Narrative Timelines

Here’s a question I don’t think we’ve ever covered before. Does Shakespeare ever play with anything other than a traditional, sequential timeline? In other words, is there ever a time when Scene 3 takes place chronologically before Scene 2? For example in a flashback, or a staged re-enactment of one of those many “Here let me tell you what happened offstage…” moments? I know that there are a good handful of instances of “Ok, now, flash forward a few years.” But does he ever, for any reason, flash backward? Would an Elizabethan audience have even understood that concept?
The opening to Taming of the Shrew would be close to what I mean, if it started with grandparents Petruchio and Katherine being pestered by their grandchildren to tell the story of how they met. Know what I mean? It’s certainly a standard form of storytelling these days, and I’m wondering whether it would have been completely alien to Shakespeare and his audience.

7 thoughts on “Narrative Timelines

  1. Perhaps not, since most "flashbacks" are simply described through the verse, as Prospero's story in the Tempest. The concept of a non linear plot line would probably not be understood in Shakespeare's time, although the concept of the dumbshow (as seen in many plays, most famously perhaps, in Hamlet) as a summation of the story would be more akin to the "story within a story" structure.

  2. Non-linear plotting goes back at least to Homer, but it isn't something Shakespeare ever uses per se. I don't know if any other playwrights went farther with it, but Shakespeare's closest brush is through things like the time-leaps in WInter's Tale and Pericles. These, however, still occur sequentially… There are the anachronisms like clocks in Julius Caesar, but that's a bit of a stretch. Shakespeare plays with time in dialogue through prophecies and recollection, but never on the stage itself.

    Here's the closest we get to a truly non-linear timeline:


    I'll speak a prophecy ere I go:
    When priests are more in words than matter,
    When brewers mend their malt with water,
    Then shall the realm of Albion
    Come to great confusion!

    This prophecy Merlin shall make, for he comes after my time.

  3. I imagine it's difficult to communicate a flashback or flashforward with limited scenery, props, and costumes. Short of the character's announcing every break in the temporal order, which gets tiring after a while, I don't see how you would do it. This, more than the audience's ability to understand the concept of a flashback, was probably the problem.

  4. This is such an interesting question–and some good, solid, reasonable responses. I don't think such a thing was done in Shakespeare or the contemporary theatre, but there were sequentially staged scenes that were meant to be taken as happening at (roughly) the same time (the battle sequences—in "another part of the field"—are what I'm thinking about).

    The main thing that prevented Shakespeare and his contemporaries from using this device was that they didn't have the technology to make the stage go all wavy and to have that "magic wand" sort of sound effect when we're meant to know we're flashing back.


  5. kj: That's an excellent point. Lots of scenes are supposedly taking place at the same time as another scene. Occasionally both scenes are in fact onstage at the same time, but the audience understands they're taking place in different locations. For example, Richard and Richmond are both onstage in Act Five of Richard III, but each is sleeping in a different military camp. This allows the Ghosts to appear to each of them. The other example is King Lear, where Kent remains onstage, asleep in the stocks, while Edgar enters and does his monologue in 2.3. The audience simply knows to ignore Kent and realizes it's a different location because Kent is asleep and Edgar is moving around talking. Their attention goes back to Kent when 2.4 starts and he greets Lear immediately.

  6. Ooh, I got it.

    The History plays taken as a whole, are a non-linear story. the First Tetralogy takes place chronologically later than the Second Tetralogy. If you count King John, Henry VIII, and Edward III, you've got a story that jumps all over itself in terms of timeline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *