"I Shall Sleep Like A Top"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Sir William Davenant or D'Avenant, was the godson of William Shakespeare. Many suspect that he was an actual son of the great playwright, a belief that Davenant made no effort to deny. But, though he was governor of the King and Queen's Company of Players (1635), he could not equal the dramatic skill of his godfather. With John Dryden (1631–1700), he adapted Shakespeare's The Tempest, without improving it. He wrote a number of plays by himself before the closing of the English theaters by Cromwell in 1642; and when he returned from exile in France he formed another acting group for his friend, William Beeston. The theater-loving King Charles II knighted him. Davenant wrote both heroic tragedies and Restoration comedies. The Rivals has no connection with the more famous comedy of a century later by Richard B. Sheridan (1751–1816). Davenant's play is a drastically changed rewriting of the earlier The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), thought by many to represent the collaboration of Shakespeare and Fletcher, that, in turn was based on "The Knight's Tale," from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The characters have been rechristened. Theocles and Philander are both in love with star-crossed Celania, daughter of the Provost of Prince Arcon of Arcadia. Thwarted in her love for Philander, Celania has gone mad. Perhaps with memories of Ophelia, Davenant presents her in the forest, accompanied by her maid, Leucippe, singing a song born of her insanity. She plans to dress like a man and go searching for her absent love. She will ride a stick like a witch, or pause and sleep. But why "like a top?" The phrase was not forced by the rhyme. The rest of it, the nightingale and the hawthorn, is a poetic figure. A spinning top seems motionless, but it does have a humming sound which may, perhaps, give origin to the expression paraphrased as "to sleep sound." But even granting Celania her madness, it is hard to explain her choice of this figure. Here is her song, with its meaningless refrain.

For straight my green gown into breeches I'll make,
And my long yellow locks much shorter I'll take,
Sing down a, down, down a, down a.
Then I'll cut me a switch, and on that ride about,
And wander and wander till I find him out,
With a heigh down, down a, down, down a,
O for a hawthorn; like a nightingale
To lean my breast against, or else I shall sleep like a top.