Throughout history people have taken their dreams very seriously. Dreams themselves, and the way we interpret them, take us into the deepest part of our individual as well as cultural psyches. Dreams indicate to us the ways in which we are fundamentally the same as peoples of earlier times and also the ways in which we are deeply different. Dreams, and discussions of dreams, can give us information about the most significant issues of a historical period, especially the sites where religion and politics, as well as death and power, intersect. Popular literature and historical documents from early Renaissance England include a remarkable number of recorded dreams and a considerable discourse on their meanings. While some dreams are specific to their time period, others are timeless and universal. Dreaming the English Renaissance looks at theories about dreams in Renaissance England, actual dreams found in letters and diaries, and dreams as they are presented in histories, drama, and political tracts. There were recipes for avoiding nightmares and for having pleasant or exciting dreams. Some argued they could learn the future from their dreams, while others insisted that one’s dominant “humour”–what we today would consider personality type–caused the dreams one had. Dreams helped discover murderers, were sent as warnings to monarchs, and were often the heartbreaking experiences of those who had lost or would lose someone they deeply loved. Examining dreams in the English Renaissance allows us to know much more about what these people believed and what they valued.
“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. […] 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.”
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.
On page 6 the reader can find out how what dreams might mean. For example, to dream of asparagus gathered up and tied in bundles was an omen of tears, but seeing it growing wild predicted good fortune. An artichoke in a dream meant that dreamers would soon receive a favor from someone from whom they least expected it. Picking green apples off the top of the tree foretold advancement. On the other hand, a cauliflower was a terrible thing to see in a dream. It meant that all the dreamer’s friends would slight him or her, and then to make matters worse, when the dreamer descended into poverty, this person would get no pity or aid. Dreaming of an egg suggested that the dreamer would hear angry voices the next day. Violets were ominous to the unmarried dreamer, foretelling great evil, but these same flowers promised joy to the married dreamer. Flowers in general, however, signified a funeral. If one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow. Dreams of serpents meant friends would turn into the bitterest of enemies, but killing a serpent in a dream foretold victory for the dreamer in waking life. Dreams about teeth always had distressing implications and seemed to be quite common, possibly suggesting the problems early modern people had with dental care. Losing a tooth meant the death of a friend, but bloody teeth foretold one’s own death. One of the worst dreams would be of drinking mustard thinned to a liquid consistency: it meant being accused of murder.
On page 41 the reader can discover how someone’s dominant humour–phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, or melancholic–could influence the dreams that person had. Those of a phlegmatic temperament dreamed of snows, rains, rivers, and drowning. Those of a choleric disposition did not sleep well, and when they did sleep they dreamed of fireworks, of fury, anger, and stabbing, and of battles. They might often dream of storms and thunder, of running swiftly or even of flying. Those who were sanguine did sleep well and had pleasant dreams of beautiful women and lovely gardens, but they could also dream of flowing streams of blood. Most terrifying were the melancholic’s dreams, which were of caves and dark places, of graves and cells, of furious beasts and falling from high places.
After glancing at general meanings of dreams, the reader can go to page 157 to sample a detailed description of a dream that a young Spanish mystic, Lucretia de Leon, had about Elizabeth I, who in the dream drank the blood of a lamb with great relish and herself cut off the head of her rival with a sword.
“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 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.
Carole Levin is Willa Cather Professor of History and Director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at the University of Nebraska. She is the author of a number of books including The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, The Reign of Elizabeth I, and the forthcoming Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds, co-authored with John Watkins. She did some of the research and writing of Dreaming the English Renaissance while on National Endowment for the Humanities long term fellowships at the Newberry Library in Chicago and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. She is the co-curator of the exhibit “To Sleep Perchance to Dream” up at the Folger Shakespeare Library, February–May, 2009.