This popular work by Thomas Hill was the most comprehensive book of dream theory published in renaissance England. It draws on the traditions of classical and medieval dream books, distinguishing between vain dreams and true dreams, and exploring the art of divining the meaning of true dreams. Hill places emphasis on the dreamer as either being the originator of vain dreams (‘shewers of the present affections and desires of the body’) or of the right sort (‘grave & sober’) to receive true dreams.
In the Elizabethan period (as in the medieval and classical traditions) there were anxieties about the nature and interpretation of dreams. Many questioned whether dreams were supernatural or whether they originated in the dreamer. If the former, were they angelical or demonical? And if the latter, did they originate in the soul, the mind or the body? Concerns ranged from the reliability of discerning meaning from dreams and of discerning true dreams from false, to growing scepticism about their prophetic capacity at all. Although Hill’s work comes from a position of believing in true dreams, as Hill describes it, so few people see true dreams and fewer still can understand or interpret them that ‘therefore of this, is the arte now come into a contempt with most persons.’
The motif of ‘dream’ allows great opportunity both for surreal mishap and for philosophical questioning on the nature of reality, particularly when we are aware of the anxieties around the idea of dream for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the strange happenings of the wood are described as dreams by their participants, and their auditors (Theseus and Hippolyta) try to fathom out their truth and meaning with varying degrees of scepticism. For the audience who has witnessed the truth of the events of the wood, this raises a host of questions about the interpretation of sense perceptions, the ability to make meaning, the role of the imagination, and the relationship of strangeness and truth.