Murdering Sleep on the Early Modern English Stage

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

University of Florence
4 min readOct 27, 2021


Filip Krajník, Masaryk University in Brno

The importance of sleep in early modern awareness and culture can hardly be overestimated. As one of the chief supports to human life (both mental and physical), a transitional space between the mundane and the spiritual and a route to the intricate world of dreaming, sleep as the Renaissance conceived it carried a number of thematic overtones. Sasha Handley (2016) has demonstrated that in early modern England, an entire culture developed around sleeping that pervaded virtually every sphere of daily human activity. A number of popular medical handbooks were published in Tudor England that offered advice regarding sleep patterns and conditions, including the preferred time, place and position of sleeping, as well as the material of the bed sheets and the blankets.

As Karl H. Dannenfeldt points out, the discussion of sleep was particularly widespread in early modern England, where ‘more than in other countries, the views of the physicians were commonly written in English for the general public or continental works were available in French, a language widely-known, or in English translation’ (1986, 420). Holy Scripture lent sleeping a deep spiritual subtext, as the Christian tradition often connected sleep with death and resurrection with awakening. Lucy Worsley asserts that in the early modern era, sleep also had a significant political dimension, as the aristocratic bedroom was a semi-public place and one of the centres of power. Gaining access to the royal bedchamber was a privilege and a sign of status, but also an opportunity to manipulate the powerful person and his policies (2011, 88–94).

Apart from its praised beneficial effects, however, sleep was also considered extremely dangerous. In the state of unconsciousness, a human being was believed to be prone to a number of evil agents who might wish to inflict both physical and spiritual harm on the sleeper. Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe called the night ‘the nurse of cares’, but also ‘a time most fatall and unhallowed’, referring to numerous supernatural creatures which were believed to be active by night (1958, 346). The imminent danger, however, most often came from other men. While A.R. Ekirch maintains that ‘most nocturnal crime was relatively minor, consisting of nonviolent thefts’ he also stresses that ‘the threat of physical harm increased markedly after dark’ and that ‘Night witnessed the worst bloodletting’ (2006, 33 and 43).

Sasha Handley argues that, in order to protect themselves against dangers, early modern Christians keenly engaged in what she calls ‘sleep-piety’, begging ‘for divine protection by repenting of their sins at bedtime, by offering prayers in and around their bedsteads, and by filling their minds with holy thoughts’ (2016, 70). That way they both protected themselves from the possible perils at the time of sleep, and also prepared spiritually for the possibility of death in sleep. In a world shaped by difficult experience, by a Christian moral-religious framework, but also by superstitious beliefs, a sleeper could presumably fall a victim to a criminal, a daemonic being, as well as a witch or an evil sprite (for various nocturnal dangers to men in the pre-industrial era, see Ekirch 2006, especially 1–58 and 285–299).This sense of ‘dangerous sleep’seems to have been a particularly powerful cultural impulse. Mentioning the works of Elizabethan authors such as Thomas Deloney, Worsley maintains that Renaissance literature started the genre of the ‘whodunit’, in which death in the bed was a frequent commonplace (2011, 101).

Besides these, there was also a strong mediaeval and early. modern tradition of exposing a defenceless sleeping body on the theatre stage. David Bevington has traced the beginnings of this trope as a ‘recognizable theatrical entity’ back to the liturgical drama of thetwelfth century (1995, 53–54), stressing the recurring motif of the fragility and victimisation of the sleeping figure, which can be observed in a vast range of European dramatic texts, from French high mediaeval biblical plays to English Renaissance drama of the seventeenth century.

In the case of biblical drama, the roots of these motifs can be largely found in the original models which later authors strove to present in a dramatic form (for instance, the scene in the Christmas play Ordo ad Representandum Herodem from the French Le Livre de Jeux de Fleury in which angels warn the sleeping three kings to take a different journey on the way back from Bethlehem to avoid Herod is a faithful adaptation of Matthew 2:12); in the case of scenes such as Othello’s bloody dilemma when watching sleeping Desdemona or Iachimo’s voyeuristic inspection of Imogen’s body in the middle of the night, however, we may talk about an independent approach on the part of the early modern playwright who, above all, had to take into consideration the cultural tropes of his own era and the tastes of his audiences: as David Roberts points out, the seventeenth century ‘was the scopophilic century, the century in love with looking at and into things’ (2006, 236).


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