Macbeth feels guilty after the murder, saying, "Macbeth hath murdered sleep." Sleep symbolizes innocence, but what other analysis is there?

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Sleep, or the lack of it, is a prevalent theme in Shakespeare's Macbeth

As Kenneth Muir points out in "Image and Symbol in Macbeth," found in A Norton Critical Edition of the play (254-266), the first mention of the theme of sleep in the play is made by the First Witch:

Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid. (1.2.20-21)

She curses the Master of a ship, because his wife slights her.  After Macbeth and Lady Macbeth assassinate Duncan, they


In the affliction of these terrible dreams

That shake us nightly;... (3.2.19-21)

In contrast, King Duncan, once dead, "sleeps well"  (3.2.25).  And, says Muir:

An anonymous lord looks forward to the overthrow of the tyrant, when they will be able to sleep in peace.  Because of 'a great perturbation in nature' [5.1.8.], Lady Macbeth

is troubled with thick coming fancies

That keep her from her rest. [5.3.39-40]

But the key passage concerning sleep is the one you ask about:

Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep," the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,

The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,

Chief nourisher in life's feast--  (Act 2.2.38-43)

Thus, sleep becomes insomnia, with the dead Duncan the only figure in the play capable of sleeping.  Even the drunk, comic Porter's sleep is interrupted, once the deed of assassination is done.  

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Sleep is something that we all need in order to survive. We sleep to rest and rejuvenate ourselves, and we need to feel safe in order to get a truly restful sleep. When Macbeth "murders" sleep, he makes it into something that is no longer safe to do. He has taken away something that we take for granted, he has not only destroyed innocence, he has also taken away safety, sanctity, and security. Sleep is also a time of dreams, and we want those dreams to be good, but Macbeth has turned dreams to nightmares, taken is into the evil that we fear in the darkness, and made it such that if we close our eyes we are likely to see bad visions instead of having peaceful dreams.

Sleep heals, it nourishs, and is representative of life itself. For an excellent analysis of this line, see Bill Long's commentary:

Three things about sleep should be noted: (1) Sleep as the great interpreter of life; (2) Sleep as healer; and (3) Sleep as nourisher. Each calls for comment.

(1) I don't suppose that anyone has written a more eloquent line in English about sleep than in l. 36--"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve (sleave) of care." Something that is ravelled is "tangled, confused, involved" (OED) or "frayed out; with frayed edges; ragged." A "sleeve" is a part of a garment or "a slender filament of silk obtained by separating a thicker thread." Finally, the word "ravel" not only suggests the reality of tangledness or confusion, but was a kind of medieval bread ("ravel bread"), of flour with the bran left in, which may connect the "ravelled" sleeve of care with the "nourisher" in the last line above. In any case, the principal picture communicated here is that sleep "knits up" or secures what has become confused or tangled in our lives. It brings lose ends together, tightening them and producing an untangled sleeve or garment. This is what I call sleep's interpretive capacity. It lets things settle, it suppresses some of the insistent voices that rang in our ears and lets others come to the fore, it smooths out what was so ragged or bumpy in our minds before we went to sleep. Christian hymnody might say "God is the great Interpreter, and he will make it plain," but Shakespeare knows better: sleep is the bread and wine of the common grace available to all creatures.

(2) Sleep also heals. It is "sore labor's bath/ balm of hurt minds." The bath and the balm, residing next to each other in the text, make us stop and bathe in the words. The body and mind are oppressed and stretched by the work of the day. Labor is sore in two senses: it creates conflict between people and it results in bodily infirmity and pain. But the mind also becomes overwhelmed by the bruising realities of life. Sleep not only interprets life, giving us mental clarity as we approach the next day, but it gives the mind and body peace and healing with which to rise and return to the battle.

(3) Finally, sleep nourishes. It gives us that extra meal that adds no calories, the feast that produces no waistline gain. And, Shakespeare calls it the "chief" nourisher in life's feast. One might want to quibble with him. Why not sex? Why not the blessings of friendship? Why not the inner satisfaction derived from seeing children successfully negotiate life's rapids? But sleep is offered to us each day, a gift that beckons and rewards; that nourishes and heals.


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