An anachronism is an error in the timeline or chronology of a piece of literature. This can be a purposeful or accidental error.
Such a purpose or accidental error could be one that emphasizes the “out of place” positioning of events or characters. There are an endless number of examples one could come up with that might constitute an anachronism. A person could be placed in a scene that is very much not from their lifetime, an object might appear in someone’s possession in a story where it has yet to be invented, or, within the context of one story, characters might rearrange themselves, appearing in chapters and scenes in which they don’t belong chronologically.
As a loose very obvious example, consider reading about Julius Caesar driving a car or Henry VIII starring in a television show about his life. These examples are humorous and very obvious. But that’s not always the case with examples of anachronism. More often than not anachronisms are accidental. They are mistakes on the part of the writer that only later readers notice.
But, sometimes anachronisms are used purposefully. They can be used to make a more meaningful statement about an object or character. Or, they might be used subtly, invisible to all but the most careful readers. Like an easter egg.
This technique is wide-raging, it applies to literature, but also to those of a visual and media arts such as painting, sculpture, film, and sound art. The word is derived from the Greek “anachronous” meaning “against time”.
Examples of Anachronism in Literature
Example #1 Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
One of the most famous examples from literature occurs in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The lines read:
BRUTUS: Peace! Count the clock.
CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.
TREBONIUS: ‘Tis time to part.
As with many examples of anachronisms, this one is hard to recognize unless you are very familiar with the time period and what is or is not appropriate in one scene or the next. What seems to be a common stage direction and commentary by the characters in the play turns into an interesting mistake on Shakespeare’s part. He wrote in the chiming of a mechanical clock that had yet to be invented when the events depicted in the play were occurring.
Examples #2 and #3 Macbeth and Hamlet by William Shakespeare
It is not surprising considering the breadth of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the interest he had in exploring historical narratives that there are several examples of anachronisms to be found within his dramatic works. In Macbeth, there is a very subtle example in Act 1, Scene 2. Take a look at these lines and see if you can tell what is out of place:
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.
If you’re an expert on 11th-century Scotland in which Macbeth is set then you’ll have noticed that Shakespeare used the word “dollars” in the final line of this excerpt. Like many examples of anachronisms, this one is an example of cultural bias. A writer mistaking their own cultural present for the cultural past, superimposing what they know over what others knew.
In Hamlet, a reader might also spot an interesting rearrangement of time in the construction of the University of Halle-Wittenberg. This is where the reader is informed that Hamlet attends school, but that institution was not established until 1502 while the events playing out occurred in the 1300s or 1400s.
Examples #4 and #5 Raiders of the Lost Ark and Braveheart
Even more prevalent than anachronism in literature are those present in film and television. The first of these two examples occur in the surroundings of Raiders of the Lost Ark the first of the Indian Jones films. In one scene the camera shows a map on which “Thailand” is marked. The story was taking place in 1939 and the country of Thailand was called Siam until 1939.
A fairly well-known example comes from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. In this movie, the characters are seen wearing kilts. But, unfortunately, these pieces of clothing were invented in the early 1700s while the movie takes place in the 13th century.