Julia Reinhard Lupton
The University of California, Irvine
Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
Before he smothers her in their bed, Othello asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers tonight. In Cymbeline, we get to hear Imogen say her bedtime prayers (she also reads some pages from Ovid). In Macbeth, as the hero returns from stabbing the king in his bed, he hears two men wake in the night and exchange a prayer, and finds himself unable to say “Amen.”
Evening prayers of various sorts – some said upon greeting the coming dusk and lighting the night’s first candles, others pronounced upon undressing for bed, and a final group said just before climbing into the sack -- were a key part of bed time rituals in Shakespeare’s England. In these prayers, the specter of dying in one’s sleep looms large, but so do sexual dreams and the entertainment of forbidden thoughts. As Andrew Bishop notes on this site, night prayers ask God “for rest, guarding, and companionship during the lonely hours” (http://www.sleepcultures.com/2/post/2013/10/sleep-and-christian-theology-a-guest-post-by-andrew-bishop.html). Imagining micro-dramas of sin and betrayal, arousal and accident, bedtime prayers choreograph speech, posture and gesture in an act that acknowledges creaturely vulnerability in order to build trust. In a beautiful prayer by Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1697-1787), the speaker asked Jesus to lodge him “within your sacred side and under the mantle of our Lady” (http://www.catholicity.com/prayer/prayer-before-sleep.html), transforming the wounds of God and the cloak of Mary into a cosy sleeping pod. Bed time prayers often mention the Queen and her counsellors as well as family, friends, neighbors, and the needy, laying out the speaker’s place in a larger social order. (Sometimes the universities are remembered, too!)
Such prayers contribute to a larger ecology of sleep that weaves home furnishings, circadian shifts, and metabolic deceleration into a general nesting strategy that detaches consciousness from the world by melting the sleeping subject into her soft surrounds. In Shakespeare’s plays, the accoutrements of sleep include candles, pillows, linens, blankets, and curtains. Arrases not only draped beds to create a room within the room, but also warmed the walls, muting sound and adding edifying stories while sometimes inserting a membrane of storage space between wall and chamber (as in Hamlet). “Possets” or bed time drinks invited sleep to come more easily (Macbeth), as could quiet music and ritual undressing (Othello).
Seeking insight into the murder of sleep in Macbeth, I stumbled on an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library (http://www.folger.edu/Content/Whats-On/Folger-Exhibitions/Past-Exhibitions/To-Sleep-Perchance-to-Dream/). The digital gallery includes Richard Day’s A Book of Christian Prayer, an unusually lovely volume that offers a total of nine prayers designed to ease the uncertainties of the night. My favorite entry is “A prayer to be said when we unclothe ourselves to bedward.” The word “bedward” describes evening prayer as fundamentally an act of orientation, of affective and bodily settling in response to the time of day and its atmospheric attributes. Like many bedtime prayers of the period, the prose-poem links sleep and death. The speaker asks God to not let him die in his sleep:
Now therefore, thou O most loving Father, which hast set me together: dissolve me in such wise as I may feel myself to be dissolved, and remember of whom I am overcome, and consider whither I must go.
Acknowledging that his creaturely estate has been assembled (“set together”) by God, the speaker accepts the coming slumber as a temporary dissolving of consciousness that anticipates the final dissolution effected by death. He asks not to avoid death tout court, but rather to be dissolved in such a way that he feels himself to be dissolved: he wants the courage as well as the opportunity to experience his death as death, so that the loss of consciousness can become the content of a special kind of awareness. Day’s prayer directs mindful attention towards an ambient array of affined dissolutions -- wake and sleep, personhood and creatureliness, investiture and nakedness, life and death – in order to test the timbre of his own subjectivity.
That Day expresses these thoughts on the occasion of undressing for bed subliminally associates the qualities of fabric with the properties of consciousness, each capable of folding, stretching, wrapping, and tearing. Clothes afford donning and stripping, protection but also exposure; moreover, in the act of dressing and undressing, the fabric that becomes largely continuous with our skin as we move about our daily tasks separates and becomes tangible as an occasion for proprioception, or feeling oneself feel. More precisely, Day wants to “feel himself dissolve”: he wants to experience a transitional phenomenon that frays his cognitive capacities even as he exercises those capacities. A kind of immanent and affective Cartesianism draws the melting into air rehearsed each time we fall asleep into a knot of something permanent (thought, mind, soul) that congeals precisely in and as the act of knowingly undergoing the end of knowing.
I am struck by the semantic and emotional undertow connecting Day’s image of dissolution to Macbeth’s description of sleep as “knitting up the raveled sleeve of care.” One picture that emerges here is of sleep winding a tunnel (sleeve) of comforting darkness around the self-abandoning consciousness of a being undone by a day of exertion. We might even say that the image “yawns,” that it evokes the opening and closing of the throat that models the relinquishment of consciousness at the verge of slumber. Shakespeare’s metaphor both affirms the loss of consciousness and poetically tracks that loss in an enigmatically dream-like image of auto-poetic mending. For both Day and Shakespeare, sleep pivots between doing and undoing, coming apart and making new. In the psychotheology of everyday life, evening prayers are atmosphere-responders, mood-regulators, and soul-stewards that tune the speaker’s bodily processes and cognitive capacities to her immediate setting and to the cosmic rhythms and social orders in which she counts her days. In Shakespeare’s plays, bedtime prayers provide a liturgico-domestic score for the perils of sleep and the violation of its soft safeguards as well as an entry into the poetics of experience at the unravelling edges of consciousness. To “murder sleep” is to cut through the layers of protection and repair promised by the soft affordances of both pillows and pillow talk, but also to submit sleep’s softscape to ecological analysis and proprioceptive appreciation.