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Shakespearean Sleep Patterns

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When Lights Went Out, Bard's Countrymen Had a Field Day

“To sleep, perchance to dream…” That famous line from “Hamlet” is also the title of an intriguing nocturnal foray at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Neither Shakespeare nor Hamlet actually figure that strongly in the exhibition, though Hamlet had plenty of trouble sleeping. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s characters — Macbeth, his wife, Romeo, Richard III and II — had quite a few restless nights, or were at least given to endlessly talking about their bad dreams.

But this exhibition deals with the sleeping and dreaming that everyday Elizabethans did. It’s a subconscious ride through Renaissance England, which emerged from the medieval age with more communication and knowledge, yet powerful vestiges of superstition, hyper-religiosity and limited information still coloring societal norms.

Perhaps that’s why the world of sleep was a fascinating fathom of possibilities for the English, who perked up at the thought of what really happens when you doze off. In fact, they loved to talk and write about sleep — what it was, what it revealed about you, what it revealed about the future, how much you should have of it, how you could stay awake and fall asleep, and what went on when you did. Shakespeare for one thought that sleep was akin to a prevue of death, a kind of death itself.

But the Bard wasn’t the only one who mused about what happens when the lights, or candles, go out. There was a whole cottage industry of writers, dream interpreters and sleep soothsayers who produced their own theories and advice ranging from the superstitious to the scientific to the downright silly, a reflection also of a nation in between the past and the present.

On that note, you might think that the English, having just emerged from a time when many believed in witchcraft, would view nighttime as an opportunity for Satan and his succubae — that they held outlandish fears and ideas about what goes bump in the night.

Truth be told, they weren’t that far from contemporary times, where pills, prescribed or otherwise, help you “fall asleep and wake up refreshed,” as today’s ad jingles promise. Elizabethans also wanted a good night’s rest — and then some. There were herbal recipes for sleep remedies, for example, with instructions on how to cure nightmares and even predict one’s future spouse.

But the English also didn’t think too much sleep was a good thing, except for those who worked really hard at physical labor. In this way, sleep also became a harbinger of morality, with people judging whether it was healthy, or whether it was a sign of laziness, or a fundamental reflection of a person’s character (guilt over “sins,” for instance, was thought to lead to nightmares). In fact, many people who had bad dreams felt as if they were weighed down by an oppressive force, like being sat on by a horse, or a mare, with resulting difficulties in breathing. Hence, the term “night mare.”

The exhibition is full of quirky items that illuminate this dark unconscious realm — mostly books but also artifacts such as sleeping potions and the prosaic essentials of a bed chamber — bed, chamber pot, candles, nightstand, bed caps, nightshirt, etc.

Beyond the physical accouterments, the exhibit also deals with how folks prepared for sleep, from the practical — even well-off people had to debug the bed, a common problem of the times — to the metaphysical — prayer was always a good thing to ward off the devil.

Elizabethans needed this mental preparation because they were also consumed by dreams, trying to analyze them long before Freud came along. They worried about omens and signs and tried to construct the future based on their dreams. Queen Elizabeth for instance was a big believer in auguries and dreams. She was such a magnetic figure, in fact, that her subjects apparently spent a good deal of time dreaming about her, and let her know about it.

“On several occasions Elizabeth I mentioned to those at court dreams that she had had,” explained co-curator Carole Levin. “A number of English people also had upsetting dreams about their queen they interpreted as warnings, and wrote to her principal secretary to let him know the queen needed to be careful.”

Her successor James I, although a devout Catholic, was a skeptic on the subject of dreams and went so far as to publicly expose a preacher on dreams as a fraud. Later though, James I quickly changed his tune when he dreamt about his own death.

A popular part of the show will no doubt be the “Dream Machine,” a touch-screen display that lets visitors deconstruct their own dreams — with some Elizabethan twists. Which is to say that you’ll find it’s not a good thing to have physical dreams about your sister or your brother, then and now.

Still, not all of England was enchanted by dreams. Some writers, like Thomas Nash, scoffed at the power of dreams. “A dream,” he wrote, “is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested.”

But rest assured, as many of us still do today, plenty of Shakespeare’s countrymen believed that nighttime reveries were nothing to be dismissed. In this way, “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” shares a kind of thread that runs through most of the Folger exhibitions, which examine not only Shakespeare, but how and where he lived and the people of his time. They continually remind us why his plays resonate with our own times. Then, just as now, people ate certain kinds of food, dressed, fought wars, prayed, married, had children, lived in towns and cities, in grand or gritty conditions, and of course died.

But in between they slept, dreamed and woke again, a thought or image sometimes lingering in their minds before the age-old cycle repeated itself. Why, just the other day, I dreamt that perchance I’d won the lottery. Sadly, like Bernie Madoff, I woke up.

“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” runs through May 30 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St., SE. For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014