Exhibit: 'To Sleep, Perchance to Dream' at Folger Shakespeare Library

On display is "The Historie of Serpents" by Edward Topsell, who sold dragon remedies.
On display is "The Historie of Serpents" by Edward Topsell, who sold dragon remedies. (Folger Shakespeare Library - Folger Shakespeare Library)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

Before heading to bed, the medieval mind had fearful things to ponder. There was the succubus, a female demon who would gather seed from men while they slept, and her male counterpart, the incubus, who would redeposit it in unsuspecting women. These were the quintessential Nightmares, devilish figures whose presence was sensed as a heaviness, to the point of suffocation, on the chest. To ward them off, you might try a prescription of dragon guts steeped in wine.

That was the world of sleep and dreams bequeathed to people of Shakespeare's day. But, as "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream," a new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library demonstrates, these torments coexisted in early modern times with far more rational and soothing visions of dream life. In a diffuse, and at times fascinating, show, the landscape of nocturnal life in Renaissance England turns out to be a place in great flux, as new scientific and pseudoscientific ideas jangled with the old, haunted, superstitious ones.

Thomas Nash's "The Terrors of the Night," represented in the exhibition by a 1594 edition, took a refreshingly modern approach. "A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested," he wrote. Perhaps Nash went to bed hungry, because he was given to culinary metaphors for sleep. In another context, he argued that one could no more predict the future from dreams than "guess what meat is there upon a spit" from the smells coming from the kitchen.

Between Nash's almost modern view of dreams, and the succubi and incubi that still afflicted the superstitious, was a vast and unruly realm of dream interpretation, a world lost to us, like Atlantis, sunk under the waves of reason and skepticism. It's hard to get the lay of this land, though curators Carole Levin and Garrett Sullivan struggle to trace the basic outlines.

There were some fairly widely accepted beliefs. Sleep was divided into "first" and "second" sleeps: the first before midnight, the second after. Dreams from second sleep were deemed more reliable than those earlier in the night. And while medical writers differed widely on how it worked in practice, the theory of the four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) was a standard guide for dream interpretation.

There also was an important distinction between dreams and visions, which were experienced while awake. But how one sorted the two out was confusing, so much so that even at the time, writers such as Thomas Hobbes recommended going to sleep deliberately so that whatever fancies might come at night, one could be assured they were dreams, not visions.

But beyond these general distinctions, the meaning of dreams was all up in the air. Interpreters offered different meanings for different actions, from eating lettuce to picking green apples, depending on what time of year it was, the sleeper's marital status and relative wealth, and which humor governed him or her. It was bad news for someone of sanguine temperament to dream of being naked in church, but good news for someone of melancholy temperament to have the same dream.

This is arcane stuff to represent in an exhibition, but the Folger curators make a game effort. Edward Topsell, the purveyor of dragon remedies, is represented by his 1608 "The Historie of Serpents," which includes a very precise and obviously completely fanciful rendering of an adorable, winged dragon. Books on herbs and medicinal remedies are well represented, because they seemed to offer power over sleep and dreams. Gems were potent as well when it came to "dream control," a popular pseudoscience, especially for those unwilling to take more practical advice, such as avoiding heavy meals and liquor before bed.

The exhibition also includes reproductions of Elizabethan nightshirts (finely embroidered), and a case is devoted to the standard accouterments of the bed chamber, including a Bible, a prayer book, a chamber pot, and morals or adages written above the bed where they could be contemplated before and after sleep.

All of this would be merely a collection of curiosities were it not for the very real intersection of dreams with political, religious and even criminal life. The inconsistency about what dreams were made of -- whether they were real or illusory, merely "fragments of the day" or prognostication, sent by God or the Devil -- made nocturnal life particularly fraught. Some writers considered sins committed in dreams worse than sins committed in real life, because there was no one to shame the dreamer in his sleep.

During the religious wars that enveloped England, dreams played multiple roles. Writers such as John Foxe, who recorded the sufferings of Protestants in his vast "Actes and Monuments" (the show includes a 1570 edition), might disparage dreams in most contexts, but often accepted their truth when recording the dreams of someone about to be burned at the stake for heresy.

Dreams also were used to spread ideas without quite taking responsibility for them. A 1641 pamphlet called "Archy's dream," purportedly a dream by one of King Charles I's jesters, includes a vision of one of the king's enemies being brought to hell. Plots against important figures were uncovered in dreams, and a dream scene in a play (including those of Shakespeare) could be used to impute almost any crime to the dreamer.

You have the sense, surveying this chaotic realm, that a long, hard war was being fought against the irrational. Even King James I, who had once been quite superstitious, eventually turned into an amateur debunker of prodigies and a skeptic of dreams. And yet, when James had an ominous dream about his childhood tutor, he was thoroughly spooked.

That ambivalence about dreams is perhaps their last remnant in our own time. In the space of less than a century, dreams have lost almost all of their public truth value. If President Obama announced that details of the stimulus package came to him in a dream, the markets would not be enthusiastic. And most of us believe, along with Thomas Nash, that dreams are really just a confused assemblage of the previous day's thoughts, events and anxieties.

Most of the time. Like the Elizabethans, who sometimes dreamed of their queen, Americans reported their dreams invaded by figures from the campaign trail last year. We still make exceptions for our own particularly powerful and uncanny dreams. It's clear that the hard work of reason, which has mostly banished dreams from serious consideration, isn't entirely done. Dreams still fall somewhere between superstition and religion in the realm of unknowable things.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Admission is free. Through May 30. For more information go to http://www.folger.edu.

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