Some time ago I had one of those ‘white nights’ that occasionally descend and prevent me from sleeping. I cannot say whether it was my night-cap cup of tea or thoughts about the dire political situation, but whatever the cause, sleep eluded me.
As I lay in bed passages from Macbeth kept popping into my head. ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep.’ ‘Sleep no more.’ And ‘Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.’ And of course there was Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking affair. Although I read the play at school a great many years ago I was intrigued to note that those phrases had remained in my mind.
That set me thinking. Was it possible that Shakespeare, the brilliant poet, dramatist and psychologist, himself suffered from insomnia? That could, of course, explain his immense output in a relatively short life (think about it; as well as writing thirty-nine plays and undertaking research into historical sources for some of them, he also acted in some of them, produced most of them, formed his own theatre company and wrote dozens of sonnets and sundry poetry). My volume of his complete works in minuscule print with two columns on each page runs to 1,080 pages. That’s a stupendous output that could put many other writers to shame.
So I decided to re-read Macbeth, and see if I could find any clues to my theory. I was surprised to find very early on in the play a reference to Aleppo, of all places, which is mentioned in passing by one of the three witches, a curiously topical reference in this day and age. My re-reading of ‘the Scottish play’ also reminded me that Macbeth and his wife were both as evil as each other, egging one another on to further acts of betrayal and murder in order to clear the path for Macbeth to become king. And both paid a heavy psychological (and eventually physical) price for their deeds.
In Act II, scene I, after Lady Macbeth tells her husband not to dwell on negative thoughts (essentially saying ‘snap out of it’), Macbeth replies saying that he thought he heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!’ At this point Shakespeare puts words in Macbeth’s mouth that describe the blissful state of sleep that ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care,’ and constitutes ‘the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’ In other words, sleep is nature’s way of bringing comfort and consolation to our troubled minds, so that if we are deprived of it our psychological equilibrium is upset. This is something that is known to anyone who has been reading espionage novels and knows anything about interrogation techniques.
In Act III, scene II Macbeth talks of ‘terrible dreams that shake us nightly,’ and declares that it would be better to be dead than ‘on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.’ I understand what he means by ‘restless,’ but it’s not clear to me what he means here by ‘ecstasy,’ which seems to be a contradiction in terms, but the bit about ‘terrible dreams’ is pretty obvious.
Those ghosts and other apparitions that he keeps seeing also constitute some kind of psychological disturbance, though in this case not necessarily associated with sleep. But in the same scene he speaks almost enviously of Duncan, whom he has murdered, being ‘in his grave; After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well… Nothing can touch him further.’ Now that’s a wonderful description of peaceful sleep if ever there was one, and that seems to be how he perceived death (‘the bourne from which no traveller returns,’ as he describes it in Hamlet).
I decided not to pursue my researches any further, as doubtless there are references to sleep in others of his plays, not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where it’s almost as if the whole play takes place in our sleeping minds as well as on stage, and Shakespeare even recommends us to regard it as such at the end of the play..
Then I had the bright idea of googling ‘Shakespeare and sleep,’ and sure enough, there I found that the sleep and dream images in Shakespeare’s plays (not to mention his sonnets) come thick and fast, with varying degrees of positive and negative associations. So it seems I’m not alone in seeing additional meanings into this particular aspect of the Bard’s work.