Lie still and dream


I think Shakespeare must have been a man after my own heart. By which I don’t just mean the fart jokes and the humanity, but also that he was clearly a man who knew the splendid weirdness of dreams. Not everyone does – I have friends who swear they never dream, and those who think an unusual dream is one where they go back to school and have a history lesson – but taught by their old geography teacher (the horror!). I on the other hand belong to that group of humanity who nightly gets vivid technicolour spectacles which have all the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and almost as many dinosaurs. And I suspect Shakespeare was too.

He wasn’t above using the prophetic dream for dramatic effect, of course. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, dreams of his downfall in Julius Caesar:

She dreamt tonight 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.

Andromache urges Hector not to go to battle in Troilus and Cressida:

I have dreamt

Of bloody turbulence, and this whole night

Hath nothing been but shapes and forms of slaughter.

Hermia dreams of the betrayal of Lysander- the only actual dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

What a dream was here!

Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.

Methought a serpent eat my heart away,

And you sat smiling at his cruel prey.

And sometimes dreams that start prophetic head down the illogical byways of real dreams – thus Romeo in Romeo and Juliet:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead

(Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!)

And breath’d such life with kisses in my lips

That I reviv’d and was an emperor.

Talking of Emperors, here’s Cleopatra getting a little carried away:

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony-

O, such another sleep, that I might see

But such another man!…

His face was as the heav’ns, and therein stuck

A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted

The little O, the earth…

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm

Crested the world. His voice was propertied

As all the tuned 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 dolphin-like: they show’d his back above

The element they liv’d in. In his livery

Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were

As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

I’m pretty sure that’s not just wishful thinking – especially the part about being like a dolphin, that part definitely belongs to the subconscious…


Aufidius in Coriolanus dreams of his rival – and I’m sure we can’t blame him – who doesn’t dream of their work?

Thou hast beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me-

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat-

And wak’d half dead with nothing.

Definitely nothing at all homoerotic in that, then.


Various characters suffer from unspecified unpleasant dreams – Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet (he says it himself, and why else would the thought of those dreams in the sleep of death give him pause?), and Beatrice – although naturally only the last of these “wak’d herself with laughing”.


William Blake’s interpretation of Queen Katherine’s dream

Three characters have their dreams acted out for us – Queen Katherine’s vision of angels in Henry VIII, Posthumus’s family visit in Cymbeline, and the spectres of the dead who visit both Richard III and Richmond on the eve of Bosworth Field.

Dream on thy cousins smothered in the Tower.

Let us be lead within thy bosom, Richard,

And weigh thee down to ruin, shame, and death!


But the one for me that proves conclusively Shakespeare knew his somnolent stuff is Clarence’s nightmare in Richard III.

 CLARENCE. Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower

And was embark’d to cross to Burgundy;

And in my company my brother Gloucester,

Who from my cabin tempted me to walk

Upon the hatches. Thence we look’d toward England,

And cited up a thousand heavy times,

During the wars of York and Lancaster,

That had befall’n us. As we pac’d along

Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,

Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling

Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown,

What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,

What sights of ugly death within my eyes!

Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,

A thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon,

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scatt’red in the bottom of the sea;

Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes

Where eyes did once inhabit there were crept,

As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,

That woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep

And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatt’red by.

KEEPER. Had you such leisure in the time of death

To gaze upon these secrets of the deep?

CLARENCE. Methought I had; and often did I strive

To yield the ghost, but still the envious flood

Stopp’d in my soul and would not let it forth

To find the empty, vast, and wand’ring air;

But smother’d it within my panting bulk,

Who almost burst to belch it in the sea.

KEEPER. Awak’d you not in this sore agony?

CLARENCE. No, no, my dream was lengthen’d after life.

O, then began the tempest to my soul!

I pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood

With that sour ferryman which poets write of,

Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

The first that there did greet my stranger soul

Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick,

Who spake aloud ‘What scourge for perjury

Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?’

And so he vanish’d. Then came wand’ring by

A shadow like an angel, with bright hair

Dabbled in blood, and he shriek’d out aloud

‘Clarence is come-false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence,

That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury.

Seize on him, Furies, take him unto torment!’

With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends

Environ’d me, and howled in mine ears

Such hideous cries that, with the very noise,

I trembling wak’d, and for a season after

Could not believe but that I was in hell,

Such terrible impression made my dream.

Sweet dreams!

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