Half-forgotten lines from our school days often lurk at the back of our minds. Many of them are from the Shakespeare plays that were part of most school syllabuses. Studying Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I thought at the time that they were great fiction but experience and life has shown me just how relevant so many of the concepts and adversities still are to our daily lives.
A critical passage in Macbeth brings together the two themes of guilt and sleeplessness:
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled 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”
It is clear that even in Shakespeare’s time sleep was considered restorative. It is described as a method of renewal, an essential part of life’s rhythm, soothing both body and mind – something that we instinctively know today, although we look rather to science than playwrights to tell us so.
Macbeth had started to fray and needed “knitting” up again. This powerful metaphor is that of sleep knitting the fibres back together again with the warning that without recourse to this restorative essence, we will remain “raveled” and unsettled.
Four hundred years ago when Shakespeare was writing, sheep, wool, its fibres, cloth and garments, was a ubiquitous and widely understood commodity and the source of vast fortunes. When Macbeth was published in 1623, wool contributed a significant proportion of GDP. It was the driving force of the English medieval economy and everyone who had land from peasants to nobles raised sheep. By the 14th century almost 63% of the Crown’s total income came from the tax on wool and by the late 1500’s a law was passed that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays as part of a government plan to support the wool industry.
There were quite literally millions of sheep and they were an established part of the national consciousness. It was therefore not surprising that the old wife’s tale to help you get to sleep involved counting sheep. Even today it seems a rather monotonous task but I am not sure when I was young if I ever worried about what each sheep looked like, imagining general white blobs.
Now of course I may still count sheep but I am more conscious of their different shape and breeds. Highclere has about 1800 ewes, some are Llyens, some are Romneys and some Lleyn/Romney crosses.
Lleyns are a 19th century cross named for the Lleynn peninsular in Wales. Sadly, fifty years ago this breed had nearly died out but hopefully they are off the endangered breeds list now. They are compact and quiet – perfect for falling asleep to.
The Romney Marsh are easy to spot as they tend to have woolly fringes and in fact are generally rather woolly all over. As the name suggests, the breed originated in the Romney Marsh area in Kent – south east England and, as you might expect from the name, they can thrive in wet and cold environments.
It is one of the oldest known sheep breeds, with its origins traced back to the 13th Century and possibly earlier and it also has the highest quality of fleece of any native British breed. Sadly, it is not quite as valued as it once was but we have teamed up with Adam Henson to use the wool as part of mattress construction which should definitely help everyone sleep.
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”