Grete Luste to Slepe: Somatic Ethics and the Sleep of Romance from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Shakespeare
Representations of sleep in Middle English secular literature have received little critical attention. This article reads literary sleep in the works of the Gawain-poet, Malory, Chaucer and L alongside instructions about sleep in courtesy books, dietaries, and Galenic medical tracts, in order to illuminate the dangers of sleeping at the wrong time or place. Literary sleep, both physical and metaphorical, often operates as an ethical discourse in late medieval secular literature, especially romance. A central section of this article examines how sleep, as both signifier and state, occurs in all four of the Gawain-poet’s works – Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – and all four of these late fourteenth-century poems figure sleep as the opposite of courtesy and temperance. Elsewhere, in PPl, Glutton and Sloth manifest sinfully despairing or intemperate states through inappropriate sleep, while in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the immoral Cook sleeps drunkenly during the daytime. The contemplative sleep of dream visions such as Pearl and PPl, by contrast, has some positive connotations, but the dreamers’ acts of falling asleep and/or waking up sometimes bear the same negative implications found elsewhere in this culturally determined habitus for performing and interpreting sleep. This medieval mode of thought is one that has a certain insular specificity, and that continues to be influential in early modern literature. For Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Richard III as for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, unconsciousness, whether achieved or attempted, bodies forth an ethical truth.