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
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
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
Within their alabaster innocent arms:
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
Which in their summer beauty kiss'd each other:
The most replenished sweet work of nature
That from the prime creation e'er she framed.
Showing life's triumph in the map of death
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.
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.
'Tis her breathing that
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.
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.
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
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:
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 ....
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.
'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.
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. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearepathos5.html >.
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