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Sleep and Death: The Twins in Shakespeare S. Viswanathan The similitude of death for sleep and sleep for death is one of the commonplaces of both classical and biblical lineage and one of considerable vogue in early medieval and Renaissance literature and iconography. It is one of the topoi which Shake­ speare returns to and dramatically exploits time and again, and it is worthwhile considering to what fine uses he puts this re­ ceived idea. The most extensive as well as the subtlest use of the idea as dramatic image is to be found in Macbeth. But in a good many other plays the sleep-death coalescence is employed by Shakespeare not merely as an incidental stroke of dramatic rhetoric, but often to larger ends as well. What Shakespeare makes of this traditional motif is at once an illustration of what a genius does to an apparently minor convention or cliché and also further evidence that the links in the chain of the imagistic associations of Shakespeare are to be sought at least as much in traditional habits of thought and expression inherited by the artist as in the psychological make-up of the man in the way suggested by Caroline Spurgeon and Edward Armstrong. Warburton and Malone traced the Duke’s words to Claudio in Measure for Measure Thy best of rest is sleep, And that thou oft provok’st; yet grossly fear’st Thy death, which is no more (III.i.17-19) back to Cicero. But, as T. W. Baldwin has pointed out, despite the occurrence of the idea of death as sleep in three different instances in Cicero, this classical author had no monopoly over it.l Shakespeare could have absorbed the idea from Cicero, or from the school-text, the Sententiae Pueriles (“somnus mortis imago”), or Palingenius’s Zodiacus in the original or Bamabe Googe’s translation,2 or for that matter from the Book of Job (14.10-12), probably in the Geneva version where the marginal 49 50 Comparative Drama gloss insists that the idea does not involve anything like the mortalist heresy. The classical idea of sleep as the image of death chimed in well with the biblical one of death as sleep. The approximation of death to sleep was hence a commonplace in the traditions of the consolatio and the ars moriendi. Further­ more, there were certain established literary as well as iconographical associations of the two-in-one imagery of sleep as death (and death as sleep) with night, dream, and darkness. For instance, St. Chrysostom’s classic statements calling life a dream or a drama and associating it with sleep and death com­ mended themselves to the Elizabethan mind.3 The conception of Sleep and Death as siblings—i.e., as the two children of Night—goes back to Homer and Hesiod, and was revived in Renaissance mythography, as we see from the dictionaries, the iconological accounts of Pausanias and Cartari, and Renaissance iconographical practice.4 More immediately, the sleep-death coalescence was often used by Sidney and Spenser. Some of these associations attached to the sleep-death imagery could well have suggested to Shakespeare dramatic possibilities which he turns to good imaginative account. Examples of Shakespeare’s pursuit of the significances of the sleep-death imagery may now be surveyed. The earliest instance occurs in the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew. The sportive lord happens upon the drunken tinker Sly; just before the idea flashes upon his mind of making the “lorel into a lord” for that one night, he remarks as he takes a good look at the man who is fast asleep: “Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image” (Induction, i.35). Spoken with reference to the figure of the besotted Sly lying supine on the stage with the contortions of face and of limbs suggesting death (and it takes some time for the lord and his men to decide whether the man lies dead or asleep), the traditional analogy in words is supported here by what is actually seen onstage. Sly fast asleep thus in effect turns out to be an emblem of the con­ ceit of sleep and death. Of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 49-64
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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