Macbeth

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Sleep Symbol Icon
When he murders Duncan, Macbeth thinks he hears a voice say "Macbeth does murder sleep" (2.2.34). Sleep symbolizes innocence, purity, and peace of mind, and in killing Duncan Macbeth actually does murder sleep: Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk, and Macbeth is haunted by his nightmares.

Sleep Quotes in Macbeth

The Macbeth quotes below all refer to the symbol of Sleep. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Ambition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Macbeth published in 2003.
Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep, — the innocent sleep;
Sleep, that knits up the ravell'd sleave 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.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sleep
Page Number: 2.2.47-52
Explanation and Analysis:

After murdering Duncan, Macbeth begins to feel remorse for what he has done. He fixates on a voice he claims to have overheard during the act, believing that it charges him with deep guilt.

We see here Macbeth’s continued descent into the paranoid thinking characteristic of a murderer. His previous visual hallucinations are now accompanied by auditory ones, but instead of rationally ignoring them, he ruminates on how the illusion relates to his experience. Taking the line “Sleep no more!” Macbeth at first indicates a belief that it refers to Duncan whom he has murdered, that the words charge him with having killed a defenseless person while they were in “innocent sleep.”

The text could easily have halted here, but the truly manic thinking comes in the ensuing images. Macbeth begins to focus obsessively on the abstract idea of sleep. He imagines it to be a weaver who “knits up” or makes coherent and composed “the ravell’d sleave of care”—in which a “ravell’d sleave” is a messy and disorganized garment. This metaphor presents sleep as a tranquil and organizing force that helps a person make coherent the chaos of life, that allows people to be coherent and calm. In the following lines, he casts sleep as the inverse or double to different types of daytime: the “death” after each “life”; the restful “bath” after one works; the “balm” to ease minds that may be overworked; a second sustenance after the meal of the day. These evocative images show how deeply Macbeth believes to have violated human life—for not only has he murdered Duncan but he has done so in an almost sacred space of sleeping rejuvenation. As Macbeth's obsessive thoughts on sleep proceed, an intimation exists too that “Sleep no more!” refers to the rampant guilt and madness that will descend now on Macbeth and his wife, in which because of their guilt, they will lose these healthful and necessary effects of sleep.

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Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Out, damned spot! out, I say!
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sleep
Page Number: 5.1.37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth has taken to sleepwalking. One night, she wanders and rubs her hands while saying this line.

We see here the extent to which guilt has crippled Lady Macbeth and disrupted her ability to live a normal life. Saying this line while trying to wash her hands shows that while she earlier believed that she could simply wash her hands clear of Duncan's blood, that in fact she could not psychologically escape that blood at all. She obsessively repeats the action, believing that the “damned spot” that morally implicates her has refused to disappear. In this way, the play makes clear that the guilt that first caused Lady Macbeth to question her contentment has now caused her to enter a full-blown psychosis.

The text also returns to its ever-pressing concern of illusions and false appearances. Whereas Lady Macbeth was able to remove the physical blood from her hands after the murder, she remains unable to do away with its metaphorical counterpart. Much like Macbeth saw a hallucinatory knife before the murder, she visualizes non-existent blood after the deed has been completed. Although we might be likely to write these images off as false apparitions, one should also note the significance of their psychological reality. That is to say, although the “spot” is not palpable to anyone else, it is indeed a honest “fair” expression of Lady Macbeth’s guilt. Shakespeare’s work thus presents illusions as having their own kind of unique reality, a reality founded in the inner workings of the mind.

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Sleep Symbol Timeline in Macbeth

The timeline below shows where the symbol Sleep appears in Macbeth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2, scene 1
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
Macbeth enters. Banquo tells Macbeth his sleep has been troubled by dreams of the weird sisters. Macbeth claims never to think about... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
...and he's upset that when one of the attendants said "God bless us" in his sleep, he was unable to say "Amen." He also thought he heard a voice say "Macbeth... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
...someone might try to kill him as he killed Duncan, and seems envious of Duncan's "sleep" (3.2.25). (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
...and a gentlewoman wait. The gentlewoman called the doctor because she has seen Lady Macbeth sleepwalking the last few nights, but she refuses to say what Lady Macbeth says or does. (full context)