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Anachronism

Anachronism Definition

What is an anachronism? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

An anachronism is a person or a thing placed in the wrong time period. For instance, if a novel set in Medieval England featured a trip to a movie-theater, that would be an anachronism. Although the device can be used for many different purposes, authors often use anachronisms to make it easier for audiences to relate to other historical periods, or to add an element of humor and surprise to a story.

Some additional key details about anachronisms:

  • While the inclusion of an anachronism can be a purposeful decision made by an author, it can also be the result of an error: an author making a mistake or doing inadequate research.
  • Anachronism is closely related to juxtaposition, another literary device that places two things side by side in order to highlight their differences.

How to Pronounce Anachronism

Here's how to pronounce anachronism: uh-nack-run-iz-um

Understanding Anachronism

An anachronism is usually someone or something that is so clearly associated with a particular historical period that readers would be surprised to find it in a work set during any other time period. An anachronistic object might be way ahead of its time (imagine a modern-day couple pulling up to a dinner party in downtown Manhattan on a horse-drawn chariot), or it might be so outdated that no one would possibly use it (imagine a character from a story set in the 16th-century suddenly pulling out a vacuum cleaner after a party).

Though historical accuracy is a major concern for many poets, novelists, and playwrights, it is sometimes outweighed by a writer's desire to connect with a popular audience. For example, it is not historically accurate for Cassius, an ancient Roman in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, to say "The clock has stricken three" (since modern mechanical clocks weren't invented until many hundreds of years later); however, it probably helped Shakespeare's audience understand the scene, in which timing is critical. Though Shakespeare certainly could have written the scene such that Cassius read the time off a historically accurate time-keeping device, such as a Roman sundial, that might have puzzled readers and shifted their focus away from the more important points in the plot.

Comedic Anachronisms

Writers often intentionally include anachronisms for comedic effect. For example, the comedic filmmaker Mel Brooks used anachronism in scene after scene in Blazing Saddles, a satirical Western set in 1874. In one scene, the 19th-century characters bust down a wall, only to find that they have interrupted a modern-day Hollywood dance production. The scene is a surprising interjection, and may seem like nonsense at first, but it's likely that the writer or director inserted the scene as a way of commenting on the artifice of Hollywood films in general—and Westerns in particular.

Anachronism in Nonfiction

An entire work may be considered anachronistic, especially if it judges past or even future civilizations according to modern day values. For example, it would be anachronistic to write an essay about Marxist undertones in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, given the fact that Chaucer's work predates Marx's Communist Manifesto by nearly five hundred years, and Chaucer likely had very little consciousness of the class struggles that Marx wrote about. However, the fact that an argument is anachronistic doesn't make it worthless. In fact, anachronistic arguments may have considerable intellectual value. They might demonstrate the way in which an older work anticipates or addresses modern-day concerns. Nonetheless, most analytical writers try to avoid anachronistic arguments because they prefer not to remove an older text from its historical context.

Juxtaposition and Anachronism

Anachronisms often rely heavily on juxtaposition, a literary device that places two different things side by side in order to highlight their difference. Anachronistic people, objects, ideas, or phrases must be juxtaposed with someone or something that clearly belongs to another historical time period. It may seem like a subtle juxtaposition to modern readers, but in the example of Cassius reading the time from a clock in Julius Caesar, the juxtaposition of Roman politicians and modern mechanical clocks produces an anachronistic moment in the text.

Unintentional vs. Intentional Anachronism

Authors are people, too—so it should come as no surprise that, sometimes, writers would mistakenly incorporate ideas, objects, and customs that are familiar to them into stories that take place before those things actually existed. Alternatively, writers can purposefully use anachronism to appeal to a modern audience's sensibilities.

As seen in the example from Julius Caesar above, it's not always easy to distinguish one kind of anachronism from another. We have no way of knowing for certain whether Shakespeare referred to a mechanical clock because of his ignorance of Roman technology, or because of his desire to make the play easier for readers to understand. (Note that it's actually fairly anachronistic to talk about Shakespeare's concern for his readers, since when his plays were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, far more people watched his plays than read them.)

Often readers must rely on their knowledge of a writer's craft to determine whether an anachronism is intentional or unintentional. An assessment of Shakespeare's body of work as a whole reveals that he is a playwright with deep historical knowledge and a clear sense of his audience (for example, many of Shakespeare's plays are retellings of historical events that he knew would resonate with theatergoers in 16th- and 17th-century England) so it's reasonable to assume that his use of anachronism in this case was considered and purposeful. In other cases, though, critics or readers might conclude that a writer was careless in accidentally including something anachronistic in their story, and criticize the writer for it.

Anachronism vs. Archaism

In literature, archaism is the use of outdated language for stylistic effect. There are a number of archaisms in John Keats's poem "Ode to Psyche," for example:

The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

Keats's language sounds poetic, with his use of "thou" and antiquated verb tenses like “wast,” but the language is actually inconsistent with the standard English of his day. However, the poem doesn’t specify when what it is describing takes place, and Keats' use of old-sounding language is consistent throughout the poem, so even if his antiquated style makes some readers pause, it wouldn’t be accurate to describe this use of language as an anachronism. Rather, in the poem Keats employs archaism to achieve the effect that he wants.

Authors often use archaisms like this on purpose, to add a sense of mystique, sophistication, or even timelessness to their work.

Anachronism Examples

Because writers don't always have perfect knowledge of time periods other than their own, there are examples of unintentional anachronism in most art forms. There are just as many examples of intentional anachronism, because the use of anachronism can help translate stories about different time periods into more relatable terms for modern audiences, and can also add humor to a piece.

Anachronism in Literature

William Shakespeare's Hamlet

In this example from Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Claudius’s words contain an anachronism that Shakespeare may or may not have intended to include in the text.

For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire;
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a former student at the Danish University of Wittenberg, which still exists today. One little problem with that reference—Wittenberg was established in 1502, almost a hundred years after the story of Hamlet is supposed to take place. It's impossible to say whether Shakespeare simply failed to remember the date of Wittenberg's founding, or felt it was important to use a university that members of his audience would recognize. It's also possible that Shakespeare purposefully included Wittenberg because it was where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, and Hamlet (as well as Hamlet himself) wrestles with religious questions that also drove the Reformation.

Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper

In Chapter Three of The Prince and the Pauper, Twain includes an anachronism in his description of a popular form of entrainment in 16th-century England:

“In truth, yes, so please you, sir, save when one is hungry. There be Punch-and-Judy shows, and monkeys—oh such antic creatures! and so bravely dressed!—and there be plays wherein they that play do shout and fight till all are slain, and ‘tis so fine to see, and costeth but a farthing—albeit ‘tis main hard to get the farthing, please your worship.”

The anachronism here is that the first “Punch-and-Judy show” took place in the late 17th-century, making it impossible for Twain's English characters to have watched a performance as early as 1547, the year in which Twain's book is set. It's possible that Twain mistakenly believed that the plays were already being performed in 16th-century England, but it seems more likely that he took liberties with some aspects of his historical fiction. If it is intentional, Twain's anachronism may be a way of satirizing, or poking fun at, the customs of 16th-century England, since the Punch-and-Judy shows were a popular form of entertainment that typically depicted brutal violence.

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote

In Chapter Two of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, the title character's elaborate armor is presented to readers as an anachronism.

Things would have come to a pretty pass if it hadn't been for the appearance at that moment of the innkeeper, a man who, being very fat, was very peaceable, and who on seeing such an ungainly figure, with such ill-matched equipment as the long stirrups, the lance, the leather shield, and the infantryman's body-amour, was more than willing to join the maidens in their merry-making.

This passage is one of many examples in Don Quixote of characters responding to Don Quixote's old-fashioned suit of armor with scorn or puzzlement. One of the major themes of Cervantes' masterpiece is the incongruity between Don Quixote, who believes in medieval codes of chivalry, and the society he lives in, which treats those chivalric values as outmoded relics of the past. In this case, unlike others, it is not just that Cervantes includes an anachronistic detail of which the characters themselves seem to be unaware. Rather, the characters are very aware, and scornful of, Don Quixote's own anachronistic characteristics.

Charles Olson's "I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You"

Charles Olson's "I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You" is an anachronistic poem about American history written from the perspective of a character who calls himself Maximus and is modeled after a second-century Greek philosopher of the same name.

Antony of Padua
sweep low, o bless

the roofs, the old ones, the gentle steep ones
on whose ridge-poles the gulls sit, from which they depart,

And the flake-racks
of my city!

The passage above is a mishmash of references to things from vastly different regions and historical periods. Maximus (a name from ancient Greece) invokes the name of a 13th-century Portuguese priest (Anthony of Padua) and then goes on to describe racks that are used in parts of North America to sun-dry fish. As an experimental poet, Olson purposefully used anachronism to create complex associations between different historical periods.

Anachronism in Theater

Some plays continue to be performed hundreds of years after they were originally written. Inevitably, as directors and producers adapt such plays so that they appeal to modern audiences, they end up giving rise to anachronisms in the work.

Sam Gold's 2017 Production of Hamlet

In Sam Gold's recent production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the characters are costumed in polos, jeans, and tennis shoes. Though many theater-goers expect elaborate, period-specific costumes in productions of Shakespeare's plays, they might find Gold's "modern take" on a classic to be an exciting twist that makes the characters seem more relatable.

Keegan-Michael Key as Horatio in Sam Gold's Hamlet | Image source

Anachronism in Film

While writers can avoid anachronism by cutting down on allusions to historical events they're not entirely familiar with, filmmakers face an even greater risk of unconscious anachronism—they need to research and recreate period-correct costumes, hairstyles, vehicles, architecture, and, as seen below, musical instruments! Further, when making a series or trilogy, it is important for filmmakers to remain faithful to the chronology developed in earlier movies. Filmmakers also sometimes intentionally use anachronisms for the same reasons writers do: to help their audience interpret different historical periods or to draw laughter.

Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future

In this clip from the 1985 classic about time travel, the teenager Marty McFly has gone back in time to perform at his parents' prom in 1955. The scene features intentional anachronism: McFly performs the guitarist Chuck Berry's hit single "Johnny B. Good," which was actually written three years later, in 1958. McFly, who happens to be performing the song in front of Chuck Berry's cousin, says that the song will be a big hit one day. The anachronism jokingly suggests that McFly changed the history of American pop music.

But the scene also contains unintentional anachronism: McFly plays the song on a Gibson ES-345—a guitar that didn't exist in 1955—which suggests that whoever was responsible for props in the film probably didn't do their research.

Why Do Writers Use Anachronisms?

Writers don't always mean to use anachronisms, but when they do it's often with one of the following aims in mind:

  • To make it easier for readers to understand or relate to time periods other than their own.
  • To add humor to their work.
  • To analyze things from the past using ideas or theories that didn't come into practice until much later.
  • To underscore the outmodedness of a thing or person.
  • To appeal to modern readers' aesthetic tastes and sensibilities.
  • To establish a relationship between different time periods.

It can be difficult to draw the line between intentional and unconscious uses of anachronism—so be careful before you conclude that an anachronism means that the author didn't do their research!

Other Helpful Anachronism Resources