Macbeth: shuteye

As longtime readers of the blog know, I love me a good deep dive into the ol’ concordance. A concordance (as review for you first-timers) is a reference that contains and counts word usage for any given collection of texts; I like to take a look at words that tend to pop up seemingly frequently in my reading [and as per usual: like all our discussions for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare]. As with every play, I did the same for ol’ Macbeth. And what I find there makes me sleepy.

Not because I’m bored, mind you…

Save for two other plays in the Canon, Macbeth has more uses of “sleep” (and its variants) than any other play, with 24 speeches containing 29 usages. A Midsummer Night’s Dream leads the way with 33 speeches/usages (makes sense), and Richard III places second with 26 speeches containing 29 usages (huh? Take into account, however, that Richard III has over 50% more lines [3601 to 2162, for what it’s worth]). [as I write this I’ve just seen the Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard III…wow, but more about that later today in another post…]

The first reference comes as a neat piece of foreshadowing, as the witches discuss not allowing the sailor to sleep:

I’ll drain him dry as hay.
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev’nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
  • I.iii.16-23

They’ll keep him awake for 49 weeks. Given that the longest scientifically verified period of non-sleeping is 11 days, it’s no wonder he’ll be as “dry as hay.” And this sets the mental stage for what will happen to our title couple.

The second reference comes as Lady Macbeth is trying to (re)convince her husband to kill the king: “Was the hope drunk // Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?” (I.vii.35-6). Picturing his ambition or hope as sleeping is interesting in and of itself (it was always there, as she mentioned before that he is “not without ambition” [I.v.18]), but doubling it up with our subject from yesterday, drink, wins extra bonus points. It won’t be the last drunk/sleep paired reference we’ll see…in this scene…later, she describes the guards–whose drinks she will drug–as falling into a “swinish sleep” (I.vii.68). Extra extra bonus points for this one; extra extra extra bonus points to anyone able to tell me why (ah…a challenge!).

Despite the late night of carousing with the king, Banquo “would not sleep” (II.i.8), possibly because he fears “cursed thoughts” and dreaming of the “weird sisters” (II.i.9, 21). Maybe Banquo’s on to something here, since when Macbeth heads off to kill the king, he discusses night when “wicked dreams abuse // The curtained sleep” (II.i.51-2). And of course, we have the Porter who links sleep to drinking: “drink , sir, is a great provoker of …sleep” (II.iii.23,26), among other things. Maybe they just all need to have a drink (or thirteen).

Then, perhaps you can sleep. One of the sons, innocent of the act, “did laugh in’s sleep” (II.ii.25) when Macbeth killed Duncan. But then Macbeth believes he heard something more ominous:

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house.
“Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
  • II.ii.38-43, 44-6

A great many ideas find a confluence here. The concept of sleep equating with innocence. Sleep as a restorative. Sleep as a necessary part of nature. And, of course: that Macbeth will sleep no more (and I can’t help but think his mentions and linking of Glamis and Cawdor is meant to make us think back to the witches, and thus back to the sailor).

If sleep is connected to innocence in Macbeth’s mind, Lady Macbeth makes another connection: “The sleeping and the dead // Are but as pictures” (II.ii.56-7). Macduff is on the same metaphorical page, equating “this downy sleep [to] death’s counterfeit” (II.iii.75). Their common thought is catching: by the time Macbeth is king, he too sees “Duncan is in his grave; // After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well” (III.ii.23-4). For Macbeth now, death is a wonderful sleep, whereas in life, “we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep // In the affliction of these terrible dreams // That shake us nightly” (III.ii.18-20).

Interestingly, while Macbeth is moving toward the deathly view of death, his wife heads in opposite direction, back to the rest of the world that sees sleep as “the season of all natures” (III.iv.142). This is the natural view of sleep (normal is as “sleep to our nights” [III.vi.34]), as the Lord puts it to Lennox. Only after the murder, she has gone too far down the bloody path to ever return to normal, natural sleep; she now walks, talks, and acts “while in a most fast sleep” (V.i.8). This is not normal, obviously, and she is “troubled with thick-coming fancies // That keep her from her rest” (V.iii.40-1).

As the lack of sleep can cause a loss of cognitive functions, and in extreme chronic cases can result in symptoms that are similar to psychosis, can her sleepwalking and suicide–not to mention her husband’s actions near the end of the play–be a result of that lack of that “season of all natures”?

Comment?