Anachronism: Definition and Examples

An anachronism, derived from the Greek word "anachronous" meaning "against time," refers to a chronological or timeline error in a literary work. It occurs when something appears out of place or time within the context of the narrative.

Anachronisms can manifest in various art forms, including literature and paintings. These errors often result from a lack of thorough research. For instance, if a painting depicts Aristotle wearing a wristwatch, it is an anachronism because wristwatches did not exist during Aristotle's era. Similarly, featuring a wall clock in a stage setting depicting a Roman fort would be an anachronistic portrayal.

Examples of Anachronism in Literature

Example #1: Julius Caesar (By William Shakespeare)

Brutus: "Peace! Count the clock."
Cassius: "The clock has stricken three."

In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a mechanical clock is mentioned, which is historically inaccurate as mechanical clocks did not exist during the depicted era in 44 A.D. This constitutes an anachronism.

Another anachronism in the same play is found in the use of the term "doublet," a clothing style not worn by Romans during Julius Caesar's time but popular in Shakespeare's era.

Example #2: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)

In Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the protagonist Hamlet is stated to have attended the University of Halle-Wittenberg. However, this institution was established in 1502 A.D., whereas the play's time setting predates this period. Shakespeare did not rectify this anachronism in the text.

Example #3: Macbeth (By William Shakespeare)

Ross: "That now
Sweno, the Norways’ king, craves composition:
Nor would we deign him burial of his men
Till he disbursed at Saint Colme’s inch
Ten thousand dollars to our general use."

In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the use of the term "dollar" is an anachronism as the play's time setting does not align with the historical use of the dollar as a monetary unit.

Example #4: Pharaoh (By Boleslaw Prus)

In the novel "Pharaoh" by Boleslaw Prus, an anachronism occurs when the author mentions "Prince Harim's canal" during the time of Ramses XII (1087-1085 B.C.). The novel claims the canal was the size of the Suez Canal, but historical research reveals that this canal existed before Ramses XII's time and was smaller than the Suez Canal.

Example #5: Ode on a Grecian Urn (By John Keats)

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes play on."

In John Keats' poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the use of the archaic term "ye" instead of the more contemporary "you" is an intentional anachronism. It serves to evoke a sense of respect and antiquity, enhancing the artistic effect of the poem.

Functions of Anachronism:

  1. Highlighting Historical Inaccuracies: Anachronisms unintentionally draw attention to historical inaccuracies within a narrative, reflecting the writer's lack of research or oversight. When readers encounter anachronisms, they may question the authenticity of the work and its attention to historical detail, potentially diminishing their immersion in the story.
  2. Enhancing Artistic Effect: On occasion, writers intentionally employ anachronisms to create a unique artistic effect. These deliberate anachronisms can serve various purposes, such as highlighting the incongruity for specific thematic or stylistic reasons. They may add layers of meaning, evoke nostalgia, or provoke thought by juxtaposing elements from different time periods within the narrative. In such cases, anachronisms become deliberate tools for storytelling, challenging conventional notions of time and historical accuracy.
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