Shakespeare’s Macbeth has endured the test of time not only because it is a cautionary tale about when to ignore your spouse, but also because of its poignant lessons in the importance of sleep.
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 labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
Macbeth moans these lines right after sticking a knife in Duncan, King of Scotland, his royal liege and, worse, his houseguest at the time. Macbeth’s premonition proves accurate; he spends the rest of his nights roaming his ill-gotten palace wretched with guilty, paranoid insomnia. (His wife, the one with the bad ideas, is also up after a fashion, trying to wash her blood-sodden hands, but that’s no consolation to him.)
About the only thing that Macbeth and I have in common, besides a tendency to moan, is that neither of us has been getting much sleep.
I’m a great fan of slumber. I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence snoring, sometimes from 9pm until 1pm the next afternoon, and had no trouble falling asleep. This may or may not have had to do with the fact that I often sneaked some one bottle of my mother’s inexhaustible supply of homeopathic medicines to bed with me as a light, sugary snack. If my constitution today is slightly dodgy, it’s probably because of massive overdoses of Ipecac, Rhus Tox, Nux Vomica, Causticum, Belladonna and other irresistibly named pills. The important thing, however, is that I slept the sleep of the selfish innocent.
My mother, who emerged from a convent education striving to be worthy and who therefore has great trouble sleeping, detests late sleepers. She would sweep into my room at daybreak and snap the curtains back with a noise like a thousand Mongol horsemen galloping across a tin plain, using her special insomniac’s megaphone to let me know that it was 7am and that staying in bed was now officially immoral. When you’ve been up since 3am I suppose 7am feels really late, but if you’re someone who isn’t done sleeping, 7am may as well be 3am and frankly I’m thinking of a dog, and I’m thinking of a manger.
I’ve spent the rest of my life making up for all this painful childhood business by damn well sleeping as much as I can. My friends think of me as a sort of matronly basket case who eats before 8pm to safeguard her digestion, begins to droop around 10pm and sleeps not much later than that to safeguard her energy, and goes for periodic wobbles around the park to safeguard her—oh, scratch that, that battle’s long been lost.
All this is perfectly true. So they no longer know me, because for the last several weeks I have consistently been up all night, indulging in various combinations of conversation, alcohol, Scrabble and wee hours-breakfast. By all that’s holy and right, and also according to past evidence, I should be dead, or at least very grumpy, but instead I spend the day bounding around, energetically making plans to stay out all night again. Will it last, will it not? How long can an engine run on empty? Watch for a black border around this space.
The weird thing is that my mother, who heartily disapproves of this sort of thing, has not once flared her exquisitely expressive nostrils. Part of it, I think, is because she has an anthropological interest in listening to my recap of the strange nocturnal habits of the adolescent middle-aged.
But most of it, I suspect, is because she’s just really pleased that I’m not sleeping either.