If you’re familiar with Shakespeare, you know that sleep (or lack of it) is a big theme of his. He uses it in conjunction with guilt, depression, punishment…you name a dark thing, and he associates it. Probably the most famous of his allusions is in Hamlet, when our dark hero contemplates suicide.
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
I have situated these sleep metaphors in my work (see Saved by the Music for most, also a little in The Girl Next Door.) But the sleep reference that has influenced me the most is from Macbeth:
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve 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,–
What do you mean?
Still it cried ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house:
‘Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.’
This sleep reference affected me when I first read it back in eleventh grade, and it still does. Clearly I’m not the only one: I just saw the show Sleep No More which is a very liberal interpretation of Macbeth, but it does incorporate this sleepless theme very well despite a lack of dialogue (I may address this in another post.)
There is a “counter-quote” in Macbeth, about the slain Duncan:
Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
All this seems to suggest that a good sleep can only be had after we are dead. Do I protest too much?
Maybe I just think too much, or maybe I’ve taken Shakespeare too deeply to heart, but I have had tremendous issues with sleeping. No trouble falling asleep…but problems remaining asleep. I believe I can’t turn my brain off – that I keep churning though my issues trying to resolve them, even when I’m supposed to be resting.
I don’t have “guilt” but I do have “demons.” I know I couldn’t have changed the events in my life for the most part – especially those that happened when I was young – but I do spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find “reason” in “unreasonable” things – and in “unreasonable” people. I look for order in where there can be none, and try to resolve irresolvable issues. I’ve come to understand that the only thing to do is make peace with certain things, and sometimes I feel that I’ve actually done that. But when I sleep, all the irrational, childlike sorrow comes through. The part of me that wants to fix all that was ever broken, to mend the unmendable. The rational part of me isn’t there to soothe the child me – it’s trying to sleep. And that’s where the nightmares and the waking up come in.
I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in this – millions of my contemporaries suffer from some sort of sleep problem, though I’m not sure how many would agree that the answers like in our psyches and in our pasts. And Shakespeare provides even more solace, because he considered it to be such a worthy subject to explore. So maybe it’s my destiny and duty as a writer to sleep poorly. In fairness to my dreams, one of them was The Girl Next Door in its entirety. Maybe I should pay attention to them more instead of trying to rid myself of them. I wonder if Shakespeare dreamed A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It has a hallucinogenic quality – he might have swallowed a sleep-aid herb and had one hell of a vivid, crazy dream.
I do use all these thoughts as fodder for my writing. Truthfully: they are my writing. At least the pertinent part of it.
We all have our crosses to bear, and they are personal. As Shakespeare writes in As You Like it:
I’d rather bear with you than bear you. But if I did carry you, it would be no cross to bear…
Though Shakespeare has heaped in “plays on words” here, I think the answer for humanity is at the heart of this quote: to bear with each other and try to help out, but realize that each of our crosses to bear are personal. We can’t bear each others’ – all we can do is empathize and try to comfort. Maybe then we can all sleep easier.
However, ultimately, I think “restless ecstasy” might be my cross to bear. Hey, I wouldn’t trade my inspiration for a good night’s sleep. Or the connection I’ve made with humanity through my writing.
A final thought from The Tempest:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Sleep tight, my friends.