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Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare. (Reviews).

Peter Brown, ed. Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare

NewYork and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. x + 194 pp. $60. ISBN: 0-19-818363-1.

Although the relationship between dreams and literary texts is generally assumed in post-Freudian discourse, the precise nature of the relationship is still not clear. And what are we to do when dreams show up within literary texts? It is part of the goal of Reading Dreams to explore, if not resolve, this question. Examining in particular how dreams are used as frames for or as events within fictional narrative, the six essays that comprise the collection range over material covering, roughly, the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, though they occasionally look both backward into the classical past and forward into modern images and models of dream interpretation.

Reading Dreams definitely reads as a collection of essays. There is real variety in the approaches taken towards the subject to go along with the disparate matter of interpretation; and, given the subject, the work as a whole is remarkably free of theoretical jargon while still being theoretically informed. Certainly, the chief aim of the collection is to contextualize dreams and dream interpretation -- at least the literary manifestations of these -- within their medieval and early-modern cultural settings. Some of the specific questions are very basic: for example, as Peter Brown asks in the first essay, why the "extraordinary concentration of English dream visions in the second half of the fourteenth century"? (22). The essays typically try to reconstruct these basic questions as something bigger. For his part, Brown goes on with a metacritical discussion of the nature and limits of historical understanding itself, a discussion that concludes with the judicious acknowledgement that the "abstracting, genera lizing, and universalizing tendencies" of theoretical models need to be resisted" (49) where they tend toward the homogenization of a world more complex than most scholarly theories can admit.

Brown's essay's success in raising broader theoretical questions is more the exception than the rule, however. David Aers attempt to problematize traditional period divisions -- medieval, early-modern, modern -- by linking Chaucer, Milton, and Freud as dream interpreters falls flat, in part because his argument depends on the anachronistic suggestion that Chaucer and Milton are presenting their literary renditions of dream interpretation as something akin to Freudian case-studies. Aers' problem in the essay calls attention to one of the thorniest dilemmas in the collection: how precisely to distinguish dreams functioning within literary compositions from real dreams (or the interpretation of real dreams)? In this context, the title of the volume is a bit misleading in that the medieval and early-modern authors under consideration are not interpreting dreams per se; they are, quite obviously, using dreams as communicative spaces within the design of literary works. With the exception of the piece by Aers, the essays sustain a productive distinction on this point, though in his introduction A.C. Spearing seems to forget on occasion that literary representations of dreams are not in themselves interpretations of dreams.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the essays -- disappointing but also instructive -- is that they leave the impression that medieval and early-modern authors had so little to add to the theory of dreams or dream interpretation. Peter Holland's essay, which explicitly addresses the issue of the theorization of dreams in the context of Renaissance thought, simply has nothing to say that one would not already suspect was available in prevailing cultural discourse. However, the essays do, in the main, have much to teach us when they offer readings of particular literary texts that use dreams or dream frames. Steven Kruger's discussion of the use of such frames in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is remarkable for what it says about the construction of masculine identity in the medieval period. And Kathleen McCluskie's remarks on a whole range of texts -- from Richard III to Blue Velvet -- are as intriguing as they are brief. But both these otherwise fine essays actually prove the point that dreams in themselves (or their interpretation) are not the actual focus here: the medieval and early-modern authors in question are not "reading dreams" but using dreams as a way of representing other concerns (primarily cultural concerns with everything from gender to rhetorical form itself). Then again, arguably even Freud's own theories of dream interpretation are most important for what they teach us about waking life.
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Author:Barnaby, Andrew
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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