This paper is about the symbol `sleep' in Shakespeare's works A Midsummer Night's Dream
and Macbeth. In this introduction I will explain some important terms and I will outline my
approach to this topic.
To begin with, what is a symbol? "A symbol is a word that stands for, or points to, a reality
beyond itself" (Gill, 30). Gill further explains that there are some traditional symbols; `sleep'
usually is a symbol for death and what lies beyond death (31). I will discuss the role of sleep,
in the two already mentioned works, in chapter 2 and 3 by analyzing the symbol in detail, by
giving examples and quoting relevant passages from the text.
As A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy and Macbeth a tragedy, these terms also have
to be explained. "A comedy is a play in which the confusions of characters [...] eventually
work out so that the play closes happily. The action of the comedy is usually amusing, and the
plot intricate" (Gill, 380). "[A] tragedy is a play in which a character (often called the hero)
falls from power, influence or happiness towards disaster and death. The action arouses
feelings of awe in the audience, who often leave the theatre with a renewed sense of the
seriousness and significance of human life" (Gill, 380). Therefore, `sleep' further has to be
analyzed by taking the aspects of a comedy and tragedy into consideration (see chapters 2 and
The next chapter is dedicated to the comparison of the sleep-symbol between A Midsummer
Night's Dream and Macbeth.
To sum it up, the main focus of this paper is to emphasize the importance of the sleep-symbol
and its consequences on the plot and outcome of the two plays (chapter 5).
In further progress of this paper the works A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth will be
abbreviated by MSND and MB.
In MSND already the title suggests a connection to the symbol of sleep because the words
`night' and `dream' indicate that the play either is or talks about dreaming/sleeping. It also
proposes a steady change between waking and dreaming, whereas periods of waking are
associated with daylight and periods of dreaming with moonlight (Pink Monkey). In this play
`sleep' is the major cause for the confusion which arises (e.g. Lysander being in love with
Helena, instead of Hermia). However, it is not actually sleep itself which creates confusion in
the play, but the sleeping/love potion which Puck puts on the eyes of some characters
(Lysander, Demetrius, Titania). The sleeping potion only works on people who are a sleep
and therefore collaborates with dreams (BookRags).
Being asleep therefore is a point of weakness of the characters and it makes them vulnerable.
"I took him sleeping that is finish'd too [a]nd the Athenian women by his side; That, when
he wak'd, of force she must be ey'd" (3.2.38-40). In this quote Puck expresses his power over
Lysander. Through his sleep Lysander did not have any chance to escape Puck pouring the
potion over his eyes and therefore all his further actions are subject to the force of some
higher power (faries). But Lysander is not the only one who "falls victim to" Puck. Demetrius
and even the queen of the fairies Titania get "poisoned". As a result, Lysander and Demetrius
happen to fall in love with Helena, although both of them loved Hermia at first and Titania
falls in love with Bottom, who was transformed into an ass by Puck before. But because of the
fact that this new situation was created in sleep and while they were dreaming, it is not reality
what the characters experience after they wake up; it is just another dream or fantasy
(BookRags). Therefore they do not act according to themselves but as marionettes of the
fairies. Being just toys for some higher power (fairies) and being vulnerable during the act of
sleeping/dreaming are two very important points which make MSND a comedy.
Although this confusion originates in sleep, it is also sleep where it ends. As soon as Oberon
realizes that Puck has put the potion onto the wrong person's eyes, he orders that everything
has to be reversed and that it should seem to be just a dream to the lovers, Titania and Bottom.
Then crush this herb into Lysander's eye; Whose liquor hath this virtuous property, [t]o take
from thence all error with his might [a]nd make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight. When
they next wake, all this derision [s]hall seem a dream and fruitless vision; (3.2.366-71).
When they awake in the morning everybody is happy. Lysander and Hermia are in love again
and Demetrius is in love with Helena. Now, the four are ready to get married and the play
finally found its happy ending (element of comedy). Also Titania and Bottom, who is human
again, are made to belief that everything was just a rather strange dream. Bottom even wants
to make a play out of his dream called `Bottom's dream'.
But the play also offers a completely different ending to this confusing story. Puck announces
in his final speech at the end of the play that probably it was just the audience who was
sleeping and everything they saw was nothing but a dream (BookRags). "If we shadows have
offended, [t]hink but this, and all is mended, [t]hat you have but slumb'red here [w]hile these
visions did appear." (5.1.412-5). That way Shakespeare leaves it to the audience to decide
whether it was an illusion or whether it was reality.
Taking all aspects into account it is to say that the symbol `sleep' in a comedy like MSND
represents or stands for confusion, dreams, unconsciousness and the unreal. It is rather
associated with positive feelings as it makes the play fun and entertaining and it supports the
idea that it is just a play, not reality, which underlines its harmlessness and innocence.
In MB `sleep' is first introduced by one of the three witches. She actually tells in short what is
going to happen in the whole play, also what will happen concerning sleep. "I'll drain him dry
as hay: Sleep shall neither night nor day [h]ang upon his penthouse lid; He shall live a man
Like in MSND sleep makes people vulnerable and an easy victim for others. This is why
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to murder the king, Duncan, while he is asleep. Later they
will accuse two servants, whom Lady Macbeth made trunk before, of being the murderers.
[...] When Duncan is asleep [...], his two chamberlains [w]ill I with wine and wassail
so convince, [t]hat memory [...] [s]hall be a fume, and the receipt of reason [a]
limbeck only: when in swinish sleep their drenched natures lie, as in a death, [w]hat
cannot you and I perform upon [t]h'unguarded Duncan? what not upon [h]is spongy
officers [...]? (1.7.62-72)
Because of these cruelties, people get more and more afraid of sleep because they do not
know what might happen to them while they are asleep. Duncan's sons are even that afraid
that they flee the country. Macbeth was not found guilty for his first murder and therefore he
is able to carry on murdering anyone (partly on command of Lady Macbeth), who stands in
his way of becoming king.
But all these killings do not only bring evil upon the others, but drives Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth into madness. Macbeth' madness begins right after Duncan's murder. "[...] Now
o'er the one half-world [n]ature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse [t]he curtain'd
sleep[.]" (2.1.49-51) or "Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder
sleep," the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care, [t]he death of each
day's life, sore labour's bath, [b]alm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, [c]hief
nourisher in life's feast;--" (2.2.34-8) indicate the beginning of his madness (Macbeth
Navigator). This madness is not stable, but proceeds like a serious illness, which leads to
hallucinations, as Macbeth sees the head of murdered Banquo. "Come, we'll to sleep. My
strange and self-abuse [i]s the initiate fear, that wants hard use: We are yet but young in
deed." (3.5.141-3). Not being able to sleep is the punishment for Macbeth's crimes, which
makes him weaker and weaker and in the end contributes to his downfall (Macbeth gets
murdered by Malcom). Lady Macbeth's madness is most obvious at the end of the play in her
sleepwalking scene. During the day she is able to suppress the thoughts of guilt and death, but
she is also weak and vulnerable when she is asleep and therefore all her fears come up during
sleep. She is wandering around constantly trying to wash the blood of her evil deed from her
hands. "Here's the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!" (5.1.46-9). Lady Macbeth's madness also ends in her downfall; she
cannot stand this delusions anymore and commits suicide.
In a tragedy like MB the symbol `sleep' mainly stands for its traditional meaning (see
Introduction). In MB it represents night, darkness, madness, subconsciousness and most of all
Excerpt out of 9 pages
- Quote paper
- Mag. BSc Elisabeth Kuster (Author), 2006, The Sleep-Symbol in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and in "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375004