Shakespeare had a sweet spot for sleep. From Lady M’s somnambulation to Romeo’s unfortunate misreading of Juliet’s nap, the Bard had an obsession with rest. But who can blame him? Sleep has a long literary history that stretches as far back as Aristotle, and The Bard of Avon’s fellow Elizabethan writers devoted tome after tome to its mysteries.
Though Shakespeare’s metaphors may seem straightforward — sleep as death, sleep as rejuvenation, insomnia as madness — they draw on a deep well of psychology, philosophy, liturgy and poetry. And in many cases, they are hardly straightforward at all. For the Bard, sleep was polysemic, and this allowed him to delve into many of life's biggest questions.
The Innocent Sleep
Elizabethan writers understood well the health benefits of sleep, as Carroll Camden wrote in his influential 1936 essay “Shakespeare On Sleep and Dreams.” He cites John Jones, a physician and author of The Arte And Science of Preserving Bodie and Soule (1579), who noted three primary effects: “It rests the wasted spirits, quiets the wearied senses, and improves digestion.” Robert Burton arrived at similar conclusions in his 1621 medical text The Anatomy of Melancholy. He argued that sleep “moistens and fattens the body… helps digestion (as we see in dormice, and those Alpine mice that sleep all winter)… when they are so found sleeping under the snow in the dead of winter, as fat as butter… It expels cares, pacifies the mind, refresheth the weary limbs after long work."
If this pro-sleep rhetoric sounds familiar to eagle-eyed scholars, it’s probably because Macbeth makes similar points in his famous “Whoops I murdered the King” speech to Lady Macbeth in Act 2, Scene 2:
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.
“Innocent” sleep is an important moniker, both in Macbeth and Shakespeare’s canon as a whole. Later in the play we catch a glimpse of not-so-innocent slumber, as a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth tries desperately to scrub the metaphorical blood from her hands. The dream of her guilt is so powerful — spoiler alert — it drives her to suicide. For Shakespeare, clearly, a clean conscience is a prerequisite for a healthy sleep.
When Shakespeare isn’t touting the restorative qualities of sleep, he’s usually positioning it as a stand-in for death. Or a poor substitute, as we learn again in Macbeth: “Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,” Macduff instructs Malcolm, “And look on death itself!”
That same metaphor — “death-counterfeiting sleep” — appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is echoed in Cymbeline when Iachimo refers to sleep as the “ape of death.”
According to Camden, the “counterfeit” image was popular among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who drew from classical writers in their belief that “sleep may be the image or brother of death, for as in sleep the body rests while the soul remains awake, so in death the body rests while the soul and spirit live.”
Shakespeare complicates this metaphor, as is his custom, by suggesting that to kill someone isn’t merely to take away their life; it’s to take away their sleep. After all, Macbeth seems far less upset that he murdered Duncan than that he murdered Duncan’s sleep. At times Shakespeare seems to deviate from the conventional wisdom, treating death instead as a permanent end even for the soul and spirit.
Which brings us to Hamlet.
The Curious Case of Hamlet
Just as we yearn for sleep at the end of a long day, so do many of Shakespeare’s characters yearn for the eternal rest of death. Probably the most famous example is the Prince of Danes whose “To be or not to be” speech might hold the record for most-quoted Sleep Is Death! allegory in the literary canon. But even this metaphor is miles more complicated than it seems.
Let’s get the soliloquy out of the way:
…To die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heartache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
There’s that “sleep no more” line again, though here Shakespeare splits the phrase with a line break, deftly creating an equivalency before dismantling it a second later. Hamlet wants sleep to help him understand death, but ultimately concludes this is futile: We simply cannot know what happens when we die.
This was a rebellious statement, for Hamlet and for Shakespeare. In Renaissance England, most people actually had a pretty good idea what death entailed. If they were good, their souls would go to Heaven. If they were bad, they’d plunge straight to Hell. Hamlet’s existentialism was centuries ahead of his time; curiously, it may not have been Shakespeare’s original intention.
The version of Hamlet we know and love today is usually some combination of the First Folio text, published in 1623, and the Second Quarto, published in 1624. In an earlier version of the play published in 1603, the First Quarto (Q1) contained lines and entire scenes that didn’t make it into later editions. When it comes to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in particular, the First Quarto contains a radically different notion of sleep.
Here’s the relevant passage:
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
“Hamlet still compares death to sleep and then wonders about dreams, but he goes on to say that ‘we awake’ from ‘that dream of death’ and are ‘borne before an Everlasting Judge,’ who will separate the blessed from the damned at the Last Judgment,” clarifies Zachary Lesser. Lesser, a University of Pennsylvania professor and editor of the Arden Shakespeare, literally wrote the book on the First Quarto Hamlet (now in paperback!).
In the first Quarto, Lesser continues, the metaphor of death as sleep is used to “express a completely traditional Christian idea about the afterlife, whereas in the famous version, we see totally atheistic Hamlet who claims that we have no idea what happens after we die, something a good Christian would never say.”
Lesser adds that the same metaphor is used for two totally opposed purposes, in two different versions of the same play, supposedly written by the same person.
That “supposedly” is pretty important. Scholarship surrounding Q1 is largely divided on its origins: Was it a bad rough draft? An act of pre-modern piracy, in which a group of actors reconstructed the play from memory to make an extra buck? Or a version of the mysterious Ur-Hamlet, an oft-referenced but lost play believed to be Shakespeare’s inspiration?
The answer is befitting of Hamlet, both the man and the play: We simply cannot know. In the absence of cosmic certainty, we can at least take comfort in the fact that our obsession with sleep — whether it’s the death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath or a consummation devoutly to be wished — pales in comparison to Shakespeare’s.