Significance of Anachronisms in Shakespeare’s Works

Almost all of Shakespeare’s works are spiced with a moderate amount of anachronisms. The thing with his anachronisms though is that they are not mistakes on his part. More often than not, Shakespeare introduced them purposely for “dramatic purposes”. This means that he was very much aware that he was writing an anachronism, but put them in specifically in order to produce a special artistic effect that attracts the attention of the readers and the viewers of his plays.

The clock in Julius Caesar is his most famous anachronism, because it is so obvious. But why did he put it in?

The scene is set in Brutus’ garden. While the conspirators are discussing assassination plans, the clock strikes three. Funnily, the explanation for this is also threefold:

For a month before this scene, Brutus, who was Caesar’s friend, had been mulling over agonizingly whether to be a part of the assassination or not. The striking of the clock is a parallel of the passages in the Gospels when Jesus tells Peter he will deny him thrice before the cock crows. In joining the conspirators, and convincing himself that it is the right thing to do, Brutus is betraying his friend as surely as Peter betrayed Jesus. In Shakespeare’s time, this parallel with the clock striking thrice before the sun comes up (equivalent of a cock crowing) would certainly have occurred to members of the audience, considering the influence of the Church at the time of Shakespeare.

The clock is also an allegorical representation to Brutus’s hesitation and internal turmoil, and how he joins the plan only at the very last minute. The decision is taken at 3am and Caesar will die at 8am.

Lastly, the clock is a symbol of Caesar’s “intervention” in how time is calculated. During his reign, Caeser created and implemented the Julian Calendar that was named after him. This act was a display of his enormous political power – he considers himself so powerful that he changes how time is regarded. When the clock strikes three, Brutus’s indecisiveness ends as the clock (time) reminds him of Caesar’s vanity.

Another one of Shakespeare’s famous anachronisms is how Hamlet went to University of Halle-Wittenberg, in Germany. The school was not founded until 1502, so Hamlet could not have possibly been a student there. However, by the time Hamlet was written (around 1600), Wittenberg had built up a reputation as one of the greatest seats of learning in Europe. Hamlet’s attendance at the university would confirm his intelligence to the audience, as well as helping to explain his apparent indecision with respect to the ghost. Students from the university were considered very intellectual, and would be skeptical about the existence of ghosts. This simple anachronism is very telling and provides quite an insight into the way the character’s mind works.

There is also the Benevolences Tax in Richard II. This would have been more obvious to theater goers in Shakespeare’s day. Benevolence taxes were termed gifts and were not mandatory. This came into existence almost 75 years after Richard II’s death (1400). Although they were declared unlawful almost immediately in 1484 they were still used until the time of James I in early 1600s. A mention of them in Richard II was yet another blow at the ineffectual king’s extravagance. Contemporary audiences would have understood and identified with the anger benevolences had generated and added yet another layer of inefficiency to the character.

Shakespeare follows a similar pattern to convey messages via factual errors in his works. For example, in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare keeps his Bohemia coastal while it is actually a landlocked territory. This is in deference to Robert Green’s Pandosto, where Bohemia is coastal. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s Hermione survives while her equivalent in Pandosto (Bellaria) dies, Shakespeare gives a nod to his inspiration. The Winter’s Tale features yet another anachronism – the Oracle at Delphi.

Another famous anachronism is Cleopatra wanting to play billiards. Billiards was invented almost 2000 years after her reign, but was a game of luxury and masculine entertainment during Shakespeare’s times. The audience then would have equated that it was an allusion to Cleopatra’s enormous political power. Of course, the game that let her “thrust balls into pockets” was also used as an instrument for her numerous mocking double entendres to Mardian, the eunuch.

There are many more:
In King Henry IV, Richard the Third compares himself to Machiavelli, who would have been but an infant during the time the play is set.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, characters are bestowed dukedom (a concept that wasn’t in existence during the play’s timeset), and given guns.
In Troilus and Cressida, Hector talks about Aristotle, who in reality was born centuries after the supposed time of the Trojan War.

One of the very few anachronisms that haven’t been explained to date (as far as I know, please correct me if I’m wrong) is the use of the word “dollar” in the context of currency in Macbeth. So we’ll pass that one off as a mistake.

The only known work with no anachronisms is Romeo and Juliet (again, as far as I know) since it was set very close to Shakespeare’s time.

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3 comments on “Significance of Anachronisms in Shakespeare’s Works

  1. Rob Saunders

    I enjoyed your article, especially the threefold explanation of Caesar’s clock.

    I have often wondered whether there is another “clock” anachronism in Macbeth, in Fleance’s line “The moon is down: I have not heard the clock” when he’s saying he isn’t sure what time of night it is. If he is referring to a striking clock he’s about four centuries too early.

    The “dollar” derives from the German Thaler which didn’t come in until the 15th century, though it fairly soon caught on in Scotland. So WS would just have been referring to coins his audiences would have encountered if they travelled north of the border. My guess is that he wanted to provide a bit of local colour in the same way that he might have referred to kilts, haggis or whisky. Just his bad luck he picked one that was anachronistic.

    1. Sandrova

      Thanks for the comment, Rob! I agree with you about having a coin provide a local flavor – they were plays performed in front of audiences of the time, after all. I’ve also concluded that the dollar was just his bad luck! I don’t see a dramatic purpose behind it, and I can’t find much research on it either.

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