How to control dreams and avoid nightmares… and the ghost visitations in ‘Richard III’

Richard III and his dreams
Richard III, act 5 scene 3, in the tent, Richard asleep, ghosts of persons he had murdered. Painted by J. Opie, R.A. ; engraved by W. Sharp. Published 1794. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Nightmares and ominous dreams are used to great dramatic effect in plays such as Shakespeare’s Richard III. Act I of Shakespeare’s Richard III ends with the murder of the Duke of Clarence, presaged by the dream of drowning he recounts at the start of the scene. Just as the dream is about to end, howling fiends seize the terrified Clarence to take him to hell.

In the same play, Richard III has a troubled sleep on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. Visited by the ghosts of those whose deaths he caused, he dreams the battle is in progress. As the last ghost leaves, he awakens with a start shouting “Give me another horse; bind up my wounds. Have mercy, Jesu!”

While some people in Renaissance England believed dreams could be regulated through prayer or a healthy diet, others had more elaborate methods for controlling them. These included such strategies as wearing certain kinds of gemstones or imbibing potions with fanciful components such as dragon’s tongue, or rubbing one’s temples with lapwing’s blood. The desire to avoid nightmares, or “terrors of the night,” led to the circulation of these recipes in manuscript.

Gemstones

Thomas Nichols’s 1652 lapidary, or book on gemstones, explains how specific stones can affect dreams. For example, he shares reports that wearing a ruby in an amulet or drinking ground-up rubies will drive away “terrible dreams” as well as sadness, evil thoughts, and evil spirits. It was a widely held belief that gemstones could help control dreams. Wearing a crystal or ruby around one’s neck prevented nightmares. Children were advised to wear emeralds to avoid nightmares. Wearing an amethyst caused exciting dreams and prevented drunkenness. And wearing an onyx to bed caused the wearer to dream of a departed friend.

Plants

Plants were used for many medicinal purposes, and controlling dreams was yet another way to use them. Nicholas Culpeper composed a 17th-century directory of over three hundred plants, and it includes several that could control dreams. One entry describes polypody, a variety of fern thought to be most medicinally powerful when it grows on oak stumps or trunks. Drinking liquid distilled from its roots and leaves prevents “fearful or troublesome sleeps or dreams.”

A dream called “the Mare” was specifically described by Culpeper “as when someone was sleeping to feel an uncommon oppression or weight about his breast or stomach, which he can be no means shake off. He groans, and sometimes cries out, though oftener he attempts to speak, but in vain.” Sleepers often believed that a demon—a succubus or an incubus—had visited them in their sleep in an attempt to breach their chastity. It was said that those of a melancholy humor often had frightening dreams of dark places, falls from high turrets, and furious beasts.

A very popular book with cures and recipes for a wide range of ailments, from how to heal ringworm to how to “make the haire fall off” was The secrets of Alexis. One recipe explains how to see wild beasts in a dream; it also includes a number of recipes for inducing sleep.

Dragon tongue

Various animal parts were used in recipes in much the same way as plants or gemstones. Edward Topsell’s Historie of serpents is a spectacularly illustrated and hand-colored book, devoted to serpents (including dragons). According to Topsell, eating the wine-soaked tongue or gall of a dragon could prevent nightmares.

dragon
Edward Topsell. The historie of serpents. London, 1608 (Detail) Folger Shakespeare Library.

A healthier diet

Self-help writer Thomas Tryon believed that dreams of demonic visitations like Richard III’s were caused by sleeping on one’s back, eating heavy suppers just before bed, and drinking spirits in excess. He suggests that nightmares could be avoided by sleeping on one’s side and eating a healthier diet.

A clean conscience

Playwright and poet Thomas Nash argued that dreams are based on thoughts and experiences that happen over the course of the day: “A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested.” As for nightmares, Nash claimed they are the result of guilty feelings. For example, the dreadful sins of treason and murder would cause terrible dreams.


This blog post is adapted from material in To Sleep, Perchance to Dream, a 2009 Folger exhibition curated by Carole Levin and Garrett Sullivan with Steven K. Galbraith and Heather Wolfe as consultants. This exhibition explored the ethereal realm of sleeping and dreaming in Renaissance England, from the beliefs, rituals, and habits of sleepers to the role of dream interpreters and interpretations in public and private life. See more from the exhibition on Folgerpedia.

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