Monday, 5 December 2011

Shakespeare and sleep

As an English teacher I have always been dismissive of the biographically deterministic approach to literary criticism that often results from students' attempts to contextualise the literature they study. Any work of literature, I tell them, is a construct. Even when studying an autobiography you cannot draw an entirely simplistic equation between events in the author's life and elements of the work of literature. How pointless it is therefore to explain or dismiss characters, themes or fields of imagery in a work of fiction by reference to biographical details about the author. When Hamlet says he can "tell a hawk from a handsaw" he is not Shakespeare, he is a character created by Shakespeare. Yes, that shows that the author was familiar with the tools of the craftsman's trade (or according to another reading, the falconer's) but that is all it shows. Shakespeare's choice of those words could have been influenced by any number of things, from their alliteration to some specific contemporary reference of which we now know nothing.

Yet to every rule there is at least one exception. There is one element of Shakespeare's life that I am absolutely convinced comes through in his work: he was an insomniac. The references to difficulties sleeping are too widespread and too powerful not to have their origin in deeply personal experience.
I recognise of course that as a great poet Shakespeare uses the image of sleep and its uncomfortable similarity to death as a powerful symbol in a number of places. Prospero says that "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." echoings Macbeths lament that " in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil." Macbeth expands the image in the cry "shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit/And look on death itself."

However what I am talking about is something different. Time after time what I hear is the plaintive and deeply personal cry of an individual who has suffered and is suffering real insomnia. You can see it in the envy implicit in Brutus' "Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies/Which busy care draws in the brains of men;/Therefore thou sleep’st so sound." or Friar Laurence's "But where unbruised youth with unstuff’d brain/Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign:" You can see it in the sadness of Henry IV's "O sleep! O gentle sleep! /Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,/That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down/And steep my senses in forgetfulness?...Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown", but most clearly you can see it in the desperation in Macbeth's frequent laments about his inability to sleep. What more passionate statement could there be about the value of sleep than his "the innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,/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"? Surely here we see Shakespeare slipping out of his role as author and speaking with his own voice- a voice tortured by his inability to sleep.

If you are not yet convinced, why not read the following Shakespeare sonnet in its entirety. Then tell me: was this or was this not written by an insomniac?

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d:
For then my thoughts—from far where I abide—
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself no quiet find.
Sonnet 27

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