Carole Levin


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

Cover Interview of March 05, 2009


Dreams of people in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England allow us to understand how external events intensely penetrated the deepest recesses of the unconscious.  Dreams reflected and interrelated with the most significant political, religious, and cultural values of the time.  This is especially evident when examining the dreams about monarchs such as Elizabeth I, dreams that were perceived as warnings or dreams that saw her as the enemy.  Dreams were highly significant both to men and to women, those of the highest social classes as well as those of lower status, and across the entire religious divide.  People had widely differing views of dreams.  Dreams could be considered as sent from God and angels or as temptations placed in one’s mind by devils, and nightmares might be caused by witchcraft.  Some people thought dreams were the result of the body’s dominant humour: the blood-filled dreams of the sanguine were markedly different from the phlegmatic’s dreams of water, the choleric’s of fire, or the melancholic’s frightening dreams of graves and cells.  Other people argued that one should interpret a dream experienced by someone of sanguine humour very differently from that same dream if related by one of melancholic humour.  Still others maintained that dreams had no meaning but were merely the fragments of the day retold—a shoemaker might dream of footwear while a fisherman of his catches.  But the most common and deeply felt belief was that dreams could foretell the future if one could only understand the symbolism, and thus the large number of texts that explained how to interpret dreams.  Yet also in this period, there was a significant shift toward a more modern understanding of dreams.  Thomas Nashe, for example, argued that feelings of guilt were the cause of dreams, at least many of the disturbing ones.  Perhaps the most clear and economical statement is in the early seventeenth-century comment: “A dream is an inward act of the mind.”  Through the great concern and discussion English Renaissance people had about their vivid and sometimes emotionally wrenching dreams, we can see how much the interior sense of individual self developed in this period.

Some dreams described in this study appear to be actual experiences; others were created for reasons of art and drama, politics and power.  Dreams “invented” by playwrights can be as revelatory of cultural beliefs as the dreams people described to their closest friends or wrote down in their journals.  A study such as this also opens up what we can see as history; this book is not only a history of dreams but also a history of early modern England.  Dreams can tell us more about history, and in turn, a thorough knowledge of a specific historical period can allow us to understand more about its people’s dreams.  Symbols in dreams are not universal; they hold specific meanings in the historicity of the experience.  Dreams tied people to their past or to their memories, even as early modern English people saw their dreams as a way to know and lead them into the future.

Dreams are another language to express not only deepest fears and desires but also a period’s cultural anxieties.  We can never completely know anyone’s dreams; we have only fragmented memories, images that are recreated and conveyed in words. But even given those difficulties of translation, dreams of the English Renaissance are revelatory, giving us a new insight into a vanished age.

© 2009 Carole Levin