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From Plot Device to Philosophy : Shakespeare and Time

Anna Monks

Shakespeare’s works suggest that 16th century audiences cared about time as much as we do.
The Bard used a variety of time measurements to develop his plots and discuss the meaning of life.

Picture of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Measuring Time in the 16th Century

Perceptions of time were changing in 16th Century Europe. Education was based on rediscovered Greek and Latin writers and their Histories. At grammar school in Stratford, Shakespeare gained knowledge of centuries of European history. Meanwhile, technologists were trying to develop accurate clocks to help the merchant ships sailing to the Americas and Indies. Navigators struggled to find correct longitude without accurate timepieces. In the Merchant of Venice, Salerio refers to the “sandy hour-glass” when describing Antonio’s ships in danger at sea.

On dry land, days had been measured using sundials, water clocks, hourglasses and candles. However, during the previous two centuries, mechanical technology had progressed and now many churches boasted chimes which rang out the hours across a parish. These bells were worked by gearing systems which were wound up at intervals. In fact the word “clock” derives from the French and German words for bell.

There is a fine example of an early church clock in Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire. (see their website for an excellent description)

Meetings and Deadlines

Without the modern tyranny of exact time the characters make all sorts of interesting arrangements. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is set in a forest, meeting times include “tomorrow night”, “by moonlight”, the new moon and “midnight”. The modern urban characters in The Merchant of Venice speak of “dinner-time”, “forthwith”, “supper-time”, “four o’clock”, “six o’clock in the morning” and many mentions of “hours”. The audiences would know that people in Venice would know the time by the church chimes.
Despite the slower pace of life, Shakespeare used the elasticity of time to create dramatic tension. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck impresses an impatient Oberon by claiming he can circle the earth in 40 minutes. Audiences knew that it took ships months to circumnavigate the earth, so this startling claim showed the supernatural power of the fairy.
In contrast in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is given three months to repay his loan. Yet the drama reaches a crisis, in a court scene, when Antonio is minutes from death before Portia saves him with her cunning legal point.
One of the best known deadlines is “the Ides of March” when Julius Caesar met his end. Presumably the audience would have recognised this date from the Roman calendar.
It looks as Shakespeare matched his time references carefully to the settings.

Time and the Meaning of Life

Shakespeare really exploits the imagery of time in his metaphors for human experience. Jacques light-heartedly divides a man’s life into seven ages in As You Like It, neatly mirroring the bible’s “three score years and ten”.
In a more romantic vein Sonnet 18 seeks to capture youth for ever. The metaphorical “eternal summer” is caught in the poem and grows in time through the “eternal lines”. We see the Bard moving easily between delineated time and eternity in a secular context.
Of course Shakespeare could be bleak and Macbeth exemplifies this in his “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech. The yesterdays, the days and tomorrows are all for nothing and recorded time will end in darkness.

These are only a small sample of his works, but they show a man who thought deeply about the significance of Time and its relationship with both the individual and the whole of humanity.


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