Cover image for Forming Sleep: Representing Consciousness in the English Renaissance Edited by Nancy L. Simpson-Younger and Margaret Simon

Forming Sleep

Representing Consciousness in the English Renaissance

Edited by Nancy L. Simpson-Younger and Margaret Simon


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Cultural Inquiries in English Literature, 1400–1700

Forming Sleep

Representing Consciousness in the English Renaissance

Edited by Nancy L. Simpson-Younger and Margaret Simon

“This fascinating book argues that human sleep and sleeplessness is (and was) shaped as much by social and cultural factors as by human biology. Its pages represent an important justification of literary and historical inquiries into the extraordinary variability of human sleep habits that can be traced across time and space. Those who choose to read this book will soon appreciate why humanities scholarship is so essential to understanding one of the features of human life.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Forming Sleep asks how biocultural and literary dynamics act together to shape conceptions of sleep states in the early modern period. Engaging with poetry, drama, and prose largely written in English between 1580 and 1670, the essays in this collection highlight period discussions about how seemingly insentient states might actually enable self-formation.

Looking at literary representations of sleep through formalism, biopolitics, Marxist theory, trauma theory, and affect theory, this volume envisions sleep states as a means of defining the human condition, both literally and metaphorically. The contributors examine a range of archival sources—including texts in early modern faculty psychology, printed and manuscript medical treatises and physicians’ notes, and printed ephemera on pathological sleep—through the lenses of both classical and contemporary philosophy. Essays apply these frameworks to genres such as drama, secular lyric, prose treatise, epic, and religious verse. Taken together, these essays demonstrate how early modern depictions of sleep shape, and are shaped by, the philosophical, medical, political, and, above all, formal discourses through which they are articulated. With this in mind, the question of form merges considerations of the physical and the poetic with the spiritual and the secular, highlighting the pervasiveness of sleep states as a means by which to reflect on the human condition.

In addition to the editors, the contributors to this volume include Brian Chalk, Jennifer Lewin, Cassie Miura, Benjamin Parris, Giulio Pertile, N. Amos Rothschild, Garret A. Sullivan Jr., and Timothy A. Turner.

“This fascinating book argues that human sleep and sleeplessness is (and was) shaped as much by social and cultural factors as by human biology. Its pages represent an important justification of literary and historical inquiries into the extraordinary variability of human sleep habits that can be traced across time and space. Those who choose to read this book will soon appreciate why humanities scholarship is so essential to understanding one of the features of human life.”

Nancy L. Simpson-Younger is Assistant Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University.

Margaret Simon is Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State University.


Introduction: Forming Sleep

Margaret Simon and Nancy Simpson-Younger

Part I: Sleep States and Subjectivity in Early Modern Lyric

1. Thinking Sleep in the Renaissance Sonnet Sequence

Giulio J. Pertile

2. Rest and Rhyme in Thomas Campion’s Poetry

Margaret Simon

3. “Still in Thought with Thee I Go”: Epistemology and Consciousness in the

Sidney Psalms

Nancy Simpson-Younger

Part II: Sleep, Ethics, and Embodied Form in Early Modern Drama

4. Making the Moor: Torture, Sleep Deprivation, and Race in Othello

Timothy A. Turner

5. Sleep, Vulnerability, and Self-Knowledge in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Jennifer Lewin

6. “The Heaviness of Sleep”: Monarchical Exhaustion in King Lear

Brian Chalk

Part III: Sleep and Personhood in the Early Modern Verse Epic and Prose Treatise

7. Life and Labor in the House of Care: Spenserian Ethics and the Aesthetics of Insomnia

Benjamin Parris

8. “Sweet Moistning Sleepe”: Perturbations of the Mind and Rest for the Body in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy

Cassie M. Miura

9. The Physiology of Free Will: Faculty Psychology and the Structure of the Miltonic Mind

N. Amos Rothschild

Afterword: Beyond the Lost World: Early Modern Sleep Scenarios

Garrett A. Sullivan Jr.


List of Contributors


From the Introduction

Macbeth: 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 labour’s bath,

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

Chief nourisher in life’s feast. (2.2.33–38)

In this familiar passage, Macbeth positions sleep as both a literal phenomenon and a literary one. Physically, Macbeth will “Sleep no more!” At the same time, he contemplates sleep’s metaphorical meanings, framing the state of sleep as a daily “death” for the human body—one that is ironically positive in serving as a potent “bath,” “balm,” and “nourisher.” In these ways, Macbeth’s words underscore the interplay between literary forms and forms (or states) of consciousness. Forming Sleep examines this interplay, considering the literary, ethical, and epistemological potentialities of representing the body at rest. In order to delve fully into these ideas, our essays employ methods and concepts from not only formalist and new formalist schools of criticism but also biopolitics, Marxist theory, trauma theory, and affect theory, among others. This multifaceted approach is particularly provocative for analyzing sleep states because it links the physical and the metaphorical, which mutually inform each other in the period.

If early modern sleep is a biocultural process, shaped by both physiological needs and social expectations (as Garrett Sullivan Jr. discusses in the afterword to this volume and as Sasha Handley has recently argued), then representations of sleep aestheticize lived experience, influencing how communities or individuals are apt to respond to a sleeping figure and how sleep itself is processed or evaluated. Likewise, the historical experience of different states of consciousness, as recorded in medical and philosophical texts, offers authors ways to innovate on traditional literary forms. With attention to all of these contexts and lines of influence, this volume’s essays explore how literary form and the historicized body are both bioculturally inflected and mutually constituting.

This approach is particularly provocative for sleep states because, even today, so much of our physiological and perceived experience of sleep is unknown or not articulable—in part because there are so many different states of unconscious experience. In this volume, we have decided to consider not just sleep itself but also moments of unconsciousness such as syncope, coma, waking sleep, and swooning, because all of these states share a vulnerability to formal manipulation—whether pathologically, religiously, humorally, or ethically. After all, an inert body is an inert body, which must become legible somehow to its onlookers (or, in some cases, to itself). In other words, the unknowable mechanisms and experiences of the whole spectrum of sleep states give a particular explanatory power to forms of representation that attempt to explicate or interact with them. If Montaigne considered sleep as a practice for that ultimate unknown—death—this volume claims Montaigne’s imperative in slightly different terms, suggesting that we can practice knowing multiple types of sleep by attempting to represent them.

This practice can also lead to broader investigations of self. Between about 1580 and about 1670, during the period with which this volume is primarily concerned, scholars and theorists were developing questions about the capacities for self-definition (and self-formation) offered by seemingly insentient states. This shift is marked in part by a philological change wherein the definition of conscious moves from knowing who one is to knowing that one is. In 1573 J. Foxe referred to “a prety practise to finde out a naughty concious Byshop”; in 1592 Gabriel Harvey noted of Robert Greene that “a conscious mind, and undaunted hart, seldome dwell together.” In these early uses, conscious meant being aware of one’s own predilections or failings, as an extension of the imperative to know oneself (nosce te ipsum). By 1725, the meaning had transitioned to its more modern psychological usage: “Conscious Beings . . . have a Power of Thought, such as the Mind of Man, God, Angels.” During the process of this evolution from self-knowledge to broader self-awareness, questions began to arise about the interplay of sense and sentience. If sleep was understood as a stoppage of sensory perception, it became a locus for the investigation of humanness in the era more broadly, with Descartes predicating his philosophical project on diagnosing his own consciousness and Montaigne wondering if sleeping generals were truly so virtuous as to detach themselves from worldly concerns. To be conscious, in other words, meant the ability to contemplate and draw conclusions from unconsciousness. At the same time, it involved forging an epistemological bridge between the two states, asking which biological, mental, and affective processes might persist in the absence of sensory awareness. Exploring what it really meant to be awake, asleep, or nonresponsive became a foundation for exploring what it really meant to be a human being. In other words, this involves a mode of self-fashioning that attends to the formation of a self through not only the conscious activities of that self but also the full spectrum of states that form bodily experience.

Investigating Early Modern Sleep States

Because sleep can encompass a multiplicity of unconscious experiences, representations of the resting body became a major means by which early modern authors confronted these questions of consciousness and the self, as several recent studies have shown. Since sleep blurs epistemological and ontological boundaries, sliding wakefulness into unconsciousness, it provides a way for seemingly divergent concepts such as neoplatonic contemplation and bodily desire to confront each other in gray or comingled ways, as Gillian Knoll has argued about the play Endymion. In certain cases, this divergence can render sleep an agent of paradox, allowing two potentially contradictory stances to be simultaneously true. For the kingly sleeper, as Rebecca Totaro and Benjamin Parris have shown, vigilance and somnolence are both mandatory, as the demands of self-care merge with the care of the state—even as the king’s mortal body affects the level of vigilance he can generate. Garrett Sullivan Jr. points out that sleep both aligns all humans with the vegetative component of the Aristotelian tripartite soul and separates the noble insomniac from the snoozing peasant. While sleep can label or diagnose human statuses, though, it can also invite skepticism about ontology or even selfhood, as Jennifer Lewin has underscored. Building from these ideas, a philosophical approach to sleep can dovetail with an exploration of the ethics of care in the period: the sleep of others can enable kind or unkind behavior toward those vulnerable figures, allowing critics to explore early modern constructions of practical virtue. By juxtaposing conditions of being, in other words, early modern sleep performs like a rhetorical figure that merges, compares, and occasionally separates human positionalities. Whether rhetorical, philosophical, or some combination of the two, most critical approaches to early modern sleep states share the implicit conviction that the sleeping body is deeply networked within its environment, its social encounters with other living things, and what Jane Bennett has called “vibrant matter.” Because sleep states can serve as affective, almost gestural shorthands, representations of such states are often potent signifiers for emotive, ethical, and aesthetic concerns within these wider ecosystemic contexts.

The early modern humors and passions provide a vocabulary that can help to position and interpret human consciousness within this larger ecosystem. As Thomas Cogan underscores in The Haven of Health, sleep is one of the so-called Galenic nonnaturals in the early modern period, joining a list of six bodily states and practices that collectively constitute the health of a human being. This list—“Ayre, Meat and Drinke, Sleep and Watch, Labor and Rest, Emptiness and Repletion, and affections of the mind,” in Cogan’s words—implies the need for a daily practice of bodily discipline in multiple areas, even as it acknowledges the cross-pollination between list elements, humoral dispositions, and environmental factors, multiple forces shaping the functional form of the body. Because sleep happens when digested food is transformed into vapors, which rise up and block off sense organs such as the eyes, nose, and ears, sleep praxis and hygiene cannot be divorced from considerations of diet. At the same time, they are also influenced by considerations of posture, clothing, time of day, previous exercise, current illnesses, or even susceptibility to the devil (270–77).24 Texts such as Cogan’s both describe and prescribe bodily comportment as it pertains to sleep, instituting a dynamic that plays on the distinction between form as a noun and form as a verb. Essential for human well-being, then, sleep also serves as a barometer for overall health in the early modern period, demonstrating how different medical discourses understood sleep as an agent of bodily reform.

At the same time, for Cogan, the implications of sleep are not necessarily easy to examine: “In sleepe the senses be unable to execute their office, as the eye to see, the eare to heare, the nose to smell, the mouth to tast, and all sinowy parts to feele, So that the senses for a time seem to be tyed or bound” (268). Here, Cogan equivocates subtly on the extent to which sleep binds the senses (he says they seem to be tied), opening the door for debates about the actual workings of the brain and body during states of unconsciousness. As he probes and expounds on these ideas, Cogan immediately turns not to bodily or empirical evidence, nor even to Aristotle, but to Seneca, Ovid, and scripture—calling sleep “the image of death,” the son of justice, and the figuration of Christian resurrection hopes (269). Cogan’s literary and metaphorical habit of mind in defining sleep echoes Shakespeare’s Macbeth and speaks to sleep’s status as a mediator between the physical and the metaphysical.

Perhaps because sleep states (and states of unconsciousness more generally) are so variously experienced, frequently overlap, and can be both curative and pathological, early modern philosophers and healers divided consciousness into a surprising spectrum of conditions: watch, carus, subeth, lethargie, congelation, sounding, syncope. Philip Barrough’s 1583 The Method of Phisicke elaborates on “Lethargie,” “Carus or Subeth” (a deep sleep), “Congelation or Taking” (a “sudden detention and taking of mind and body, both sense and moving being lost,” whether the eyes be open or closed), and “dead sleep” (coma). Barrough works hard to distinguish these states, based on the extent to which the senses are operational. “Dead sleep,” for example, can be either a “coma somnolentum” or a “Vigilans spoor,” “an evill wherein the sick cannot hold open his eyes, though he be awake, but he wihnketh in hope to get sleep, and yet is altogether awake.” Of “Carus or Subeth” he writes, “This disease differeth from the Lethargy for that they that have the Lethargy wil answer to a question demanded, and do not lie altogether down. But they that have Carus, are occupied with deep sleep, and if they be stirred or pricked, although they feel, yet they will say nothing, nor once open their eies.” These comments can read like field notes from a long-forgotten cognitive landscape. Early moderns, no less than people today, were interested in parsing distinct cognitive states in an effort both to articulate the range of human experience and to suggest curatives when these states moved from the normal (for example, sleep) to the problematic (for example, congelation, which can include sleeping with the eyes open). Certain of these states also have provocative tie-ins with other seemingly unrelated discourses. Sounding, a common term for swooning in the Renaissance, was a nautical term, as today, for measuring depth. Likewise, syncope, a type of swoon precipitated by irregularities in the heartbeat, was a common prosodic term for the dropping or contraction of a syllable (as in syncopation). In short, such terms are rich ways of accounting for early modern cognitive experience. They tie the body, linguistically, to sound and space, their very language encapsulating the way that states like swooning and sleep negotiate body, mind, and environment.

Barrough’s taxonomizing impulse imposes a legible form on states that are, as these semantic crosscurrents suggest, potentially far less distinct in experience and scope. In the face of this uncertainty, some Renaissance taxonomies of sleep states strive to offer spatial clarity, neatly organizing “sleep” and “watch” (or wakefulness) in charts and elaborating their utility in carefully labeled sections. Thomas Elyot even outlines a humoral spectrum of sleep activity: “The brayne exceedyng in heat hath Slepe short and not sound” while the brain “moyst in excesse hath Slepe much and depe.” Texts such as Elyot’s are concerned with appropriate regimens for bodily health, and these manuals provide ostensibly easy shorthand for diagnosing sleep problems within a humoral system. Taken together, Elyot’s and Barrough’s texts speak to the varying extents to which sixteenth-century theorists wanted to organize received knowledge of the body into accessible and useful forms, while still manifesting an interest in the margins and thresholds of observed human cognition—states that themselves resist firm


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