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Feeling Dreams in Romeo and Juliet



This essay treats the close relationship between sensation and dreaming in Romeo and Juliet. In a play where a sterile and restrictive social language is far removed from the facts of inner life, Shakespeare introduces a startling alignment of cognitive understanding and felt experience through the many dream descriptions and visions that appear in his play. Making use of Epicurean and Renaissance theories of dream and enriching them, Shakespeare stages the hidden closeness of thought and feeling: dreams show us a fundamental state of being in which every mental representation is anchored temporally on either side by physical experience. In dreams, thinking arises from an event in the physical and perceptual realm, and results in the coming into being of another physical and perceptual event. This structure of felt experience bracketing imagined or abstract experience becomes the model for love and a life lived in accordance with the inner structure of perception in Romeo and Juliet, a model which the lovers carry out of dreams and into the waking world, illuminating the deep facts of cognition and sensation within daily life. But this structure also articulates the underlying nature of Romeo and Juliet's undoing: to aspire to a life lived through pure sensation, to entertain the great Epicurean and materialist fantasy of understanding oneself to be first and foremost a being of and subject to matter, is to tempt with the annihilation of the subjective self. (M.S.)