Carole Levin


On her book Dreaming the English Renaissance: Politics and Desire in Court and Culture

Cover Interview of March 05, 2009

The wide angle

In the early 1990s, when I was completing the research for a book about Elizabeth I, I came across a document.  It was a dream a woman named Joan Notte had in 1601 that made her so afraid for the queen about the dangers that faced her that Notte had her godfather write to Elizabeth’s government.  I found this dream so interesting I decided to use it as the frame for the final chapter of my book.  Once The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power was published, I decided that some day I would write a book on dreams in early modern England.

Over a century ago Sigmund Freud refigured the cultural landscape—and changed our understanding of the work of the unconscious—by formulating his theories on the interpretation of dreams.  While many critics have begun to doubt the specifics of Freud’s theories, recently scholars employ new and more sophisticated methodology to discover how dreams can be used to understand the inner life of people of different historical periods—and the impact that the belief in the importance dreams exerted on political, religious, and cultural development.  People in Renaissance England believed strongly in the power of dreams, and these attitudes toward dreams allow us to know much more about the mentality of the age.

This book does not subject the dreams of Renaissance English people to Freudian analysis.  Instead, I demonstrate the significance of ideas about dreams in an earlier period, covering both the actual experience of dreaming and the ways dreams were understood.  But while some interpretations of dreams in the age of Shakespeare might sound strikingly modern, arguing that dreams were the fragments of the day retold, or caused by a sense of sin or feelings of guilt, one of the most deeply ingrained beliefs was that dreams foretold the future.  In some cases the dream was obvious, while in others the symbolism had to be understood.  This could be accomplished through the reading of books, or through visits with professional dream interpreters, the Renaissance counterparts of today’s psychologists.  John Dee, Simon Forman, Elias Ashmole, and many others carefully recorded their own dreams and were paid to interpret those of other people.

Dreams in Renaissance England held great power.  Some were ominous, some joyful.  They were explained in many ways; they were thought to be induced by certain foods, by witches’ magic, or by demons and angels.  Monarchs such as Elizabeth I spoke of their own dreams and listened to the dreams of their subjects, and dreamers were given a voice and presented on stage by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  Comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, historical plays such as Richard III, or tragedies such as Macbeth are filled with characters who take their dreams seriously.  Often those who wanted to justify an action did so by citing a dream.

Some early modern dreams sound strikingly similar to those we have today.  The dream that so many academics admit to having of finding themselves in a classroom completely unprepared to teach parallels a dream the seventeenth-century clergyman Ralph Josselin had of a similar lack of preparation.  Dreaming that he was in the pulpit wearing neither his collar nor his surplice, Josselin found himself, to his horror, completely unable to sing the psalms or locate the biblical passages he needed.  Also, just as today, people dreamed they were naked in a public place.  But while today such a dream might cause a feeling of embarrassment and anxiety, a seventeenth-century professional dream interpreter argued that it augured good fortune for one of a melancholic temperament.

Unlike these dreams that speak across the centuries, some dreams are much more tied to a specific time and place. In the 1590s Lady Cromwell treated a poor woman, Alice Samuel, suspected of bewitching some children cruelly.  That night she had a horrifying dream that Samuel had sent a cat that tore off her skin.  We might not take such a dream seriously today.  But this was evidence used at the trial that condemned Alice Samuel to death.  Dreams can impress us or frighten us; sometimes they can change lives.