‘All good letters were layde a slepe’: medieval sleep and early modern heirs
in Sleep and its spaces in Middle English literature
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As the Coda explores, Shakespeare inherits this medieval cultural understanding of sleep, and it in turn shapes his representations of the fates of, and guilty consciences inspired by, heirs in Macbeth and Richard III. Shakespeare’s Macbeth may ‘murder sleep’, but he does so as the spawn of medieval conventions for signifying through sleep. And two hundred years after Chaucer’s Symkin the Miller is cuckolded while ‘as an hors he fnorteth in his sleep’ in the bawdy ‘Reeve’s Tale’, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a figure not incommensurate with the medieval genre of fabliau, is found onstage ‘Fast asleep / [...] and snorting like a horse’. The coda argues for a greater recognition of similarities between the likes of the works of the Gawain-poet and Shakespeare’s plays, not to claim that Shakespeare must have read a text such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – though he is rather more likely to have come across Chaucer’s dream visions, and was certainly familiar with both Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ and other medieval romances – but rather to foreground continuities within a shared habit of signifying through sleep.


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