William Shakespeare’s birthday celebration is Saturday, April 23.  We know Shakespeare was born in April, we’re just not absolutely certain of the exact date. We do know that his baptism is recorded as April 26, 1564.

In one of those eerie historical synchronicities, Shakespeare died on the same date: April 23, 1616.  Four hundred years ago.

Lovers of Shakespeare will remind you that his writing is earthy – downright racy. It’s also poetic, inspirational, and thoughtful. And if you haven’t seen a Shakespeare play live or a really good movie interpretation in a while, you’re missing out on his crackerjack storytelling.

And by lovers of Shakespeare I mean all of us. No matter what our paths are, we can enjoy his characters, phrases, and stories. Shakespeare’s works are about as high-falutin’ as a wise old geezer around the campfire. They can be poetic and insightful as well as tell a good yarn.

You probably already know this, but a number of phrases we use often come from Shakespeare. Phrases such as:

  • Break the ice
  • Dead as a doornail (Charles Dickens has an observation about that one.)
  • Faint hearted

The BBC has put together 45 phrases minted by the Bard of Avon here.

What’s fun is reminding ourselves of how these expressions from over 400 years ago are still in play. What’s also fun is reminding kids of them. A toddler can begin to understand “refuse to budge an inch” if it’s used in context. That’s something that age group knows well.

Shakespeare has such wisdom in his soliloquies. I still ponder on Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet. “To thine own self be true” only scratches the surface of that beautiful monolog. And Portia’s commentary on mercy in The Merchant of Venice still stirs me, re-orients my thinking about mercy and justice.  You can read the Hamlet monolog here, beginning after verse 540. The Merchant of Venice soliloquy here.

So what did William Shakespeare have to say about sleep? He knew it was essential. It would have been tied into the key rhythms of the days and seasons. And the quality of Elizabethan sleep, before Thomas Edison’s invention, must have been decidedly different.

It turns out he had sleep figures in his writing and plays. No surprise there. There are a few themes that arise which I’ll leave to Shakespeare scholars. As an amateur, I’m focusing on one theme: Stress and sleep.

Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies
Which busy care draws in the brains of men;
Therefore thou sleep’st so sound.
Julius Caesar (2.1.248-251)

 Well someone’s envious of another’s REM cycles! Maybe if the character Brutus could stop plotting Caesar’s overthrow he could go to bed with a clear conscience and lose his insomnia. If only Brutus could time travel, he’d hear Shakespeare’s Henry VIII say:

A peace above all earthly dignities, A still and quiet conscience.

Life lesson: Take a few minutes to clear your thoughts before bed. Write down what went well during the day, what didn’t go so well, and three things for which you’re grateful. Do a little meditation or simple breathing and acknowledge the chances of tomorrow going better with a good night’s sleep.

This, from 2 Henry IV, has a phrase about sleep that is a personal favorite: sleep is nature’s soft nurse.

O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
2 Henry IV (3.1.7-16)

Life Lesson: Insomnia doesn’t discriminate according to your income. Sleep doesn’t respond to a king’s command or power. In his heart of hearts, King Henry knows sleep does not come when summoned and must be courted.

What early tongue so sweet saluteth me?
Young son, it argues a distemper’d head
So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed:
Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie;
But where unbruised youth with unstuff’d brain
Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign:
Therefore thy earliness doth me assure
Thou art up-roused by some distemperature;
Or if not so, then here I hit it right,
Our Romeo hath not been in bed to-night.
Romeo and Juliet (2.3.36-42)

Friar Laurence knew Romeo’s nature – and the nature of teens. Romeo shows up so early in the morning that the good friar assumes he never went to sleep. The “unbruised youth with unstuff’d brain” can sleep until they’ve had enough –  no matter how high the sun is in the sky.  Therefore, Romeo must have put an all-nighter to show up so early in the morning.

Life lesson: The body tells the truth – Romeo wears his heart on his sleeve.

Our kids can always be exposed to Shakespeare. Not simply for the exposure to language and rhythm, but the stories themselves are so important. You don’t have to dig into an entire play (who would have time at bedtime for that?!). Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted for children. Here’s one list that might be helpful.

Stories – whether from Shakespeare, a book, or our own memories, help us transition to sleep.

For some tips on sharing stories with your family, download this interview with Sean Buvala, author of DaddyTeller ™ and master storyteller.