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SHAKESPEARE'S INSOMNIA _And the Causes Thereof_



[**Transcriber's Note: The following is a literary hoax, and the letters
quoted below are fictitious.]



Insomnia, the lack of "tired Nature's sweet restorer," is rapidly
becoming the chronic terror of all men of active life who have passed
the age of thirty-five or forty years. In early life, while yet he
"wears the rose of youth upon him," man rarely, except in sickness,
knows the want of sound, undreaming sleep. But as early manhood is left
behind and the cares and perplexities of life weigh upon him, making
far more needful than ever the rest which comes only through unbroken
sleep, this remedial agent cannot longer be wooed and won. Youth would
"fain encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in his arms." To those of
riper years the "blanket of the dark" often ushers in a season of
terrors, - a time of fitful snatches of broken sleep and of tormenting
dreams; of long stretches of wakefulness; of hours when all things
perplexing and troublesome in one's affairs march before him in sombre
procession: in endless disorder, in labyrinths of confusion, in
countless new phases of disagreeableness; and at length the morning
summons him to labor, far more racked and weary than when he sought

It has been of late years much the fashion in the literature of this
subject to attribute sleeplessness to the rapid growth of facilities for
activities of every kind. The practical annihilation of time and space
by our telegraphs and railroads, the compressing thereby of the labors
of months into hours or even minutes, the terrific competition in all
kinds of business thereby made possible and inevitable, the intense
mental activity engendered in the mad race for fame or wealth, where the
nervous and mental force of man is measured against steam and
lightning, - these are usually credited with having developed what is
considered a modern and even an almost distinctively American disease.

As the maxim, "There is nothing new under the sun," is of general
application, it may be of interest to investigate if an exception occurs
in the case of sleeplessness; if it be true that among our ancestors,
before the days of working steam and electricity, the glorious sleep of
youth was prolonged through all one's three or four score years.

Medical books and literature throw no light upon this subject three
hundred years ago. We must therefore turn to Shakespeare - human
nature's universal solvent - for light on this as we would on any other
question of his time. Was he troubled with insomnia, then, is the first
problem to be solved.

Dr. Holmes, our genial and many-sided poet-laureate, who is also a
philosopher, in his "Life of Emerson," has finely worked out the theory
that no man writes other than his own experience: that consciously or
otherwise an author describes himself in the characters he draws; that
when he loves the character he delineates, it is in some measure his
own, or at least one of which he feels its tendencies and possibilities
belong to himself. Emerson, too, says of Shakespeare, that all his
poetry was first experience.

When we seek to analyze what we mean by the term Shakespeare, to
endeavor to define wherein he was distinct from all others and easily
pre-eminent, to know why to us he ever grows wiser as we grow wise, we
find that his especial characteristic was an unequalled power of
observation and an ability accurately to chronicle his impressions. He
was the only man ever born who lived and wrote absolutely without bias
or prejudice. Emerson says of him that "he reported all things with
impartiality; that he tells the great greatly, the small
subordinately, - he is strong as Nature is strong, who lifts the land
into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats
a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other." Says
he, further: "Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality
will presently appear: he has certain opinions which he disposes other
things to bring into prominence; he crams this part and starves the
other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing but his fitness and
strength." But Shakespeare has no peculiarity; all is duly given.

Thus it is that his dramas are the book of human life. He was an
accurate observer of Nature: he notes the markings of the violet and the
daisy; the haunts of the honeysuckle, the mistletoe, and the woodbine.
He marks the fealty of the marigold to its god the sun, and even touches
the freaks of fashion, condemning in some woman of his time an usage,
long obsolete, in accordance with which she adorned her head with "the
golden tresses of the dead." But it was as an observer and a delineator
of man in all his moods that he was the bright, consummate flower of
humanity. His experiences were wide and varied. He had absorbed into
himself and made his own the pith and wisdom of his day. As the fittest
survives, each age embodies in itself all worthy of preservation in the
ages gone before. In Shakespeare's pages we find a reflection, perfect
and absolute, of the age of Elizabeth, and therefore of all not
transient in the foregone times, - of all which is fixed and permanent
in our own. He "held the mirror up to Nature." So "his eternal summer
shall not fade," because

"He sang of the earth as it will be
When the years have passed away."

If, therefore, insomnia had prevailed in or before his time, in his
pages shall we find it duly set forth. If he had suffered, if the
"fringed curtains of his eyes were all the night undrawn," we shall find
his dreary experiences - his hours of pathetic misery, his nights of
desolation - voiced by the tongues of his men and women.

Shakespeare speaks often of the time in life when men have left behind
them the dreamless sleep of youth. Friar Laurence says: -

"Care keeps his watch in every old man's eye,
And where care lodges, sleep can never lie;
But where unbruisèd youth with unstuffed brain
Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign."

Shakespeare describes, too, with lifelike fidelity, the causes of
insomnia, which are not weariness or physical pain, but undue mental
anxiety. He constantly contrasts the troubled sleep of those burdened
with anxieties and cares, with the happy lot of the laborer whose
physical weariness insures him a tranquil night's repose. Henry VI.
says: -

"And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Are far beyond a prince's delicates."

And Henry V. says: -

"'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world, -
No, not all these, thrice gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who, with a body filled and vacant mind,
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, that child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set,
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium....
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Hath the forehand and vantage of a king."

Prince Henry says, in "Henry IV.": -

"O polished perturbation! Golden care!
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night, sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggin bound
Snores out the watch of night."

In this same play, too, is found the familiar and marvellous soliloquy
of Henry IV.: -

"How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O Sleep, O gentle Sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, Sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lulled with sounds of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch
A watch-case, or a common 'larum-bell?
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,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With deafening clamor in the slippery shrouds,
That with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial Sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Caesar, whom Shakespeare characterizes as "the foremost man of all this
world," says: -

"Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights."

And again, it is not an "old man broken with the storms of state" whom
he describes when he says: -

"Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies
Which busy care draws in the brains of men;
Therefore thou sleep'st so sound."

The poet also in various passages expresses his emphatic belief as to
what is the brightest blessing or the deadliest calamity which can be
laid upon our frail humanity. Rarely is a blessing invoked which does
not include the wish for tranquil sleep; and this, too, as the best and
greatest boon of all. His gracious benediction may compass honors and
wealth and happiness and fame, - that one's "name may dwell forever in
the mouths of men;" but

"The earth hath bubbles as the water hath,
And these are of them,"

as compared with the royal benison, "Sleep give thee all his rest."

The spectres of the princes and Queen Anne, in "Richard III.," invoking
every good upon Richmond, say: -

"Sleep, Richmond, sleep in peace and wake in joy."

And again: -

"Thou quiet soul, sleep thou a quiet sleep."

Romeo's dearest wish to Juliet is, -

"Sleep dwell upon thine eyes; peace in thy breast."

The crowning promise of Lady Mortimer, in "Henry IV.," is that

"She will sing the song that pleaseth thee,
And on thy eyelids crown the god of sleep."

Titania promises her fantastic lover, -

"I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing, while thou on pressèd flowers dost sleep."

Titus, welcoming again to Rome the victorious legions, says of the
heroes who have fallen:

"There greet in silence, as the dead are wont,
And sleep in peace, slain in your country's wars,"

promising them that in the land of the blest

"are no storms,
No noise, but silence and eternal sleep."

Constantly also in anathemas throughout the plays are invoked, as the
deadliest of curses, broken rest and its usual accompaniment of
troublous dreams. Thus note the climax in Queen Margaret's curse upon
the traitorous Gloster: -

"If Heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
Oh, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv'st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!"

The witch, in "Macbeth," cataloguing the calamities in store for the
ambitious Thane, says:

"Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid."

It is curious also to remark, in the various lists of griefs which make
life a burden and a sorrow, how often the climax of these woes is the
lack of sleep, or the troubled dreams bearing their train of "gorgons,
hydras, and chimeras dire," which come with broken rest. Lady Percy says
to Hotspur: -

"Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks,
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?"

Macbeth says: -

"But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly; better be with the dead."

In "Othello" is a striking picture of the sudden change, in the
direction we are considering, which comes over a tranquil mind from the
commission of a great crime. Iago says to Othello, after he has wrought
"the deed without a name": -

"Not poppy nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou own'dst yesterday."

The greatest punishment which comes to Macbeth after the murder of
Duncan is lack of sleep. Nowhere in the language, in the same space, can
be found so many pictures of the blessedness of repose as in the
familiar lines: -

"Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,' the innocent sleep;
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast."

And the principal reason which deters Hamlet from suicide is the fear
that even if he does sleep well "after life's fitful fever is over,"
still, that sleep may be full of troubled dreams.

"To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."

Richard III. says, when the catalogue of his crimes is full, and when he
"sees as in a map the end of all": -

"The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom,
And Anne, my queen, hath bid the world good night."

In addition to the fuller phrases wherein are shown the blessedness of
sleep, or the remediless nature of its loss, many brief sentences occur
scattered throughout the plays, and emphasizing the same great lesson.
For instance: -

"Now o'er one half the world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep."

"With Him above
To ratify our work, we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights."

"You lack the season of all natures, sleep."

"My soul is heavy, and I fain would sleep."

"For never yet one hour in his bed
Have I enjoyed the golden dew of sleep."

"For some must watch and some must sleep,
So runs the world away."

"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon that bank."

"The best of rest is sleep."

"Our little lives are rounded with a sleep."

The various passages cited above prove and illustrate that no author has
written so feelingly, so appreciatingly, as Shakespeare on the subject
of sleep and its loss.

The diligent commentators on his works have investigated laboriously the
sources from which he drew his plots and many of the very lines of his
poems. He was a great borrower; absorbing, digesting, and making his own
much of the material of his predecessors. But it is a noteworthy fact,
that none of the exquisite lines in praise of sleep - that gift which the
Psalmist says the Lord giveth to his beloved - can be traced to other
source than the master. These are jewels of his own; transcripts from
his own mournful experience. In middle life he remembered hopelessly the
tranquil sleep of his lost youth, as

"He that is stricken blind cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost."

He had suffered from insomnia, and he writes of this, not "as
imagination bodies forth the forms of things _unknown_," but as one
who, in words burning with indestructible life, lays open to us the
sombre record of what was experience before it was song; who makes us
the sharers of his griefs; who would awaken in the similarly afflicted
of all time that compassionate sympathy which goes out to those whose
burdens are almost greater than they can bear.


The meagre information we have as to the life and habits of Shakespeare
would seem to make it an almost hopeless task now to discover the causes
of his insomnia. He wrote a marvellous body of literature, and it might
be thought this labor itself would suffice as an explanation: that the
furnace heat in which the conceptions of Hamlet and Macbeth and Lear
were wrought in the crucible of his brain would be fatal to repose. But
his contemporaries speak of him as an easy and rapid writer; one whose
imagination is only paralleled by the ease, the force and beauty of the
phrase in which it is embodied. We are told, too, by Dr. H.A. Johnson,
an eminent medical authority, in the second volume of his treatise on
the pathology of the optic nerve, that it is not work, even heavy and
continuous, but worry over this work, which drives away repose and
shortens life.

I had observed, in collating the many passages in Shakespeare concerning
sleep, that the greater number, and those bearing evidence of deepest
earnestness, occurred in six plays: "Richard III.," "Macbeth," "1 Henry
IV.," "Hamlet," "2 Henry IV.," and "Henry V." The chronology of
Shakespeare's plays seems almost hopeless, scarcely any two writers
agreeing as to the order of the plays or the years in which they were
written. Several of the most critical authorities, however, - Dyce,
White, Furnival, and Halliwell-Phillipps, - are agreed that two of the
plays above named were written in 1593, three in 1602, and one in 1609.
This would seem to indicate that during these three years unusual
perplexities or anxieties had surrounded our author; and on noting this,
it occurred to me that on these points the series of papers recently
discovered and called the Southampton manuscripts, which are not yet
published, might give light. I accordingly addressed a letter to the
Director of the British Museum, where the manuscripts are placed for
safe keeping, and received the following reply: -

LONDON, Feb. 14, 1886.

SIR, - I am directed by the Curator to acknowledge the receipt of
your valued favor of February 1, transmitting for preservation and
reference in the library of this institution -

1. The manuscript of the farewell address of Dr. Charles Gilman
Smith, on his retirement to private life from the presidency of the
Chicago Literary Club;

2. The manuscript of the inaugural address of his successor in the
office, - which is a public trust, - James S. Norton, Esq.;

3. An affidavit of Dr. W.F. Poole, that both manuscripts are
originals, and in the handwriting of their eminent authors.

The Curator further instructs me to convey to you the thanks of the
Board of Governors for these highly important papers, and to state
to you that they may be found on file in sub-compartment No. 113,280
of Contemporary Documents.

I am further instructed by the Curator to inform you that compliance
with your request that this institution reciprocate your kindness by
loaning to you all papers from the recently discovered Southampton
Shakespeare Collection, bearing date in the years 1593, 1602, and
1609, is contrary to the regulations of this institution. If you
cannot visit London to examine these interesting manuscripts, copies
will be made and transmitted you for three halfpence per folio,
payment by our rules invariably in advance. I note that you are
evidently in error upon one point. The collection contains no
letters or manuscripts of Shakespeare. It is composed principally of
letters written to Shakespeare by various people, and which, after
his death, in some way came into the possession of the Earl of
Southampton. His death, so soon after that of Shakespeare, doubtless
caused these letters to be lost sight of, and they were but last
year discovered in the donjon of the castle. I have examined the
letters for the years you name, and find that copies of the same can
be made for £3 3s., exclusive of postage.

Very respectfully yours,


_10th Ass't Sub-Secretary._

The money having been forwarded, I received in due time the copies. At
the first date, 1593, Shakespeare was a young dramatist and actor
struggling for recognition, poor and almost unknown; in 1602 he had won
an assured position among his fellows, and, with the thrift which
characterized him, had secured an interest in the Globe Theatre, where
his plays were performed; in 1609 he was in the fulness of his
contemporary fame, had bought valuable property in Stratford, and was
contemplating retirement to his country home.

The following are the letters from the Southampton collection which
serve to throw light upon the insomnia of Shakespeare. They are given in
their chronological order, and verbatim, but not literatim, the
orthography having been modernized. The first of the letters, dated in
1593, is from a firm of lawyers, Messrs. Shallow & Slender, and is as
follows: -

INNER TEMPLE, LONDON, Feb. 15, 1593.


Mr. Moses Solomons, an honored client of our firm, has placed with
us, that payment may be straightway enforced, a bill drawn by John
Heminge, for £10, due in two months from the date thereof, and the
payment of which was assured by you in writing. This bill has been
for some days overdue, and Mr. Solomons is constrained to call upon
you for payment at once. Your prompt attention to this will save the
costs and annoyance of an arrest.

The second letter is from the same parties, and bears date four days
later than the first.

Inner Temple, Feb. 19, 1593. Mr. William Shakespeare:

Recurring to certain statements made by yourself at our chambers
yesterday, we have considered the same, and have likewise the
opinion thereon of our client, Mr. Solomons. As we do now recall
them, you nominated three principal grounds why you should not be
pressed to pay the bill drawn by Mr. Heminge. First, that you
received no value therefor, having put your name to the bill upon
the assurance that it was a matter of form, and to oblige a friend.

To this we rejoin, that by the law of estoppel you are precluded to
deny the consideration after the bill hath passed into the holding
of a discounter unnotified of the facts.

Second, That, as our client paid but £1 for the bill, he should not
exact £10 thereon. To the which we reply, that, so a valuable
consideration was passed for the bill, the law looketh not to its
exact amount. It is also asserted by our client that, beyond actual
coin given for the bill, he did further release to John Heminge
certain tinsel crowns, swords, and apparel appurtenant to the
representation of royalty, which had before then - to wit, two weeks
before - been pledged to him for the sum of 8 shillings, borrowed by
the said Heminge.

Third, That it was impossible for you to pay the bill, you having no
money, and receiving no greater income than 22 shillings per week,
all of which was necessary to the maintenance of yourself and
family. We regret again to call to your notice the Statute of 16
Eliz., entitled, "Concerning the Imprisonment of Insolvent Debtors,"
which we trust you will not oblige us to invoke in aid of our
suffering client's rights. To be lenient and merciful is his
inclination, and we are happy to communicate to you this most
favorable tender for an acquittance of his claim. You shall render
to us an order on the Steward of the Globe Theatre for 20 shillings
per week of your stipend therein. This will leave to you yet 2
shillings per week, which, with prudence, will yield to you the
comforts, if not the luxuries, of subsistence. In ten weeks the face

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Online LibraryFranklin H. HeadShakespeare's Insomnia, and the Causes Thereof → online text (page 1 of 3)