helps to explain its characteristics. Since it is initially the mode of thought of the preverbal child, it makes relatively little use of verbal representation, often substituting "visual or other sense impressions" for words. It shows no concern with time and makes no use of "negatives, conditionals and other qualifying conjunctions." It permits opposites to replace one another and mutually contradictory ideas to "coexist peacefully." It makes frequent use of "representation by allusion or analogy . . . " and may employ "a part of an object, memory or idea . . . to stand for the whole, or vice versa. . . . " In addition to dominating our dreams and fantasies, primary process thinking plays a considerable though subordinate role in the thinking of adult life-in jokes and slang, for example, and also in such a highly esteemed activity as the creation of poetry. I have here mainly relied upon and often paraphrased Charles Brenner, An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1955). The quotations are also from this valuable book, pp. 52-55.

2 This and all other quotations from Macbeth are from the Signet Classic edition, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: New Amerian Library, 1963).

3The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945), p. 268.

4 For a wonderful example of this mechanism in con-temporary fiction, see To the Lighthouse, "The Window," Ch. 7—the account of the way Mrs. Ramsey musters her energies to provide the sympathy and reassurance she senses her husband needs.

5 "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," in The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947).

Kay Stockholder (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Macbeth'. A Dream of Love," in American Imago, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 85-105.

[In the following essay, Stockholder discusses the dream-like mingling of sexuality and violence in Macbeth.]

Plato in the Republic reflected uneasily that even a good man might dream that he slept with his mother, and Freud tried to reassure the audience to his Introductory Lectures to Psycho-Analysis when he reminded them that there was someone in the real world actually doing the horrible things of which they merely dreamed.1 The combination of the involuntary nature of our dreams and their emotional power can remain a source of worry even though most of us exempt from moral judgment the expressions of desires in the willess realm of dreaming. However, any action that ensues from a state of mind that seems on the borderline between waking and dreaming, any engulfing or compulsive emotion, raises troublesome questions about whether desires as well as actions are subject to moral judgment.

In literature a similar kind of question appears in the gulf between an aesthetic and moral apprehension, between the impulse to savour the formal beauty in which any kind of experience is rendered, and the impulse to come to literature, as Sydney suggested was appropriate, for delightful teaching. That there might be some kind of gulf between these two aspects of literature is implied by Freud and developed by Norman Holland, who in the Dynamics of Literary Response2 argued that the moral aspect of literature, by sublimat-ing the core phantasy, allows us secretly to indulge, much as we do in dreaming, otherwise forbidden desire. The parallel dichotomies between dreaming and waking experience and between the aesthetic and moral aspects of art suggest that the dream level of art is not as easily integrated into the cognitive and rational aspects as Anton Ehrenzweig and other theorists suggest.3 Rather, it suggests that art contains an inherent internal conflict of a kind that Stephen Greenblatt saw in an historical context.4 It suggests that the moral aspect of art may be at odds with an amoral aesthetic apprehension in a way similar to traditional conflicts in religion between mystics and churchmen, or in love relations between romance and marriage. In all of these, the sense of oneself as a moral agent and some sense of a self-authenticating and unchosen immediacy, must live with each other, and may not be able to live without each other, but remain in uneasy tension. Life itself, in the gulf between dreaming and waking states, presents us with the most polarized version of this dichotomy, and even Plato, who by casting out the artists sought to preserve his republic from this kind of discord, recognized that he couldn't do away with dreams.

In art this tension between a moral and an appreciative mode appears in the polarity between the narrative content and the formal structuring of it. That is, the formal properties of art, those devices of structure and rhetoric that give a work a sense of internal coherence, a sense that the end is contained in and therefore flows inevitably from the beginning, generates an aesthetic stasis that counters the moral or ideological component that by definition assumes that things might have been otherwise. A work that makes this internal struggle particularly visible is Macbeth. It does so because it simultaneously maintains strongly moral concerns, and is also amongst the most dream-like of works.

Of Shakespeare's plays Macbeth is one of the most morally straightforward in that its condemnation of the evils of regicide and untoward ambition is unambivalent. But it is also one of the most puzzling, not only because of the preternatural events, but also because the dense poetry is generated by the protagonists as they themselves invoke the standards by which their actions are condemned. As a consequence the play's moral forces even as it is evoked, tends to be absorbed into the desire-laden atmosphere, producing a world so pervaded by compelling emotion that the protagonists seem to have little control over the forces that move them. This quality not only renders the action dreamlike, as others have noted.5 It coalesces with the formal ordering to challenge the moral ordering that it also incorporates. In dreams all detail of action, of the landscape with which the dreamer is surrounded, all that he encounters in his dream, expresses his emotional dynamic rather than the logic of ordinary causality. In Macbeth the language in which the protagonists anticipate their crime rises from and echoes in the language of other figures, both those that are dream-like and those that are naturalistic. As a consequence these figures, while to a greater or lesser degree maintaining a sense of independent identity, also function as aspects of the protagonists' inner landscape. They become images writ large, part of what one critic has called a "subtextual wave."6 They merge with other images, aswell as with the dense network of forebodings and foreshadowings, that resonate from one voice to another throughout the text. In this way the text adumbrates the dream-likeness of the protagonists' experience—Macbeth's encounter with the witches which leaves him feeling that "nothing is but what is not,"7 is hallucinations, and Lady Macbeth's sleep-walk-ing. The fluidity with which images of evil transform into action and characters, and actions and characters in turn generate images, creates patterns that highlight the sense of aesthetic inevitability. This strong sense of inevitability, that things could not be other than they are, becomes a metaphorical expression of the dream-like sense of external event being shaped by the protagonists' desires that have eluded their consciousness and will. The force of the desire from which events arise is at once so compelling to the protagonists and so inimical, not only to others' well-being, but any ordinary conception of their own, that it both arouses and negates a moral response.

In Macbeth the desire that moves the text is peculiarly intense because it is also that which defines the love between its protagonists, and the play is rendered more dream-like because the story of their love, which is not the overt subject of the play, structures the text. In dreams we do not expect the structuring principle, the force of desire and fear that generates the dream and is, as it were, its theme, to be visible, precisely because the dream is designed, as Freud tells us, to conceal that which it is designed to express. Similarly, Macbeth places in the centre of our vision a morally forceful story of untoward ambition, regicide, tyranny and the slaughter of children. But the text is structured by and its unique aura generated by the relation between Macbeth and his wife, who become like dream figures who encounter in the surrounding world representations of seemingly self-authenticating desires they do not experience directly. The combination of collusive intimacy and their violent action suggests people who are bound together by a perverse love, one that joins erotic passion to aggression and terror rather than to tenderness. The sexual overtones of the language surrounding the murder therefore express the lovers' erotically perverse passions. As in dreams, the accompanying fear and terror signify the distance between their desires and those that generate ordinary well being. That distance defines their love within an alternate reality, as dreams can seem to challenge the reality of our waking lives.

Since Macbeth is not a dream, but a play, and therefore must include what would be the latent content of dream within itself, one can more easily than in dreams reach into the shadows of the text and draw the figures into the centre of intellectual focus. As soon as one turns attention away from the play's moral and political issues, which obscure the love relation, it becomes clear that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the most intimate of Shakespeare's lovers. They intuit each other's deepest feelings, are known to each other, and have a common enterprise. They fully rely on each other, and, most importantly, in sharing the same figurai language they contribute equally to the range of images that characterizes the play. They collude both in murdering Duncan, and in generating the images of guilty eroticism that characterize the text. Their collusion in murdering Duncan is so fine-tuned that neither is more responsible than the other. As a consequence, the murder rises from their relationship rather than from the character of either of them, neither of whom alone is portrayed as capable of it. As a single person's deed expresses the character of the person, or as a single character is defined by his or her actions and language, so the action that arises from a relationship characterizes that relationship. The action of the play, the planning, execution and consequences of the murder become extended images expressive of the emotions the protagonists generate in each other. The overt subject matter, while carrying its own import, also functions as a metaphorical expression of the emotional dynamic which constitutes the protagonists' relationship. That relationship generates the dream-like aura even while, and because, it remains in our peripheral vision rather than at the center of our attention. Ehrenzweig makes a similar argument about painting when he says that the shapes perceived subliminally in the background detail lend meaningfulness to the foregrounded figures.8

The play's dream-like inevitability and the love between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth intersect in the figures of the witches who most clearly situate the play on the borders between dream and waking, between the realm of the ethical and that of compulsive. In so far as they are seen by Banquo as well as Macbeth, they are part of Macbeth's waking world, but their supernatural attributes blend them into a dream realm. Since we see before Macbeth does what later fuses to his dream-like state of mind, the witches become part of the textual metaphor that expresses Macbeth's unconscious desire. The desire which they represent, however, is not primarily for the crown with which they tempt him, not only, as J.I.M. Stewart argues, for the murderous vision that enraptures him.9 It is pre-cisely for the fusion of violence and femininity represented by the witches. The fear that accompanies Macbeth's desire is expressed in their ugliness, while the force of his unknown desire is expressed in the aura of supernatural force that defines them. The attributes and images that the witches share with Lady Macbeth and their role in instigating the murder that he and his wife will together perform, render them textual expressions of Macbeth's unconscious associations with his wife. As they are of indeterminate sex, bearded women, so Lady Macbeth acts with traditionally masculine initiative and calls upon them, as 'fateful ministers' to unsex her; as we encounter them planning to seduce Macbeth into his crime, so we encounter Lady Macbeth planning to steady his will; as they arise from a barren heath, so Lady Macbeth's barrenness, flowing in the text from her denial of feminine tenderness, renders fruitless Macbeth's crown and sceptre, and radiates to the country at large, changing it from "our mother" to "our grave." Therefore, it is as though Macbeth in encountering the witches on the heath encounters attributes that he unconsciously associates with his wife. A further link between the witches and Lady Macbeth is suggested by Dennis Biggins who argues that traditionally witches are associated with lust, perverse sexuality and female dominance.10 This sexual association appears in the text through the sequence of scenes in which the witches' plan to meet Macbeth is followed by the depiction of battle in which Macbeth appears as "Bellona's bridegroom." These images of frighteningly seductive women amidst the violence of battle form the atmosphere from which Lady Macbeth emerges when she appears reading Macbeth's letter. The letter comes out of a textual vacuum, but realistically can only have been written as Macbeth's first act toward fulfilling the dark desires stirred in him by the witches' prophecies. He seems to assume that his wife will continue what the witches began. By so speedily informing her of the events he both defines his project as jointly hers, and expresses his knowledge of her powers to advance it.

The trenchant brevity of his letter to Lady Macbeth suggests the intimacy that is more formally expressed in its close, "This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promis'd thee" (I. v. 9-12). She instantly intuits Macbeth's excited fear, and assumes, like Macbeth, that they will not rely on circumstances to fulfill the witches' prophecy. As Macbeth immediately envisioned Duncan's murder, rather than himself enthroned, so she will 'catch the nearest way.' The accord of her mind to his suggests that in writing to her he relied on her resolve to steady his. This dramatized mutuality is supported textually by the echo of his words in hers.

He said,

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires; The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

(I, iv, 51-54)

She says,

Come, thick Night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife seen not the wound it makes, Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry 'Hold, hold!'

(I, v, 51-54).

When the action in which she functions, as he anticipated, to help him "wrongly win" that which he would not "play false" to attain, arises from this rich texture of dream-like images, it is as though they share their dream as well as their waking lives.

Her response demonstrates that his estimate of her character is as accurate as is hers of his. Their mutual knowledge and, even more, their acknowledgments that they are known to the other, along with their joint enterprise, give their relation an intimacy and power that propells them into their fearsome phantasies. She assumes in his character precisely the vacillation he has already demonstrated, and she adds substance to Macbeth's "horrible imaginings" when she anticipates Duncan's fatal entrance under her battlements. She also draws the images of violence first encountered on the battlefield into familial and sexual realms when she says,

Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me.from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, Stop up th'access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th' effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murth'ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature's mischief!

(I. v. 41-51)

Lady Macbeth opposes her normal sexuality to violence in asking, as Jenifoy La Belle argues, to be rid of her femaleness.11 But a new and perverse sexuality reappears when she wants herself filled "from the crown to the toe with direst cruelty," for that image gives to violence the body's sensuality. Her reference to her woman's breasts merges the image of female sexuality into those of nurturing, but in fear of her own tender nature, as she is of Macbeth's being "too full of the milk o' human kindness," she perverts that image by envisioning 'murth'ring ministers' sucking her milk, now turned to gall. In concluding her anticipation of the murder with the image of the blanketed darkness that is like Macbeth's image, she adds a sexual resonance to her denial of familial and sensuous tenderness.

In the aura of that perverse sexuality she greets Macbeth, feeling 'the future is in the instant,' in the same way Macbeth felt that "nothing is but what is not." That instant contains for Lady Macbeth the generative power that she denied in the previous passage. The "night's great business" will give birth to 'sovereign sway and masterdom,' to power, rather than to a sucking infant. Macbeth enters into his wife's unspoken thought and defines their love within it when he responds, "My dearest love, / Duncan comes here tonight" (I. v. 59-60). The intense and intuitive mutual understanding that informs their terse exchange drains of impact Macbeth's vacillating demure, "We will speak further" (I. v. 72). The rhythm by which each excites the other to the point of action structures the scenes that lead to the murder. The first movement occurred in Macbeth's sending the letter, Lady Macbeth's response, and his collusive reaction to her. The second begins when Macbeth, momentarily free of the rush of desire, enters a Hamlet-like meditation on the 'bank and shoal of time' between life and death. He appreciates the unusual array of ordinary pleasures of life—domestic ease, honour, paternal affection from his king—and fears the consequences that he intuits will follow upon violating the obligations that he can so pleasurably fulfill. Opposed to both fear of reprisal and pleasure in doing that which forestalls it is only the sheer rush of incomprehensible desire. As though intuiting the nature of that desire, Macbeth imagines the retributive forces in the image of a child, a "naked new-born babe / Striding the blast." (I. vii.22-3). That image, taken textually, joins related images of babies and of barrenness to be discussed shortly. Taken as indicative of Macbeth's character, it suggests his intuition that his desire violates not only his obligations as Duncan's kinsman, subject and host, but also strikes at the core of the fertility embedded in love, sexuality, and family. His mind for the moment on ordinary pleasures and free of perverse desire, he is left only with "vaulting ambition" which without the spur of desire, "o'er leaps itself/And falls to the other side." Previously Macbeth came, as though called, after Lady Macbeth's soliloquy. Now she comes, as though called, to do in fact what both she and Macbeth anticipated she would. By chastising "with the valor of [her] tongue / All that impedes [him] from the golden round" (I. v. 28-9), she functions to bring his enraptured vision, initially so separate from his ordinary reality and daily life into "Time and the hour [that] runs through the roughest day" (I. iii. 152). In writing the letter he took the first step toward integrating his phantasy to his reality. She overcomes the impeding pity, associated by Macbeth with fertility in his image of the "new born babe," by equating it to cowardice and by equating the murder to his sense of manliness:12

What beast was't then, That made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place, Did then adhere, and yet you would make both: They have made themselves, and that their fitness now Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me— I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn As you have done to this.

(I. vii. 46-58)

In imagistically killing her infant, she exposes the intuition that underlay Macbeth's earlier image of the babe striding the blast. She assumes that their love which will be consummated in the murder represents some alternate reality, intrinsically opposed to fertility, family, and society, all represented in the image of children. In arguing that Macbeth's pledge to her is more binding than the pledge of a mother's love to a child, given the strong analogy generated throughout the play between the kingdom and a family, she makes an encompassing scale of creaturely accord that extends from sucking infants to social harmony, and opposes to it the love between herself and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth defines their love in enmity towards kind and country, tenderness and children. Her images, which resonate in the same ranges that his previously did, far from repelling him, bring him to the point where he can join the desire that was first expressed in the horrifying images of the witches to his own "act and valour" (I. vii. 40).

Narratively the murder is a consequence of the action preceding it, but textually it is a kind of vortex that collects and transforms all of the emotional forces that constitute the play. The text has defined Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's love in their plans to murder Duncan, and it renders their sexual consummation in the murder.

That the murder represents their sexual relationship appears in many ways. It appears in the rhythm by which they excite each other to the "sticking place," as well as in those images that associate the murder with their dark privacy when Macbeth asks that light not see his "black and deep desires." Lady Macbeth deepens the image when she imagines the knife wound made beneath "the blanket of the dark." These images collect into Duncan's unseen, and therefore doubly private, bedroom, and, as Berry argues, Macbeth adds phallic force to the sexual suggestiveness in saying that he will "bend up / Each corporal agent to this horrible.feat" (I. vii. 79-80).13 The hallucinatory dagger that points him towards Duncan indicates a state of mind mid-way between dreaming and waking when it fuses with the one he carries in his hand. In that fused state of consciousness Macbeth makes explicit the previously subtle associations between sexuality and violence when he says,

Now o'er the one half world Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse The curtain'd sleep: Witchcraft celebrates Pale Heccat's off rings; and wither'd Murther, Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf, Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design Moves like a ghost.

(II. i. 49-56)

Having identified himself with "wither'd Murther," celebrated by witchcraft, the "stealthy pace" with which he approaches Duncan's bed suddenly becomes that of Tarquin about to rape Lucrece. It is not only that the murder carries sexual force, as others have argued.14 The fused image of murder and of rape completes the sexuality between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that was implied when Macbeth on the battlefield was referred to as "Bellona's bridegroom." After calling Macbeth, as he emerges from the room, "My husband" (I. ii. 14), Lady Macbeth participates in the murder that consummates their love as well as their joint enterprise in entering the bedroom that Macbeth has just left. There she smears with Duncan's blood the swinish grooms, and returns to declare to Macbeth that "My hands are of your color" (II. ii. 61).

The knocking at the Porter's gate that breaks in upon the couple's intense privacy intensifies their intimacy and the Porter's speech adds to the sexual suggestiveness of the previous scene. Having associated himself with the murder by calling himself the porter of hellgate, the Porter enumerates the social forms of equivocating trickery and treachery. This comic version of the witches' "Fair is foul and foul is fair," echoed in myriad ways in the text, foreshadows the social chaos that will radiate from and express the hell of perverse sexuality within the castle. The Porter's jokes on the morally equivocal are associated later to the diabolic witches by Macbeth when he blames his impending defeat on "the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth" (V. v. 43-4). The Porter links that moral equivocation to sexuality when he says that in provoking desire but inhibiting performance, drink "may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him" (II. iii. 30-37). Earlier Lady Macbeth, when Macbeth's will wavered, asked, "Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress'd yourself?" (I. vii. 35-6). Like the Porter, she associates drunkenness with being unable to "be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire" (I. vii. 40-1). A few lines later she plans to ply Duncan's chamberlains with "wine and wassail." With little justice (especially since it later appears that she has also drugged their drink) but much imagistic force, she then talks of the "swinish sleep" of the "spongy officers." The image of the swinish and drunken chamberlains acquires sexual overtones when the Porter associates drunkeness with impotence. The cluster of images adds a sexual dimension to Lady Macbeth's contempt of what she sees as Macbeth's unmanly vacillation. The cluster associates the peaceful sleep that Macbeth foregoes with the drunken grooms who "mock[ing] their charge with snores" (II. ii. 6-7) are the object of Lady Macbeth's contempt. Therefore her eagerness to "chastise with the valor of [her] tongue / All that impedes [him] from the golden round" (I. v. 28-9) intimates her scorn for and impatience with swinish impotence. That impotence she so scorns is also associated with Duncan through the image of Duncan in the bedroom surrounded by the sleeping grooms, who later also are gilded with his golden blood. But the character of Duncan, who promised to plant [Macbeth] and labour to make him full of growing,' embodies the images of soft nurturing that she despises in Macbeth and represses in herself in order to excite him to manly action. Manliness in both its social and sexual aspects is realized in murder, while quiet sleep, nurture, and hierarchical harmony are associated with sexual and social impotence. The text therefore leaves no middle-ground between impotence and the "restless ecstasy" of erotic violence for ordinary, loving, sexuality. The porter scene, not only extends the theme of equivocation from the witches into the social fabric of the play's world;15 its portentous grotesquerie reaches into the deepest psychological recesses of the text in the way Freud described jokes revealing what earnestness conceals.

The violence within which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth consummate their sexuality generates both the story of their barren love and the images of children that pervade the text. The witches' barren heath and Macbeth's barren sceptre are born of, or express, the violent love they lead to, while the normal fruition of love, children and parenthood, become textual representatives of the protagonists' own outraged feelings that will constitute their nemesis.16 In the text the opposition between their barren love and a fertile world appears first in the contrast between the castle, guarded by the croaking raven, in which they consummate their love, and the images of birds in their "pendant bed and procreant cradle" observed by Duncan and Banquo as they approach it. Before the murder Macbeth saw "pity" as an avenging babe; after the murder an image of children represents the equivocating witches when a "bloody child" assures him that he cannot be killed by man "of woman born," and a crowned child tells him that he will live till Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. That tenderness as such has become his enemy appears when the first act that flows from his resolve to let the "first-lings of his heart . . . be / The firstlings of his hand" (IV. i. 146-7), is to kill Lady Macduff and her children, though their murder cannot succeed in assuaging the terrible fears that afflict his nights. In doing so Macbeth generates Macduff s outraged parenthood which coalesces with the images of avenging children and the more general images of Macbeth's loss of creature comforts—sleep, communal eating, communal membership. Instead of joining the festive table, Macbeth 'sups full of horrors' at the witches' cauldron; instead of having children, images of them represent inimical fates, and instead of experiencing the tenderness of parenthood, Macbeth is fated to be killed by one who represents those feelings he and his wife have denied. In all these ways Macbeth will confront in the plot as a whole, and in what he takes to be a real world, the extended images of their internal state that earlier characterized his rich imagination, while Lady Macbeth, whose role it was to affirm the primary reality of the external world, will confront its equivalent in the overtly nightmare realm she has now entered. They will change places in the course of the action, but the polarities will remain unchanged.

The erotic violence central to Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's relationship radiates in widening circles to the most public ranges of their lives. The images that express Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's isolation from ordinary pleasure echo in the words that describe the country over which they rule. Wanting relief from their nocturnal agonies, Macbeth determines that they "shall no longer eat in fear and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly" (III. ii. 17-19); and Lennox says that Macduff seeks help in England so that they may "Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights; / Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives" (III. vi. 33-5). The violent images that surrounded the sexualized murder also describe the body-politic when Lennox adds, "I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; / It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash / Is added to her wounds" (IV. iii. 39-41). When Ross responds, "Alas, poor country, / Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot / Be call'd our mother, but our grave" (IV. iii. 164-6), the commonwealth becomes an image of Lady Macbeth's violation of her maternity. The language spreads from the heart of their relationship to the periphery, the textual level metaphorically expressing the emotional dynamics of their violent eroticism.

Once the images of their eroticism have emerged from the blanketed darkness, neither can confront the image of themselves they see in the other, and the force that bound them begins to separate them. As his inner turmoil is transformed into images of his country's anguish, Macbeth gradually redefines himself in relation to Lady Macbeth. The collusive intimacy between them fades almost immediately after Duncan's murder, for Macbeth begins to espouse her definition of him as an unthinking man of action, and to redefine her in a more conventionally feminine role, while she becomes more tentative in relation to him. The altered relationship appears in Macbeth's secrecy about his plan to murder Banquo, and in Lady Macbeth's secrecy about her inner state. She says, echoing Macbeth's earlier lines,

Nought's had, all's spent, Where our desire is got without content. Tis safer to be that which we destroy Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

(III. ii. 4-7)

But she denies her anguish by dismissing his when Macbeth envies Duncan who sleeps well "after life's fitful fever" (III. ii. 24), and he revels in his secret plans to murder Banquo when he tells her to let her "remembrancer apply to Banquo." Each withdraws from the other as they now make their faces "vizards to [their] hearts" (III. ii. 30, 35) not, as previously, to secrete themselves from the outside world, but rather to remain hidden from each other. Macbeth indirectly approaches his plan, saying "O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! / Thou know'st that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives." When she responds, "But in them Nature's copy's not. eterne" (III. ii. 36-9), he secretly obtains her validation of his unspoken plan. She addresses him as "gentle, my lord," and he her as "love," but in calling her "dearest chuck" (III. ii. 28, 30, 46), and withholding knowledge from her, he denies the equality that was assumed when she asked, "What cannot you and I perform upon the unguarded Duncan?" (I. vii. 69-70). Macbeth thus reestablishes the conventional protectiveness of a man towards a woman.17

Having covertly gained her consent, Macbeth proves that he fulfills her standards of manliness by arranging Banquo's death alone. But the eroticized violence, the sexual version of the witches' fair-foulness and foul-fairness, remains in the language with which he anticipates Banquo's death:

Ere the bat hath flown His cloister'd flight: ere to black Heccat's summons The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums Hath rung Night's yawning peal, there shall be done A deed of dreadful note.

(III. ii. 40-4)

"Heccat's summons," "drowsy hums," and "night's yawning peal" suggest the dark ease of seductive sleep that overwhelms and cancels the moral horror that is the overt content. He continues to savour the images in which he couches the contemplated murder when he says, "Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to th' rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse, / Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse" (III. ii. 49-52). Enjoying Lady Macbeth's silent "marvel," Macbeth anticipates the murder with a kind of swoon into an auto-erotic violence that excludes her. The process of the lovers' separation, begun after the first murder, is completed after the second. The banquet at which no food is consumed not only represents the dissolution of social accord, but also the accord between Macbeth and his wife. Banquo's ghost, unlike the airborne dagger which Macbeth recognized as unreal, is a full hallucination. It is Macbeth's last revel in the aura of desire before the fearful delights of nightmare retreat, and Macbeth begins to see the world his dream has generated in harsh day light.

Macbeth's horror at Banquo's ghost expresses his attitude toward his own compelling desires. Since he cannot acknowledge the desires that have generated the image, he cannot look upon it. His consciousness approaches what the play of images has already inscribed in the text when he says,

Blood hath been shed ere now, i' th' olden time, Ere humane statute purg'd the gentle weal; Ay, and since too, murthers have been perform'd Too terrible for the ear. The times has been, That, when the brains were out, the man would die, And there an end. But now they rise again, With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns, And push us from our stools. This is more strange Than such a murther is.

(III. iv. 75-83)

Macbeth here approaches a recognition that the horror that fills his world does not arise from the act of regicide, but rather from his imagination of it. With this recognition the gestation begun beneath the blanket of the dark completes itself in a perverse birth. From his imagination, Macbeth is reborn in Lady Macbeth's image of manliness when he says, "Augures and understood relations" have "By maggot-pies, and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret'st man of blood" (III. iv. 122-5). This new Macbeth will, by enacting the "strange things [he] has in head before . . . they are scann'd (III. iv. 139-40), create his world in the image of his previous inner life, while Lady Macbeth succumbs to the "thick night" she had invoked and yields to the those "thick-coming" fancies that previously defined him. Banquo's image not only encapsulates Macbeth's past; it also foreshadows his future. Macbeth says of it, "Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; / Thou hast no speculation in those eyes / Which thou dost glare with" (III. iv. 94-6). Macbeth's sense of life's meaningfullness lay in the confused passion of his relationship to Lady Macbeth; therefore in having excluded her from his consciousness he also denied his own inwardness, and so finds himself "fallen into the seare, the yellow lea f (V. iii. 22). The underlying bond with her remains visible on the plot level when he prepares for his final battle outside the castle, while inside the castle she vainly washes her hands. His fear of meeting death and his concerns for her become a single issue when he simultaneously addresses the Doctor and Seyton. He intertwines directions for the battle with the language appropriate to his despair of curing the "thick-coming fancies" and the memory of a "rooted sorrow" that constitute both her disease and his past:

Come, put mine armor on. Give me my staff. Seyton, send out.—Doctor, the thanes fly from me.— Come, sir, dispatch.—If thou couldst, doctor, cast The water of my land, find her disease, And purge it to a sound and pristine health, I would applaud thee to the very echo, That should applaud again.—Pull't off, say.— What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug Would scour these English hence?

(V. iii. 48-56)

Apart from Lady Macbeth he is bereft of the rich if horrifying meaningfulness that was contained in their relationship. Having become the man of action she wanted him to be, and repudiated the imagination he shared with her, he can respond to her death with only ashen emptiness:

She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. To-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

(V. v. 17-28)

Since Macbeth is preoccupied both with reassuring himself that he is invulnerable to death in battle, he refuses to recognize the mortality that her death implies. As well, he dismisses the reminder of the nightmare realm he bequeathed to her when he says "She should have died hereafter." To avoid the impact of her death in the present, his, mind moves first to the future, and then to the past. But having emptied the present of significance, the future stretches ahead, "Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," partaking of the present emptiness and "petty pace." He can take no joy in the prospect of escaping death in the coming battle, or of everlasting life, when all recorded time is made up of the insignificant syllables of meaningless action. On the phrase "creeps in this petty pace" his mind swings from the future to the past, suggesting an association between the image of creeping at a petty pace and the earlier images of children. Like the future, the past also has been drained of meaningfullness, rendering illusory the desire that lit all those "yesterdays" from infancy, or from the play's beginning, to the present. Now they lead only to the "dusty death" he projects onto the future. Therefore he wants life's candle out, the light by which he can read the meaning of Lady Macbeth's death. Not wanting to read it, he sees life itself as a "walking shadow," an image that expresses his sense of himself as a bloodless husk, emptied of desire. The image of the moving shadow suggests one of the stage, but since the candle has been blown out, it is a darkened stage, a scene like Duncan's bedroom that Macbeth both wants and fears to see. Earlier the staged sounds of the clamour at the Porter's gate replaced the images of Duncan's gore, so now Macbeth in his mind's ear hears in the darkness the player who "struts and frets" upon the "bloody stage" his world has become. Rather than seeing an image of Duncan's bloody bedroom coloured by his own desires and revulsion, guilt and rage, he takes a further and final means to distance himself from that vision. He transforms the image of the stage to the less immediate one of a tale, but denies what the tale might reveal by attributing it to an enlarged and grotesque version of a child—an idiot—and so eradicates the meaning of his past, present, and future. But thereby hangs another tale of the process by which Macbeth, in fearing to confront the significance of Lady Macbeth's death, transforms his life into a tale "signifying nothing."18

The textual excitement fades after Lady Macbeth's death, allowing the moral level greater ascendancy as the play nears its close. Macduff, characterized by his grief and outrage for the loss of children, fittingly defeats the intrinsically barren Macbeth and ends a brutal tyranny that has rendered Scotland a barren wasteland. At the end of the play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth die separately. Macbeth's head is on a pole, and Lady Macbeth lies within the castle. The text, however, subtly links them when Malcolm in the play's closing speech evokes them as "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" (V. ix. 35).

Macbeth is not the first of Shakespeare's plays that yokes sexuality to violence. The vision of heterosexuality that is implicit in Macbeth and that is expressed in the world that emanates from these lovers, I believe develops from the violence, both passive and active, that more subtly led Othello and Desdemona to consummate their love in death. Their love for each other, in that it creates a world apart from ordinary obligations and reality, is like that between Romeo and Juliet, as well as like that between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but the idyllic romance of the earlier play was opposed to a violent external world which destroyed it. That same violence seeped into the love of Hamlet and Ophelia, Desdemona and Othello, to render them, in different modes, self-destructive. In the sequence that begins with Romeo and Juliet, one sees violence and aggression first as the frame that surrounds two idealized young lovers who are seen brought to their tragic end as a consequence of forces external to them. In Othello the violent forces are defined initially as external, with only faint echoes in the language of the characters, but they slowly invade and define the lovers. The process completes itself in Macbeth in which the violence explicitly characterizes the lovers, and, as fears and desires shape dreams, extends from them to define their world and to shape the text that contains them.


1The Republic of Plato, tr. Francis MacDonald Cornford (Oxford, 1941), p. 296. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr., James Strachey (New York, Penguin, 1974), p. 179.

2 Norman Holland, Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford, 1968), p. 314.

3 For some discussions of the relation between art and either dream or primary process thought see Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: Schocken, 1952), Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London, 1967), pp. 256-79, Arthur L. Marotti, 'Countertransference, the Communication Process and the Dimension of Psychoanalytic Criticism," Critical Inquiry 4 (1978) 471-89, and Alan Roland 'Imagery and the Self in Artistic Creativity and Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism,' The Psychoanalytic Review, 68 (Fall, 1981), pp. 409-20.

4 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 253-54.

5 See particularly Simon O. Lesser in 'Macbeth: Drama and Dream,' Literary Criticism and Psychology, ed., Joseph P. Strelka (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 150-73.

6 Ralph Berry in Shakespearean Structures (London: Macmillan, 1981) in a precise and careful way argues for a 'subtextual wave' (90) of associations and for what he calls 'chameleon words' (91) that weave sexual puns into other levels of the play. See also a related argument by Harry Berger, Jr., in 'Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth,' The Power of Form in the English Renaissance, ed., Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982) pp. 49-81, who says that the textual reading of the play undermines the impact of a stage performance by revealing the way in which the 'good' thanes are involved in the 'scapegoating' of women (74).

7 All quotations are taken from the Yale edition ed., Eugene M. Waith (London, Oxford Univ. Press, 1954).

8 Ehrenzweig pp. 32-46.

9 J. I. M. Stewart in Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longmans, Greene, 1949) observes that it was the 'crime and not the crown that compels Macbeth' (93).

10 Dennis Biggins in 'Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth,' Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1976), pp. 255-77, points out that traditionally witches were presumed to be lustful, sexually perverse and sexually dominant. See also Vesny Wagner, 'Macbeth: 'Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair,' American Imago, 25 (1968), pp. 242-57,.

11 Jenifoy La Belle in "A strange infirmity,' Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea," Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 381-86, argues from contemporary medical terminology, that Lady Macbeth invokes infernal powers literally to stop her menstruction, the sign of her sex as well as of her fertility, and later experiences the physiological and emotional consequences of her request having been granted (384). She relates that to the blood images which then substitute for the natural flow. Her argument that literal amenorrhea grounds Lady Macbeth's images, gives additional force to my argument that the murder functions as a sexual act.

12 For the relation of destructiveness to vulnerability see Joan M. Byles, 'Macbeth: Imagery of Destruction,' American Imago, 39 (1982), pp. 149-64, and Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 145.

13 Berry, p. 92.

14 See Richard Wheeler in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 145, Biggins also perceives the sexualized violence of the play in seeing the murder as a kind of rape and Berry says that the Tarquin image joined to the idea of murder creates a phallic murder that is at 'this play's heart of darkness' (92). See also Muriel Bradbrook, Aspects of Dramatic Form in the English and Irish Renaissance: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983) and Madelon Gohlke who in "I wooed thee with my sword'; Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds., Carolyn R. Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980): pp. 150-70, relates this play to Othello with the observation that in both murder is a loving act, and love a murdering one (156).

15 See Kenneth Muir, Introduction to the Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1951), (xxiii-xxix).

16 For other views on the significance of images of children see Ludwig Jekels in 'The Riddle of Shakespeare's Macbeth,' The Design Within, (243), Cleanth Brooks, 'The Naked Babe in the Cloak of Manliness,' The Well Wrought Urn (London: Dobson Books, 1968), pp. 17-39, and Marjorie Garber in Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 153-4.

17 For discussions of the ways in which the relative dominance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have been related to contemporary feminist issues see D. S. Kastan in 'Shakespeare and the Way of Womenkind,' Daedalus, 11 (1982), pp. 115-30, Joan Larsen Klein, "Lady Macbeth; 'Infirm of Purpose,'" The Woman's Part: pp. 240-55, see also Carolyn Asp, '"Be Bloody, Bold and Resolute': Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth;" Studies in Philology, 78 (1981), 153-69, and D. W. Harding in 'Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme,' Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969) 245-53.

18 Holland gives a penetrating reading of the core phantasy of this speech as though it were an independent poem (106-14). Where he sees a primal scene phantasy, I see developments from and references to the previous action. The coherence between his reading and mine substantiates my view that imagery and sequence of action in the text substitutes for what would constitute unconscious motivations from the past of a person like Macbeth.

Posthumus's Dream: Cymbeline

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13546

D. E. Landry (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Dreams as History: The Strange Unity of Cymbeline," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 68-79.

[In the following essay, Landry examines the thematic link between dreams and the historical unity of Cymbeline.]

Cymbeline is most remarkably a play about dreams, about the various and often inexplicable functions of the unconscious mind. It is also a romance, a history play, and a tragicomic pastoral. Naturally, critics have found it difficult to interpret the play in any unified way, difficult to assign it any governing structure. Most are still in tacit agreement with Johnson, who deplored its "incongruity" and "unresisting imbecility"; even critics who claim some fondness for its oddities tend to explore particular aspects, leaving the unwieldy bulk of the threefold plot largely unexplained.1 Frank Kermode and Northrop Frye, respectively, have come closer to pinning down the play's peculiar tone by calling it "experimental,"2 and "academic," with a "technical interest in dramatic structure."3

In Cymbeline, Shakespeare is indeed experimenting, but experimenting most resonantly, I think, with the underlying significance of certain natural cycles and their dramaturgical counterparts, with the processes of sleep as a perpetual "ape of death" (Iachimo's phrase; II.ii.31),4 waking as a symbolic rebirth, dream as a ritualized purgation. The main dreamers, Posthumus and Imogen, are also the characters with the strongest focus. They are, moreover, the agents of the erotic plot through which the plots of familial and national affection can be salvaged and resolved.5 By a series of analogies, the experience of Posthumus and Imogen comes to represent that of the whole community of Cymbeline's kingdom.


The play's structural complexities imply an equation: dreams, which contain in however concealed a fashion the facts of personal history, are to one's identity as a nation's past, recovered through legend and chronicle-history, is to its sense of itself as a nation, a true community. Cymbeline is at once the most local and historical of the romances, the only one explicitly grounded in events from Britain's past, and as transcendently primitive as any, with considerable interest in the ritualistic, largely unconscious roots of the drama. In Cymbeline, however, the primitivism or archaic interest of the themes of dreams and chronicle-history is treated with wit and sophistication. The apparent naiveté of the folk-tale plot is constantly undermined by self-consciously theatrical artifice. The panegyrical quality of the chronicles—especially as interpreted under the Tudors with an eye toward legitimating royal authority by aligning it with the national interest6—is gently deflated. The play closes with Cymbeline, the King himself, commenting a little wryly on the expeditious nature of the peace just negotiated between Britain and Rome: ". . . Never was a war did cease, / Ere bloody hands were wash'd, with such a peace" (V.v.482-83). It is just this tone of naive wonder undermined ever so quietly but insistently by archness and self-control that distinguishes Shakespeare's last plays in general, and Cymbeline, as a peculiar blend of romance and history play, in particular.

Romances are traditionally concerned with the recovery and reconstitution of identity. Quite a bit has been written about the unusual status of Posthumus as a hero.7 His absence from the stage is indeed more noticeable than his presence. And yet, at the same time, his experience functions as the only facsimile of developing character we are offered in the play. Not only Posthumus but the entire court and, by analogy, all of Britain undergo a kind of purgation through dream or dreamlike experience. The purgation is dreamlike in that it acts as a working out or incorporation of potentially disruptive elements, which Freud describes as the basis of the dream-work; the pattern or structure of the dream itself incorporates these usually erotic impulses by permitting them to be expressed, however covertly or metaphorically, in the dream's action.8 The play suffers a certain break in consciousness followed by a descent to a demonic realm when Posthumus retreats from the action. In romance, the demonic or night world to which the self descends is the domain of tyrannous circumstances, filled with images of displacement of the self: a world of doublings, disguises, misnamings, and mistaken identities, the conventions both of romantic or tragicomic drama and of dreams.

It is as if Posthumus' physical absence were somehow paralleled by Imogen's absence of mind. Though repudiated unfairly as an adulteress, as Posthumus' wife Imogen remains in Shakespearean conception his lawful helpmate, his other and better self, and, most significantly, his "soul" (V.V.263) in her mind and ours. Throughout the pastoral scenes which follow near Milford Haven her masculine disguise further identifies her with the absent Posthumus. As Fidele she comes to embody Posthumus' own capacity for virtue in the same way that Cloten, as a parodic double, enacts his tendencies toward vice.9 The pastoral setting, with its magical and ironic overtones,10 is an ideal distancing device, and it reinforces in these scenes the sense of a kind of dream action. Both Fidele and Cloten become figures of displacement for the embattled psyche of Posthumus and allow bestial and erotic instincts to surface in a distanced, and therefore acceptable, way. Posthumus' absence from the stage does not preclude his growth as a hero, because we are given instead a psychomachic enactment of his development through the adventures of Imogen, Cloten, and the royal brothers. The relation these scenes bear to Posthumus' moments of crisis and insight—neatly following his disappearance and preceding his return—suggests, I think, at least a subliminal sense of Posthumus himself offstage, dreaming the pastoral action. His very exile to Italy is a kind of sleep, an abatement of his ordinary powers of action and discourse. As the Queen puts it:

His fortunes all lie speechless, and his name Is at last gasp.


But the dreaming itself resolves the various dilemmas of the court and of his tenuous hold on identity. When Cornelius predicts the effect of the drug Imogen takes in Belarius' cave, his words are appropriate for the effect produced by the pastoral sequence as a whole:

. . . but there is No danger in what show of death it makes, More than the locking up the spirits a time, To be more fresh, reviving.


We may think first of the explicit patterning of Posthumus' fifth-act dream in the jail, when imprisonment and impending execution lead directly to revelation and new hope. But the pattern is implicit also in Imogen's "show of death" and revival, followed by Posthumus' change of heart.

Frye has commented upon the "extraordinary blindness"11 of the play's characters, calling attention particularly to Imogen's speech to Pisanio as she prepares to depart on her journey—in psychic terms, her descent—to the wilds of Wales:

I see before me, man. Nor here, nor here, Nor what ensues, but have a fog in them That I cannot look through. Away, I prithee; Do as I bid thee. There's no more to say; Accessible is none but Milford way.


There is a sense of encroaching murkiness, of blurred horizons, of the contraction of vision. Only a journey to Milford, a sacred or enchanted place since Posthumus is supposed to be there, will serve to restore the natural order; it is time for the quest. And that quest requires that Imogen prepare for "the gap" that she "shall make in time" (IILii.61-62)—a phrase suggestive of a lapse of ordinary consciousness—by wearing "a mind dark" as her fortune is (III.iv. 142-43) as well as a boyish disguise. By assuming a false identity as Fidèle, she literally becomes the truth of Posthumus' psychic experience. As Pisanio says, with the insouciance characteristic of the many speakers of dramatic ironies in the play, by vanishing as herself she will "tread a course / Pretty and full of view" which will bring her, in Lucius' service, close enough to Posthumus to receive accurate news of him:

. . . yea, happily, near The residence of Posthumus; so nigh, at least, That though his actions were not visible, yet Report should render him hourly to your ear As truly as he moves.

(III.iv. 146-50)

Indeed, his actions, his change of heart, will not be made visible, but her actions will signify in the minds of the audience the emergence and eventual triumph of his native virtue. The method is one of visual enactment of a subtext never made verbally explicit, another strategy perhaps originally derived from dreams.

A psychomachia becomes inevitable, then, with the arrival of Cloten, whose thinly noble veneer and underlying rashness and brutal sexuality parody Posthumus' much-touted virtue. For we are given reason to believe that Posthumus' reputation, which has been much "extended" since the first scene of the play when the First Gentleman sings his praises unequivocally, is, in fact, much overblown. His eagerness to imagine Iachimo coupling with Imogen makes us highly suspicious of his not only unchivalrous but entirely cold-blooded protests that she "oft" restrained him of his "lawful pleasure" (II.v.9-10). These are his parting words to the audience before his disappearance, and they usher in the pastoral sequence. By the time we see Cloten in Posthumus' clothes, we know that Posthumus too has feet of clay and more than a little of Cloten's brutish instinct. Guiderius' beheading of Cloten neatly gelds the rashness of Posthumus. When Cloten and Imogen are laid to rest side by side, the audience sees a concise literalization of a rather unwieldy metaphor: Posthumus' psychomachic drama is resolved with Imogen/Fidele waking live and therefore triumphant. In one formulation, with Cloten's death the old Adam is laid to rest. Appropriately enough, the audience is prepared early in the play (however ironically) for Cloten to serve as a ritual sacrifice. As the First Lord cautions him after Cloten has bullied the departing Posthumus: "Sir, I would advise you to shift a shirt; the violence of action hath made you reek as a sacrifice" (I.ii.1-3). In the light of what happens "Milford way," especially with the various changings of garments, Cloten's reply acquires a deeper significance: "If my shirt were bloody, then to shift it." However nonchalant the presentation, the suggestion is clear: Cloten is more than simply a bully, buffoon, or ironic double, though he is something of all three. He is from our first sight of him a marked man, and he serves, as in a quieter way his mother does, as a scapegoat for the purging of the whole community.

Of course, it has been necessary for Imogen as well to undergo a ritualized death for Posthumus' sake. But, phoenix-like, having been deemed by Iachimo "the Arabian bird" (, she also undergoes a ritual of rebirth. In this she is not unlike Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, for each manages by so doing to bring her lover to his senses. In her identification with Posthumus, Imogen assumes the status not only of a receptacle of displaced psychic energies, but of a sacrificial offering. As Freud notes in his essay "The Theme of the Three Caskets,"12 in folktale a feigned or implied death will often serve as the penance through which a rebirth can be achieved. He cites the Grimm story of "The Six Swans" in which a sister frees her enchanted brothers by remaining dumb for a number of years. Her enforced silence represents a ritualized death on their behalf. Similarly, Imogen is reduced by fatigue, fasting, and a peculiar sapping of inner strength which seems to derive from the Milford landscape, as Cloten also experiences it.13 Her familiar "tune" (V.v.238) is forced into abeyance first by physical helplessness and then by the drug's suspension of consciousness. Interestingly, just as Cloten is allied with sacrificial notions from Act I on, early in the play Cymbeline consigns Imogen to a ritualized ordeal:

Nay, let her languish A drop of blood a day and, being aged, Die of this folly.


And she herself reiterates the theme, begging Pisanio to carry out Posthumus' command that she may in dying "pang" Posthumus' memory, a proper penance for his rashness:

Prithee dispatch. The lamb entreats the butcher.


The suggestiveness of the play's vaporous atmosphere and many allusions to unconscious lapsings becomes evident when one realizes that Shakespeare explicitly casts her ordeal in the form of dream.

Waking next to Cloten, she recalls the sense of dislo: cation and haziness which marks her setting out for Milford and, indeed, seems indigenous to the place. She is unable to distinguish between dream and reality and imagines that her association with Belarius/Morgan and, more ironically, with her as-yet-undiscovered brothers must have been a dream:

. . . I hope I dream; For so I thought I was a cave-keeper, And cook to honest creatures. But 'tis not so;

'Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing, Which the brain makes of fumes. . . .


Shakespeare then makes a characteristic leap, so that we become aware of the entire pastoral sequence as a kind of dream:

The dream's here still. Even when I wake it is Without me, as within me; not imagin'd, felt.


The setting itself, featuring Belarius' cave which "instructs" his royal charges in a proper reverence for the natural world and "bows" them "to a morning's office" (III.iii.3-4), becomes a landscape charged with meaning. The pastoral generally provides safely distanced, naturalized outlets for martial and erotic conflicts—the paragone, the singing competition, the hunt as sport. As I have suggested, Cloten's pursuit of Imogen both purges and makes apparent in a displaced fashion Posthumus' residual brutish instincts. And I detect a certain suppressed eroticism in the relations between Imogen and her brothers which is diffused, I think, into the landscape in their hunting talk and in the sense of consummation of the natural cycle contained in their burial obsequies.14 In their eyes Fidele is quite literally returned to rest in homely earth. Her waking to the grotesque possibility the pastoral idyll has concealed at once violates its conventions and reaffirms them; for it is merely Cloten, the distinctly unpastoral scapegoat, who has been destroyed.

Shakespeare's rather puzzling use of anachronism, which has long perplexed critics, may also be linked with the play's dream-like texture: plain-spoken Roman soldiers and Machiavellian intriguers just up from Renaissance Italian courts are perfectly free to mingle and skirmish in dreams with Celtic mountaineers. The analogous juxtaposition of these respective representatives of the three plots suggests something more than dream-logic, but I shall take up this matter in a moment.

When Posthumus returns to the stage at the beginning of Act V, it is apparent that he is as changed a man as if he too had witnessed or undergone Imogen's ordeal. In the logic of the double- or triple-plot, he has in effect undergone such an ordeal within himself. The demonic drama of the pastoral sequence of Acts III and IV has laid to rest those disturbances of character which had sundered him from wife and "soul," from his own best self. And that self is finally inseparable from the greater social harmony. His alienation has been both signified and compounded by banishment from his native soil. Dramatically, the pastoral sequence prepares him, and us, for a visitation by the past in the dream of the parents and brothers he, born literally posthumously, has never known:

Post. [Waking] Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire and begot A father to me; and thou hast created A mother and two brothers. But, O scorn, Gone! They went hence so soon as they were born.


Still under the dream's spell, he falls into couplets like the ghosts. But though they have vanished, a token has been left behind—the riddle which prophesies Posthumus' eventual good fortune as part of Britain's newly found prosperity in peace. Less tangibly, the dream's legacy is a legitimation, through the recovery of origins, of his full identity as Posthumus Leonatus, a warrior-patriot, now strong in the defense of peace. The curious thing is that the more he comes to know himself, the more he ceases to matter as a character at all and comes instead to embody the psychic experience of the play as a whole. He whose reputation has been so hyperbolically "extended" becomes in fact symbolically dilated to encompass both the realms of dream and waking, of alienation and identity. The strangeness of Posthumus as a hero may be more easily accounted for if we remember that the nature of "identity," as it functions within comic, or tragicomic, structure, is always twofold. The singular sense of identity comes close to our conventional notion of the word; its larger sense requires that the social tyranny with which the play begins be dismantled and the community more harmoniously rebuilt. Posthumus' experience is, I think, both profoundly individual and social, at once peculiar to him—the recovery, through dream, of his personal history—and, by analogy, comparable with a larger movement—the recognition of a growing sense of national identity through the dramatization of national history, with its politic blend of fact and legend, reportage and myth.

Because his potential for virtue was always present, merely waiting to be purged of its darker impulses, in the course of the play Posthumus is changed, and yet not changed. He experiences a dilation of being in at least two senses. The pastoral action—itself a dream displaced and enacted—functions as an incorporation of the unconscious, without some acknowledgment of which a complete and seamless identity is impossible, and as a preparation for his actual dream, in which his personal history is returned to him. In a larger sense, Posthumus' being is dilated through the pressure of such incorporation to signify, by analogy, the experience of the play as a whole, its pattern of purgation and reintegration of consciousness in communal and national terms.


Empson describes the phenomenon of the "identification of one person with the whole moral, social, and at last physical order" as a device fundamental to the structure of the double-plot.15 In its capacity for complex sympathy, says Empson, the Elizabethan imagination was for some reason quite at home with both a great deal of dramatic ambiguity and the double-plot's "vague suggestiveness."16 In contrast to most modern critics, Cymbeline's first audiences would have perceived not only the connection between Posthumus' experience and that of the other characters, but the analogies yoking the three plots as well. The doctrine of analogy as it applies to history, both personal and national, seems to have been firmly implanted in their minds. They were, after all, not so very far from the tradition of medieval exegesis, which in the reading of church history encouraged a particular sensitivity to a layering of analogous relationships. Indeed, one could characterize the structure of feeling at work in Cymbeline as a kind of dialectical relation between the one and the many. On one hand, the play's deepest experience is distilled into the psyche of Posthumus; on the other, the audience is made aware of certain forces compelling the action on several levels, so that the last act especially bears witness to an overriding order, a sense of unity in multiplicity.

Critics who complain of the play's lack of unity seem to have trouble most often with the historical elements, particularly the Roman/British pact, with its accompanying aura of anachronism. Some of the sense of illogicality and dislocation can, as I have suggested, be attributed to play's dream-like texture. But I also think that the abrupt yoking of the issues of personal, familial, and communal or national reunification heightens the audience's awareness of the correspondences between them. Each plot becomes a metaphor for the other two; we are shown the destinies of man, family, and the larger community under the same reassuring management. In what Kermode wryly calls the "twenty-four-fold denouement"17 of Act V, scene v implied relationships become visible, a movement characteristic of the play's controlling pictorial or spatial technique. Just as Posthumus' divided psyche is spatially realized in Cloten and Imogen side by side, the unity of the narrative strands upheld by various characters is made manifest on the stage. Clusters form and are forcibly joined: Posthumus-Iachimo-Imogen; Imogen-the brothers-Cymbeline; Cymbeline-the brothers-Lucius. These groups correspond to the erotic, familial, and national plots, respectively. As Granville-Barker takes pains to emphasize, the wondrous impact of the recognitions can only be achieved through the cooperation of all the actors in a sustained panoply of characterization.18

The obvious question, then, is what precisely constitutes the compelling force yoking individual natures with their larger contexts? The play has its share of references to an unseen power, all of them, I think, deliberately murky. Jupiter's utterance of the doctrine of felix culpa—"whom best I love I cross"—is delivered in a self-consciously theatrical context, to the rumble of thundering machinery and the chime of strained and stagey rhymes:

No more, you petty spirits of region low, Offend our hearing; hush! How dare you ghosts Accuse the Thunderer whose bolt, you know, Sky-planted, batters all rebelling coasts?

Be not with mortal accidents opprest: No care of yours it is; to make my gift, The more delay'd, delighted. . . .


To which the ghosts of Posthumus' family respond with exaggerated awe:

Sici. He came in thunder; his celestial breath Was sulphurous to smell; the holy eagle Stoop'd, as to foot us. His ascension is More sweet than our blest fields. . . .

All. Thanks, Jupiter!


The explicit artifice of the spectacle renders Jupiter's pronouncement formally de rigueur, and therefore commonplace—a requirement of the tragicomic structure rather than a satisfying answer to the powerful suggestion offered by one of Cymbeline's lords:

The want is but to put those pow'rs in motion That long to move.


Here, of course, Frye and others speak of Christian providence, of the play as a religious allegory, though Frye maintains that the signs are implicit and point beyond the play to the greatest known event of Cymbeline's time, the birth of Christ. Certainly the play is imbued with a sense of impending catastrophe followed by ameliorating circumstance, always beyond the characters' control. A certain amount of helplessness seems a rare virtue. In the case of Imogen, physical reduction and the surrendering of consciousness yield the salvation of her husband, her marriage, her family circle, her country, and, by implication if the Christian allusions are taken into account, the collective soul of the community. Similarly, the jailed Posthumus submits his will to the powers that be and receives the sight of his dead forebears and Jupiter himself as absolution, while Cymbeline capitulates to the Roman demand for tribute that peace may reign. A religious allegorist might specify Christian humility as a covering answer. But I hesitate to invoke a Christian interpretation too emphatically; the play seems to me to be deliberately infused with pre-Christian, primitive elements. From Guiderius' designation of a Celtic burial, head eastward, for Fidele, to the Soothsayer's panegyric to "radiant Cymbeline" (V.v.473), there seems, to be sure, a double vision, but the emphasis is earthly. The play itself, in fact, makes sacred the local habitations and names of this world.

In his persuasive discussion of the historical groundings of the play, Emrys Jones argues for an implicit unity exactly where many critics have found fault—in the play's historical dimension. Jones refers to both the contemporary, topical significance of certain aspects of the play and to Shakespeare's reliance upon his audience's possessing a strong sense of national history. The topical references surface mainly in relation to Cymbeline as a figure of the peace-making king, an obeisance to James I. This homage-to-patron also yields such dramaturgical features as the masque-like theophany, since James was fond of masques. Jones also pins the main flaw of the dramatic design to the Cymbeline/James analogy in an interesting way, attributing certain inconsistencies of character to Shakespeare's various strategies for avoiding giving offense. While I am not persuaded that the play is as logically flawed as Jones suggests, I would agree that a proper understanding of its intricacies depends to a great extent upon a recognition of its use of history.

Jone's most penetrating comments concern the significance of the history which shrouds Milford Haven: its importance as the landing-place of the Earl of Richmond, soon to be Henry VII, and thus its function as a cradle for the Tudor-Stuart line of which James was the latest embodiment. Certainly, Shakespeare goes to some lengths to give Milford a peculiar resonance, so that it becomes a magical and sacred place; its irresistible drawing power is especially evident in relation to Imogen. I think that Shakespeare uses this strategy for dramaturgical as well as political reasons. But let us look first at what Jones says about the place as conceived in strictly historical terms. He quotes G. Wilson Knight and proceeds from there:

'She is, one feels, magnetized to this, enchanted, spot. . . .' She is indeed 'magnetized' to Milford Haven. Without knowing it, she is helping to fulfill a 'prophecy'. But the compelling force is ultimately nothing other than the facts of history:

the Earl of Richmond Is with a mighty power landed at Milford.


The analogies the play makes between the logic of events of chronicle-history and the logic of dreams point up the disorder and illogic of unreconstructed historical facts, and the essentially fictive structure the historian, like the dramatist, must impose to give shape to his narrative. It is not that the sanctity of national history is being deliberately undermined, but that Shakespeare makes us aware that history is constructed, that both our personal and national myths must of necessity scaffold truth with an artificial, purposive design. By heightening theatrical artifice throughout the play, Shakespeare makes us aware of the instrumental use we make of history to further present ends. In the case of Milford Haven, the play confers lasting significance on a particular time and place in history and makes obeisance to James as a peacemaker, but we are aware all the while of the dramatic illusion, of the necessity of incorporating politic facts into the play's design. Again, the closing lines of the play encapsulate this tension and redound upon all that has gone before:

Cym. . . . Set we forward; let A Roman and a British ensign wave Friendly together. So through Lud's Town march; And in the temple of great Jupiter Our peace we'll ratify; seal it with feasts. Set on there! Never was a war did cease, Ere bloody hands were wash'd, with such a peace.


The celebration of the Tudor ascendancy we find in Shakespeare's histories is framed in Cymbeline with irony designed to deflate the panegyrical and demystify the larger political use of national history, but not to demolish it. It is an irony which flirts with but refuses to embrace outright satire.

Milford Haven is sanctified and made memorable, and Cymbeline is unique among Shakespeare's romances in its historical particularity and its hallowing of a specific, real place. Instead of a flight or withdrawal to an imaginary island, we are made to see the English landscape as magically charged. Milford Haven is "blessed" (III.ii.58); the very topography conspires in a British victory when Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, fighting in their narrow lane, are "Accommodated by the place" (V.iii.32). We are also, by analogy, made to feel reverence for the kingdom as a spiritual community, whether explicitly Christian or not. That there is something transcendent in the movement of the play from incipient tragedy through purgation to "the harmony of this peace" (V.v.465) can hardly be denied. But the kingdom is specifically Britain, the body politic of Shakespeare's "scept'red isle," at peace with the aggressor, Rome, after having maintained an impressive defense. For all our interest in the psychic identities of Posthumus and Imogen, the "radiant" Cymbeline, King of Britaine, as the Folio title stresses, is the center about whom all others are meant to move. Interestingly, Imogen too is firmly attached to the nation, as a mother of succeeding generations of Britons; her saving grace is not, though the two are very close in Renaissance thought, the magical integrity of virginity, but rather Milton's "Sun-clad power of Chastity."20 She draws her strength from her marital fidelity, her sacred social union. T.S. Eliot is perhaps striving for a similar conjunction of time-hallowed place and the recapturing of our collective ancestral history when "East Coker" he recalls:

The association of man and woman In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie— A dignified and commodious sacrament. Two and two, necessarye, coniunction, Holding eache other by the hand or the arm Whiche betokeneth concorde. . . .


The erotic plot, anchored as it is in the dreams of Posthumus and Imogen, becomes both necessary to and emblematic of a greater social harmony.

Perhaps the play's concern with this connection between private and social experience may help account for its strange tone, its mixture of archness and affecting simplicity. As Freud defines them, wit and dreams share a common parentage in the unconscious; the most important difference lies in their "social behavior." Freud holds the dream to be "a perfectly asocial psychic product," which not only finds it "unnecessary" to be intelligible, but "must even guard against being understood" since it can only exist in disguised form. Wit, on the other hand, Freud considers "the most social of all those psychic functions whose aim is to gain pleasure." Wit requires an audience.22 In Cymbeline Shakespeare conveys much of the experience of dreams and some of their wonder within a sophisticated dramatic vehicle, aware of its own artifice.

As Granville-Barker recognized, in Imogen's waking next to Cloten and in the final recognition scene especially, the audience is both sympathetically engaged and ironically distanced. The grotesque irony of the former scene is replaced in the latter by the potentially "farcical associations,"23 in Kermode's phrase, of so many revelations so neatly contrived. In both cases, the core of the narrative moves us; it is the palpable presence of the master dramatist pulling both affective and witty strings which holds us apart. Within the conventions of the tragicomic double plot, heroic and pastoral or comic episodes reflect and redound upon one another, but remain distinct. But Cymbeline's complexity of tone derives from a deliberate confounding of the two.

While it sounds paradoxical, in this respect Cymbeline is a peculiarly medieval play. The sacred and the profane exist side by side, and to some degree merge in their essential effect. The grotesque and the farcical help give the transcendent an earthly location. At the same time, they allow the controlled intrusion of unconscious impulses, an acknowledgment of man's kinship with the beasts, and at once direct the mind upward toward reverence. I am reminded of Hugh of St. Victor's belief that

The ugly is still more beautiful than beauty itself. . . . Beauty encourages us to linger. The ugly does not permit us to rest; it forces us to depart, to transcent it . . . .24

This is the impulse which underlies those medieval grotesques carved into Miserere seats. And Shakespeare captures it to some extent in the the union of sympathy and ironical amusement he manages to evoke in Cymbeline. The play's rarefied atmosphere of wittiness infused with the insouciance of dreams, its impression of artlessness artfully executed, is not only a sophisticated exploration of tragicomic form, but an unusually primitive dramaturgical experience. Beside The Winter's Tale or The Tempest, Cymbeline provides relatively few verbal clues to its underlying meaning; its effects are mainly visual, its affectiveness a concatenation of texture and atmosphere. There is an implicit silence in the play, suggested by those quietenings down which occur as the various characters fall asleep. And these lapsings, these cessations of consciousness which yet contain the deepest truth of that consciousness, suggest the silence which signifies that state of complete identity in which the perils and restorative rituals of the romance are no longer necessary.

Cymbeline's greatest interest lies, I think, in the suggestiveness of its bold peculiarities. As Granville-Barker described the play:

. . . One turns to it from Othello, or King Lear, or Antony and Cleopatra, as one turns from a masterly painting to, say, a fine piece of tapestry, from commanding beauty to more recondite charm.25

This rather specialized charm is probably what Shaw had in mind when he ventured to suggest that the proper setting for a modern production of Cymbeline was not the London stage, but a village schoolroom.26 There, unself-consciously, the drama would be played with the degrees of ardor and artlessness natural to it, and to a nation's sense of itself when it fancies it has recently come of age. The smallish stature of the actors would adumbrate their faint absurdity as heroes without bringing down charges of unpatriotic license, and we as the audience could remain complacently detached, congratulating ourselves on our greater historical sophistication.


1 Richard Levin, in his study of the various kinds of unity achieved in Renaissance multiple-plot drama, merely alludes to Cymbeline in a footnote with the comment that, while certain parallels exist between the rash condemnations Cymbeline and Posthumus bestow on Belarius and Imogen, "little is done with the relation of the two areas"; The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 167. In his psychoanalytic reading, Murray M. Schwartz attempts to link the play's concern with "sexual and familial" integrity with "British self-esteem," but he never develops the connections, concentrating instead on the psychoanalytic "meaning" of individual characters and incidents; see "Between Fantasy and Imagination: a Psychological Exploration of Cymbeline," in Psychoanalysis and Literary Process, ed. Frederick Crews (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop, 1970), pp. 219-83. In her subtler psychoanalytic reading, Meredith Skura links certain "unconscious" elements in the play with its themes of familial and personal identity, but she stops short of transforming these categories into the political ones of nation and community: "Cymbeline has been called a history play, but it is a history play of the individual too, and it shows that what we are now comes out of what we were"; "Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts, and Literary Critics," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 213. I am most indebted to Arthur Kirsch's application of dream theory to the play in his Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 144-73. Although he and I come to many similar conclusions, different emphases lead us to different valuations of the play's political import.

2 In generic exasperation, Frank Kermode has christened the play an "'historical-pastoral' tragi-comical romance"; he agrees with those who sense behind the odd combination of naiveté of plot and virtuosity of dramatic technique "an effect almost of irony," a sense that the dramatist is "somehow playing with the play"; The Final Plays (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1963), pp. 29, 22.

3 Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), p. 70.

4 The text used for all quotations from and references to Shakespeare's writings is that of The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1951).

5 In Howard Felperin's formulation, each of the three plots may be subsumed to some extent under the heading "erotic plot": "The genius presiding over Elizabethan dramatic romance is ultimately Eros, or an Eros figure, who embodies the principle of love in either its narrower sense of sexual union or in its wider ones of family solidarity and social harmony or in its widest Christian one of 'the love that moves the sun and the other stars,' as Dante put it at the end of The Divine Comedy"; see Shakespearean Romance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 21. While applauding his notion of analogous relations among the three levels of affection, I prefer to reserve the term "erotic plot" for the relations between Posthumus and Imogen.

6 I am grateful to G. M. MacLean for introducing me to crucial changes in British historiographical models. For a distillation of current scholarship on the subject and an up-to-date bibliography, see his unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, "Time's Witness: English Historical Poetry, 1600-1660" (University of Virginia, 1981), pp. 11, 100, 253, 267. See F. J. Levy's study, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1967) for a general discussion of changes in contemporary historiography and interpretation.

7 See, for example, Homer Swander's "Cymbeline: Religious Idea and Dramatic Design," in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1966), pp. 248-62, and his "Cymbeline and the 'Blameless Hero,'" ELH, 31 (1964), 259-70, and Joan Hartwig's Shakespeare's Tragicomic Vision (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1972), pp. 61-103.

8 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon, 1965), pp. 544-46.

9 Schwartz sees Iachimo as another vice-like double for Posthumus, but one whose sexual proclivities run to looking rather than "tasting," pp. 227-31; I find him much closer than Cloten to the conventional vice—a less demonic Iago, scaled to fit a tragicomic rather than a tragic design.

10 William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (New York: New Directions, 1974), p. 29.

11 Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 67.

12 Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), XII, 296.

13 Cloten enters the environs of Belarius' cave with the words: "I cannot find those runagates. That villain / Hath mocked me. I am faint" (IV.ii.62-63).

14 Schwartz overreads the relations between Imogen and her brothers by suggesting that "Their unconscious recognition of familial bonds affirms defenses against the play's incestuous anxieties," p. 258.

15 Empson, pp. 42-43.

16 Empson, p. 65.

17 Kermode, p. 28.

18 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1946), I, 490.

19 Emrys Jones, "Stuart Cymbeline," Essays in Criticism, 11 (1961), 99.

20 John Milton, Comus, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957), p. 108.

21 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, from Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 197.

22 Freud, "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious The Basic Writings, ed. A.A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1938), 760-61.

23 Kermode, p. 29.

24 Edgar De Bruyne, The Esthetics of the Middle Ages, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969), p. 61.

25 Granville-Barker, p. 543.

26 G.B. Shaw, Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (London: Cassell, 1961), p. 39.

Joseph Westlund (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Self and Self-validation in a Stage Character: A Shakespearean Use of Dream," in The Dream and the Text: Essays on Literature and Language, edited by Carol Schreier Rupprecht, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 200-16.

[In the following essay, Westlund studies the psychological changes precipitated by Posthumus's dream in Cymbeline.]

Near the end of Shakespeare's Cymbeline the play's central character, Posthumus, has a dream that critics and directors often treat as exterior—as a vision of Jupiter—rather than as the depiction of an interior event.1 Nevertheless, the appearance of Jupiter and the ghosts of Posthumus's family is the theatrical representation of an interior event within the character who lies sleeping before us on the stage. As such, the dream allows us to speculate about how Shakespeare conceives of the function of dreaming and how he prepares Posthumus and the audience for the imminent happy reunion with Imogen. Posthumus's dream offers an irresistible attraction to anyone attempting to figure out the motivation of this elusive character.

The dream is especially intriguing to psychoanalytic critics, among whom Meredith Skura offers the best and most extensive account.2 My interpretation differs from hers in large part because my perspective is that of "self psychology," an extensive revision of Freudian theory proposed by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1913-1981). Kohut offers an unusually effective approach to analyzing dreams in real life—and by extension in literature. One of my aims in this essay is to demonstrate the value of the shift in psychoanalytic assumptions which Kohut and other psychoanalysts propose under the term "self psychology." To put the innovation very briefly, such proponents emphasize the "self as the central organizing and stabilizing principle of the personality, (as different from Freudian emphasis upon conflict among various agencies such as the id/ego/superego, conflict arising from sexual and aggressive drives and culminating in the Oedipus complex).

Kohut's psychology shares with other twentieth-century systems of psychology certain implicit value judgments; for instance, it is better to be autonomous than dependent. Kohut emphasizes the centrality of self-esteem even more than other psychoanalytic theorists do; he often refers to it as "healthy narcissism" so as to stress the value of basic rudimentary self-love. To claim that self-love is essential for an individual may grate upon some Renaissance scholars who feel that in Shakespeare's world one has to lose one's self, and one's self-esteem, to find oneself. The alternative view of self such scholars offer is roughly that of Christianity which de-emphasizes autonomy and the independent individual in favor of dependence upon, and merger with, God. Nevertheless, Christianity, and in particular Protestantism, lays extraordinary demands upon the individual to whom it delegates sole responsibility for personal salvation. It is dangerous to assume that we know for certain what the range of possibilities was for a Renaissance, much less a Shakespearean, conceptualization.

Kohut's theory illuminates an important aspect of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's works are among the very first to contribute to our contemporary perception of the vital role of a sense of self. Shakespeare at once creates and depends upon a heightened awareness of individuality, autonomy and self-fashioning. By scrutinizing the dream of Posthumus we gain further insight into the vicissitudes of the individual as conceptualized during the Renaissance. In Posthumus's roles as heroic soldier, trusting spouse, and repentant murderer he seems unable to perceive himself as a coherent center of initiative persisting over time. In this shaky sense of self he has much in common with Hamlet. Posthumus is also similar to Gloucester's younger son Edgar in King Lear, Edgar's antic creation of several roles and disguises strikes some interpreters as a prelude to his self-integration—or, to others, seems a sign of his self-fragmentation.

My interpretation of Posthumus's dream builds upon Skura's excellent account. She points out that Posthumus, unlike other heroes and heroines in the romances, does not find his family members literally alive; instead he recreates them in his dreams. To find himself as a husband, Skura argues, Posthumus must find himself as a son—as part of the family he lacked because his mother died giving birth to him after the death of his brothers and the more recent death of his father. "Posthumus's trouble at the beginning of the play is that he does not know who he is—and this is partly because he does not know who his family is" (Skura 1980, 208). The King, Cymbeline, takes him in and Cymbeline's own family provides the first substitute for the one Posthumus misses. However, Posthumus violates his proper place in this surrogate family when he elopes with Cymbeline's daughter, the princess Imogen. When Posthumus joins a second foster family (Imogen's long-lost brothers and the lord who abducted them), "he takes his proper place: brave, but not overbearing; accepting his position as a nameless third son, subduing his own ends to those of the little family" (Skura 1980, 209). Skura argues that in this manner Posthumus mends a flaw in his character: the over-possessiveness, derived from Cymbeline's family, which led to his destructive marriage:

Posthumus's achievement as a husband and a son is crowned by this vision of his family [in the dream]. Dead though they are, they appear physically on stage, breaking into the current action and revealing their implicit presence all along. They appear just when Posthumus finds himself, and the dream is a perfect climax to his story, (p. 210)

Skura concludes that "after his dream, nothing has changed except his state of mind: Posthumus has simply recognized his past and therefore recognized himself (p. 212).

I want to modify this account by challenging some of its assumptions about dreams and the nature of the change in Posthumus.3 As far as I can see he has not achieved much success as a husband or a son by the point he has the dream; indeed, he is self-destructive and explicitly suicidal when he falls asleep. Nor is it clear exactly how his state of mind alters; that "he recognizes his past and therefore recognizes himself suggests some sort of "working through," but I am not certain that such a process can be imagined to occur here.

Skura sees Posthumus as a coherent, autonomous character. This view strikes me as improbable. For instance, he rarely interacts with other characters as if they were entities outside himself; he does not treat them as autonomous "objects" distinct from himself as a "subject." Instead, he continually treats them as what Kohut terms "selfobjects"; that is, Posthumus merges with others and treats them as if they were part of himself. Thus, to me his sense of self is more primitive and incoherent than most interpreters assume; he is less firm in his sense of the boundaries between himself and others. This trait suggests that Posthumus behaves in a way similar to that of real-life persons who were arrested at an early developmental stage; for instance, it suggests a reason why instinctual conflict is not central to his characterization. Skura also concentrates upon matters other than instinctual conflict. Despite his apparently adult behavior during much of the play, Posthumus also exhibits, in my opinion, a chaotic and rather infantile side.

Posthumus's State of Mind Before the Dream

For members of the audience the effect of the dream depends upon what we imagine to be Posthumus's "state of mind" before he falls asleep. This is particularly important given Kohut's insistence upon the need to clarify both the specific and the general vulnerabilities of the dreamer having the dream, for he argues that the dream arises from and unconsciously addresses such vulnerabilities.

My view of Posthumus's state of mind before the dream differs from Skura's in several important ways. When Posthumus reappears at the start of the final act he repents having had Imogen murdered (5.1.1-29); nevertheless, I argue that he repents in an antic and radically ambivalent manner. He shifts from his Roman dress into that of a "Briton peasant" (5.1.29-33), and silently vanquishes Iachimo (5.2. stage direction). Then Posthumus reenters "and seconds the Britons"—that is, Belarius and the two princes. In doing so, he saves the king and Britain in a battle scene long on action but short on dialogue (5.2.14-17). Nevertheless, each of the three other defenders speaks, if only, like the two princes, to share a line such as "Stand, stand, and fight!" (5.2.13). Posthumus says nothing during the scene; he simply reenters, fights, and leaves at the same time as the three other heroes leave.

That the text allows us to feel an air of disengagement in Posthumus may be unimportant, for we can assume that he is a compelling physical presence during the scene. Still, that he says nothing forms a pattern. That he reenters once the battle has begun and remains silent during the scene conveys an air of detachment on his part, which the following scene intensifies. Right after the defeat of the Romans there follows a scene in which Posthumus describes the battle to a taciturn cowardly Lord (5.3). At first glance, it seems difficult to guess why Shakespeare put this scene here; we in the audience have just witnessed the battle through our own eyes—and have never before seen the Lord nor will we see him again. As a result, critics often dispute the authorship of the scene. They also grow puzzled about what Posthumus means to say here (see ).

I suggest that, like the dream itself, this scene is designed to offer a glimpse of Posthumus's inner world. By hearing his own version of the battle, we can reexperience it from his own subjective viewpoint. From this viewpoint, from his own perspective, his deed loses much of its power to validate him as a worthy man. He disavows his heroic role even while he describes the battle on the narrow bridge. Instead of describing his own efforts and success—or simply assuming them with quiet modesty—Posthumus becomes almost overwhelmed with rage. His anger is apparently directed at the coward, but it has an indeterminate, archaic quality: the rage seems far out of proportion to the fact that the Lord was one of the men who fled. Why should Posthumus work himself up to such a state over a coward when the battle was victorious? More to the point, why should Shakespeare want to present Posthumus as beside himself with rage at a moment when we might expect to see the hero attending to other more pressing matters (such as consolidating his gains, or proceeding to repentance)?

Since the audience already knows Posthumus is valiant and the battle won, the scene's effect is to alert us to his overwhelming anger, his vulnerability, and his tendency to be self-defeating. The scene reinforces our sense that the three traits are linked in Posthumus, for we see them flare up elsewhere. For instance, the issue of Imogen's chastity kindles all three responses—as does Iachimo's challenge, apparent success, and the result of this success. Posthumus seems unable to experience himself in any positive behavior: as beloved husband, as national hero, as repentant sinner. Instead, he falls prey to fits of bedeviled rage.4

In growing angry he silently, ominously, deletes himself from the list of heroes who saved the day. He tells the Lord that there was "an ancient soldier" (Belarius) who "with two striplings" (the Princes) fought off the Romans:

These three, Three thousand confident, in act as many,— For three performers are the file when all The rest do nothing. . . .


Since Posthumus was also engaged in the fight, there were four soldiers who defended the bridge, not three. Why does he fail to mention himself? Perhaps he simply intends to be modest (although he might have mentioned some unknown warrior who assisted the others). It seems more likely, however—given Posthumus's excessive and unfocused anger at this point—that Posthumus omits himself because of his sense of disengagement and worthlessness. This interpretation gains support from the fact that once Posthumus has driven the Lord away, he shifts his anger to himself and contemplates suicide.

Many viewers join Meredith Skura in expecting that some healing benefit must result from Posthumus's valor. His heroic deeds offer Shakespeare an excellent reason why Posthumus has an auspicious dream and why he is worthy of reunion with Imogen. However, the text here and in the dream suggests that Posthumus disavows his heroism: it apparently means nothing to him for he cannot own it as his. So, too, he gives no sign that he feels at one with Belarius and the young princes (who, Skura suggests, aid in the healing process which culminates in the dream [Skura 1980, 209]). Instead, the scene with the Lord heightens the discrepancy between how we expect Posthumus to react and how he actually views himself.

Posthumus's estrangement from the three Britons and from himself as British hero is underscored in symbolic terms. Once more he changes his clothes. Again, this is not modesty or self-abnegation, for he draws attention to himself by his anger and self-contempt. Since the British are now triumphant, he decides he will no longer be one of them: "No more a Briton, I have resumed again / The part I came in" (5.3.75-76). He assiduously takes on the costume of the vulnerable. First, he dressed as a Briton when the Romans were marching against them; now he changes into Roman garb as soon as the Romans are vanquished. The manner in which he changes clothes, like his disavowal of his heroism, heightens the audience's sense of his self-defeat and desolation; he looks defeated, he sounds defeated, and he focuses on such failings at the very moment he has helped achieve victory.

Posthumus's despair must stem in large part from losing Imogen, but it is more diffuse and global than we might expect from such a loss. For instance, he seems unable to focus upon his loss of Imogen so that he might properly mourn her. He apparently can conceive of no way out of his plight—at least not in waking life.

Even his words of repentance in jail seem forced and rather unconvincing. Many critics assume that he repents, but he tends to confuse the issue in his oblique and tortured rumination. For instance, he addresses himself by saying:

My conscience, thou art fetter'd More than my shanks and wrists: you good gods, give me The penitent instrument to pick that bolt, Then free for ever. Is't enough I am sorry? So children temporal fathers do appease; Gods are more full of mercy.


It is not clear to me how the "penitent instrument" death can free his conscience. Death might make conscience irrelevant since God's judgment would prevail; but in this lower world only repentance can assuage conscience. Critics note that he employs traditional language in distinguishing the three parts of repentance (Nosworthy, the New Arden Edition, pp. 155-56). Nevertheless, he undermines his attempts at penitence by his doggedly ambivalent tone. He seems defensive or even truculent when he asks of the gods "Is't enough I am sorry?" Does he mean to praise the gods for their degree of mercy, or to blame them for being less merciful than temporal fathers? When he addresses the gods again, he asks them to take his life:

For Imogen's dear life take mine, and though 'Tis not so dear, yet 'tis a life; you coin'd it.


His attitude verges on being accusatory. The gods allow all that happens to happen, and thus allowed Iachimo to seduce Imogen; still, Posthumus is also to blame, although he avoids saying so here and in his long soliloquy at the outset of the final act (5.1.1-33). Posthumus resists facing the fact that he is responsible for his deed; without this vital first step, any forms of repentance can mean but little. He devotes much of his energy to accusing the gods of unfairness. He asks that they take his life although it is "light" and not worth much. This characteristic self-devaluation also carries with it an implicit denigration of the gods. He adds the idea that since the gods made him they really ought to accept his life—light though it be. Such baroque and confused reasoning undermines his attempt at repentance. If the gods are meant to be at all like the Christian God, they are not likely to see his soliloquy as an effective step toward repentance.

Self-validation in the Dream

Posthumus now falls asleep on stage. He is in jail, having provoked imprisonment by those whom he had just saved from the Romans. He seems to be at a nadir of self-fragmentation and self-defeat rather than a climax of healing. Critics sometimes assume that he is saved by a vision of Jupiter, by an arbitrary external power. Anything is possible as soon as a deity enters; one might even argue for an analogy to the mysterious workings of Christian grace. Still, it seems more likely that we are meant to see the dream as a dream, and to conceive of it as signaling some positive change from within his own nature and characterization.

For a moment, let me stand back and generalize about his "state of mind" as it is represented to us at the moment the dream begins. He has much in common with real-life persons whom Kohut describes in terms of a "vertical split" of character disorders (as distinct from the "horizontal split" of repression within a unified self which Freudians use to describe neurotics). Posthumus vacillates between two poles: a grandiose self, and an empty or deprived self. His grandiosity manifests itself in presuming to test Imogen, to assume her guilt, and to have her murdered. One might choose other terms than "grandiose" to describe his attitude (such as hubristic, sinful, cruel), but the term is useful in that it refers to a trait which Posthumus reveals in other significant areas of his behavior.

Posthumus also reveals an empty self in direct contrast to the grandiose self: profoundly deprived, he gives the impression of being unable to fulfill his needs by his own deeds. This emptiness manifests itself in his depression and also in his inability to own anything as his—whether heroic deeds or wicked ones.

That he is so vulnerable suggests his dream can profitably be interpreted as a "self-state dream." Kohut argues that such a dream differs from the traditional formulation of dreams by psychoanalysts. From a Freudian perspective dreams are assumed to deal with hidden instinctual wishes (mainly sexual and aggressive), with conflict, and with attempted solutions of conflict. For a Kohutian perspective, self-state dreams respond to a crisis in which the sense of self-coherence begins to fragment. Kohut suggests that our scrutiny of the manifest content of self-state dreams can "allow us to recognize that the healthy sectors of the patient's psyche are reacting with anxiety to a disturbing change in the condition of the self—manic overstimulation or a serious depressive drop in self-esteem—or to the threat of the dissolution of the self (Kohut 1977, 109).5

Skura makes some roughly similar assumptions in her deemphasis of conflict and drives, and in her emphasis on Posthumus's need for his lost family. Where we differ is in my focus upon Posthumus's vacillation between grandiosity and emptiness, and in my sense of his extreme vulnerability at the time of the dream. What he needs, and what he creates in his dream, is not simply a family to recognize but a family (and a deity) who mirror his worth and sustain him.

Let me shift more decisively into Posthumus's own perspective on the dream. In doing so I follow one of Kohut's ill-understood but revolutionary clinical precepts: I emphasize the subjective nature of the dreamer's dream, rather than look at it objectively—as most interpreters do without being aware of their stance.6 Kohut refers to such attempts as "empathy" and they from the basis of both the data and the theory of self psychology. At first glance, empathy seems a mild and sentimental attitude; the term often draws scorn from those who miss his point, or find his advice difficult to follow. Kohut insists that the analyst can understand only through experiencing within himself or herself what the other person is feeling. He stresses this move not because of a wish to be supportive (although such a move can be valuable). Instead, Kohut uses the concept of "empathy" to confront the inevitable bias of the interpreter who will inevitably distort the reality of the other since it differs from his or her own reality. Because of his awareness of this inevitable bias, Kohut insists upon the need to try not to look at others from the outside with preconceived theories of what the person "must really be feeling."

All theory limits what one can perceive, and this includes psychoanalytic theory. Since theory is unavoidably limiting—and often just plain wrong—and since every person is intensely different and individual, Kohut asks that the interpreter try to set aside assumptions about what goes on in the emotional life of others. Instead, the interpreter should attempt to feel in himself or herself, by a kind of vicarious introspection, what the other person feels. In a clinical setting this is an attempt on the analyst's part to put himself or herself into the patient's shoes, rather than to try to be an external observer of events taking place in an isolated entity out there in what is sometimes referred to as an intrapsychic apparatus.

Following the method Kohut articulates, we need to put ourselves in Posthumus's shoes if we wish to understand his dream. We need to attend to his vulnerability at this point in the play, and set aside the assumption that he must have derived benefit from his heroism in battle—or from his attempts at repentance. Similarly, we need to attend to what he finds significant, not just what we find significant or think that he finds or should find significant.

The dream validates Posthumus in ways which we as outsiders could barely conceive possible. It should come as a surprise that by dreaming he gives himself what he has never before been able to give himself. What he creates is not a family out there—as autonomous entities from whom he has more or less successfully differentiated himself. Nor, I think, is it so important that he recognizes them. What is crucial is that they recognize him and validate his sense of worth. As a dreamer Posthumus focuses upon his family's and his deity's nurturing relation to himself. We might expect other familiar figures such as Imogen to appear in his dream, but only his family and Jupiter do so. Members of the audience might very well have expected him to dream about his wife, for his last waking words were "0 Imogen, / I'll speak to thee in silence" (5.4.28-29). That he does not dream about her is another sign that we are in the presence of a selfstate dream. Posthumus's dream seems to have little to do with such matters as instinctual conflict, guilt, resistance, or possible solutions of conflict. Indeed, his dream seems to ignore his relation to others as objects outside himself—say, to his estranged and murdered wife. The implication is that his sense of self is not cohesive enough to allow for this.

Posthumus dreams not of a murdered wife, nor of an Imogen who was (in wish fulfillment) saved from being murdered. Nor does he "resist" dreaming about her at the manifest level only to do so on the latent level—as psychoanalytic interpreters might suspect. He dreams instead about what most concerns him: not having lost Imogen but being in the presence of an admiring family and deity. He dreams of selfobjects who function as part of himself, literally, for he creates them out of whole cloth. He never has seen them (except, perhaps, for his brothers); thus he cannot technically recognize them in their existence outside his imagination. My point may at first seem pedantic; that it does might well remind us of the need to perceive the dream from his own perspective. We need to look at his dream from the inside, rather than from the point of view of our own preconceived ideas of what must be important. His family and Jupiter serve as selfobjects created by his own sense of need for them. They have no traits other than what he needs to find in them: absolute and convincing support.

Imogen cannot very well enter in his dream, for she would either be disturbing as a reminder of his all-but-disavowed guilt, or intrusive as a reminder of her own (apparent) guilt for adultery. Perhaps we can spot an allusion to her in the shape of his mother, who enters with his father as part of a united couple: enter Sicilius Leonatus "attired like a warrior, leading in his hand an ancient Matron (his wife, and mother to Posthumus)" (5.4.29 stage direction). Posthumus's dream thus seems to hint at his identifying with his father and wishing for his own wife. If we are right to discover Imogen in this wish fulfillment about a united couple, it is appropriate that she should appear in the guise of an all-supportive figure with no traits of her own—such as she would have as his murdered wife—but only as a selfobject to validate his sense of worth.

In his dream, Posthumus creates a deity whose role is similarly restricted. Jupiter comes across as little more than a supportive self-object, as a god who does not seem particularly godlike. For instance, Jupiter states: "No more, you petty spirits of region low / Offend our hearing: hush! How dare you ghosts / Accuse the thunderer" (5.4.93-95). Still, the "hush!"—although peculiar diction for a thunderer—precisely conveys the nourishing, parental tone Posthumus needs from all his dream figures. So, too, Jupiter's explanation sounds rather offhanded even for divine planning: "Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift / The more delay'd delighted" (5.4.101-02). Nevertheless, Jupiter speaks directly to Posthumus's need at this point: not a need for a plausible account of anything in particular but for paternal validation. Perhaps "avuncular" is a better term, for "paternal" has connotations of stern accountability. What Posthumus needs is not confrontation, or forgiveness, or even the sort of stunning theophany which Wilson Knight conjures up in his interpretation of the vision. What Posthumus needs and what he gives himself, in his dream, is comforting reassurance.

All of Posthumus's dream figures speak in ways which offer narcissistic enrichment. They exemplify confirmation of the self, for they demand it for themselves as well as extend it to him. When speaking about his son, Sicilius Leonatus emphasizes that both Posthumus and he are worthy: "Great nature, like his ancestry, moulded the stuff so fair, / That he deserved the praise o' the' world, as great Sicilius' heir" (5.4.48-51). Similarly, the ghosts take care when complaining that they do not undermine Jupiter's dignity; while they chasten him, they also bolster his self-esteem by addressing him as "Jupiter, thou king of gods" (5.4.77). They force him to validate Posthumus as the only way of saving face. In this dream, the dreamer allows no one, much less himself, to suffer a loss of self-esteem.

In such ways the dream serves a benign purpose. Nevertheless, it also reveals troublesome aspects of the dreamer's inner state. The healthy aspects are bound up with the unhealthy ones, as they would be in a real-life dream of someone in Posthumus's position. The dream partakes of that trait in Posthumus which I refer to as his grandiosity. Many dreams in reality and in fiction are full of magical thinking, but Posthumus's dream exceeds the usual: he imagines that ghosts arise from the dead to minister to his needs, and Jupiter descends with a divine plan for his special denefit. In conceiving of such narcissistic support, the dreamer perpetuates his archaic wish to discover validation from outside himself rather than from within himself through his own actions. In a word, he still conceives of himself in a merged state rather than as an autonomous individual who can and must fend for himself.

The dream implies that Posthumus's state of mind has changed for the better in that he can conjure up narcissistic supplies. Still, he remains both grandiose and needy; he remains in the state Kohut describes in terms of the "vertical split." For instance, Posthumus has no active role in the events of the dream. He conceives of others who nurture him, but aside from this he does nothing to fulfill his needs. He performs no deeds. His family, not Posthumus, calls upon Jupiter to save him. Since he uses his family as selfobjects he thereby indirectly puts himself into the dream; the figures he imagines in dreaming the dream function, to a great degree, as aspects of himself. Still, it is striking that he should be so absent in his own right from the dream. Perhaps we never think of this while watching the play since he lies before us while the dream goes on around him. Still, in his use of self-objects Posthumus creates others who do for him what he might be expected to do in his own right were he not so dependent upon them—upon others whom he can experience only as extensions of himself.

The Extent of Posthumus's Change

Kohut's premises are worth invoking at this point in the discussion of the dream. One is to try to put oneself in the dreamer's shoes rather than look at the dream "objectively." Another, to try to find signs of a healthy sector rather than dwell solely upon pathological aspects. As in so much of Kohut's work, these aims may seem obvious and easy to attain. They are not. A psychiatrist who was in training with Kohut, and thus armed with the best intentions, attests to the difficulty of following these simple maxims; he soon reverted to the habit of looking at a patient's dreams from his own perspective—not the dreamer's—and confronted the dreamer with signs of pathology rather than discover healthy aspects peering out from under them.7

By searching for signs of the healthy aspect, the interpreter discovers—and thereby confirms—a vital and often disavowed aspect of the dreamer's inner reality. The healthy part is one which has been submerged by pathological parts. The latter are precisely those most accessible to the observer and thus most often, unhelpfully, emphasized by the observer—and by the person himself or herself. The germ of a true but undeveloped self lies arrested in development and hidden within the predominant and more obvious false self.

Posthumus's dream owes much of its poignancy to the glimpse of the healthy sector in him which it allows. The ghosts and Jupiter continually attest to his worth, but other factors even more forcefully indicate a healthy sector hidden within his despairing and self-defeating nature. First, he can conceive of such validation at a low point in his career. And second, he can experience this benign nurturance as his own and use it, rather than disavow it as he does virtually all his waking experiences.8

Dreamers conceive of and make their own dreams. This vital principle can easily be lost even to the most ardent dream interpreters unless we keep reminding ourselves about dreaming's intensely subjective nature. The healthy sector of Posthumus's dream appears, first, in his advance from a position of neediness. When awake he seems unable to get what he wants, but in dreaming he creates it from within himself: he obtains self-confirmation by creating an idealized family and deity. He says immediately upon awakening:

Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire, and begot A father to me: and thou hast created A mother, and two brothers; O scorn! Gone! they went hence so soon as they were born: And so I am awake.


Characteristically, Posthumus assigns the process of creation to "Sleep" rather than to his own generative and creative capacities. Nevertheless, even Posthumus's deference to grandsire Sleep can be thought of as part of his persistent effort to create for himself a family whose every move is attuned to his needs.

The second principal indication of a healthy sector lies in his being able to experience and use his dream, instead of treating it as though it happened to someone else or as though it were worthy of contempt. Unlike his disengagement from his heroic deed against the Romans, his response to his dream is to own it: he acknowledges and incorporates what the dream gave him into his sense of himself. He owns his need for what his grandsire sleep begot for him, however temporary and however strange. Then he turns to the book with the riddle, and attests to its value even though he cannot be sure what it is:

'Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing, Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such As sense cannot untie. Be what it is, The action of my life is like it, which I'll keep, if but for sympathy.


He identifies the riddle with the dream, and with life, as a tangible reminder. And he vows to keep the riddle, the dream, and his life. He cherishes them as significant parts of his experience, rather than disavowing them as irrelevant or insufficient—as would be so easy for him and so typical of him. Posthumus attaches explicit positive value to his dream and links it to his life whatever it may mean: "Be what it is, / The action of my life is like it."9

That Posthumus values the dream and riddle as his own signals a benevolent change of mind. Upon awakening from a dream in which others cherish him and his worth, he himself now begins to have a sense of self-esteem. That he should do so strikes me as the first sign of a more viable Posthumus than the one we have seen earlier.

Before the dream occurs, Posthumus is presented as a character who does not seem to have a sense of living his own experiences. He rarely conceives of himself as an autonomous agent in any of his roles: heroic soldier, trusting spouse, repentant murderer. In terms of self psychology, his disavowal suggests an inability to identify with his own experiencing self. He gives the impression that someone else lives his life, as in a way is quite true: one part of him is grandiose and lives in a fantasy world imperfectly attuned to reality. The other part of him—the part who lives in outside reality—seems unable to feel, or experience, or gain much from that life.

Because of the two split-off parts of himself, grandiose or empty, Posthumus appears incapable of giving himself anything or doing anything for himself. He cannot even experience anything as his own. The grandiose self is merged with an archaic other, as for example it is when he tests Imogen. Or the empty self gets nothing it wants since it has surrendered volition to the grandiose self. We have seen this surrender in his scene with the Lord: Posthumus disavows his truly heroic deeds in the battle against the Romans, and instead contrives fantasies of freeing himself from his guilty conscience by suicide.

In dreaming, however, Posthumus gives the impression of having established contact with his split-off empty self; he seems to have connected himself to the kernel of his otherwise disavowed true self. When he creates validating figures he indicates that he can draw upon narcissistic supplies from within himself. I stress the significance of this accomplishment as coming from within the dreamer. We in the audience see the dramatization of a dream, which means that we see a stage on which the family and Jupiter may seem to exist outside Posthumus. Still, insofar as the stage dream is the dramatization or the outward realization of an inner psychological event, the dream figures are not external but internal. The character Posthumus—not Shakespeare—peoples his dream with validating figures at a moment when he is empty, depressed, and suicidal, and in doing so gives himself what he needs.

In conclusion, I think that Posthumus reveals contradictory aspects of himself in Cymbeline: a self-defeating and near-tragic aspect tinged with grandiosity and neediness, and an aspect which suggests that a healthy kernel of self-esteem can quicken to life when he reunites with Imogen. He begins to seem capable of integrating into his sense of himself aspects to which his family and Jupiter attest: that he is of central importance, that he is brave, noble, and lovable.

The dream serves not so much as a sign of a changed state of mind as the harbinger of such a change. From now to the end of Cymbeline when he becomes reconciled to the King and to Imogen, Posthumus tentatively begins to validate his own worth rather than simply conceive of it as being affirmed—or, invalidated—by figures outside himself. Like the regeneration of other protagonists of Shakespeare's romances—Pericles, Leontes, and Prospero—Posthumus's regeneration is more tentative and thus, I think, more poignant than critics have for a long time allowed.


1 Posthumus himself comments upon what he has witnessed as a dream: "Poor wretches, that depend / On greatness' favour, dream as I have done, / Wake, and find nothing. But, alas, I swerve: / Many dream not to find, neither deserve, / And yet are steep'd in favours; so am I, / That have this golden chance [the book he finds on his breast when awaking]"; he concludes that "'Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen / Tongue, and brain not" (5.4.127-31, 147-48). Throughout I quote from the New Arden edition of Cymbeline, edited by J. M. Nosworthy (1955; reprint London: Methuen, 1979). Nor does Posthumus see what has transpired as a vision brought about by Jupiter; he fails to mention the spectacular appearance of the deity and refers instead to the agency of sleep: "Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire, and begot / A father to me: and . . . / A mother, and two brothers" (5.4.123-25).

G. Wilson Knight demonstrates the Shakespearean nature of the episode despite the doubts of those who find it irrelevant and thus suspect (Knight [1947] 1966. However, Knight treats the dream as a vision or theophany—despite Posthumus's remarks just quoted. J. M. Nosworthy follows Knight in seeing the episode as a vision. Nosworthy states that "in making him [Jupiter] literally the deus ex machina Shakespeare flies in the face of Aristotelian doctrine, but necessity is above precept" since one cannot suppose that the rapid change of fortune at the end is brought about by human agency. I argue that the psychological implications of the dream convey a sense of human agency at work here. (Nosworthy [1955] 1979, xxxiii-xxxvii)

2 "Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts, and Literary Critics" (Schwartz and Kahn, 1980, 203-16). Her account for the most part follows Freudian precepts. Also see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); he interprets the dream in explicitly Freudian ways and concludes that "the recovery of a childhood literally lost . . . enables him [Posthumus] to reintegrate himself as a man and reunite with Imogen" (p. 167).

3 Can a character be said to posses a state of mind? Many people readily assume that Posthumus does, so lifelike is his representation and so pressing is our need to imagine that characters reflect ourselves. This psychological need is especially pressing when a play is staged and an actor bodies forth the representation. I also raise for a moment the question of whether viewers—or characters—can be thought to possess a unified self of the sort which colors such assumptions. My interpretation of Posthumus and of his dream discovers a divided nature in terms of Kohut's "vertical split," but I still postulate that such unity is inherent in the unfolding of the self when not arrested in its development.

For a long time critics have assumed that the romance genre (in which most place Cymbeline) is the polar opposite of "realism" (psychological or otherwise). Posthumus's dream is not the locus of the unreal or of the surreal, for it seems clearly to reveal human agency.

4 On this see Heinz Kohut. Kohut argues that because of the excess of anger beyond what the situation would seem to provoke, "such bedevilment indicates that the aggression was mobilized in the service of an archaic grandiose self and that it is deployed within the framework of an archaic perception of reality" (Kohut 1978, 643).

I think that Posthumus's behavior here is of a piece with his behavior elsewhere. He does not simply "disown" his pride in his heroic behavior as some Renaissance heroes do. Modesty or Christian self-abnegation differ from Posthumus's anger. Instead of being modest or self-abnegating, Posthumus draws extraordinary attention to himself, his presumed failures, and those of others.

5 For a more extended account of this technique, see James L. Fosshage, "Dream Interpretation Revisited," Frontiers in Self Psychology, ed. Arnold Goldberg, Vol. 3 of Progress in Self Psychology (Hillsdale, N. J.: Atlantic Press, 1988), 161-75.

6 For a lucid account of this controversial view, see Paul H. Ornstein and Anna Ornstein, "Clinical Understanding and Explaining: The Empathic Vantage Point," Progress in Self Psychology, ed. Arnold Goldberg (New York: Guilford Press, 1985), Vol. 1, 43-61.

7 See Jule P. Miller, "How Kohut Actually Worked," Progress in Self Psychology, Vol. 1, 22-29.

8 Fosshage argues that "dreaming mentation not only serves to maintain organization, but contributes to the development of new organizations, a crucially important dream function that has remained unrecognized with the classical model" (Fosshage 1988, 164).

9 Director Elijah Moshinsky chose this speech as the core quotation of the play for a production that is especially attuned to the play's psychological implications. Moshinsky emphasizes the centrality of this passage: "'This is a most astonishing line . . . Shakespeare is saying the confusion of the play is like life: it's bizarre and emotionally penetrating and psychologically intense. And very lifelike.'" See Henry Fenwick 1983, p. 26.


Fenwick, Henry. "The Production." In the BBC Television Edition of Cymbeline. New York: Mayflower Books, 1983.

Fosshage, James L. "Dream Interpretation Revisited." In Frontiers in Self Psychology, edited by Arnold Goldberg. Vol. 3, Progress in Self Psychology. Hillsdale, N.J.: Atlantic Press, 1988.

Kirsch, Arthur. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Knight, G. Wilson. "The Vision of Jupiter." In The Crown of Life. 1947. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Kohut, Heinz. "Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage." In The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978, edited by Paul H. Ornstein. Vol. 2. New York: International Universities Press, 1978.

——. The Restoration of the Self Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1977.

Nosworthy, J. M. Introduction to Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare. 1955. Reprint. London: Methuen, 1979.

Ornstein, Paul H. and Anna Ornstein. "Clinical Understanding and Explaining: The Empathic Vantage Point." In Progress in Self Psychology, edited by Arnold Goldberg. Vol. 1. New York: Guilford Press, 1985.

Skura, Meredith. "Interpreting Posthumus's Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts and Literary Critics." In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

Arthos, John. Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, 208 p.

Extensive study of dreams and apparitions in Shakespeare's dramas and poetry.

Cook, Eleanor. "'Methought' as Dream Formula in Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats and Others." English Language Notes XXXII, No. 4 (June 1995): 34-46.

Examines Shakespeare's influential use of the word "methought" as a prelude to the recitation of a dream.

Garber, Marjorie B. "Dream and Plot: Richard III" In Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, pp. 15-26. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Comments on Richard's prophetic dream in Richard III.

James, L. L. "The Dramatic Effects of the Play-Within-a-Play in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus." Litteraria 5, No. 9 (1995): 17-31.

Explores Hamlet's metaphysical statement, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams" as indicative of a crisis of knowledge analogous to that of the title character of Christopher Marlowe's Faustus.

Presson, Robert K. "Two Types of Dreams in the Elizabethan Drama, and their Heritage: Somnium Animale and the Prick-of-Conscience." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 VII, No. 2 (Spring 1967): 239-56.

Recounts the presentation of dreams resulting from "discomforts of the body" or from suppressed anxieties in the works of Shakespeare and others.

Skura, Meredith. "Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts, and Literary Critics." In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 203-16. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Investigates the psychological importance of family in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, emphasizing the climactic revelation of this theme in Posthumus's dream.

Smith, Warren D. "Romeo's Final Dream." Modern Language Review 62, No. 4 (October 1967): 579-83.

Interprets Romeo's final dream in Romeo and Juliet—in which Juliet finds Romeo dead then kisses and revives him—as symbolically true.

Stockholder, Kay. "'So Many Fathoms Deep': Love and Death in Hamlet. In Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 40-64. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Discusses how Hamlet commingles his dreams of sex and death and turns them into realities.




Errors and Labors: Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy