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La nuit des sens: Rêves et illusions des sens en Angleterre et en Europe à la période moderne


Line Cottegnies et Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise

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“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep”. (The Tempest, 4. 1)

  • 1 Carole Levin, Dreaming the Renaissance Imagination: Politics and Desire in Court and Culture, Londo (...)
  • 2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Noel Malcolm, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2012, vol. 2 The Engl (...)
  • 3 Anthony Grafton, Cardanos’ Cosmos : the World and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer, Harvard, Londo (...)
  • 4 St John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Complete Works of John of the Cross, trans. ed. E. Al (...)

1Dreams have long been a subject of intense philosophical speculation, from Plato or Cicero to Descartes, and Locke, as an ontological and metaphysical threat. In his 1594 Terrors of the Night, Thomas Nashe offers a sceptical account of dreams and apparitions. He dismisses them as the combined products of superstition, melancholy or imagination: “A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested; or an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations.”1 Dreams were very early on subject to the scrutiny of both civil and religious authorities eager to control the subversive potential of what Hobbes would define as an “impertinent” or “Vnguided” “Trayne of Thoughts” or “imaginations” (Leviathan, I.3).2 Yet Descartes paradoxically uses the dream as a heuristic instrument in his demonstration that eventually leads to the famous assertion Cogito ergo sum. Dreams are also the stuff literature is made of, from the dreams of divination in Homer to the “dream visions”, a central genre of medieval literature which finds its way into other forms in the early modern period. They were a favourite topos of the theatre of the baroque period which shows a fascination for the reversibility of dreaming and waking – as in Calderón’s classic La Vida es sueño (1635) or, even more famously, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600): “Are you sure / That we are awake? It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream?” (4. 1). This issue of Etudes Epistémè takes its cue from the realization that it is impossible to study dreams per se, and that we can only analyze the narration of dream  a paradox pointed out by Anthony Grafton and Florence Dumora among others.3 It focuses on dream narrations or representations of dreams in early-modern texts to study the way in which sensory illusions, or stimuli, are described, and configured. The question is not only to interrogate dream theory, or what authors expressly believed about the meaning of dreams, but also to study the role of the senses in the dream narrations, by focusing specifically on how the texts describe sensory illusion, or sensory deprivation. What happens to the senses in this “dark night of the soul”4, to paraphrase John of the Cross? The aim of this special issue is to replace the study of dream narrations within the wider history of the senses and sensation and to think anew about the role of literature in the process of making sense of dreams in the early modern period.

2In the article entitled “Imputed Dreams: Dreaming and Knowing in Tudor England”, Mary Baine Campbell (Brandeis University) starts by examining reports of prophetic dreams by a mid-sixteenth-century Catholic servant eventually hanged for sedition, who compromized Bishop Fisher. She uses this case study to discuss the perception of dreams in the period and the aura of fear they carried. She moves on to discuss how Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare both apprehend this aspect of dreams respectively in The Terrors of the Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1595); fear, she claims, can be attributed to what the dream unleashed: the belief that souls were not strongly fixed in individual bodies, and that the borders of the body were not secure.

3In the second article, “’Either his notion weakens, or his discernings / Are lethargied’: Sleeplessness and Waking Dreams as Tragedy in Julius Caesar and King Lear”, Claude Fretz (University of Birmingham) also explores early-modern perceptions of dreams as used by Shakespeare for dramatic purposes. He draws on contemporary physiological understanding of insomnia to study Shakespeare’s representations of sleeplessness and waking hallucinations. He shows that Shakespeare turns them to dramatic uses to illustrate the hallucinating character’s suffering which constitutes him as an individual. In his turn, Mike Nolan (La Trobe University) studies the use of dreams in another play by Shakespeare, in his essay, “‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not. Dream as performance in Cymbeline”. Nolan offers a fascinating account of Posthumous’s dream and its instructive wonder, for which he finds an apt analogue in the ‘Dreaming’ of Australian Aborigines. This fruitful analogy helps us understand the ritualistic dimension of the dream in the play, and takes us back to the ontological instability pointed out by Campbell in her article.

4In “La vida es sueño de Calderón (1636): Rêver la vie, l’éducation du prince chrétien”, Florence Dumora (Université Champagne - Ardennes) continues to explore the trope of the dream in the theatre in a central text of European literature. Dumora shows how Calderón uses the artifice of the false dream as a basis for a humanistic, educational experiment whose outcome is the metamorphosis of Sigismond into a wise man and a good prince, after much suffering and soul-searching. She shows that Calderón (using the Baroque commonplace of life as a dream, which evokes the vanity of all things) paradoxically echoes Descartes’s use of the “argument of the dream” as a stage towards the cogito: the self-discovery that the process involves in Calderon’s play is closer to the rational discovery that illuminates The Discourse of the Method than to Shakespeare’s porosity between self and other as demonstrated in the previous articles on Shakespeare in this volume.

5In a way, this makes of Calderón an heir of the dream sceptics of the early seventeenth century. Nicolas Correard (Université de Nantes), in “De l’onirisme à l’ironie : les prestiges de la nuit dans l’Euphormion de Jean Barclay (1605)” deals with an early rationalistic text about dream visions, John Barclay’s enigmatic Euphormio, which has more in common with Thomas Nashe’s The Terrors of the Night than is generally believed. He interprets Euphormio as a satire of demonological tracts and of the dream narratives that these usually include. Correard analyses in fine detail what he calls the “pedagogy of incredulousness” that is staged in a fiction which uses a devious strategy of make-believe to teach and edify.

6The second half of this issue shows the influence of the Cartesian interpretation of dreams. In “Dream and sensorial illusions in seventeenth-century France”, Florence Dumora (Université Paris Diderot) offers a useful typology between the different kinds of relationships that can be established between dreams and the information garnered by the senses in the period. She distinguishes four ways of representing the relationship between dreaming and waking in the period. The first one, based on reversibility, was explored most fruitfully by Descartes in the argument of the dream. The second one posits a contiguity between waking and dreaming through the mediation of the passions which inform the dream; this she illustrates with Gombauld’s Endimion whose eponymous hero derives a lesson about love from this continuity between dream and waking. The third one is about the distortions induced by sensorial stimuli and manifested in dreams, which Aristotle had already hypothesized. Finally she uses a seventeenth century anecdote as told by Bonaventure d’Argonne to think about the case of the sleepwalker, who was thought to allow for the outward projection of the dream.

7Juliette Lancel (EHESS), in “Des illusions sensorielles qui disent le futur ? Les clés des songes au XVIIe siècle”, chooses to study a genre relatively little-known today, the book of dreams or treatise on dream interpretation, known in French as “Clé des songes” (literally “key for dreams”) A thriving genre in the seventeenth century, it paradoxically participates in a rational attempt at ordering the experience of dreaming into neat categories while offering to the readers means of interpreting their dreams to predict the future. In this respect they are already a post early-modern phenomenon: a rational method to interpret the world irrationally.

8Finally, Laïla Ghermani (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense), in her essay entitled “Ève et la nuit des sens : une analyse poétique et rationnelle de la Chute dans Paradise Lost de John Miton”, goes back to the well-known narrative of the Fall as retold by Milton to focus on the episode of the dream suggested to Eve by Satan. Milton, L. Ghermani argues, bases himself on contemporary conceptions of dreaming to explain Eve’s fault rationally. Remarking that the satanic dream is an invention of Milton, although he derived it from epic models, she claims that the description of the dream mixes precise physiological terms describing the interaction of the devil with Eve’s imagination with a more theological Calvinistic lexicon. This allows Milton to analyse Eve’s internal confusion as an inability to use her benumbed reason and to interpret her nocturnal illusions as a form of idolatry. Complicating the idea of the sensual temptation, the poet uses contemporary physiological advances to explain the source of Eve’s weakness as a difficulty to discriminate between sensorial impressions and the origin of the images produced by Satan’s enargeia.

  • 5 Hobbes, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 30.
  • 6 The expression is borrowed from Mary Baine Campbell’s essay (p. 14).

9These essays all testify to the rich epistemological texture of dreams in the early modern period. They show the remarkable continuity between philosophical and more “literary” textual forms in the treatment of dreams – which, because they defied rationality could only be dealt with thanks to non-systematic instruments of analysis, when they were not subjected to pseudo-rational modes of interpretation and containment (as is the case with the “Clés des songes”). While the latter modes of hermeneutic control, at work in popular thought and literature, simultaneously testify to the survival, in a domesticated or weakened form, of the allegorical and mantic oneiric traditions into the Renaissance and even later, these were nevertheless gradually waning. Physiological explanations to other categories of dreams as well as the idea of the abeyance of the senses during sleep and the concomitant overpowering effects of the imagination, understood as the memory of decayed sense perceptions, were not new. They had been a staple component of enduring Aristotelian approaches. However, the renewed and heightened focus in seventeenth-century literature and philosophy on sense perception or sense impression in dreams, over hermeneutic issues, gradually turned dreams into a privileged arena for an enquiry on the relation between the perceiving subject and reality or the perceived world. Dreams could at once reveal the porousness of the subject and serve as a space for the construction of the modern consciousness. This is what Descartes perfectly understood when he foregrounded his version of the “argument of the dream” as the basis of a philosophical revolution. Dreams seem to have maintained their specular quality even though they were growingly understood as “proceed(ing)” only “from the agitation of the inward parts of mans body”, in Hobbes’s mechanistic terms (Leviathan I.2).5 However, what they came to reflect was less a supernatural order than new modes of conscience and the anxieties generated by the early modern epistemological crisis. As the articles in this issue suggest, the worrying disjunctions and delusions of the senses that lay at the heart of dream experience and narration reverberated in creative ways upon literature, providing playwrights and poets with fresh aesthetic models that could articulate the upheaval of existing forms of “ontological locatedness.”6

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1 Carole Levin, Dreaming the Renaissance Imagination: Politics and Desire in Court and Culture, London and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 45.

2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Noel Malcolm, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2012, vol. 2 The English and Latin Texts (i), p. 38.

3 Anthony Grafton, Cardanos’ Cosmos : the World and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer, Harvard, London, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 19-20; Florence Dumora, L’Œuvre nocturne: Songe et Représentation au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2005, introduction, passim.

4 St John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Complete Works of John of the Cross, trans. ed. E. Allison Peers, 3 vols., Westminster, Newman, 1952.

5 Hobbes, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 30.

6 The expression is borrowed from Mary Baine Campbell’s essay (p. 14).

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Line Cottegnies et Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, « Introduction »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 30 | 2016, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2017, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Line Cottegnies

Line Cottegnies is Professor of English literature at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. She is the author of a monograph on the politics and poetics of wonder in Caroline poetry, L’Éclipse du regard : la poésie anglaise du baroque au classicisme (Geneva, Droz, 1997). She has co-edited Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish (AUP, 2003) with N. Weitz, and Women and Curiosity in Early-Modern England and France (Brill, 2016) with S. Parageau, and has published widely on seventeenth-century literature, in particular on Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn and Mary Astell. In addition with editing and translating Henry VI (Parts I, II and III), she has edited 14 plays (including 7 in collaboration with G. Venet) for the complete bilingual Gallimard edition of Shakespeare (Œuvres, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade). She has also edited Henry IV, Part 2 for Norton 3. She has recently co-edited two Elizabethan translations of Robert Garnier, Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius and Thomas Kyd’s Cornelia, with Marie-Alice Belle.

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise

Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise is Senior Lecturer in early modern English literature and cultural studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. She is a specialist of devotional poetry and the author of Le Verbe fait image (PSN, 2010), which centres on the relation between English iconoclasm and the iconic poetics of George Herbert. Her current work focuses on the materiality of poetic writing, on the function of objects in poetry and on the early modern stage. As a member of the Institut Universitaire de France (Junior Fellow), she is currently directing a collaborative project on the interactions between material culture and early modern European literature.

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