“Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care”

by Mark McGuinness on 17 January, 2013

As an absorbing evocation of Shakespeare’s life in London, Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street is up there with Peter Ackroyd’s biography and James Shapiro’s 1599.

Starting with the one surviving fragment of Shakespeare’s recorded speech, from a testimony in a civil court, Nicholl ferrets out a mind-boggling array of facts, inferences and tantalising conjectures, to create a convincing portrait of Shakespeare’s neighborhood and neighbours while he was lodging in Silver Street.

A lot of it is of purely biographical or gossipy interest, but it offers some plausible answers to a few literary puzzles, such as what on earth Shakespeare was doing writing Pericles in collaboration with a violent pimp. And sometimes Nicholl unearths a detail that sharpens up an apparently blunt line:

Macbeth: Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murther Sleep,’ – the innocent Sleep;
Sleep, that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

Shakespeare lodged with the Mountjoy family, French immigrants who ran a tiring workshop downstairs from the room where Shakespeare probably wrote these words. They made elaborate head-dresses (‘tires’, short for ‘attires’) for noble ladies and not-so-noble courtesans. One of the activities Shakespeare would have seen in the workshop was “bundles of lank raw silk … being separated into ‘sleaves’”.

The line from Macbeth composed c.1606 is famous but often misunderstood. In the first edition of 1623 … ‘sleave’ is spelt ‘sleeve’; and that is the word most people hear in performance, especially in conjunction with ‘knit’. The line is therefore taken to mean that the anxious mind is repaired by sleep, as a frayed sleeve is repaired by knitting. This is cogent but the metaphor seems bland. We are at a moment of high psychological drama: the murder of King Duncan is done; Macbeth is confronting the trauma of guilt, which will bring in the play’s insomniac visions and night-terrors … His state of mind is imagined not as frayed but as tangled, confused, knotted (sense i of ‘ravel’ in the OED, ‘to become entangled or confused’) and most modern editors endorse the reading of ‘sleave’ as first proposed by George Stevens in the eighteenth century. Sleep brings to order this bundle of emotions as the hand of a silkworker unravels a tangled sheaf of sleave-silk.

(The Lodger, p.166)

So scholars have known this for over 200 years, and it’s there in the footnotes to my copy of Macbeth, but it wasn’t until Nicholl showed me this glimpse of the Mountjoys’ workshop that I saw it, and the line came into focus.

Moving onto gossip, one of the (ahem) loose ends ravell’d in Nicholl’s research is the precise nature of the relationship between Shakespeare and his attractive landlady, who worked in the downstairs room. The Macbeth line is one of four references to ‘sleave’ or ‘sleided’ silk Nicholl finds in the plays. He suggests that this image from Pericles “may be a memory of the Mountjoy workshop – one wonders whose pale hands he is remembering”:

Be’t when she weaved the sleided silk
With fingers long, small, white as milk…

(Pericles 4. Chorus 21-2)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Edmund Pickett November 17, 2015 at 3:10 pm

I just read your interview with Joanna Penn and thought I’d check your site. I read the Shakespeare post and then saw a link after it, “The Four Subjects of Lyric Poetry.” Clicking on that link gets me an “internal server error.” Using the search function I succeeded in getting to the post, “Four Subjects etc.” but only the title appears. There is no text.


Mark McGuinness October 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

Sorry about that Edmund – there was a technical issue with the site, which has now been resolved, so all posts should be viewable again.

And apologies for the delay responding, I’ve only just seen your comment.


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