Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What is the meaning of the line "sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care"?

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Macbeth makes this statement after he returns to his chambers in an emotionally overwrought state, having just murdered Duncan. The line itself means that sleep is a soothing time that heals or sews up all the worries and stresses ("cares") of the day. It makes us new again, just as knitting up an unravelled sleeve makes a sweater new again.

Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that from now on the "balm" of sleep is over for him. He will no longer be able to rest in peaceful slumber after what he has done. The evil of his treacherous act will haunt him, keeping him up at night. When he says he has "murdered" sleep, he means he has murdered his peace of mind along with murdering his good, "meek" king.

Although Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to get a grip and wash the blood off his hands, she is the one who, ironically, will be most affected by the guilt that haunts her in her sleep, unable to wash the metaphoric blood off her own hands.

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Sleep is a prominent theme in Macbeth, with sleeplessness being strongly associated with guilt and restlessness. Eventually, Lady Macbeth reaches a point at which she cannot prevent her guilt from exhibiting itself in the form of hallucinations and somnambulance when she is sleeping. It was believed in Shakespeare's time that sleep was a restorative, necessary for soothing the body and mind—something that is, indeed, scientifically true. In this line, sleep is described as a method of renewal; the "raveled sleeve" is what, in modern English, we would term unraveled. That is, the line refers to a sweater sleeve that has started to fray and come unknitted because of excessive use ("care") and is in need of "knitting" up again. When we feel frayed and unraveled, it is sleep that has the power to restore us by metaphorically knitting our fibers back together. Without recourse to this restorative, we will remain "raveled" and unsettled, as Macbeth is feeling.

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