Word of the Day: Dawn

June 10, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

“Good dawning to thee, friend: art of this house?” So Oswald greets the disguised Kent in King Lear, providing us with the first of eight uses of the word “Dawn” in Shakespeare’s works and a neat example of his own superciliousness. By calling Kent (disguised and serving as one of Lear’s entourage) “thee”, and not the more polite “you”, Oswald immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Kent replies to the greeting with a laconic “Ay”, and then precipitates a brawl with a man he knows as “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats” and much more. Oswald’s morning begins badly, and Kent – much to the humiliation of the former King – finishes his in the stocks.

The little episode between Kent and Oswald functions by betraying the hope and freshness that a new morning represents. Their brawl is yet another sign of the erosion of Lear’s power. In contrast to this, the disguised Duke Vincentio – another leader who delegates his power, albeit more successfully than Lear – reassures the Provost, with a statesman’s eye for symbolism, that “As near the dawning .. as it is, / You shall hear more ere morning”. This intimation is part of a sequence of night-time scenes in Measure for Measure, during which the disguised Duke unravels the orders of his corrupt deputy, Angelo, and so saves Claudio from execution for adultery, even as he prepares his own reappearance in Vienna. Frequent references to the fact that “it is almost clear dawn” rush the audience through a sequence of scenes that culminate with the final Duke’s dispensation of justice “like power divine”.

From dawn, to sun, to God, the same sequence of thoughts runs through another leader who disguises himself: Henry V. Wrapped in a common soldier’s garb, he reprises a theme of his sleepless father’s in Henry IV pt II, musing on “Ceremony” before the battle of Agincourt. Just as his father contrasted the poor “ship-boy’s” capacity to sleep in a storm when “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, Henry V imagines the slave

…Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread,
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave…

Hyperion was one of the Greek titans, ultimately associated with the sun in Greek mythology, and here by Shakespeare. This personification of the sun as Hyperion also makes both sun and titan similar to King Henry, who will simself soon be helped “to his horse” by a servant. Hyperion, as a titan, was cast down by the younger Gods (the Olympians, led by Zeus against Chronos), and one cannot help but wonder whether the King’s comparison between himself and the sun-titan does not also carry a hint of night-time anxiety. After all, his father was “uneasy” under a crown that he took from a weak Richard II.

There are other dawns in Shakespeare’s works, but I will not analyse them in such detail as these three mornings. Many of these other examples are sinister: Titus Andronicus, in words that become very ironic indeed, praises the morning of the hunt which will finish with his daughter raped and mutilated; Marcellus, trying to work out why the Ghost disappeared at the start of Hamlet, describes the cockerel’s role at “dawning”; and, finally, Iachimo, having stolen Imogen’s bracelet, crawls back into the trunk to await the dawn and the fulfilment of his plot in Cymbeline.

Sinister or not, all these examples are part of one of the most complex stage illusions of Shakespeare’s works: the compression of time. Criticised for this by later neoclassicists like Rymer, his use of little words like dawn or night, or phrases like “The clock hath stricken three” (a very anachronistic moment in Julius Caesar), alert us to shifts of time as much as other phrases alert us to shifts of place. With these words, though, comes more than additional detail, but an atmosphere. After all, Iachimo’s nascent plot is all the more powerful for proceeding just before dawn, and Henry V’s battleside worries soon dissipate with the coming light. Later, facing down a French messenger, the young King delivers a celestial threat, which operates not on the pale light of morning, but the stifling warmth of midday.

A many of our bodies shall no doubt
Find native graves; upon the which, I trust,
Shall witness live in brass of this day’s work:
And those that leave their valiant bones in France,
Dying like men, though buried in your dunghills,
They shall be famed; for there the sun shall greet them,
And draw their honours reeking up to heaven;
Leaving their earthly parts to choke your clime,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.