October 20th 2018

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COVER STORY Internal strife at Fortress ABC by Peter Westmore

EDITORIAL The state is separating children from families

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals are bare favourites for Wentworth

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EUROPE Attempt to discipline Hungary divides the EU

CHINA Social Credit System gives complete control of every citizen

EDUCATION Curriculum refinements will not fix schools

BANKING ROYAL COMMISSION Banks' failures are a symptom of social malaise

HISTORY Moby Dick and American exceptionalism

SHAKESPEARE Tick-tock: clues to the timeless appear of the Bard

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Trump to UN: we'll do it our way; you do it yours

MUSIC Well-tempered scale: might put an alien in a bad temper

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CLIMATE CHANGE Hockey 1, hockey 2: Good science contradicts IPCC's two-degree alarmism

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Tick-tock: clues to the timeless appear of the Bard

by David James

News Weekly, October 20, 2018

William Shakespeare was undoubtedly the world’s greatest playwright but he may not have been an exceptional creator of stories. He wrote only two original plots: The Tempest and The Merry Wives of Windsor, neither of which is principally remarkable for its narrative.

His genius was rather one of animation: the ability to bring to life fictional characters, many of which pose some of the most profound questions ever asked about our existence. Yet it is, of course, all illusion. None of the characters is real, any more than a sculptor’s chisel can “cut breath”. Pivotal to that illusion is Shakespeare’s kaleidoscopic use of time, a feature of his dramaturgy that marks him out as unique. Shakespeare’s method seems to have been to take an existing story and imagine how the characters, individually or collectively, would have perceived time.

Dramatists typically expend most of their imaginative effort devising how time is shaped in the plot. Shakespeare instead took an existing tale – in effect, borrowed someone else’s shaping of time, albeit making his own subtle alte­rations – and concentrated instead on the multifarious ways that time might be perceived by the characters. By sparing himself one of the “time tasks” of a playwright – to create characters and a story with a beginning, middle and end – he was able to explore other aspects of time in depth.

These illusions are powerful because we can readily imagine different experiences of time. As Samuel Johnson observed: “time is, of all modes of existence, the most obsequious to the imagination.” And they remain seductive for audiences of any era – perhaps one reason why Shakespeare’s works, despite being over four centuries old, continue to be fresh. Historical and literary conditions change, but the experience of time, and our ability to imagine it, does not.

All playwrights manipulate time to some extent and some of Shakespeare’s techniques can be found elsewhere, such as Anton Chekhov’s characters’ heavy allusions to the past, or Samuel Beckett’s ironic use of a transient present, pitted against an anticipated future.

But Shakespeare’s use of time is like no other. It is both extraordinarily varied – time travels “in divers paces with divers persons” in his plays – and realised on multiple levels. There is often the precise depiction of objective clock time. There is in some plays the clear outline of socially defined, intersubjective times. And there are vivid depictions of idiosyncratic, psychological time, shaped in distinct ways to bring out a character’s nature.

Shakespeare’s heavy emphasis on time – his focus is just as strong in the drama as it is in the sonnets – sheds light on one of the puzzles of his plays. Why are they, to an unparalleled extent, both great drama and great poetry? One reason is that, because so many of Shakespeare’s metaphors and habits of association are related to time, he was able seamlessly to combine poetic language and dramatic illusions.

These “time signatures” fuse dramatic and literary effects by blending tem­porality with other thematic and charac­terological concerns. When Iago refers to events being delivered “in the womb of time” (Othello I,3,370), there is at once an evocative metaphor of threat, a depiction of Iago’s perverse appetite for control, a hint at Desdemona’s severing of her lineage, her father’s expectations, and an exciting of the audience’s interest in the progress of the story.

The time signatures

Let us consider just three of Shakespeare’s many “time signatures”. The most common metaphor he used is what might be termed the “lineage signature”. The playwright was intrigued by the idea that having children might be considered a way to overcome time; it was the advice he offered to the young man in the first 13 sonnets. The notion is based on the, probably Platonic, theme of conquering time through having children: immortality through progeny.

In the sonnets, the notion of having children as a means of conquering time is subsequently discarded in favour of the claim that art is able to approximate eternity. But the association is repeatedly used in the plays.

Typical of the lineage signature is the use of words or phrases such as “issue”, “succeed”, and “deliver” to denote the future, or expressions such as “the unborn event”, “the unborn times”, “some sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb”, “the baby figure of the giant mass of things to come at large”, “every minute now should be the father of some stratagem”.

Lineage is much used as a means of revealing the past, as for example with Leontes’ comparison with his son in The Winters Tale, Queen Margaret’s terrible reminders of prior events in Richard III, or, less conspicuously, Isabella’s comment in Measure For Measure: “There my father’s grave/Did utter forth a voice.” and Much Ado About Nothing: “Out ‘a question/You were born in a merry hour.”

Disharmony is often depicted as a lineal rupture; Illegitimate characters are often represented as either evil or creators of disorder, such as Gloucester’s description of his own birth. This brings into the play an illusory past:

For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward.
Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste,
And seek their ruin that usurp’d our right?
The midwife wonder’d and the women cried.
“O Jesus, bless us, he is born with teeth!”

(3 Henry VI, 5,6,70-75)

In Macbeth, lineal details and metaphors are crucial, such as the prophecy that Macbeth will not die of man from woman born, and Lady Macbeth’s attack on her own power to reproduce:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


Hamlet’s disgust with the “out of joint” time in which he finds himself is partly communicated in lineal terms, evident in his rejection of Ophelia:

Why woulds’t thou be a breeder
of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I
could accuse me of such things that it were better
my mother had not borne me.

(III, 1,120-23)

A second “time signature”, which starts out as an illusion and is often extended into metaphor, can be called the “age signature”. When a character walks on stage and claims to be 50 years old, we are encouraged to believe that, despite having seen him or her for only a short period of actual time, that character carries a sense of 50 years of history.

Shakespeare pays unusually close attention to the age of his characters – we are often told exact details – and explores it in a variety of ways. For older characters, there is often a comparison between current realities and former glories.

For example, the Montagues’ lamentation of lost youth in Romeo and Juliet forms a sharp contrast with the impetuous youth of the tragic lovers. The idea that old age confers wisdom is often parodied, as for instance with Polonius in Hamlet and King Lear. The link between time and age is made explicit with Nestor in Troilus and Cressida, who is “instructed by the antiquary times” and has “so long walk’d hand in hand with Time” (IV,5,202-203).

Youth, by contrast, is usually portrayed as analogous to impetuosity and lack of judgement. Percy in Richard II talks of elder days “ripening and confirming his service”, which underlines his impetuosity and claim to the throne that is untested by time.

Falstaff’s age is key to his appeal, whether it is his attempt to pretend to be ageless, or to provoke sympathy for being old. (Harry’s crushing line in Henry IV, part 2: “I know thee not, old man”, brings it all to a terrible halt; time has moved on and Falstaff has been left behind.)

A third time signature is patience. This is the illusion that a period of time has to be endured. It is the opposite of the illusion of speed, another common Shakespearean device: the impression that events are occurring too quickly. Patience is presented as the virtue of withstanding time’s vicissitudes (sometimes he comically refers to the patience that audiences have to have while they watch the play). This creates the sense that the time we are seeing on stage has a past and probable future, neither of which the audience witnesses.

The trope can be used to encourage hope about the way events will unfold. Thus Isabella in Measure for Measure, calls for patience so that “with ripened time” Angelo’s evil will become apparent (5,1,116). It can be an indication of lost hope, of impending tragedy. Thus Ophelia says she must be patient, “but I cannot choose but weep” (Hamlet, 4,5,69).

It can be used as an element of character development, such as the manner in which Hotspur’s inevitable demise is prefigured by several references to his impatience in 1 Henry IV. It can be used to create dramatic tension, such as when Viola in Twelfth Night pictures herself enduring an unfavourable fate, sitting like “patience on a monument, smiling at grief” (2,4,114-115).

It can be used to show weakness of character, such as when Troilus unsuccessfully attempts to be patient on discovering Cressida’s infidelity. Or it can be used ironically, as when Iago advises Othello to have patience once he knows that the Moor is consumed by jealousy and has lost all control over himself.

These “time signatures” – and there are many more of them – create, when combined with the complex depictions of clock time, social time and internal, psychological time, a web of temporal strands that ensnares the theatre watcher and reader alike.

The sphinx

Shakespeare’s dense use of time goes some way to explaining why the meaning of his plays can be so elusive. If meaning is relations in time, and time in Shakespeare is multilayered, then there are accordingly many available meanings in the plays. Because there are so many illusions and temporal trails, observers can choose into which they wish to be drawn. It contributes to the sphinx-like quality of the plays. To stare into time is to stare into the heart of mysteries.

Shakespeare’s virtuosic use of time has, for the most part, remained hidden in plain sight. The vast majority of the voluminous commentary on his work – in the Dewey decimal library system, books on Shakespeare have their own separate number: 822.33 – has been literary criticism aimed at interpreting, or uncovering, meanings in the text. It has been less common to examine the dramaturgical artifice that led to those layers of meaning being there in the first place.

Consider, for example, the so-called “time problem” in Othello, which has led to intense speculation among critics about what Shakespeare was “saying”. According to critic A.C. Bradley, Othello kills his wife less than two days after the consummation of their marriage. It is probably just a mistake, but that has not stopped it being examined extensively by literary critics for hidden meanings.

Few have asked the question: “Why is it possible to construct the time scheme so precisely in the first place?” Shakespeare used all aspects of time to breathe life into his creations, including creating precise clock schemes.

The confusion in the play is probably due to Shakespeare mixing up his chronographic illusions as he develops his portrayal of Desdemona. Shakespeare was contrasting Desdemona’s urgency and clear sense of the passage of their marriage with Othello’s vague, even timeless, sense of the future, based on his belief that the marriage represents the culmination of his history (“She lov’d me for the dangers I have pass’d/And I lov’d her that she did pity them.” 1,3,167-8).

We can see the contrast in the following excerpt:

Othello:  If it were now to die,
‘were now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Desdemona:  The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow!


The couple’s different senses of the future are played out as an argument over clock time, when Desdemona tries to resolve the dispute with Cassio:

Desdemona:  Good love, call him back.

Othello:  Not now, sweet Desdemona: some other time.

Desdemona:  But shall’t be shortly?

Othello:  The sooner, sweet, for you.

Desdemona:  Shall’t be tonight at supper?

Othello:  No, not tonight.

Desdemona:  To-morrow dinner, then?

Othello:  I shall not dine at home.
I meet the captains at the citadel.

Desdemona:  Why then, tomorrow night, or Tuesday morn;
On Tuesday noon, or night; on We’n’sday morn.
I prithee name the time, but let it not Exceed three days.


Any confusion about the time scheme of the action does not greatly trouble people in the theatre, who are agreeing to illusions anyway. Indeed, what is surprising is not that there is a temporal problem in Othello, but that mistakes did not happen more often. Most of Shakespeare’s clock time schemes are consistent and plausible, evidence of great skill and careful attention.

While literary critics have not focused greatly on Shakespeare’s artifice of time, some dramatists – practitioners – have noted its significance. British playwright and novelist J.B. Priestley had this to say: “Time … was one of his favourite words. He was himself both a time-haunted and time-defying man. He was also a dramatist, speaking in many voices. According to their circumstances and moods, his characters give time many different and often contradictory meanings.”

German playwright Goethe identified the importance of time to Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, fascinated at how it worked: “His people seem to be natural people, and yet they are not. These most mysterious and complex creatures of Nature act before us in his plays as if they were clocks, the faces and casings of which have been formed from crystal – they show the course of the hours according to their function, and at the same time one can perceive the gears and springs which drive them.”

Time illusions are central to dramatic effect. If an actor suggests that he has only five minutes to perform a critical act and then two minutes later in real time appears to be too late, the audience has no problem agreeing to the illusion. If he says he is 40 years old and entering the decline of his years, we have no problem believing this, even if he has been on stage only 30 seconds. If he recalls a past hurt and then proceeds to act with reference to that remembered injury, we have no difficulty believing that it did occur, unless we are given specific indications to the contrary.

Such time illusions in Shakespeare have perhaps gone largely unnoticed precisely because they are so effective. When Lear recalls how soft Cordelia’s voice was, or Romeo rushes in vain (he thinks) to catch Juliet, we are so caught up in the created effects that we do not pause to think that they have been deliberately constructed by the playwright. Indeed, if we did, they would lose their power. Yet these devices must have required considerable craft and reflection.

The plays

Shakespeare’s use of time illusions and metaphors is sporadic. There is almost nothing in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance (apart from the opening, where there are some comments about time passing in the theatre), or the early History plays. There are also different emphases in the different genres.

The Comedies tend to emphasise objective, clock time. Many of the conflicts are built around simple mistiming. Sometimes that outer world of time is invested with a poetic quality, such as the magical world of the night in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the pastoral time of the forest in As You Like It, which is contrasted with time in the court. For the most part, however, the characters are involved in a fairly straightforward battle with the capricious twists and turns of the clock.

There are variations, though. In the Comedy of Errors, the action takes place between midday and five pm and the illusion is created of the need for haste: “the hour steals on” (IV,1,52). Love’s Labour’s Lost is based on the illusion for the need for speed, constancy of purpose and suitable timing: “wait the season, and observe the times” (V,2,63).

In Twelfth Night, the conflicts are largely centred on the exploration of the relationship between love and time: observations about the speed of love’s affliction, misplaced patterns of anticipation and false expectations, and the hasty pursuit of amorous opportunities. All’s Well that Ends Well is partly predicated on the illusion that the older generation is running out of time to put its stamp of value on the new generation, contrasting the past and the present.

The History plays tend to emphasise intersubjective, social time, rather than clock time. The dramatic conflict is mostly defined as the abilities of the various protagonists to read the “times”. Those who interpret them thrive; those who do not are destroyed. These plays locate their action within a longer temporal continuum; they have both an implied prehistory and an afterlife, within which more idiosyncratic understandings of individual characters are subsumed.

It is in the Tragedies that we see the full flowering of Shakespeare’s time illusions and deep examination of different psychological views of time. For instance, in Macbeth three time schemes can be detected. Macbeth appears to be constantly trying to catch up with time – his vaulting ambition that “o’erleaps itself” (I,7,26) – that sees him try to gain ever more speed until he finally realises he is defeated and then rejects time itself with his famous speech: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace” (note his contempt for time “creeping”, its slowness).

Lady Macbeth has only one moment in the play. She anticipates the murder of the King Duncan, and shows determination in the moment of the killing that Macbeth lacks. But she expects the moment to be sufficient. She cannot assuage Macbeth’s fears and eventually goes mad repeating the past. For her, there is only one moment.

These are powerful depictions of psychological time, but the temporal tapestry is made more complex by the outline of a social time in the play. Lady Macbeth’s admonition to her husband to “beguile the time” (1,5,63) is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first use of the word “time” to refer to communal perceptions.

This social time is cyclical: birth and death, sin and retribution. What Shakespeare suggests is that we are witnessing a brief interim in which the natural cycles of history are arrested. For the minor characters, the conflict is defined as the need to wait for those cycles to re-establish themselves.

In King Lear, the dramatic conflict is defined by the depiction of two contrasting psychological worlds of time. The first, exemplified by the play’s virtuous characters, is a moral and teleological perspective. It implies the observance of duty over a long period, a strong consciousness of prior filial events, and a future hope for just recompense from God or the “gods”. As Edgar says: “Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither/Ripeness is all.” (5,2,9-11). These characters see time in terms of endurance, patience: the very quality Lear lacks when he rejects Cordelia and sets off the tragic events.

The second time world in Lear, exemplified by the evil characters, is an opportunistic attention to each moment for personal gain. For these characters, time is conceived as the need for haste in grabbing any gains offered by fortune – time is simply a series of disconnected occasions. Symptomatically, they focus, for example, on how “full of changes” their father is (I,1,288), presenting their betrayal as a necessary adaptation to new circumstances, which allows them to disconnect themselves from the past.

The other major tragedies have equally complex depictions of psychological time. There is the illusion of Hamlet’s delay, his sense that the time is “out of joint”, his fascination with how time after death shapes action in this life and his rejection of intent in preference for waiting for a divinely sanctioned moment:

There is special providence
in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet
it will come – the readiness is all.


Perhaps most enigmatic are Cleopatra’s “immortal longings”; her vivid, histrionic changes in the moment, which contrast with Antony’s dull sense of a lost past of honour, or Caesar’s even duller sense of a successful future.

There are the intense, heightened moments of love in Romeo and Juliet – much of the action is on the cusp of dawn, the “lightning” – which are contrasted with mistiming and unwise speed: “Therefore love moderately/long love doth so/Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (II,6,14-15).

These various time illusions are used insistently and, for the most part, consistently, especially in the Tragedies. It seems meditating on time became a way for Shakespeare to bring his extraordinary characters to life.

David James is a regular columnist for News Weekly. He obtained his doctorate from Monash University with a thesis on Illusions of Time in Shakespeare’s plays, of which the above is a condensed extract. He is also a musician and songwriter and has produced an album of songs based on speeches from Shakespeare’s plays, Globe: A Musical Journey through Shakespeare’s Plays.

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