Commentators who address the issue of Shakespeare and time do so from a broad range of approaches. They may discuss time as a thematic device, as a structural principle, or as a means of delineating character. The notion of time itself has a variety of connotations in Shakespeare scholarship. It may represent, among other things, the personification of destructive or restorative forces, the medium through which action moves, or the pace at which a story line develops. Critics such as L. G. Salingar (see Further Reading) evaluate Shakespeare's treatment or use of time in terms of his reliance on, or innovative adaptations of, medieval and Renaissance conceptions of time. Others, including Harold E. Toliver (1965), trace what they perceive to be a growing complexity in Shakespeare's scrutiny of time, from the sonnets to the romances. Ricardo J. Quinones (1965) also surveys many of the poems and plays in his assessment of the multiple functions of time in Shakespeare's works. By contrast, Irwin Smith (1969) concentrates on the rhythm of dramatic time in a smaller number of plays, especially Richard III. Jonas Barish (1996) addresses the question of Shakespeare's anachronisms, particularly in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline. Whatever the approach, commentary on Shakespeare and time deals most often with As You Like It, Macbeth, the romances, and the sonnets.
The depiction of time in sonnets 1-126 is the chief focus of David Kaula (1963), Frederick Turner (1971), and Robert L. Montgomery (1999). Emphasizing Shakespeare's resourceful manipulation of different views of time in these verses, Kaula analyzes the ways in which the poet employs these to enhance and modify the relationship between the speaker and his friend. Turner pays particular attention to the thematic link between love and time in the sonnets, and to its expression through imagery. Montgomery stresses the intense emotionalism of the poems, arguing that the notion of time's destructive capability is underscored here by Shakespeare's persistent and urgent cultivation of the present.
The contrast between the corrupt present at the court of Duke Frederick and the pastoral timelessness of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is the principal subject of Jay L. Halio's 1962 essay. He discusses the disparity between the materialistic, expedient world of court and city, on the one hand, and the meaningless of time in the forest, on the other, noting the discrepancies between individual characters' perceptions of time. Rawdon Wilson (1975) discerns a shift in the course of the play, rather than a disparity, between the temporal perspectives of the court and Arden. In his judgment, the play depicts an evolutionary change in attitude toward time, from the notion of it as an objective process to its conception as a relative one: an expression of private, individual worlds. Bart Westerweel (1993) explicates the chronological-spatial relationship in both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, emphasizing how this relationship highlights the contrast between pastoral and satiric modes in the latter play. Another Shakespearean comedy that has attracted a measure of critical attention to its treatment of time is Troilus and Cressida. Both Toliver and John Bayley (1975) note the sense of disordered time in the play, with Toliver stressing discontinuity and Bayley the lack of multiple dimensions.
In sharp contrast to that of Troilus and Cressida, the world of The Tempest is notably well-ordered. This romance deals integrally with the nature of time, as James E. Robinson (1964) and D. S. McGovern (1983) point out. Time is a central structural element in The Tempest, Robinson contends, but it is also Prospero's chief antagonist, limiting his attempts to reform others and compelling him to carry out his schemes with alacrity, before the critical present expires. McGovern argues that Prospero comes to terms with the notion that time represents both an occasion for human action and a limitation on that action; he also suggests that the way different characters view time is an important factor in shaping their individual identities. Similarly, in her commentary on The Winter's Tale, Theresa M. Krier (see Further Reading) points to the significance of Hermione and Perdita's conception of time as creative and redemptive; indeed, she remarks, the female characters in this play embody the objective reality that in human life, comedy and tragedy frequently coincide. Frederick Turner (see Further Reading) compares the dissonant relationship between characters and their temporal environment in the tragic first half of The Winter's Tale with the harmonious reconciliation of temporal and timeless worlds in the pastoral second half. He asserts that in the speech of Time, the Chorus—which he analyzes closely—marks the point at which the emphasis on time the destroyer unexpectedly changes to an emphasis on time the creator.
Whereas commentators on the romances frequently stress the importance in these plays of forging an accommodation with time, critics who interpret Macbeth accentuate the disastrous effects that ensue when the natural order of time is defied. Toliver, for example, suggests that Macbeth's powerful imagination induces him to try to thwart the present rather than enduring time's customary progression. Donald W. Foster (1986) also proposes that Macbeth attempts to break the laws of time and forcibly take the future into his own hands. Focusing on another Shakespearean tragedy, Lorne Buchman (1987) examines the principal characters' differing perceptions of time in Othello, arguing that while Iago sees time as changeable—and also as a force to be controlled and manipulated—the Moor regards it as orderly and eternal. But Othello also fears the mutability of time, Buchman contends, and this makes him particularly susceptible to his ensign's treacherous schemes. David Kaula (1964) similarly compares the various senses of time held by the protagonists in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting that Caesar concentrates on the future and regards time as a political instrument, Antony is oriented toward the past and feels harried by the relentless pressure of time, and Cleopatra focuses on the present while maintaining a strong belief in the continuity of life. Kaula calls attention to the differing rhythms of time in Rome and Alexandria, as well as to the discrepancy between the rapid tempo of the dramatic action and the slower-running undercurrent of historical time.
The topic of time in Shakespeare's English histories has drawn relatively little critical attention, but three commentators who have addressed this issue are Quinones, Wylie Sypher (1976), and Robert B. Bennett (see Further Reading). Quinones argues that in these plays time is an instrument of a reality that leads men to catastrophe and perhaps even oblivion, although, he adds, like the sonnets, the sequence holds out the hope of fending off disaster through the continuity of family lineage. Sypher considers the second tetralogy—Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—to be a portrayal of the vanity of history in a world where ascensions to political power are trivial when viewed in the context of the unfathomable expanse of time. All the major figures in these plays eventually realize that their achievements are insubstantial, the critic maintains, and come to understand that they're participating in a contest where the winners will be those who most skillfully employ the strategy of Machiavellian opportunism. Bennett's discussion of the second tetralogy is in marked contrast to Sypher's. Focusing on Shakespeare's presentation of how time shapes human action and history, he discerns a cyclical, sacramental progression in these four plays from initial harmony between man and nature, or God, to spiritual alienation, then redemption and a return to unity.