Musings on Shakespeare’s Anachronisms

Shakespeare shrugs?

When the clock struck three in Julius Caesar, you probably scratched your head, knowing that striking clocks didn’t exist two millennia ago in the play’s setting. In Caesar’s time, people checked sundials or water clocks (clepsydra), neither of which — inconveniently for the Bard — chimed. It would be almost 1,300 years after Caesar that the first “weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England” (in1283). It’s just one of several well-known anachronisms in Shakespeare’s plays. Roman timekeeping by sundial also meant that hours varied from 45 to 75 minutes long, depending on the season, and no one could use one to check the time after sunset.

Were they mistakes? Ignorance? A confused modernist view of the past? Or a deliberate device to remind the audience of the contemporary relevance of his works, and connect past events with contemporary political concerns? Or a mix of these?

The word anachronism means “an error in computing time or finding dates.” It comes from Latin “anachronismus,” which itself derives from the Greek word “anakhronismos,” (ana = “against” and khronos = “time”). It means “something out of harmony” with time”\ and “a chronological mistake; the erroneous dating of an event, circumstance, or object. A person or thing which seems to belong to a different time or period of time.”

But it’s not limited to physical objects:  “it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material/textile, a plant or animal, a custom or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain.”

There are different sorts of anachronism, too:

Parachronism. Anything that appears in the wrong time period. This could be an object, a colloquial expression, or a social custom associated with a specific time period appearing in the wrong era or outside of its general use. For example, a modern-day person using a washboard to clean clothes instead of a washing machine.
Prochronism. Considered an impossible anachronism, this relates to something—an object or concept—used in a literary work or movie long before its invention (like a microwave in the Stone Age).
Behavioral or cultural anachronism. Bringing archaic objects or ideas into the modern-day as an aesthetic choice. For example, a person carrying a conversation in Latin in the twenty-first century.

The chiming clock is only one of several anachronisms in The Bard’s works. Mentalfloss identifies six:

  • The clock in Julius Caesar;
  • The doublet in Julius Caesar;
  • The billiards game in Antony And Cleopatra;
  • The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry Vi;
  • The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida;
  • The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There are many others. For example, in Julius Caesar, Cassius refers to the”northern star” which wasn’t named as such in Caesar’s time. Cassius also refers to books, a note-book, and Brutus refers to a book with the “the leaf turn’d down”. Those characters would have read and written on scrolls, not books: printed books with a “leaf” (i.e. page) wouldn’t appear until much later. And Casca refers to “sweaty night-caps” although they were modern: there’s nothing to suggest Romans wore such nighttime headgear (Romans went bare-headed). And here are  a few others:

  • In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare presents a medieval code of chivalry in an ancient Greek (Trojan War) setting;
  • Edmund mentions Bedlam in King Lear although it wasn’t a hospital for the mentally ill until Henry VIII’s time;
  • Benevolence taxes are mentioned in Richard II although not implemented until 1473 by Edward IV; 
  • English fairies appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the mythic age of Greece, and in the same play Theseus mentions Saint Valentine whose day was not celebrated until 496 CE;
  • In I Henry IV, Prince Henry (Hal) mentions shooting birds with pistols, which hadn’t been invented then (the word itself doesn’t appear in English until 1570);
  • In Timon of Athens Shakespeare describes a senate and senators, but this legislative body came much later, with the Romans;
  • In Hamlet (set 100-200 years before Shakespeare’s time) there are references to the firing of cannons which were not in widespread use in Europe then and wouldn’t be until the 16th century; also Hamlet is said to be a student at Wittenberg University, which was founded in 1502;
  • Also in King John, the English and French use cannons to besiege the walled city of Angers, centuries before such artillery was used in Europe. The play also refers to “bullets” a term for cannonballs not in use until the 1550s;
  • In Henry V, Act 5, At the beginning of Act V, the Chorus says Henry is “from Ireland coming, Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword.” That reflects the contemporary Tudor conflicts in Ireland, not those of Henry V’s time;
  • In Macbeth, Act 1 Sc. 2 Ross mentions “dollars” as currency although that currency wasn’t invented then (the word derives from the German daler, a coin of the 1550s).

Shakespeare would be in good company, today. Hollywood historical or period-piece films are often rife with them. If you watched the TV series, The Tudors, you would have seen several. The Netflix series Bridgeton, too, was full of anachronisms, allegedly many of them deliberate. Some, like the zippers seen on the costumes in the recent film version of The Tempest, are accidental.

Shakespeare, writing barely more than a century since the invention of moveable type and mass printing by Gutenberg, did not have the access to histories and encyclopedias we have today. There was no Google or Wikipedia, or even a comprehensive dictionary four-and-a-bit centuries ago. He may be forgiven a few historical errors. But what’s the excuse for modern screenwriters and authors?

Author Jennifer Scoullar wrote,

Anachronisms can crop up in a hundred ways – a change in the geography of a town, forgetting to check when introduced animals or plants arrived (for example, trout were only introduced to Tasmania in 1864) or simply using out of context word choices. Historical writers need to be constantly on the alert. People often say, ‘I really liked the story, but then such-and-such happened and I couldn’t get past it.’ It would be a shame to lose readers for want of a little research.

But Shakespeare’s anachronisms were sometimes deliberate: in history plays he often conflated events for the sake of the drama, or simply for artistic effect. And like many of his Renaissance contemporaries, he likely underestimated the temporal and cultural distance between his time and the past of his plays. As Hamlet quips, “Time is out of joint.” (as did Cicero in Julius Caesar: “Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time.”)

But it might also be simply his use of “kairos” or “…knowing what is most appropriate in a given situation; for our purposes, let’s think of it as saying (or writing) the right thing at the right time.”

And there were linguistic anachronisms in his writing, too. In many plays, he used new words — neologisms — some of which he concocted himself. These words wouldn’t have been in use in the historical periods the plays were set in. And he also used older words (archaisms) no longer in common use (at least in London), such as clep, eke, eyne, hight, and forthy. Most of these were drawn from Chaucer and his contemporaries (See David & Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion, p.22).

The Bard’s anachronisms may leave modern readers scratching their heads, but some uses were likely meant to keep his audience connected to the present and his works relevant to them. His audience would have had, in Coleridge’s words, a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Others were probably just errors in his historical knowledge. They may seem blemishes, but make little or no dramatic difference to the plays, and should not affect your enjoyment of them. As noted on LiteraryTerms.net:

Shakespeare did this because he wanted his plays to be staged as though the events were happening in his own day, much the way we might do with a “modernized” version of old stories. (Imagine, for example, a “Shakespeare” biopic in which the bard is sitting in a café in Brooklyn, typing out Macbeth on his laptop. This would be a deliberate anachronism, since everyone knows Shakespeare never owned a computer.)

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