William Shakespeare was known for writing with a fabulous disregard for the rules of language. Not only did he regularly coin his own phrases, he also literally made up words—many of which are now in our discourse and dictionaries. And, considering how influential his work has been for the last five centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scholar who thinks that the prolific playwright’s penchant for literary invention was anything but genius.
Having said that, the Bard did actually get a few things wrong. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays include historical figures like Julius Caesar and events like the Trojan War, we know they were set during pretty specific time periods. And while Shakespeare is certainly allowed to mention Niccolò Machiavelli in a play that takes place before Machiavelli was even born, it’s not exactly historically accurate.
What we don’t know for sure are the reasons behind the Bard’s occasional anachronisms. Did he include them intentionally to provide context and clarity for his audience? Or were they legitimate mistakes, because fact-checking was a lot more labor-intensive in the pre-internet era?
Since we’re now just a Google search away from knowing Machiavelli’s birth year and more, here are the details behind six of Shakespeare’s most surprising anachronisms.
1. The clock in Julius Caesar
In Act 2, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, after the stage directions say “Clock strikes,” Brutus tells Cassius to “count the clock,” and Cassius says it “hath stricken three.” Though humans have been measuring time for thousands of years, clocks definitely didn’t "strike" while Caesar was alive. The first weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England in 1283, more than 1300 years after Caesar’s death. Before that, people used sundials or devices called clepsydras, which counted time by measuring water that slowly dripped in or out of a container. Given the late hour, a sundial wouldn’t have sufficed for this scene, and maybe Shakespeare felt that “Check how much water is in the bowl!” would bewilder his modern audience.
2. The doublet in Julius Caesar
The clock might be Shakespeare’s most famous anachronism in Julius Caesar, but it’s not the only one. Earlier in the play (Act 1, Scene 2), Casca recounts to Cassius and Brutus how, after refusing the crown three times, Caesar pulls aside his clothing to offer the crowd his throat to cut. The clothing, however, isn’t the Roman military finery you’re probably imagining. Casca calls it a doublet, which is a type of fancy jacket popular between the 15th and 17th centuries—Shakespeare himself is sometimes pictured wearing one. Caesar may have been ahead of his time in some ways, but he certainly wasn’t fashion-forward enough to have predicted a trend that occurred more than 1500 years after he died in 44 BCE.
3. The billiards game in Antony and Cleopatra
In Act 2, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her servant Charmain to play billiards. Considering that Cleopatra was born around 69 BCE in Egypt, and the earliest known mention of billiards wasn’t until 15th-century Europe, an apt response from Charmain would’ve been “Madam, what are billiards?” Instead, she declines the game due to a sore arm, and a mercurial Cleopatra declares that she’s lost interest and would rather go fishing (which, of course, has been around for much longer than billiards).
4. The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry VI
Niccolò Machiavelli made such an impact on society with his treatise The Prince that Shakespeare mentioned him in Henry VI not once, but twice—both with negative connotations. In Act 5, Scene 4 of Part 1, Joan of Arc tells Warwick and York that she’s pregnant with Alençon’s child to convince them not to burn her at the stake. At this, York exclaims “Alençon! That notorious Machiavel!” meaning that Alençon is essentially an immoral person. As you might remember from a high school history class, Joan of Arc eventually did end up burning at the stake in 1431.
Shakespeare’s next reference to Machiavelli occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 of Part 3, right after Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Richard, whose brother Edward currently sits on the throne, delivers a lengthy monologue in which he vows to commit whatever heinous crimes are necessary to steal the crown for himself, “[setting] the murderous Machiavel to school.” In other words, he plans to take Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” mantra to such a high level that he’ll basically be showing its founder how it’s done. However, in 1465, Machiavelli was definitely not yet “murderous.” In fact, he wasn’t even born until four years later (and decades after Joan of Arc's death), in 1469.
5. The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida
In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare spins a tale of love and loss during the Trojan War, which is thought to have occurred in either the 12th or 13th century BCE. Aristotle, on the other hand, was definitely born in 384 BCE. So when Hector likens Paris and Troilus to the young men “whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy” in Act 2, Scene 2, he showed wisdom beyond his years … by several hundred years.
6. The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
What we now call gunpowder exploded onto the scene in China as early as 850 CE, and guns themselves were developed over the following centuries. Ancient as that may seem, it’s not nearly as old as ancient Greece, the setting for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 3, Scene 2, the jester Puck tells the fairy king Oberon how, when Nick Bottom’s friends see him with a donkey’s head, they act like wild geese “rising and cawing at the gun’s report.” In other words, they scatter in fear, much like geese do when a hunter fires his gun. Having said that, it’s hard to begrudge Shakespeare one measly anachronism in a play with fairies, love potions, and roguish sprites who can transform humans into donkeys.