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Shakespeare's Pathos (Portrayals of Sleep)

From Shakespeare's Pathos by J. F. Pyre. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Those who have lingered over the quieter scenes of Shakespeare must have been often aware of still another aspect of life which drew from him some of his wooingest and most lovable touches -- I mean his references to, and his portrayals of, sleep. Two qualities of this phase of our natural being seem to have especially impressed Shakespeare -- its pathos and its mystery. Both tones are congenial to the subdued movement of his scenes of suspense and preparation, and it is seldom that either is quite absent when sleep is thought of. The mystical bond between man and the secret workings of the invisible universe that clips him round, as shown in the restorative virtue of sleep, but also in "the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose," the involuntary and apparently lawless, but often startlingly significant operations of the mind off guard, its recapitulation in dreams of the waking past, its random foreshadowings of things to come, made this do main of experience peculiarly attractive to him as a dramatic agency.

Sleep is the surprisal of the essential, the very man. It strips from the recital of his acts and the confession and analysis of his psychic life, the artificiality of studied narrative or of self-conscious soliloquy, and it surrounds its revelations with an aura of wonder which allies them to the supernatural. It raises them to a higher power of emotional idealization which in tensifies their livingness just as art, just as Shakespeare's representation itself, is more real than actuality.

Again, sleep is one of the natural goods of life, beautiful in itself, like flowers, like the songs of birds. It is the touchstone of health; as the man sleepeth, so is he. Where virtue is, it is more virtuous, and where beauty is, more beautiful.

The relation to sleep therefore becomes an index of character and of psychic constitution and a means of portraying them. Such intimate revelations are pathetic; their very intimacy tends toward pathos. There is something magical in the mere sight of a sleeper; the sheer passivity, the immobility, the innocence, the helplessness, even of the strong, even of the wicked, come home to us, with out comment, directly; the sleeper is made one with nature. And sleep has another direct effect on the imagination to which Shakespeare, like other poets, was keenly alive: it is the portrait and prognostic of the sleep that ends all. Death itself, except in association with childhood, he almost never rendered pathetically; but, in sleep, "death's counterfeit", and in the preparations for it, he seemed to find exactly that fanciful and tender symbol of the dread finality which harmonized with his pathos.

The plays are full of these sleep scenes, some times merely described or hinted, sometimes actually represented; usually bound up with the motivation of character and action, but seldom without some direct suggestive value as spectacle and symbol. Such is Tyrrel's picture of the sleeping princes (Richard III, IV, iii.)
girdling one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms:
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
Which in their summer beauty kiss'd each other:
We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature
That from the prime creation e'er she framed.
There is pathos, not quite lost in voluptuousness, in the picture of the sleeping Lucrece, with Tarquin's ruffian face thrust toward her through the parted curtain:
Showing life's triumph in the map of death
And death's dim look in life's mortality:
Each in her sleep themselves so beautify
As if between them twain there were no strife,
But that life liv'd in death, and death in life.
The same group reappeared, refined and chastened, some fifteen years later in the exquisite chamber scene of Cymbeline, where Imogen, fallen asleep over her book, is displayed to the prying eyes of Iachimo.
'Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus; the flame of the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure lac'd

With blue of heaven's own tint
On her left breast
A mole cinque spotted, like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a cowslip.
Place beside this the coda of the great Boar's Head scene (1 Henry IV, II, iv), the picture of Falstaff "fast asleep behind the arras and snorting like a horse." "Hark, how hard he fetches breath! Search his pockets." This is coming close to the gray, old sinner. His very pockets yield up their secrets. No fear of waking; the trump of doom is a mere fifth in his harmony. The sheriff and his rout have departed; England is arming; and there he lies, in a colossal slumber, the gift we may presume of much sack, over-taxed nature, and a conscience as easy "an it had been any christom child." "There let him sleep till day". And so we slip out and leave him. The man who will find pathos in this, you may say, will find pathos in anything. Well, perhaps it is not pathos precisely; but it is the very life, and pathos will come of it.

A little later (2 Henry IV, III, i), we are in the palace of Westminster, and the king enters in his night gown; he is ill, and old before his time, shaken with cares, and the fault he made in compassing the crown lies heavy on his soul; he dispatches a messenger to "call the Earls of Surrey and of Warwick", and then comes the famous "expostulation":
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! sleep! gentle sleep!
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge ....
It is a pathetic prelude to the painful crown scene of the ensuing act, the beginning of the end of high-mettled Bolingbroke. Similar reflections upon sleep supply the basis of the only pathetic passage in the life of the new king, the stout-hearted Henry V. After wandering about the sleeping camp and conversing with such of his soldiers as are awake on the night before Agincourt, Henry gives way in solitude to inward thought; his courage quails an instant before the responsibility which his men have laid upon him for the morrow's business, and it is here that he touches his high point in poetry:
I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The farced title running fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world.
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread.
Next moment, it is to the "God of battles" that he prays, to "steel his soldiers' hearts"; but it is here that he feels the mystery of life.

It would require a separate paper to trace out all the instances where Shakespeare has made sleep the monitor of one's sense of life, has used its suggestion for stilling in us, -- as in the personages of his scene, -- the hurly of the restless, active business of waking existence, so that we feel earth breathe, and hear "time flowing in the night", and "all the rivers running to the sea". Perhaps nothing in Macbeth is so piteous as the violation done to nature with respect to sleep, "the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care." For "Macbeth does murder sleep", his own above all. The theme recurs again and again, culminating in a set scene, the sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth. This scene, however, pitiful as it is, is too terrible for pathos, and probably should not be regarded as the specifically pathetic movement of the play. Like Richard's terrible visitings on the last night of his life it is allied to the supernatural in effect and is a part of the last movement, the catastrophe.

But in several of the tragedies this theme is attached to the set scene of pathos. Brutus leans over the sleeping boy and, with words of unaccustomed lightness and tender fancy, takes the lute from his hands, before settling himself to his book. Desdemona lets down her hair while she sings, remembering her childhood, chats sleepily, rubs her eyes, and prepares for her last rest. Lear awakens from a restoring slumber, shattered but sane, to find Cordelia standing over him with heart too near breaking to dream the word, for giveness. The feigned death of Juliet had similar potentialities, but they are not, I think, realized; there is too little quietness; the villainous nurse breaks in; horror and confusion unroll; there is no pause over the pathetic beauty of the picture, as in these incomparable scenes. The lovely trance of Imogen, with the dwelling lyricism of her sylvan obsequies, is more like; but after all, more pretty than moving. It is in the awakening of Lear that we have Shakespeare's supreme pathos, too beautiful to bear, almost.

When, now, with a rather definite idea of the quality of Shakespeare's pathos and a conscious knowledge of the means by which he habitually produced this effect, we examine the plays as a whole, we are immediately aware of a method in the disposition of his pathetic scenes. And if, in addition, we look at the plays with some attention to the probable order of their composition, we are further impressed by a development in this, as in other aspects of his art, which throws additional light upon his artistic intention. Not only is there an increasing command of the elements of pathos, a surer and finer touch in details; there is increasing sureness of method in his massing of them into set scenes of pathetic climax and in his emphasis of these scenes as a definite movement in the scheme of emotional values, with a sense of their due place and proportion in the total effect of the piece.

How to cite this article:
Pyre, J. F. Shakespeare's Pathos. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. < >.

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