The differences between Shakespearean tragedy and classical and medieval models, which tend to be more interested in metaphysical perspectives and in themes of determinism, fortune, or supernatural intervention, have been widely noted in criticism.
Medical works in the Renaissance were heavily influenced by the legacy of the Greco-Roman physician Galen, amongst whose principles can be found the six non-naturals; in contrast to the naturals (innate and physiological things like organs and humours), these were conceived of as non-innate material, physical, and environmental factors that man could actively influence: “air”, “movement and rest,” “food and drink,” “inanition and repletion”, “affections of the mind”, and, crucially to this discussion, “sleep and vigil”.a resting of the Animal facultie, and a Pawsing from the actions and busynes of the day, wherby the vertues of the bodyes being faynt, and the powers thereof beinge resolued, are reuyued and made fresh againe, and all the wearie members & Senses recomfortedtermed), could cause a temporary or permanent imbalance of the humours and was severely harmful to the mind and the body.
According to the English physician and translator Thomas Phaer, it was even the reason behind the plague.
Early modern writings thus suggest that sleeplessness was part of a vicious cycle, being produced by illness and causing (further) illness and detriment of the same kind.
Critics have linked the states of dreaming and sleeping to Shakespeare’s mode of romance, or more generally to the indeterminate conception of genre towards the end of his career; and work has also been undertaken on the links between nightmares, sleeplessness, fear, and conscience mainly in Shakespeare’s depiction of sleep, sleeplessness, and waking dreams as part of a wider emphasis on his characters’ sufferings – and thus as part of his deliberate design of tragedy – has, however, lacked critical attention, particularly with regard to plays other than Recent criticism, moreover, has shown an interest in the ways in which Shakespeare draws on the medical discourses of his time to convey his characters’ states of body and mind. Hobgood, for example, has argued that is “obsessed with ailment, disease, and biological breakdown,” and that the ailments represented in the play can be traced back to the condition of fear, both in the medical literature of the time and in Shakespeare’s text itself., Shakespeare similarly exploits the dramatic potential offered by early modern physiological understandings when he uses sleep, sleeplessness, and hallucinations to help foreground his characters’ tragic suffering which, in both of these plays, arises from the gap between their aspirations and their abilities or possibilities.
Ultimately, representations of sleeplessness and waking dreams in these plays therefore also support Shakespeare’s post-classical model of tragedy, which complicates ideas of cosmic adversity or metaphysical punishment and instead emphasises the suffering caused by the characters’ failure to realise their aspirations.
Through his vivid language he is able to create, the setting, portray the character and the emotional atmosphere of the scene.
The Elizabethan audience believed deeply in the supernatural and superstition. The use of unnatural events had a significant topical interest for the Elizabethan audience.
This nebulous nature of culpability and tragic causality makes it difficult to find any metaphysical or universal justice in these plays; as a consequence, the intense sufferings of Brutus and Lear become all the more important both to the plays’ complexities and to their dramatic success.
Even though dreams, sleep, and the genre of tragedy have all been studied individually in relation to Shakespeare’s works, the connections between them have remained largely unexplored.