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Night Time in Shakespeare

Night Time in Shakespeare


‘How goes the night, boy?’, asks Banquo of Fleance in the opening line of Act Two of ‘Macbeth’ – and insignificant though this question may seem on the surface, it’s actually quite important for the audience to know that, although it’s mid-afternoon at the Globe Theatre, in Inverness it’s night, and the deed has not yet been done.  Artificial lighting was of course in short supply at the Globe (it plays a more prominent role in the late plays written for the Blackfriars Theatre), and Shakespeare is simply using his characters’ dialogue to compensate for the technical shortcomings of his theatre. 

The closing act of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has a very different atmosphere to the opening scenes of ‘Macbeth’, but Shakespeare uses the same technique to put his audience in the picture.  Lorenzo has escaped from Venice to Belmont with his lover Jessica, and the scene is unambiguously romantic: ‘The moon shines bright’, Lorenzo observes at the opening of Act Five, immediately placing the audience in time and place; ‘in such a night as this, / When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / And they did make no noise, in such a night / Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls / And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents, / Where Cressid lay that night’.  The theatre’s special effects are all in the imagination of his mid-afternoon audience as the playwright smoothly establishes time and romantic mood.

But once it has been established that night has fallen, what is its significance in Shakespeare’s plays? How is it used? In practice, night has numerous roles here, setting the tone for a wide range of moods, from murder to romance.  Broadly, these uses cover four areas: night is used for crime in Shakespeare, and of course for killing; night is also used (as we have seen) for love, sex and romance; it is used for ghosts and dreams, and finally, it provides the backdrop for deception and (more surprisingly, perhaps) for revelation.

A study of night and day in ‘Macbeth’ would reveal that (apart from the murder of Macduff’s family) all the most powerful scenes take place at night: the vision of the dagger, the aftermath to the murder of Duncan, the feast at which Banquo’s ghost appears, Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking.  Even the witches catch the drift of the play, denounced as ‘secret, black and midnight hags’.  The murder of Duncan is the climactic moment of the play, eliciting Macbeth’s reaction that he has murdered sleep.  Soon afterwards, we discover that various natural offences have taken place under cover of darkness: ‘by the clock, ‘tis day’, notes Ross, ‘And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp: / Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, / That darkness does the face of earth entomb, / When living light should kiss it?’ The Old Man to whom this question is addressed draws the obvious parallel: ‘’Tis unnatural’, he agrees, ‘Even like the deed that’s done’. The murder of Duncan belongs to the night.

There are many other nefarious episodes in Shakespeare, conducted under the cover of ‘sealing night’, but the point hardly needs labouring.  Some matter little – Valentine’s plans to spring the Duke’s daughter from her nocturnal imprisonment in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, for example – while others are harder to forgive: for example Don John’s attempts to deceive Hero’s family that she is conducting an affair in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ on the eve of her wedding, the innocent reality hidden by darkness.  Perhaps the most egregious is Othello’s murder of Desdemona, foreshadowed in her instructions to Emilia – ‘Prithee, tonight, / Lay on my bed my wedding sheets’: as if to say she knows her fate and the appointed time for its enactment.

Earlier in ‘Othello’, night seemed to be the time for love, not murder.  The Herald announces that the evening will be devoted to carousing while Othello retires to bed to enjoy his conjugal rights with his young bride.  Certainly the night is made (in Byron’s words) for loving in comedies like ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – two plays in which lovers come together under cover of darkness without apparently being quite clear who their partners are.  More conventional approaches to love underwrite ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a play in which night is represented three times: once in the orchard when they talk for the first time; next in the small hours of the night they spend together as they dispute whether the birdsong was the nightingale or the lark; and finally in the churchyard at the Capulets’ vault.  Here, night is presented as a time for love and freedom before the final confusion.

A plainer equation of night with love emerges in one of only two Shakespeare plays to carry the word ‘night’ in its title, a play that celebrates the shortest night of the year. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ opens with the forthcoming marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta, proceeds to the putative romances of Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander (in whatever combinations), survives the falling out of Oberon and Titania, and closes on the romantic yearning (as portrayed by the rude mechanicals) of Pyramus and Thisbe.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature two or three marriages; few explore five.  The other play with ‘night’ in its title, incidentally, as devotees of ‘Twelfth Night’ will know, explores three.

Love and death: but ghosts too belong to the night, and Shakespeare makes full use of them.  They come in two types: in ‘Hamlet’ the ghost of the prince’s father, the late king, is no hallucination, having also been seen by Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo (‘Looks it not like the king?’ he asks his companions). Earlier, the same Barnardo had noted that the clock ‘had now struck twelve’, and he adds ‘Get thee to bed, Francisco’.  The equation is clear: ghosts belong to the night.  Later, when Hamlet is berating his mother in Act Three Scene Four, the late king’s ghost reappears (according to the stage directions) ‘in his nightgown’ – the connection with night reinforced.

The appearance of Banquo in ‘Macbeth’ is also a nocturnal phenomenon, though on this occasion, only one character can see the ghost.  Other ghosts keep to the same time-table: Richard III is visited by the ghosts of his victims on the night before Bosworth – ten in all; in ‘Cymbeline’ the ghosts of his mother, father and brother visit Posthumus on the night before his execution; in ‘Julius Caesar’, Brutus is haunted by the ghost of the late Roman leader, who visits him twice, ‘at Sardis once, and this last night’.  He stabs himself to death with the ghost uppermost in his mind.

Finally, night is the time for deception – and sometimes revelation.  On the night before Agincourt, for example, Henry V borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, intending to go disguised among his men to test their spirits.  His disguise remains intact until he chooses to reveal it after the battle.  This is in the nature of disguise and deception at night in Shakespeare’s plays.  Other examples have already been mentioned: the substitution of Helena for Diana in Bertram’s bed in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ for instance, and a similar manoeuvre involving Isabella and Mariana in ‘Measure for Measure’.  In all these cases, the deception is successful.

Less successful are Valentine’s plans in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ to liberate Silvia at night from her father’s imprisonment – Proteus gives the game away in an attempt to curry favour with the Duke – and Don John’s Machiavellian attempts in ‘Much Ado’ to blacken the name of Hero before her wedding: all is revealed in the final act when the unlikely figure of Dogberry joins up the dots.  Nonetheless, successful or otherwise, night time is used to deceive, or to attempt to, for good or ill.

In general night has an emblematic role in Shakespeare: at times it serves to conceal what needs to be hidden – ‘Come, thick night’, exclaims Lady Macbeth, ‘And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, / That my keen knife sees not the wound it makes, / Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark’, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Macbeth.  By contrast, in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the night is the time for magic and mischief, for what Oberon describes as ‘night-rule now about this haunted grove’. Either way, the effort Shakespeare invests in conveying to his audience what time of day (or night) is meant is a routine but essential feature of his use of time in these plays.

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