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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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A dream called “the Mare” was specifically described by Nicholas 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. Nightmares and ominous dreams are used to great dramatic effect in plays such as Shakespeare’s Richard III.

J. Neagle after T. Stothard. King Richard III, act 1, sc. 4. Engraving, 1804

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. Here, 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!”


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.


Thomas Nash argues 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 claims they are the result of guilty feelings. For example, the dreadful sins of treason and murder would cause terrible dreams.


Physician Jacques Ferrand wrote a book on the causes, symptoms, and cures of “Love, or Erotique Melancholy.” Ferrand describes terrifying instances of people, mostly women, who believe that they were raped by the devil in their sleep, “when as in truth they were only troubled with the Nightmare.”








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