Overview Act I
"Threes" in 1.1
"Threes" in 1.1 (II)
Weird Sisters I
Weird Sisters II
Act 1, Scene 2
I. 2 Images
Word Use in 1.2
Word Use in 1.2 II
Partial Lines (1.2)
Partial Lines II
Phrases and 1.3
The Future Now
The Chalice (1.7)
Sacking the Temple
Sack. the Sacred II
The "Chance" II
Murdering Sleep (2.2.35)
Bill Long 7/31/05
Macbeth is a play about the powerful effect of strange sounds and voices. The Weird Sisters tell their truth by proclaiming to Macbeth that he will become Thane of Cawdor and then King over the realm. The "raven himself is hoarse/ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan" at Macbeth's castle (1.5.37-38). At Duncan's death it was "the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman/ Which gives the stern'st good night" (2.2.3-4). And, after Duncan's murder is accomplished, when Macbeth is telling the tale to his wife, he says, "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more;/ Macbeth does murder sleep" (2.2.34-35). This prophecy from an unknown voice bespeaks Macbeth's future mental torment--the unintended result of his offing Duncan. But instead of looking immediately at the torment that will attend Macbeth, let's examine the victim of his rampage that the voice says he has murdered--sleep.
The oldest books in Western literature recognize the refreshing escape that sleep provides. Homer, in the Iliad, after describing the unmitigated gore of the battle between Troy and Greece, egged on by and intensified by divine interventions, sometimes closes his books by references to sleep. Book VII concludes: "Then they went to bed, to receive the gift of sleep." Or, from Book IX: "Then each man went to his hut,/ where he lay down and stretched out to take the gift of sleep." Sleep is conceived as a sort of a welcome break between murderous scenes, an escape from the necessary violence of the day. The Bible knows this same approach to sleep. One of the most comforting Psalms begins: "Unless the Lord builds the house,/ those who build labor in vain...It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,/ eating the bread of anxious toil;/ for he gives sleep to his beloved" (Ps. 127:1-2). And Job's inner torment was exacerbated because he lost the ability to sleep: "When I say, 'My bed will comfort me,/ my couch will ease my complaint,'/ then you scare me with dreams,/ and terrify me with visions,/ so that I would chose strangling/ and death rather than this body" (Job 7:12-15). Anything that takes away sleep, especially something that "murders sleep," takes away one of the few predictable pleasures of life.
Returning to Macbeth (2.2.35-39)
So, when Macbeth hears the voice that announces that he "does murder sleep," we are prepared for the mental torment that Macbeth then experiences. But before he gets there, Shakespeare has to show off his extraordinary talent, like a startling glissendo that ends a musical piece or like a soprano that reaches yet an octave higher than the music demands. We can tell that Shakespeare's remarkable words are really unnecessary to the flow of the action, since Macbeth repeats the words "Sleep no more" before and after these words (2.2.34, 40). Yet, Shakespeare adds them. Macbeth says, recounting the words of the voice:
"Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve 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" (2.2.35-39).
Three things about sleep should be noted: (1) Sleep as the great interpreter of life; (2) Sleep as healer; and (3) Sleep as nourisher. Each calls for comment.
(1) I don't suppose that anyone has written a more eloquent line in English about sleep than in l. 36--"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve (sleave) of care." Something that is ravelled is "tangled, confused, involved" (OED) or "frayed out; with frayed edges; ragged." A "sleeve" is a part of a garment or "a slender filament of silk obtained by separating a thicker thread." Finally, the word "ravel" not only suggests the reality of tangledness or confusion, but was a kind of medieval bread ("ravel bread"), of flour with the bran left in, which may connect the "ravelled" sleeve of care with the "nourisher" in the last line above. In any case, the principal picture communicated here is that sleep "knits up" or secures what has become confused or tangled in our lives. It brings lose ends together, tightening them and producing an untangled sleeve or garment. This is what I call sleep's interpretive capacity. It lets things settle, it suppresses some of the insistent voices that rang in our ears and lets others come to the fore, it smooths out what was so ragged or bumpy in our minds before we went to sleep. Christian hymnody might say "God is the great Interpreter, and he will make it plain," but Shakespeare knows better: sleep is the bread and wine of the common grace available to all creatures.
(2) Sleep also heals. It is "sore labor's bath/ balm of hurt minds." The bath and the balm, residing next to each other in the text, make us stop and bathe in the words. The body and mind are oppressed and stretched by the work of the day. Labor is sore in two senses: it creates conflict between people and it results in bodily infirmity and pain. But the mind also becomes overwhelmed by the bruising realities of life. Sleep not only interprets life, giving us mental clarity as we approach the next day, but it gives the mind and body peace and healing with which to rise and return to the battle.
(3) Finally, sleep nourishes. It gives us that extra meal that adds no calories, the feast that produces no waistline gain. And, Shakespeare calls it the "chief" nourisher in life's feast. One might want to quibble with him. Why not sex? Why not the blessings of friendship? Why not the inner satisfaction derived from seeing children successfully negotiate life's rapids? But sleep is offered to us each day, a gift that beckons and rewards; that nourishes and heals.
We can barely imagine Macbeth, the killing machine of 1.2, the one plagued with self-doubt in 1.7, the man who was cowed under his wife's verbal barrage in 1.7, saying these words. They seem to interrupt the gushing flow of emotion and deed that quickly follows the murder of Duncan. Yet, Shakespeare has dropped them in for our pleasure and nourishment. They are worthy of saying to a lover, or singing to a child. And they give that extra exclamation point to this play, that make it a most extraordinary read. You just have to memorize them.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long