Time and Clocks in Shakespeare

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Apart from time in the more straight-forward sense of the time the story of the play covers, there are numerous references to clocks and watches in Shakespeare. However, most of them are purely functional, as the passing of time also propels the plot, and certain characters quite literally need to keep an eye on the watch. Yet, some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves musing about how to keep time in the absence of time pieces altogether.

Such time-less spaces, where there are no tower clocks or church bells to tell you how late in the day it is, are quite often places on the margin of society or even entirely outside of it. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, for example, is such a place. In the tradition of a pastoral setting, an idyllic place where the usual constraints of society do not apply, time becomes a very hazy concept. We don’t really know, for example, for how long Rosalind and Celia stay in the woods before the end of the play. However, for the two lovers Orlando and Rosalind (who is disguised as a boy and has decided to test Orlando’s love by trying to ‘cure’ him of his love sickness), spending as much as one hour apart from each other is torment. In their first encounter in the woods Rosalind kicks off her conversation with one of the most common of all chat-up lines:

I pray you, what is’t o’clock?

You should ask me what time o’ day: there’s no clock in the forest.

Then there is no true lover in the forest; else sighing every minute and groaning every hour would
detect the lazy foot of Time as well as a clock.
(As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2).


She discovers that the usual way of striking up a conversation doesn’t work in the woods, so Rosalind – quite ingeniously – changes the topic to the Renaissance stereotype of the pining lover who perpetually sighs for his absent beloved, which might in her view be used to measure the passing of time.

A more serious reference to clocks comes from the history play Richard II. In this scene, the recently deposed king laments the hours spent in solitary confinement under the orders of his cousin and usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
For now hath time made me his numbering clock,
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours […]
(Richard II, Act 5 Scene 5).


Here, Richard makes an analogy between a clock’s face, with its numbers and dials, and his own body. Time, he complains, wastes him and turns his body into a perpetual and inescapable reminder of how far he has fallen from his exalted throne. As well as his body acting like a clock, Richard is able to tell the passing of time with his own sighs and groans which, to all intents and purposes, continue in 24 hours like clockwork.


Although clocks are talked of throughout Shakespeare’s work, they are invariably liked to time or ‘Time’, which he often personifies. This ‘Time’ is something to be feared and a thing from which nobody is able to escape unless the playwright allows his characters the luxury of living in magical forests or islands.


Unlike Richard who wastes away in his cell, Shakespeare seems to suggest that the only way to deal with the passing of time is to laugh it away. When the melancholy Jaques quotes the merry fool Touchstone, who moralises on time, he finds it hilarious rather than sad:


‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot.
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer.
(As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7).



Or, to put it more like the Fool, Feste, in Twelfth Night:



What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure
(Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 3).




If you enjoyed this post, why not take a look at our blog entry on a pocket dial:

To find out more about Shakespearian lovers, take a look at this article on wooing:


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