In a painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Figure 3.1), Agamemnon is slumbering in his room, draped in finery, his left arm relaxingly bent near his head, while Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are shown behind the open door as they hesitantly prepare to kill him. This is not Aeschylus' version of the story, but the painting does not misrepresent the spirit of his trilogy, insofar as the murderers in it awake to kill, and in killing they murder sleep. In the Oresteia, as in Macbeth, wakefulness and sleep disturbances are centre stage, as is suggested already by the untypical beginning of the first play: a scene of sleeplessness.

We might think of sleeplessness as eminently appropriate for the tragic stage because of the mental strain it conveys and the choreographic possibilities it offers. Greek playwrights did not pass over its strong dramatic impact. Quite the contrary, Eteocles opens Seven against Thebes by pointing up his ever-wakeful statesmanship, and Oedipus reassures his subjects, telling them, ‘You are not rousing one caught by sleep’, but ‘I have tried many paths in the wandering of my mind’ (Soph. OT 65–7). Troubled nights are evoked again near the beginning of Trachiniae, where they afflict Deianira. Mentions of sleeplessness fittingly give impetus to plots that grow out of dire predicaments and involve intense emotions.


Figure 3.1 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Clytemnestra hesitating before killing Agamemnon (1817), Paris, Louvre.

Yet, abnormal wakefulness is shown on the tragic stage only twice, in Agamemnon and Iphigenia in Aulis. The concentration of the dramatic action, the daytime setting of the tragic performance and the rudimentary decor of the stage are the main reasons that it appears so seldom. Plots normally unfold in the course of one day, from sunrise to sunset.1 This timeframe makes it difficult to render sleeplessness on stage, because one cannot be sleepless in the daytime. Accordingly, wakeful nights belong to the prequel of the drama, as in Seven against Thebes, Trachiniae or Oedipus the King, or are projected forward, to an indefinite post-dramatic time, as in Prometheus Bound, whose protagonist is condemned to ‘guard this rock, standing, without sleeping or bending [his] knees’ (31–2). The two scenes of sleeplessness that do occur come at the opening of plays that begin, exceptionally, on the nights prior to the unfolding of their plots. We might ask why only two tragedies exploit this possibility. Is it because a night-time setting in an open-air theatre and in the daytime would have demanded too much of the imagination, even for spectators who saw what words told them to see?2

The scene in Agamemnon is woven into the play's thematic fabric, for sleeplessness is in fact the driving impulse in the trilogy we are just beginning to watch or read. As one critic has shown, the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are carried out by a force of revenge that is markedly unsleeping.3 Wakefulness is both metaphorical (the wrath of the dead cannot sleep) and literal (its embodiments cannot, either), but the two levels are inextricably intertwined, for the murderers cannot sleep because they host the wakeful impulse of revenge: because the murdered, or the murders, ‘won't lie’.4 In Agamemnon unsleeping revenge rouses three sets of characters: the executioners, through whom it operates; their unwitting helpers, who lose sleep to zeal and fear; and their subjects, sleepless from obscure terror, from vague and anguished presentiments.

When the play begins, one of Clytemnestra's slaves is lying awake5 at his post, hoping to see the beacon that will announce Agamemnon's victory. In the first line the sentinel prays for ‘the end of toils’ (ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων), of his nightlong watches. But a few lines later his work-related lack of sleep takes on sinister overtones:

Whenever I am on this restless (νυκτίπλαγκτον)6 couch of mine, drenched with dew, not visited by dreams – for fear stands by me instead of sleep and prevents me from joining my eyes fast in slumber – whenever I decide to sing or hum as a remedy, preparing an antidote of song for my somnolence, I cry, lamenting the calamity of this house, no longer governed in the best way, as in the past. But now may there come a happy ending to my toils (ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων)!


Fear visits the watchman. It replaces slumber and its attendant dreams, standing by him as dream visions stand by sleepers in Homer. Is it simply the fear of being punished for neglect of duty, if he should doze off? Or a more vague, unsettling fear, caused by the governance of the house? The first interpretation is in the foreground, because the watchman is chronically sleepy and trying to shake off his drowsiness.7 But his remark on the palace's administration pushes the audience to associate his fear with an object that he cannot, or will not, state clearly (36–9). The verses charge his sleep deprivation with unspoken anguish by leaving the content of his fear unstated. After he mentions his lamentation and its causes, the end of toils which he again prays for is the deliverance of the palace from its current rulers, as well as his own deliverance from his weary task. What would allow him to rest is not just the successful end of the war and Agamemnon's return, but his return to power, which would redress the misfortune that has fallen on the house and caused the watchman's nocturnal weeping.

At the appearance of the beacon he rejoices and cries out: ‘Oh! Oh! To Agamemnon's wife I declare: rise quickly from your bed!’ (25–6) The watchman transfers wakefulness from himself to Clytemnestra by summoning her as soon as he is able to go to sleep. It is highly significant that the action that provokes the entrance of the murderess-to-be is a wake-up call, which ‘forges a direct link between the act of waking and the violent purposes of an avenger’.8 As is about to become clear, together with Agamemnon's wife there rises the impulse of retaliation that she hosts.

Before Clytemnestra enters, the old men who compose the chorus extend sleep disturbances to a general condition of the guilty. Zeus sets mortals on the way to wisdom through suffering, and ‘the toil of painful memory drips before the heart in sleep’ (179–80: στάζει δ᾽ἔν θ᾽ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας/ μνησιπήμων πόνος).9 Rather than being a respite from toil, as is traditional, sleep receives it drop by drop.10 It is the vehicle for inflicting on the criminal a Chinese torture of subliminal remorse. An ancient gloss explains: ‘The guilty imagine calamities and toils even in sleep’.11 This description of the action of remorse harks back to the chorus' earlier evocation of the dreadful, likewise memory-filled Wrath (μνάμων Μῆνις) that guards Agamemnon's house, ‘ready to rise again’ to avenge Iphigenia (151–5).

In the first episode Clytemnestra, who has just risen, exhibits a disdain for sleep, both literal and metaphorical. She has not trusted dreams, the visions ‘of a sleeping mind’ (275), but the relay of an ever-wakeful fire, a fire that was never ‘overcome by slumber’ (290–1), never went out (296), with one runner ‘awaking’ the next (299) and the flame growing in brilliance (301) and rushing (304) to reach the palace. By pointing up her own and her helpers' wakefulness, Clytemnestra identifies with the unrelenting Wrath that guards the palace.

That Wrath is bound to upset the victors' peaceful rest. Clytemnestra describes the Greek victory at Troy as the end of sleep deprivation: the ‘toil that made [the warriors] wander at night (νυκτιπλάγκτους) after the battle’ (330) is over, she says, as if answering the watchman's prayer for the end of toil and his complaint of a νυκτίπλαγκτον bed (12–3); ‘having got rid of dew’ (336), as the watchman wished for himself,12 the warriors ‘will slumber like happy men, without guards, the whole night’ (336–7). Clytemnestra produces a rare narrative in Greek and Roman literature, one that focuses on the night after the sack of Troy. Typically narrators stress the sleep of the Trojans on the night of the sack.13 While in the standard story the Trojans' unconcerned, drunken slumber is contrasted with the Greeks' killing wakefulness, in Clytemnestra's imagination it is the Greeks who sleep unconcerned: ‘without guards’ emphasizes their postwar relaxation. The alleged bliss of the warriors' rest is brought out also by the emphatic position of εὐδαίμονες (‘happy’) at the end of the line, as well as by the assonance of εὐδαίμονες with εὑδήσουσι (‘they will sleep’) and εὐφρόνην (‘night’), which interlocks well-being and nightlong sleep.

The words that follow, however, suggest that Agamemnon's unguarded slumber does not mark the end of toil, for the force of revenge is not going to sleep. Even if the Greeks should leave Troy successfully, ‘the suffering of the dead might become awake (ἐγρηγορός), if sudden calamities have not hit yet’ (346–7).14 On the surface the dead could be the Trojans or the Greek warriors who died for Menelaus' private cause, but the vagueness of the formula introduces the possibility that Clytemnestra is thinking of Iphigenia.15 Over Agamemnon's victorious slumber there looms the awaking offence suffered by his daughter, which had already surfaced in the chorus' evocation of memory-filled Wrath (151–5). Is Agamemnon's sleep then ‘without guards’ because it is safe, or rather because it is not protected?16

The speech of the herald who announces Agamemnon's arrival is linked to Clytemnestra's by the repetition of central words and ideas. Agamemnon, one of the εὐδαίμονες who rested unguarded at Troy, is now the εὐδαίμων who is returning in glory (530);17 the nocturnal dews reappear (336, 561) and sleep is again centre stage to signify the end of toil. As a participant in the war, the herald knows its hardships, which he expounds by putting special emphasis on sleep discomforts: ‘Our beds were near the enemy walls and the dews of the meadow from the sky and the earth were dripping continuously’ (559–61). The warriors' distress matches the watchman's, who also lay on a dewy bed night after night. The landscape surrounding the fighters did sleep, but its calmness, when the sea ‘fell on its windless bed’ in the midday heat (565–6), was a sickening, oppressive condition. This is all past misery, however: ‘The toil is over, is over, so that the dead have no more care of ever getting up’ (567–9). To the audience the herald's words sound like a rebuttal of Clytemnestra's intimation that the dead might rise. No, he proclaims with an emphatic double negative, they will not (μήδ’) awaken, never (μήποτ᾽). For the survivors the success of the enterprise does not risk being compromised by the ‘suffering of the dead’ (346), but amply compensates for ‘the suffering of war’ (574).

The herald's confidence fits his position: he was a fighter in a war spurred by an impulse to revenge similar to the one that is now driving Clytemnestra to her crime, but that war is over, whereas its successful end marks the awakening of her revenge. For Clytemnestra the dead are rising because she is readying herself to kill; for the herald they lie because he does not wish to be reminded of the Greek losses. Additionally, he does not even remotely suspect what is brewing in Argos. The toil he has suffered, and which has robbed him of sleep, is routine in war. He has no experience of the other sleep-depriving toil, no share in the chorus' anguish.18

The herald, however, gives a positive answer to Clytemnestra's intimation that the warriors might have met with disaster on their journey home. The Greeks have indeed suffered a fierce storm, the onset of which is described again in the language of awakening: at night dreadful waves rose (653). Their rising turns the already disturbing sleep of the sea in the midday heat into an ominous happening and the sea itself into an agent of divine retribution, awakening to kill, like Clytemnestra.19 The herald's narrative of the destruction wrought by the awakened sea qualifies his own confidence that toil belongs to the past and that the dead will never rise.

Clytemnestra, it seems, has not been sleeping well all the while. In greeting Agamemnon she tells him that her tears have dried up from crying for such long hours, that her eyes are

Sore from going to sleep late, weeping over the firebrands that never appeared, and the light flapping of a buzzing mosquito would awaken me while I was seeing you surrounded by sufferings in greater number than the minutes of my sleep.


Clytemnestra persuades Agamemnon of her loyalty by attributing to herself the restless sleep characteristic of wives longing for their husbands. She fashions herself specifically after Penelope, as is suggested by the metaphor she uses: Agamemnon is the un-hoped-for land that appears to sailors (899–900), just as Odysseus is the land where Penelope the sailor finds safety (Od. 23. 233–40). Clytemnestra's story of her troubled nights also recalls Penelope's complaint of sleeplessness to her still unrecognized husband in Odyssey 19.20

Is Clytemnestra lying through and through? Though of course she has not been losing sleep to longing, the dreadful dreams that have allegedly shaken her awake could be wish fulfilling, like the rumours she allegedly kept receiving about Agamemnon, wounded so many times that he should have more holes than a net, killed so many times that he could boast of three bodies, like Geryon (866–71).21 Those rumours sound all too predictive to the audience: predictive as a wish-fulfilling fabrication, that is. The manner of Agamemnon's death, caught in a net, struck by three blows, will prove those rumours ‘right’. The audience, by now acquainted with the rousing action of the dead Iphigenia, will believe Clytemnestra's complaint of sleeplessness but read into it a masked allusion to her plotting wakefulness, especially because she has pointed up (and honestly, though with a double entendre) her steady watching for the coming of the beacon.

After urging the servants to spread the red carpet on which Agamemnon will tread to ‘enter an unexpected dwelling, led by Justice’, Clytemnestra reassures him of her vigilant care: ‘My solicitude, unconquered by slumber, will set the rest aright, justly, as destined by the gods’ (912–3). Her claim is truthful in a sense hidden from Agamemnon but clear to the audience. As was the case with her comment about the ‘suffering of the dead’, the vagueness of her phrasing here authorizes two readings: 1) I have been thinking day and night of your return and am anxious to welcome you back to your palace, as justice and the gods demand (Agamemnon's reading), and 2) I have been thinking day and night of how to pursue my rightful revenge and am anxious to do so (Clytemnestra's reading and the audience's). The chorus, who has presentiments but no firm knowledge, could be suspended between the two readings, though the song accompanying Agamemnon's entrance, with its heightened anguish (no longer ‘sing the song of sorrow but let the good prevail’, as in the first ode, but the reverse: ‘I have learnt of Agamemnon's return, yet my heart sings the song of the Erinyes’) accords with the second.

When the killing is imminent, however, the chorus seems to have a faint hope that it can be avoided if only Cassandra's prophetic voice, which has just announced it unambiguously, will slumber: ‘Silence, wretched one, put your mouth to sleep’ (1247). The chorus treats Cassandra's words like deeds.22 It fears that to speak ill-omened utterances is to activate them and wants to believe that to avoid them is enough to ward off the crime of which they speak. Aeschylus expresses this idea, widespread in Greek culture, in an original way, by merging the imagery of silence with that of sleep, in keeping with the thematic prominence of the sleep motif in the play. But sleep and silence are at variance in this tragedy of unspoken terror.23 Silence does not contain calmness and peace, but fear and anguish: it is the accompaniment or even the equivalent of sleeplessness, not sleep.24 The chorus' own reticence is filled with obscure forebodings of death, which Cassandra's words spell out as the murder is coming to pass.

While the murder is called – not surprisingly at this point – the work of unsleeping hands (1357), the helplessness of the murdered king and his entourage prompts sleep imagery. Agamemnon lies in disgrace. The precious bathtub in which he has been killed becomes a bed strewn on the ground, evocative of wartime discomforts. ‘I wish I had died before seeing you occupy the lowly bed of a silver bathtub’, sings the chorus (1539–40), echoing an earlier lament: ‘You lie […] on this bed unworthy of a free man’ (1492 and 1494, repeated at 1516 and 1518). The chorus itself can only wish for a sleep with no awakening, a death ‘that will bring us endless slumber, now that the best-minded watcher has succumbed’ (1450–1).

The play began with the watchman's prayer for the sleep-bringing end of toil, and now, towards the end, we find a corresponding prayer for a different kind of rest: eternal slumber. This time, the wish comes from the citizenry – including, we are to imagine, the watchman himself – deprived of its guardian, whose own undignified sleep epitomizes his impotence throughout the play. Agamemnon's unguarded and nightlong slumber in a Trojan home, as imagined by Clytemnestra, did not save him from the wakeful hands of an avenger who plunged him into ignominious sleep. The audience will remember the chorus' lament over the loss of its guardian when, in Eumenides, a watchful institution will be appointed to protect the citizens' nightly rest. But the murder that ends Agamemnon perpetuates sleep disturbances, as the opening scenes of Choephoroe make instantly clear.


The action onstage receives its impulse from Clytemnestra's sudden awakening, caused by a frightening dream: ‘A nocturnal scream – clear, with hair standing up, prophet of the palace, breathing anger from sleep – resounded with fear, from the recesses of the house, heavily falling on the women's chambers’ (32–7).25 The prominence given to Clytemnestra's rising is unique to Aeschylus' tragedy. In the two plays by Sophocles and Euripides on the same subject, her nocturnal fears are evoked much later (Soph. El. 400; Eur. El. 617), and they do not impact the action with comparable force. This difference demonstrates the thematic relevance of sleep disturbances in Aeschylus' trilogy. In both Agamemnon and Choephoroe, Clytemnestra's awakening provides the initial dramatic motor.

The interpreters explain Clytemnestra's dream as a consequence of the ‘reproach and anger of those under the earth against their killers’ (40–2), and this harks back to Agamemnon's imagined sleep at Troy, over which hovered the wakeful suffering of the dead Iphigenia. Now Clytemnestra's sleep is in turn shattered by dreams that evince the wrath of the dead Agamemnon. She takes on the role he filled in the earlier play, but with a difference. His imagined slumber is not broken from within but is threatened from without, by the embodiment of Iphigenia's unsleeping anger. He has no remorse or presentiment either in his waking hours or in his sleep. He does not dream. This is in keeping with the nature of dreams in Agamemnon: fleeting, vain and insubstantial (420–6), an image of weak old age (79–80), they provide no insight.26 Clytemnestra dismisses them as unreliable. In Choephoroe, on the other hand, her guilt fashions a veridical dream, which speaks volumes to its interpreters.27 Remorse bursts into her sleep. Though the anger of the dead remains an outside force that acts unrelentingly (324–8), Clytemnestra internalizes it, whereas Agamemnon was unaware of its workings. The difference is highlighted by contrasting applications in the two plays of the Aeschylean coinage νυκτίπλαγκτος (‘night-wandering’). While Agamemnon's and the watchman's nocturnal restlessness was caused by external circumstances, by their jobs, Clytemnestra's comes from within, from ‘night-wandering terrors and dreams’ (523–4).

In his capacity as one of the offended dead, Agamemnon is not allowed to remain asleep either. Orestes and Electra seek to awaken him: ‘Father, unhappy father, with what words or deeds could I reach from afar to the bed that holds you?’ (316–9); ‘Remember the bath […] Remember the net […] Won't you awake at hearing these offences? Won't you raise straight your dearest head?’ (491–2; 495–6)

To cast an invocation to the dead as a call to wake up might seem unremarkable. But Aeschylus does not use the same imagery for the evocation of Darius' ghost in Persians,28 though the purpose there is literally to rouse the dead. Orestes does not mean to conjure up the ghost of Agamemnon, but more modestly to excite his anger and obtain his support, yet he asks him to awaken. This call reminds the audience that the same unsleeping force that killed Agamemnon is now driving the murder of his killer. Orestes' exhortations to his father link him to the remembering Wrath that was ready to ‘rise again’ to avenge Iphigenia (Ag. 155).

As the murder of Clytemnestra draws near, the wakefulness of the force of revenge moves to the foreground. Orestes the executioner rises. He has ‘got up straight’ in his resolve to kill his mother (512), while she is compared to another wakeful murderess, Scylla, who killed her father Nisos in his carefree sleep by plucking the lock of hair that made him immortal; and ‘Hermes got hold of him’ (619–21).29 Agamemnon's unawareness of his wife's plot is retrospectively associated with literal sleep: an abandoned, unsuspecting slumber, as in Guérin's painting.

The next episode plays up the incongruity between the prospect of sleep and that of murder. Seeking admission to the royal palace, Orestes urges the servant to call his masters in a hurry because ‘the dark chariot of night also hurries, and it is time for travellers to drop anchor in homes welcoming to strangers’ (660–2). Orestes wears the mask of the weary traveller in the style of the Odyssey, claiming that he longs for rest at the end of the day. And Clytemnestra, who does not recognize the traveller, genuinely behaves like a good hostess: ‘Strangers, tell me what you need. The palace offers you what you can expect of it: warm baths and a bed to soothe your toils’ (670–1). Orestes ironically endorses her sincere display of hospitality by apologizing for the news of her son's death (700–6). Promising that she will treat him no worse for that, Clytemnestra sends him off to sleep: ‘The time has come for guests who have ended their day to find appropriate care after a long journey. Take him to the quarters reserved for guests’ (710–2).

The murderer is offered the comfort of a bed and invited to retire and recuperate from the toils of travel. But of course Orestes' journey is driven by another toil, the ‘inborn toil of the race’ (466). The resonance between this episode and scenes of hospitality in the Odyssey brings out the perversion of religious and social norms that stains Agamemnon's house. The situation recalls the last night of the suitors, and the use of sleep to build climactically towards the murder in the play is paralleled in the epic. Both Orestes and Odysseus have returned incognito to claim their rights; in both circumstances the victim, unaware of the stranger's plans, urges retiring for the nightly rest,30 and both avenging heroes are markedly wakeful.

Orestes' wakefulness is brought into stark relief by the evocation of his sleep patterns as a child, presented to the audience while the adult Orestes is readying himself to kill. His nurse, on learning of his alleged death, remembers with despair ‘dear Orestes, the care of my life, whom I received from his mother and nurtured, and those screams that called me and made me go about at night (νυκτιπλάγκτων)’ (749–51). The picture is one of innocence and blissful normality for the woman who remembers happier days, but the appearance of νυκτιπλάγκτων links the description of the infant's nocturnal screaming to episodes in which the term is applied to sleep-depriving situations fraught with abnormal strain. Thus, the overtly innocent vignette ‘points to his [Orestes’] role as a waking adult avenger'.31

A second image of the child Orestes is fashioned by Clytemnestra when, to deter her son from striking, she bares her breast and reminds him of ‘how often, sleeping, you drew nutritious milk with your lips’ (897–8). Her gesture repeats Hecuba's when she tries to hold Hector back.32 Audiences ancient and modern will recognize the allusion and mark the detail of the child's slumber, added by Aeschylus.

Images of peacefully sleeping children set off against dire circumstances appear elsewhere in Greek poetry: Astyanax, orphaned, who used to doze in luxury when Hector was alive;33 Perseus, blissfully asleep while his mother, who holds him as she is borne on the surge of the sea and her sorrows, prays: ‘sleep, my child, and you, sea, sleep; sleep, my endless woe’; and Astyanax again, this time dead, with ‘those slumbers, gone’.34 Clytemnestra, however, evokes the guileless image of a sleeping child guilefully: not with affection, but to disarm her killer with a picture of motherly love, which the spectators may even take as a fabrication by the un-motherly woman because they know (from Orestes' nurse) that Clytemnestra did not hold her baby to her breast, at least not often, as she claims.35 She did not take much pain to tend her child, but now counts on the emotional power of the made-up image to lull the killing hands of her adult son to sleep. Her appeal both enhances the murderer's wakefulness and strengthens the association of sleep with helplessness, pursued in Agamemnon and also, shortly before Clytemnestra's plea, in Choephoroe. For at hearing Aegisthus' death cry, a servant speaks agitatedly to the inhabitants of the palace: ‘Am I shouting to deaf men? Is it sleepers I am calling, in vain, for nothing?’ (881–2) The servant's words are to be read not literally but as a reminder of a metaphor: sleep equals impotence. They match the chorus' feeling of impotence in Agamemnon, also phrased in the language of sleep (1357).

After Clytemnestra's murder Orestes becomes the guilty person who suffers the dripping of remorse invoked by the chorus of Agamemnon, now materialized in the Furies who ‘drip foul blood from their eyes’ (1058). His predicament is even more dreadful, for remorse does not creep into his slumber as it does into the guilty person's; nor does it fashion a frightening dream as it does for Clytemnestra. Instead, it takes the even more frightening shape of a waking vision, which drives the murderer away from Argos and off the stage (1061–2).

The chorus, however, nurtures greater hopes than the one in Agamemnon. While the old men of Argos wished only for the eternal sleep of death, the slave women who watch Orestes become the prey of terror present the sleep of the forces of destruction as a possibility, albeit in the form of an unanswered question: ‘When will it complete its work, when will the rage (μένος) of Ate, lulled back to sleep, stop?’ (1075–6) These are the play's last words. Together with the chorus' prior reassurance to Orestes that Apollo will free him from his sufferings (1059–60), the question that ends Choephoroe sets the stage for Eumenides, where it will be answered.


The last play of the trilogy seems to engage with this question instantly, for the Erinyes are sound asleep when they appear onstage (Figure 3.2).36 Apollo has knocked them out: ‘You see them caught, those furies, fallen into sleep’ (67–8). He undermines the Erinyes' divinity by pointing up their heavy, unnatural slumber, which they have suffered at his hands, the hands of a younger god who makes naught of their powers.37 And their repulsive snore (54) ‘communicates the unwholesome nature of their prerogative’.38

Enter Clytemnestra, a dream vision. Like a Homeric dream she shakes the sleepers reproachfully: ‘You slumber, eh? What need is there of sleepers?’ (94) In Homer, though, reproachful dreams are sent either by a god to a mortal or by one mortal to another,39 whereas Clytemnestra is a mortal who forces herself into the sleep of goddesses. This reversal further undercuts the Furies' divine status. The mere fact that they dream assimilates them to mortals, for in classical Greek literature deities do not.40


Figure 3.2 Eumenides Painter, red-figured crater (c.380 BC), Paris, Louvre. Clytemnestra tries to wake the Furies while Apollo purifies Orestes with the blood of a piglet.

Orestes, however, cannot find rest while the weary and un-godlike Erinyes are snoring. Apollo urges him on: ‘Flee, do not be faint hearted. For, as you keep going over the earth trodden by wanderers, they will chase you through the vast mainland, beyond the sea and the islands’ cities. Do not grow weary of working at your toil' (74–9). Apollo can keep the Furies asleep only temporarily;41 he cannot make real the wish expressed at the end of Choephoroe. Clytemnestra instantly proves this by rousing them with words that hark back to the end of that play but cast her as the willing perpetuator of the working of anger: ‘Sleep and toil, masterly conspirators, have enfeebled the rage (μένος) of the terrible snake’ (126–7). She expresses her keenness to keep the μένος awake and urges the Furies not to be overwhelmed by toil (see also 133), further adding to her instigating action: ‘Do not ignore my suffering (πῆμα), softened by slumber’ (134), she says, harking back to her veiled threat in Agamemnon: ‘The suffering (πῆμα) of the dead might awake’ (346–7). She rouses the Erinyes because her suffering has not been lulled to sleep, though they have ‘lost their prey, overcome by slumber’ (148).

In sum, the play that opens with the Furies asleep soon begins to repeat the message of Agamemnon: the murdered won't lie. The awakening of the Furies' μένος visibly and dramatically denies the possibility, expressed in abstract terms at the end of Choephoroe, that μένος might be permanently put to rest.42 Orestes' claim that the blood on his hands already ‘slumbers and fades’ (280) is instantly challenged by the Erinyes' threat of an endless pursuit, to the netherworld and even beyond (338–9).

Nonetheless, Apollo has already announced the end of the pursuit. When he urges Orestes to flee, he also reassures him that his flight will come to a definitive stop in Athens: ‘And there, with judges and enchanting speeches, we shall find a way of setting you free from your toils forever’ (81–4). In fact, it is only the enchanting speeches that save Orestes and Athens by mollifying the Erinyes and warding off their threats,43 and those speeches belong exclusively to Athena. While Apollo handles the Erinyes confrontationally, knocking them out, Athena appreciates their temper (848) and does not seek to neutralize them by wielding sleep as a weapon. Instead, she exhorts them to ‘lull to rest (κοίμα) the black surge of bitter anger’ (832), promising them honours. The patience (881) with which she applies the ‘sweetness and charm’ (886) of her tongue to their anger eventually pays off, for they say, ‘It seems that you will charm me: I am giving up my anger’ (900). While in the two earlier plays persuasion led to crime, it now leads to peace,44 and the peace worked out by Athena's persuasiveness is the sleep of black anger, which the goddess has soothed by a hypnotic charm.45 The wish expressed at the end of Choephoroe comes true at last.

With their black anger forever at rest, the Erinyes will become the honoured members of a community who will look after everyone's slumber. When Athena sets up the court on the Areopagus, she calls it ‘a wakeful sentry of the land, to protect those who sleep’ (705–6). For the first time in the trilogy sleepers are not threatened or harmed; for the first time sleep is not an enfeebling condition or a mark of impotence, but betokens civic harmony. The guardian of the citizens' rest is a rampart (701) that avails itself of ‘fear’ and ‘reverence’ to restrain them from crimes ‘day and night’ (690–2) – a pregnant emphasis in a trilogy filled with anguished nocturnal awakenings and murderous plotting46 – and is itself restrained by fear and respect for the people it guards.47

While in Agamemnon and Choephoroe fear prevents sleep, the fear enthroned on the Areopagus will make it possible. This is because that fear is not ‘horror in the face of violence and guilt’ but ‘the basis of spontaneously just behaviour’, respectful of the law (693).48 The wakeful force of revenge that drove the chain of murders leaves the stage, along with the sleep-upsetting terrors it produced. It is now replaced by an institution that relies on the fear of punishment to watch over everyone's rest. Insofar as it effectively upholds justice, the institution's vigilance contrasts with the ineffective slumber of the bloodthirsty Erinyes in the opening scene.49 It also replicates the wakefulness of the watchman at the beginning of the trilogy, but with opposite goals. While the sleep-deprived servant is subjected to tyrannical rulers who are getting ready to kill, the ‘wakeful sentry of the land’ is a collective and impersonal body, whose task is to suppress crime and to shield the citizens' rest under a polity that strikes a middle ground between ‘anarchy and despotism’ (696).50

The power of the law to watch over everyone's sleep sets the moderate democracy idealized in Eumenides in stark opposition to despotism in particular, for a despot not only does not care to protect his subjects' rest, but cannot even look after his own. When charged with conspiring against Oedipus' rule, Creon fires back with a question: why would he choose a kingship haunted by continuous fear rather than sleeping in peace, since he already enjoys de facto power and privileges equal to those of the ruler? (Soph. OT 584–6)51 The idea is developed extensively in Xenophon's Hiero (6. 7–10), which argues that a tyrant cannot count on the law to keep his sleep safe. Since he himself is the law, his guards have no other restraining force but their loyalty to him. Soldiers on the battlefield sleep better than a tyrant in his palace because they have watchmen who stay awake, fearing for them on account of their own fear of the law. Likewise the citizens of democratic Athens have law-fearing watchmen that protect their nightly rest, guarding them not from outside enemies but from each other.



Sleeping figures had stage appeal. They feature not only in Eumenides but also in Trachiniae, Heracles, Philoctetes and Orestes. Neither the one-day span of tragic plots nor the daytime setting of both plot and performance posed a challenge to the production of sleep scenes, because sleep, unlike sleeplessness, can happen in full daylight, as indeed it does in all the plays. The daytime hour marks it as an eerie phenomenon, laden with tension. What will happen when the sleeper awakes? Will he awake or not? Staged sleep is always a site of uncertainty. It is also caused by extreme predicaments: by the joint attack of fatigue and a god (in Eumenides), by paroxysms of unmanageable suffering (in Trachiniae and Philoctetes) or by madness (in Heracles and Orestes).

Presumably the earliest play after Eumenides to include a sleep scene is Sophocles' Trachiniae.52 A servant has just recounted Deianira's suicide when the dying Heracles, unconscious, appears onstage, carried on a litter by silent escorts (964–70). This entrance is his homecoming, towards the end of a tragedy that has been labeled a ‘nostos play’53 because its plot, like the Odyssey's, is directed towards the hero's return, which is announced, delayed and finally accomplished after a prolonged absence that has filled his wife's nights with anxiety, Penelope-wise.54

Deianira fashions herself as a sleepless Penelope in the opening scene: ‘Since being united with Heracles as his chosen bride,55 I always nurture fear after fear, worrying about him. One night brings in distress and another night, in succession, dispels it’ (27–30). Unlike Penelope's, however, Deianira's anguish has begun with her marriage. For Heracles, unlike Odysseus, has always been on the road; to be married to him is to lose sleep to fear of losing him.

The young women of the chorus join their voices with hers. In their entrance song they oppose the regular course of the sun, which night ‘begets and puts to sleep’ (95), to the unsleeping fixity of Deianira's yearning: ‘I learn that much-wooed Deianira, longing always like a sorrowful bird, never lulls to rest the longing of her eyes so as to leave them tearless’ (103–7). The ever-lamenting bird is probably the nightingale,56 the same bird to which Penelope compares herself because she weeps in her bed while everyone sleeps (Od. 19. 515–21). Deianira pines on a ‘husbandless’ bed, which agitates her heart (109).

Talking to the still unmarried women of the chorus, the chronically insomniac wife of Heracles describes the life of a married woman as one of sleeplessness: ‘[when] a woman is called wife instead of maiden, she receives her share of worry in the night, fearing for her husband or children’ (148–50). Drawing on her own experiences, Deianira assumes that sleep disturbances are common to all married women, and she singles out night as the privileged setting for a wife's anxieties.57 The audience will again think of Penelope, who is capable of distracting herself in the daytime but not ‘when night comes’ (Od. 19. 515).

Deianira ends her speech by further emphasizing her sleeplessness. She knows from an oracle that Heracles' labours are fated to end on the present day, yet the thought does not cheer her but causes her to startle from sleep: ‘I leap up from sweet slumber from fear, friends. I am in fear, in case I must be left without the best of all men’ (175–7). The oracle's vagueness as to how Heracles' labours will end (169–70) keeps Deianira anxiously awake with her own labours (30), and the audience is thus also left in suspense as to the manner in which Heracles' return will be accomplished. Fear is the dominant emotion on the stage when a messenger wearing a wreath suddenly breaks in (178) to bring about a happy reversal – Heracles has made it back alive – that does not last: he is dying.

The discovery that Deianira's robe is burning Heracles alive clarifies the meaning of ‘the end of Heracles’ labours': they will stop with death, for there can be no labouring after death (829–30). The anxiety shared by characters and audience alike then changes its object: no longer ‘will Heracles return alive?’ but ‘is he still alive’? (806; see 835) This uncertainty frames the sleep scene, and the likeness of sleep and death plays into its unfolding.

The scene is anticipated in the narrative of Deianira's suicide. She went inside the house alone and ‘saw her son in the courtyard, spreading a hollow bed to go back to meet his father’ (901–2). This foreshadowing of Heracles' entrance in sleep links it to his wife's death, for the bed is central to both episodes. The intervening account of Deianira's suicide puts the bed before the audience's imagination with great insistence:

I saw her throwing and spreading sheets on Heracles' bed, and when she finished, she […] sat in the middle of [it] and […] said: ‘o bed and bridal chamber, forever farewell! You will never welcome me again as bedfellow on this bed!’


Deianira behaves like a Homeric lady who makes her husband's bed: but not to retire with him.58 The standard ‘farewell to the marriage bed’ of dying heroines acquires a distinctive meaning from this heroine's emphasis, at the beginning of the play, on her sleepless nights on a ‘husbandless’ bed. The wife is now about to leave it doubly empty. The detail that she ‘spreads’ sheets on the bed of her death after seeing her son ‘spreading’ a bed to carry his dying father joins the two beds and intertwines Deianira's death with Heracles'. The pairing of their deaths is reflected in the seamless transition from the evidence of hers to the prospect of his (950–1), before Heracles makes his first and last entrance.

Heracles' entrance marks a piano: his escorts advance noiselessly (965–7) and call for silence (974) so as not to arouse the ‘wild pain’ that possesses him. But Hyllus cannot keep quiet, and his cry (‘oh me!’) stirs Heracles. The manner of his awakening is evocative of Odysseus' on Scheria, also caused by a cry (Od. 6. 117). Heracles' first words, ‘Zeus! To what land have I come? Among which mortals do I lie?’ (984–5), likewise repeat Odysseus' in that episode and in the parallel scene of awakening on Ithaca: ‘Oh me! To what land have I come? Of which mortals?’ (Od. 6. 119=13. 200)59 Both episodes seem to be behind the tragic scene.60 Though the cause of Heracles' stirring, a scream, suggests Odyssey 6, the conjunction of sleep and homecoming is more closely reminiscent of Odyssey 13. Like Odysseus, Heracles is unconscious as he accomplishes his nostos.

The allusion to Odysseus' sleep points up Heracles' predicament by inviting comparison with the hero who awakens from ‘death’61 to discover new surroundings or rediscover his homeland. As soon as he opens his eyes, Odysseus seeks to relocate himself in the world. He asks questions that aim to help him understand the environment where he finds himself. Heracles' questions, in contrast, only seem to concern his environment; in fact they are governed by pain so strong as to cut him off completely from it. His mind turns instantly to his pain (985–7), the only object of his awareness.62 For him the end of sleep does not mark a return to life but the rekindling of a frenzy that ‘cannot be charmed’ or ‘put to sleep’ except by Zeus (998–9; 1002). While Odysseus' slumber on Scheria stopped his ‘distressful (δυσπόνεος) tiredness’ (Od. 5. 493), Heracles awakens to the distress (πεπονημένος, 985) of unbearable shafts of pain. While the Homeric hero asks, ‘to what land have I come? Of which mortals?’ his tragic counterpart adds, ‘among which mortals do I lie?’ He is prostrated and wishes for more rest: ‘Let me, let wretched me slumber’ (1005). There is no making Heracles' life ‘forgetful of toil’ (1021) except by sleep. The permanent sleep of death, that is, as he spells out by recasting his wish as a wish for eternal slumber: ‘Sweet Hades, oh Zeus of my own blood, put me to sleep, to sleep, destroy the wretched one with a swift death’ (1040–3). Heracles reverses the commonplace attribution of ‘sweet’ to life and light in opposition to gloomy death63 with a coinage, ‘sweet Hades’, which also transfers to death the most common Homeric epithet for sleep. Death is sweet because it can relieve him of a pain that sleep cannot cure.

Anaesthetic slumber offers Heracles only a temporary lull, from which he awakens unchanged: he cries out and curses Deianira (1036) just as he did before losing consciousness (791–3). Like the silence that protects it, sleep has the dramatic function of keeping the audience in suspense, but it does not underscore a transformation in the hero's mental state. Heracles' awakening, far from initiating a process of recognition, ‘signifies the surging development of [his] misunderstanding of the truth about himself and his transgression of the bounds of moderation’.64 His realization that his death was willed by destiny (1159–62) is far removed from the sleep scene and unrelated to it. As we shall see presently, things sit differently for the same hero in Euripides, where he awakens from madness to sobriety and recognition.


Euripides' Heracles is another nostos play, and one in which the protagonist's return, instead of being advanced by the sweetest slumber, like Odysseus' nostos, is ruined by an attack of madness that ends in sleep. Heracles plays in a scene structurally similar to the one in Trachiniae, but more elaborate. While the audience of Sophocles' tragedy does not know that Heracles will make his entrance unconscious, in Euripides a messenger's speech prepares for the stage appearance of the knocked-out madman by describing how sleep took hold of him: Athena ‘hurled a rock against Heracles’ chest to stop his murderous frenzy and sank him into slumber. He falls on the ground, knocking his back against a pillar' (1004–7). Tied to it, ‘he sleeps, wretched one, not a happy sleep’ (1013).

Heracles becomes visible soon thereafter: ‘You see those miserable children lying before their wretched father, who sleeps an awful slumber after murdering his sons’ (1032–4). His appearance prompts an animated verbal exchange, similar in content to the one in Trachiniae (‘silence!’ ‘How can I be quiet?’), but more extended and more mindful of his sleep. The noisy party is the chorus and the silencer Amphitryon: ‘Quiet! Won't you let him, relaxed in sleep, forget his sufferings?’ (1042–4) ‘Don't cry! Don't rouse him from his calm, slumbering rest!’ (1048–50) ‘Mourn softly! Otherwise he will awaken and break his bonds’ (1054–55). ‘Silence, let me note his breathing! [...] Does he sleep? Yes, he slumbers, a sleep non-sleep, baneful’ (1060–1).

Heracles' unhappy slumber has a divine provenance, like his madness,65 and it likewise hits him violently. Athena knocks him out with a stone just as she killed the giant Enceladus with one (908).66 The manner of sleep's coming and its parallel with the onslaught of madness underscores the gods' hostility to Heracles67 and casts his sleep as the opposite of the restoring slumber in which Athena enfolds her dear Odysseus after he lands on Scheria (5. 491–3). While the location of Odysseus' enveloping sleep is a cosy and windless bush, the location of Heracles' attacking one is a broken pillar, which ‘fell’ just as he does (1006–7). The contrast between the two heroes' sleep is further enhanced by its opposite relationship to πόνος, ‘toil’. Heracles' wretched slumber does not cure a ‘distressful (δυσπόνεος) tiredness’ (Od. 5. 493) caused by a superhuman feat of swimming, but follows the killing of his family, the last πόνος in his career of heroic labours, and the most appalling (1275, 1279).68 From that πόνος sleep can provide no cure.

Accordingly, Heracles is plunged in a ‘sleep non-sleep, baneful’, ‘not happy’, ‘awful’.69 The chorus cannot keep quiet because the blood that surrounds him ‘rises’ (1052), crying for vengeance, as Clytemnestra ‘rises’ (Ag. 27) from bed to avenge bloodshed that cannot slumber. By hinting at the Aeschylean motif of unsleeping blood,70 the chorus possibly intimates that Heracles might awaken mad, possessed by the Furies. (The threat actually looms large in his father's words [1074–6].) This suggestion is reinforced by the last description of his state, far from reassuring in spite of its intent. The chorus, attempting to quiet Amphitryon's apprehension that Heracles might stir, unwittingly makes his sleep seem ominous by saying: ‘Night holds your son's eyelids’ (1071). The audience will think instantly of madness, because the play emphatically couples it with night in the figure of Lyssa, introduced as ‘the offspring of Night’ (822), the ‘unwedded maiden of black Night’ (834), ‘Night's blood’ (844), ‘the daughter of Night’ (883). The words ‘night holds his eyes’ will remind the audience of the nocturnal filiation of Madness and breed more fear: will Heracles indeed awaken mad?

This fear is further communicated by Heracles’ slow rising from sleep, more suspenseful than in the parallel scene from Trachiniae, and by Amphitryon's reactions. He reassures himself that his son is plunged into a calm slumber (1049–50)71 by checking his breathing (1058) and notes his first stirring with apprehension (1069). The old man is anxious about his own safety. Though he calls for silence to let Heracles ‘forget his ills’ in sleep (1042–4), he is worried that, should the madman awaken, he would rend his bonds, destroy Thebes, kill his father and shatter the palace (1055–6). As soon as Heracles stirs, Amphitryon seeks a place to hide (1069–70), and shortly thereafter he flees, urging the old men of the chorus to follow him (1081–3). Heracles is left alone on stage.72 The light is fully on him when he awakens.

Contrary to the bystanders' fear, Heracles awakens sedate, bewildered but lucid. The meter of his monologue conveys his lucidity, for he does not scream in lyric verse as his namesake in Trachiniae but speaks in iambics from the start. Sleep has transformed the hero's mental state, preparing him and the audience for the recognition to come.

A comparison with the scene of madness in Sophocles' Ajax suggests that Euripides chose to end Heracles' madness in sleep in order to give the recognition greater prominence on the stage. Ajax, like Heracles, is taken on a delusional expedition against ‘disastrously inappropriate opponents’,73 in Ajax's case an expedition with mock-epic grandeur, emphatically nocturnal74 and conducted ‘while the whole host sleeps’ (Soph. Aj. 291), like Priam's journey in the Iliad (24. 363). Unlike Heracles, though, Ajax does not lose consciousness at the end of his mad journey. Because he does not sleep, there can be no sustained scene in which he awakens to sanity and realizes his predicament. Sophocles does not focus on the process of recognition but on its aftermath. Ajax regains possession of reason offstage, and learns what he has done offstage as well (305–16). The tragedy that unfolds before the spectators is not concerned with his coming to see the truth but with his rehearsal of it and his inability to cope with it. In contrast, Heracles opens his eyes on stage, and is forced to face his actions before learning how to live with them. The long sleep episode builds up tension towards this culminating scene.

Heracles' recognition is often compared with Agave's in Bacchae, for both characters have murdered their children in madness, and both realize this gradually, in the course of excited dialogues with their fathers. Agave, though, moves seamlessly from madness to sanity to realization. She does not imitate Heracles by collapsing into an unconscious slumber before recovering her senses. Perhaps this is because an occurrence of sleep after murderous madness would be at variance with this play's emphasis on the bliss of sleep, which is always and only the gift of Dionysus. Wine drowns our sorrows in an oblivious slumber (278–83), and the marvellous actions performed by the Bacchants when the god is in them receive impulse and energy from a ‘composed’ and ‘life giving’ sleep,75 which belongs with ritualized possession, not blind madness. In Heracles there is only blind madness, and sleep is not life giving but sick, fittingly marking the protagonist's tragic turn from insanity to despair.


In Sophocles' Philoctetes the protagonist's deep slumber promotes another reversal: from deception to honesty.76 Sleep's significance comes to the fore already in the prologue: Philoctetes' cave benefits from a hypnotic breeze (18–9); he is introduced as possibly dozing there (30); his bed warrants mention (33) and his dwelling is ‘a house with two doors, consisting of a rocky resting-place’ (159–60).77 This emphasis on Philoctetes' sleep and sleeping arrangements is in line with his need to rest after an attack of pain (766–8). Much-needed slumber, however, has tricked him once, when the Greeks took advantage of it to abandon him as they headed for Troy (271–3). An episode of sleep is the cause of his solitude and imprisonment on Lemnos.

When Neoptolemus promises to take him home, Philoctetes presses him: ‘let us leave, for timely (καίριος) haste brings sleep and rest when the toil is over’ (637–8). These words are poignant because Philoctetes himself must sleep immediately after his paroxysms, whether or not it is timely. The present day proves this again. For shortly after he speaks these words, he suffers another attack that ends in a deep slumber and prevents a timely departure. He knows he cannot stay awake, just as he cannot avoid the attack, and when he feels the pain quieting he asks Neoptolemus to keep his bow safe while he sleeps, as he always does in that circumstance: ‘Slumber seizes me whenever this plague leaves. There is no way it can stop before, but you must let me rest in peace’ (766–9).

The scene occurs almost exactly at the play's midpoint. Philoctetes dozes off at the end of the second episode (825–6) and his awakening begins the third (865), while the song in the middle covers the duration of his sleep. The central placement of it throws into high relief its crucial role as an instigator of the plot's reversal. Its pivotal function is also underscored by the stage action, which includes, uniquely in extant tragedy, the gradual coming of slumber.78 We see Philoctetes about to doze off before we see him unconscious: as Neoptolemus marks, ‘sleep, it seems, will seize the man shortly. Look, his head is nodding’ (821–2). The imminent onset of slumber shapes the last line of Neoptolemus' description: ‘[leave] him in peace until he should fall asleep’ (ἕκηλον αὐτόν, ὡς ἂν εἰς ὕπνον πέσῃ 826), where ὕπνον and πέσῃ, with the alliteration p-p, fall as heavily at the end of the line as sleep is falling on Philoctetes' drooping head. Next the men of the chorus sing a prayer to Hypnos, which is intended to work as a lullaby, rich as it is in soft, hypnotic sounds (827–32),79 and they take note of Philoctetes' deepening slumber. He first sleeps lightly, a ‘sleep non-sleep, sharp sighted’ (847–8), then soundly, ‘without eyes’, a sleep very much like death (856–61). When he is about to awake, Neoptolemus observes that he is raising his head (866), just as he had observed its drooping. The circle is completed.

The scene points up the ambivalence of sleep, as cure and danger. Philoctetes needs unbroken slumber but is afraid of being tricked again (766–72). The men of the chorus ask Hypnos, ‘who knows not of pain’, to come ‘breathing gently’ and ‘blessed’ (828–30) and to keep ‘holding before his eyes the light80 that is spread now’ (830–1). Though their prayer expresses genuine pity, their self-interest is stronger:81 ‘Come for us’ they say (828); ‘Come, come for me, Healer’ (832). The datives of interest (‘sleep, protect me! I am concerned for myself if you should not come!’) betray their thinking.82 They hail Hypnos openly as a liberator but covertly enlist the god's services to deceive the sleeper, as Hera does in Iliad 14.83 The protection afforded by Philoctetes' slumber should allow Neoptolemus to seize the moment, καιρός (837), and to speak as the moment requires, καίρια (862), exerting the mastery over timeliness that is denied to Philoctetes. The chorus exposes his helplessness: ‘The man has no eyes, no helper, he lies stretched in the night – good sleep is fearless [or wards off pain]84 – with no control over hand, foot, anything, like one who lies by Hades’ (855–61). The beneficial brightness of a healing slumber has turned into the blackness of death, and sleep's confident abandonment amounts to death's insensitivity. The chorus' comparison of Philoctetes to a dead man is cruelly precise,85 for sleep indeed risks killing him by robbing him of the bow that provides his sustenance.

Since Philoctetes looks dead,86 his awakening equals a return to life. The first words he utters, ‘o light (φέγγος) that follows sleep’ (867), call forth the light of life.87 This sequence has been compared to the symbolic deaths and rebirths of Odysseus each time he survives an adventure.88 Another close parallel is Odysseus' home-bringing slumber and his awaking on Ithaca, the last episode of death and rebirth in his journey. His deathlike sleep likewise occurs at the midpoint of the epic and is the hinge around which its action turns, and both Odysseus and Philoctetes discover that they have not been robbed, though both feared that they would be. Philoctetes has not suffered from sleep this time, as he did the first time around, and he evokes that episode (872–3) to express his surprise at his new friend's loyalty. His trust and gratitude cause Neoptolemus' definitive breakdown and his abandonment of his deception.89

When Philoctetes awakens, Neoptolemus does not speak words that the chorus would call καίρια, but ends up declaring his true intentions, prefacing the disclosure with the emphatic ‘I will hide nothing’ (915). The pity that he has felt for a long time (806) takes the shape of a resolution to follow his inclinations. His last words before Philoctetes falls asleep, ‘let us leave him in peace’, might already have been well meant, for they correspond with the sick man's request: ‘You must let me rest in peace’. During the lyric dialogue that accompanies Philoctetes' slumber, Neoptolemus says little. His reticence heralds the coming reversal in his actions.

As in all tragic sleep scenes, one party urges the other to be quiet lest the sleeper awaken. The urgings come from the chorus: ‘When you answer me again, speak your words softly, softly, child’ (844–6). But Neoptolemus, unlike Hyllus in Trachiniae or the chorus in Heracles, provokes the hushing not by his cries but by his firm, and presumably loud, rebuttal of the chorus' exhortation to leave with the bow (839–42). He speaks no more until Philoctetes' stirring causes him to ask for silence in turn (865). His aim is not to prevent the sleeper from awakening, as in Trachiniae or Heracles, but to stop the chorus from urging expedient action (see 862–4). His own minimal participation in the song and his condemnation of the chorus' suggestions convey his distance from the immoral methods he had reluctantly embraced. Philoctetes' sleep, by exposing the sick man's vulnerability, has intensified Neoptolemus' compassion and worked towards his recovery of his Achillean self.


In Euripides' Orestes, healing slumber quiets the hero's madness, as in Heracles. The long sequence starring Orestes unconscious has the sleep scene in that play as its main referent.90 In both scenes a relative urges the chorus to muffle movements and hush sounds; in both, the relative listens to the sleeper's breathing, and both heroes are disoriented upon awakening. Orestes does not know whence or how he came to be where he is (215). The depictions of sleep's attack in the two plays also share traits: as Heracles ‘falls’ against a column when he is knocked out, Orestes ‘fell’ into slumber (151 and 217). Falling conveys the two madmen's exhaustion and betokens the heaviness of their sleep, the working of which is described with the same verb (Her. 1043; Or. 210).91

These parallels throw into stark relief a major difference in sleep's quality: Heracles' is accursed whereas Orestes' is ‘the sweetest boon’ (159, 186). While Heracles does not even seem to be aware of having been unconscious, acknowledging only his unsteady breathing, Orestes lavishes praise on his restorative slumber as soon as he awakens: ‘O sleep's dear spell, helper in my illness, how sweetly did you come to me in my need!’ (211–2) While Amphitryon wishes that Heracles could stay asleep to forget his ills (Her. 1043–4), Orestes thanks sweet slumber for making him forget his (Or. 213). These differences are related to the different nature of the two heroes' madness. Heracles' is a one-time attack to which a heavy sleep puts as violent an end. Hurled against him by a goddess, his baneful unconscious state prepares for a recognition that ruins his life. In contrast, Orestes' sleep, natural and restful, gives him reprieve from a lasting and known madness. In that it relieves him from a chronic illness, it is nearer to Philoctetes'.92

Philoctetes, though, looks ahead upon awakening, while Orestes cannot. Both heroes counter worries that they might be dead (see Or. 209–10) by stirring immediately after those worries are voiced. But Philoctetes' first word is ‘light’: the light of life and hope for the life he has not had. Philoctetes is happy to see his friends by him and looks forward to his departure. Orestes' first words are ‘sleep's dear spell’. He looks backward, to the oblivious slumber that has left him, and is happy not because he is alive but because he has been drowned in sleep after six days of frenzy.

Those six days are in the prequel of the drama. While Philoctetes and Heracles doze off during the course of the plot, Orestes is already unconscious when the play begins. Together with his identity, the placement of his sleep harks back to Eumenides. Some fifty years after the production of that play Euripides echoes and distorts features of its opening scene:93 the Erinyes' victim is asleep, not the Erinyes; Orestes is tended like a baby, not instructed by a god; whereas Clytemnestra rouses the Erinyes, Electra seeks to keep Orestes asleep; he awakens, soon to be pursued by the Erinyes, who in Aeschylus awaken to pursue him.94 Euripides' reworking of Aeschylus also showcases one of his own play's thematic kernels: Apollo's reproachable aloofness from the murderer he has unjustly ordered to kill his mother (419–20). In Eumenides the Erinyes' sleep comes from Apollo, the protector of Orestes; in Orestes the Erinyes spare their target only when his ‘wandering frenzy’ (327) leaves him. Apollo does not check their pursuit.

Orestes' sleep lasts longer than the Furies' in Aeschylus. While they are shown onstage at the end of the first part of the prologue, which is spoken by the Pythia and serves to prepare the audience for their appearance, Orestes is sleeping onstage from the first word of the prologue, and while they awaken to sing the parodos, Orestes keeps slumbering until the end of the parodos. Spanning over 210 lines, this sleep covers the longest dramatic time in extant tragedy. Is there any point to its duration?

As in the other cases, the sleep scene is designed to build up tension. The length of Orestes' slumber thickens the suspense by allowing a progressive narrowing of focus on him and his unconscious state. Electra draws attention to Orestes as early as line 35. More verbal pointers keep his presence before the spectators' eyes throughout her dialogue with Helen (74, 84, 88, 131), but the first proper mention of his sleep occurs only at the approach of the women of the chorus, which causes Electra to fear lest he awaken: ‘Soon they will rouse him, who is at peace, from slumber. And they will make my eyes melt away with tears, when I see him raving’ (133–5). During the song that accompanies the chorus' tiptoed dance, Orestes' sleep is forefront. Electra's urgings to hush sounds and lighten steps keep the audience's attention steadily focused on it, until it becomes the almost exclusive subject of the song: ‘At last he fell asleep and lies’ (149); ‘You will ruin me,95 if you drive sleep, the sweetest boon, from his eyelids’ (158–9); ‘You see? He stirs under his cloak!–Your outcry broke his slumber!’ (165–6); ‘I thought he was sleeping’ (167); ‘He slumbers’ (174); ‘Night, who give sleep to much-travailed mortals, come!’ (176–8); ‘Will you grant him the grace of peaceful slumber?’ (184–5) And the last remark before Orestes recovers consciousness: ‘Watch […] lest your brother here have died unawares, for I do not like his extreme relaxation’. The first comments on Orestes' sleep, by Electra, suggest that he might awaken mad; the last one, by the chorus, that he might not awaken at all. The cloak that shrouds him (166) keeps the audience in the dark as to his condition.96

A third possibility further increases the suspense: Orestes might awaken cured of his madness.97 In the prologue Electra does not say that Orestes is accustomed to sleep after a paroxysm, but that ‘at times, covered in his cloak, when his body finds relief from his illness, he weeps, in possession of reason, and at times he jumps and runs from his bed’ (42–5). Her words, ‘At last he fell asleep and lies’, strengthen the impression that this is the first time that a restful slumber has quieted Orestes' madness: for good?

Orestes' warm praise of sleep and his emphasis on its healing powers push forward the possibility that his madness might indeed be a thing of the past, inviting the audience to go along with Electra's suggestion that he has never experienced the ‘sweetest boon’ of sleep before and to think that his slumber is not a lull, like Philoctetes', but a definitive cure for his disease. Of course this is not true, for Orestes suffers an attack of madness soon after he awakens. Thus, his lasting sleep has the dramatic function of mystifying the audience.

The protracted scene is also thematically significant. As is often noted, it builds a unity with the celebrated scene of madness that follows it, after which Electra leaves the stage for the first time, ending the first episode. What has happened so far is superfluous for the unfolding of the plot. Orestes' unconscious state, his attack of madness and Helen's brief appearance do not feed into the action proper, which begins with Menelaus' entrance and the second episode. The preceding sequence forms an independent whole, the purpose of which is to isolate Orestes and Electra in their mutual love and show the intimacy of their affection.98 Front stage is the focal point of her nurturing love: his bed, where her movements, gestures, words and worries are directed. She has lost sleep to watch over him: ‘And I, sleepless, sit near a wretched corpse’ (83). She does not abandon her post (93), raises him from bed to lay him down again, and again raises him. After his attack of madness, he returns her care by urging her to rest from her ever-wakeful watch: ‘Lie down and give slumber to your sleepless eyes, take food and wash your body’ (302–3). She reluctantly agrees and exits.

Orestes' exhortation effects a departure that is necessary to redistribute the actors.99 Sending someone off to sleep is a handy way of changing the cast of characters, as we know from the Odyssey. Orestes' words, however, are not just expedient: they have a deeper meaning, for they show how much he cares for his only friend. And on the point of leaving, she demonstrates a like affection by asking him to lie down and stay in bed (311–3). A focus on sleep marks out the independent whole that begins with Orestes slumbering under Electra's watchful eye and ends with Electra sent off to rest by the caring Orestes and urging him to stay in bed. The role of sleep as crystallizer of the intense bond between brother and sister is thus reflected in the dramatic movement.100


In Euripides' satyr drama, the sleeping Cyclops is not on stage, but he is repeatedly brought before the imagination of the audience. Euripides' Odysseus shows that he has read the Odyssey, as it were, when he imagines that the Cyclops, ‘relaxed in sleep, soon […] will thrust pieces of flesh out of his shameless mouth’ (592). As one critic puts it, ‘the prediction derives from the description at Od. 9. 372–4’.101 Another signal of the Odyssey's influence is the added emphasis on the potency of the wine that causes the Cyclops' sleep. While in Homer only the wine is ‘unmixed’ (205), in the play ‘unmixed’ modifies the wine (149) as well as the Cyclops' pleasure in drinking it (576) and the slumber it will hopefully cause (602).

To adapt the epic narrative to the stage, Euripides had to change the time of the Cyclops' sleep: not at night, as in Homer, but in the hottest hour (542). This change accords with the dramatic ‘one day rule’, which compelled the playwright to compress the three days and two nights of the Homeric episode. Euripides did not handle the compression well, for the play begins close to sunset, when the sheep return to their folds, but then the clock turns illogically backwards.102

The dramatic medium, however, allows Euripides to enliven the movement of the epic narrative by grafting elements of tragic sleep scenes onto it. His episode shares a major structural feature with them: one party silences another to keep the sleeper from awakening. The hushing voice is Odysseus, and the noisy one the chorus:

–Silence, by the gods, you beasts! Be quiet, fastening your lips together! I don't allow any of you to breathe, blink or cough, so that the pest might not awaken until the sight of the Cyclops' eye will be rooted out by fire.

–We are silent, holding our breath with our jaws.


The placement of Odysseus' exhortation in the dramatic sequence suggests Neoptolemus' hushing of the chorus as the closest parallel, for in both instances the call for silence marks the beginning of a new episode. More details single out Philoctetes for comparison. Both sleep incidents contain a prayer to Hypnos, and his hoped-for help is couched in similar word patterns, featuring an adjective, a verb (the same) and a dative: ‘Come unmixed to the beast (ἄκρατος ἐλθὲ θηρὶ)’ (Cycl. 602) and ‘Come for us, gently breathing (εὐαὴς ἡμῖν ἔλθοις)’ (Phil. 829). The prayer in the satyr play dispels the ambivalent role of Hypnos in the tragedy by asking the god only to harm the sleeper. Hypnos will not spread any light but is ‘the offspring of black Night’ (601): a dark force of destruction.103 Finally, in both plays sleep is described as it comes upon its target.

As noted above, Philoctetes lets his head droop when slumber first seizes him. This emphasis on sleep's gradual arrival, I have suggested, underscores its pivotal role. In the satyr drama the thematic importance of sleep is likewise prefaced by repeated mentions of its coming. Though Odysseus does not point to the Cyclops' drooping head or closing eyes, because the ogre is offstage, he time and again directs the audience's attention to the imminence of his drunken slumber (454, 574, 591–2). These numerous parallels might suggest that Euripides had Philoctetes in mind.104

Euripides' episode, though, bears strong marks of its ironic author. It spoofs dramatic conventions and counters the audience's expectations by its development. Odysseus enters to tell the satyrs that they should have kept their mouth shut to avoid awakening the monster, that is, they should not have been doing what a chorus normally does when left alone on stage: singing.105 Furthermore, Odysseus urges the chorus to follow him inside the cave to help with the blinding, playing against the audience's likely assumption that it has already occurred.106 Though he had made it abundantly clear that he needed the satyrs to proceed, during his absence we are led to discount the prospect of their participation by their song, which sounds like a running commentary on the blinding presumably taking place offstage: ‘Soon he will lose his eyesight by fire; already the brand lies carbonized in the embers’ (610–5). After this song we expect Odysseus to enter and say ‘Blinding accomplished’ and the Cyclops to scream and appear soon thereafter (as he does at 663). But the song was a red herring and the Cyclops, unlike any tragic character, keeps sleeping through another episode.


Iphigenia in Aulis

Some fifty years after Agamemnon, Athenians watched another scene of sleeplessness at the beginning of Iphigenia in Aulis. The scene's kernel is a dialogue between Agamemnon and the loyal servant with whom he shares his sorrows. The nocturnal setting is clearly marked by a number of pointers in the conversation: Sirius is moving past the Pleiades, which are still in the middle of the sky (6–8); all is silent (9–11) and quiet (14); the watches do not stir (15); Agamemnon has a lamp (34) and has been writing a letter ‘at night’ (109).107 These particulars have the dramaturgic function of inculcating into the spectators' minds that the play begins before sunrise, even though their eyes are seeing the sun. Iphigenia shows greater attentiveness than Agamemnon to visualizing the invisible darkness, suggesting that in the course of the century audiences had grown more resistant to unrealistic scenographies.108

Agamemnon acts the sleepless character in a lonely vigil. We have met him in this role already in Iliad 10, where helpless despair keeps him awake while the other warriors ‘were sleeping all night’. But the tragic Agamemnon's anxiety is set off against the repose not only of other humans (‘Why do you move restlessly outside the tent, king Agamemnon? It is still quiet here in Aulis, the walls’ watchers are not astir yet' [12–5]), but also of animals and natural elements: ‘The birds and the sea make no sound; the silence of the winds holds Euripus here’ (9–11). This mention of the stillness of nature intensifies Agamemnon's quandary by further isolating him from his surroundings. In Iliad 10 he is not alone: his brother shares his sleeplessness and instantly joins him, unbidden. In Iphigenia Agamemnon has no friend in his brother or in any other king. The general nocturnal quiet brings out his lonely agony.

The nocturnal quiet also carries sinister overtones. The calmness of the sea and of the winds is ultimately the reason that Agamemnon cannot sleep, the cause of the detention of the ships and of his own tragedy. And in the middle of the sky shines a harbinger of destruction: Sirius, ominously close to the Pleiades, the Doves (πελειάδες). In the words of one critic, the star ‘sounds like a portent of danger […] its nearness to the Pleiades figuring the threat to the dove-like Iphigenia’.109 The starry night forebodes the very disaster Agamemnon is trying to prevent by means of the letter, which the servant is summoned to deliver instantly and without stopping: ‘–Go, hurry your steps, do not yield even a little to old age! –I hurry, king. –Do not sit by the woodland's springs, or give in to slumber's magic!’ (140–2) Agamemnon's sleepless planning and his sleep-depriving order will not change the course of events, which are taking shape in the sky over his planning head.

An allusion to another Homeric episode furthers the association between Agamemnon's sleeplessness and his impotence. While he is doing and undoing his writing, he ‘pours down a blossoming tear’ (θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέων, 39–40). This is an epic phrase. We are sent back to the beginning of Iliad 9, where Agamemnon also ‘pours a tear’ (δάκρυ χέων) before addressing the assembled warriors (14). The Homeric incipit, like the tragic one, is nocturnal; both times a distressed Agamemnon summons another party to share his plans; in both cases the plan is one of withdrawal, from the war (in the Iliad) or from the sacrifice that will make the war possible (in Euripides). And both plans meet with instant opposition.


Rhesus unfolds entirely at night. This setting disturbed Wilamowitz, who took it as sufficient evidence that the tragedy could not be by Euripides.110 Recent critics do not share the German scholar's uneasiness, but on the contrary appreciate the ingeniousness with which the playwright has taken advantage of the unusual setting. In addition to being demanded by the received myth of Rhesus' death, the nocturnal sky effectively plays into two of the main themes of the tragedy: the illusory transience of hope, symbolized by flashes of light cloaked in darkness, and the failure of humans to understand reality, to ‘see’ clearly.111 Darkness is particularly meaningful for the stage action in the sequence featuring Odysseus, which hinges on the association of night with duplicity.112

The dramatist makes every possible effort to remind the audience that it is night. He found an inspiring source for this project in the Homeric episode on which the play is based, the spying mission in Iliad 10, which points up its nocturnal setting not only by telling the time (‘the third part of the night’, 10. 253) but also by exploiting the keenness of hearing, sharper in the dark. Odysseus and Diomedes hear the scream of the heron sent by Athena, which they cannot see (10. 256), and Nestor becomes hopeful that the two are returning when he hears the din of galloping horses (10. 535).113 The stage, though, allows the imagination less freedom than the narrative medium; hence, Rhesus multiplies references to stars, darkness, beds, sleep and the failure to see. These hammer the invisible nocturnal scenario into the spectators' minds.114

References to sleep, however, are not mere cues offered to help the audience ‘see’ the night, but are as significant as night itself, for the patent reason that Rhesus dies in his slumber. This is of course true in Homer's account as well, but the main heroes there are Odysseus and Diomedes, and Rhesus' death occupies only a small portion of the narrative. His sleep and sleeping quarters accordingly receive attention only when Odysseus and Diomedes are on their way to find him (Il. 10. 464) and then kill him (471, 474). In the play, by contrast, Rhesus is the tragic protagonist and his death the climax. References to sleep and wakefulness are therefore strewn throughout the action.

While the corresponding sequence in Homer, the section that leads to Rhesus' death, begins with an assembly of the Trojans (Il. 10. 299–301), the play opens with a wake-up call, when the watchmen who constitute the chorus rouse Hector. The scene harks back to an episode earlier in Iliad 10, the awakening of Nestor by Agamemnon.115 Hector's sleep allows the watchmen to explain that the Greeks are making fires, which Hector could not have noticed because he was resting in his tent. His relaxed slumber also conveys his assurance. The audience will contrast the Greek leader in the epic, insomniac and despondent, with the Trojan one in the play, who is sleeping soundly like the epic Nestor. While Agamemnon restlessly worries about the Trojan fires, Hector is unaware of the Greek ones, and when told about them, he overconfidently takes them to mean that the enemy are planning to flee.

Hector proposes a call to arms that will awaken the entire host: ‘We must give orders to the army, very quickly, to take hold of their weapons and stop slumbering’ (70–1). Aeneas' restraining advice persuades him to drop his plan and instead send a spy, Dolon, to the Greek camp, while the others will enjoy an unbroken slumber: ‘But let us allow the army to rest by the shields and sleep’ (123–4); ‘Go, make the allies sleep. Perhaps the army is astir, hearing of our nocturnal counsel’ (138–9). The audience will notice that Hector had suggested a course of action that would have prevented disaster, and will take his decision to send a spy and allow the other warriors to stay asleep as a foreshadowing of the catastrophe to come, an unwitting intimation of the vital – in the literal sense – importance of wakefulness.116 In Homer there is no such intimation, for the Trojans do not even consider mobilizing the entire army but only sending a spy mission, which allows the allies to keep on sleeping.

When Rhesus enters, Hector accuses him of being late. He fires back: ‘I did not slumber in my gilded palace but I know the frozen blasts that press hard on the Thracian sea and the Paeonian country, and I have suffered without sleeping in these military garments’ (439–42). His defence puts sleep front stage and proves that the play's emphasis on it is not solely dictated by the need to provide verbal scenographies, for here sleep is in a narrative of past events. Rhesus' self-portrait as an ever wakeful, enduring warrior rings chillingly ironic, because his only action in the play is to be instantly dispatched to rest:117 forever.

After Rhesus has exited and the play has reached its midpoint, at the waning of night the watchmen sing a song in which, in addition to noting the approach of sunrise, they express their desire to be relieved of their guard duties and of their tiredness: ‘Sleep charms my eyes, for it comes sweetest to the eyelids before dawn’ (554–6). The watchmen's longing for sweet slumber marks out this song as unusual, for a song describing the coming of dawn typically gives impulse to the resumption of activity.118 Their somnolence looks ahead, to the play's climax. In the words of one critic, ‘our thoughts are on Rhesus, who, as we know from the final lines of the preceding scene, must by now be sleeping most soundly and sweetly, never to awaken from his sleep of death’.119

The second part of the play, like the first, starts around Hector's bed. The Trojan leader survives simply because Odysseus does not find him there (574–6). This is another clear projection forward, for Rhesus will die because, unlike Hector, he is found slumbering in his bed. Athena's instructions to Odysseus single out the bed as the locus of action. She does not say ‘spare Hector and kill Rhesus’ but ‘leave Hector's bed’ (605–6), and she answers Odysseus' question, ‘where are the other's [Rhesus’] sleeping quarters?' with, ‘Hector has assigned him sleeping quarters outside the ranks, until night gives place to daylight’ (611 and 614–5). In the string of events Athena's role corresponds to Dolon's in the Iliad, because both inform Odysseus about Rhesus.120 But Athena puts emphasis on beds and sleeping arrangements, whereas Dolon only says that the allies are resting (Il. 10. 421). The goddess points to Rhesus' bivouac once again when she tells Paris: ‘Hector is gone to assign sleeping quarters to the Thracian host’ (Rh. 662).

Paris also makes his entrance to look for Hector in his bed: ‘I call you, general and brother, Hector! Are you sleeping? Shouldn't you wake up?’ (642–3) Paris' call repeats the watchmen's at the beginning. The audience will appreciate the detail that the two brothers have switched their traditional roles: while in Homer it is Hector who accuses Paris of sluggishness, now Paris rebukes Hector in a manner reminiscent of the dream that rouses Agamemnon in Iliad 2. Except that Hector is not slumbering, but has left to take Rhesus to his bivouac (662). Paris' unnecessary call, delivered in a commanding way uncharacteristic of him, is thus geared to draw the audience's attention to the dangers of sleep, while Hector's bed and his real or imagined slumber signpost the play's development, from the first scene, to the entrance of Odysseus and Diomedes, to that of Paris.

Hector's alleged sleep and his bed are front stage again at the next, climactic turn. After Rhesus' death his charioteer seeks the Trojan chief to break the news and asks: ‘Where is Hector resting on his bed under his shield?’ (739–40) The charioteer's account of Rhesus' death expands on the Homeric narrative in many details, including mentions of sleep. Homer's ‘they were slumbering, filled with tiredness’ (Il. 10. 471) is echoed in ‘we were slumbering, overcome by weariness’ (Rh. 763–4). But in Homer there is only one other nondescript reference to the sleep of Rhesus (474), whereas the charioteer lingers over the army's ‘heavy and bad sleep’ (769) before recounting how he himself awoke with an anxious heart (770), only to doze off again when he felt there was no reason to worry: ‘I went back to bed and was slumbering again’ (779).

This return to sleep satisfies dramatic needs: it allows the nightmare that Rhesus has in the epic to be transferred to the narrator (780), who has to survive to give his report and cannot be omniscient.121 But at the same time, the serenity with which he dozes again is yet another thematic pointer that emphasizes sleep's destructiveness. Rhesus does not even awaken once. His undisturbed repose conveys his relaxed overconfidence, a feature he shares, on a grander scale, with Hector, especially the Hector of the play's beginning, who is sleeping, unaware of his surroundings, while his watchmen sound the alarm.

Rhesus' overconfidence makes a tragically ironic appearance in his boastful claim that he needs only ‘one day of sunlight’ to kill the Greek host (447). Athena endorses his boast by explaining to Odysseus that Rhesus, ‘should he survive this night’, will indeed destroy the Greek army (600–2). The playwright drew from a tradition that contained this detail,122 which is not in Homer, and adapted the tragic motif ‘if he survives this day’ (as in Ajax) to Rhesus' original predicament. His sleep on the night that decides whether he will live or die underscores his ignorance of the threads that govern his life.



The comic playwright's handling of sleep is one way in which he makes fun of tragic and epic poetry. He mocks a large number of treatments of sleep and its disturbances in the two genres. Let us begin with this dialogue between Philocleon and the chorus of Wasps: ‘–Who is it that keeps you inside and shuts you in? Speak, for you are talking to friends. –My son. But do not scream (μὴ βοᾶτε). He is there in front, snoozing. Lower your voice!’ (334–7) This brief exchange parodies tragic sleep scenes,123 testifying to their popularity. Aristophanes may be specifically targeting the scene in Heracles, as is strongly suggested by a phrase, μὴ βοᾶτε, which appears only there in extant tragedy. The allusion would be quite to the point, for Philocleon's passion for trials amounts to madness.124

His passion is also as sleep depriving as a lover's. Wasps draws a contrast between Philocleon's son and servants, who contentedly yield to their drowsiness,125 and Philocleon, whom longing for the courthouse keeps awake: ‘This is his love, to judge […] He takes no sleep at night, not a bit. And if he dozes off for a second, his mind flies there at night, to the clepsydra’ (89; 91–3); ‘He yells asking for his shoes right after dinner, and when he gets there he sleeps in front of the court,126 very early, sticking to the pillar like an oyster’ (103–5). The lover of trials suffers from a mixture of sleeplessness and disturbed sleep, perhaps even sleepwalking.127 Glued to the house of his beloved with his mind and body, he waits for dawn, whereas the trial-free lifestyle that his son urges him to embrace would allow him to rest soundly and comfortably for long hours (774–5).

The motif of sleep-chasing longing is caricatured again in Lysistrata. To rouse the women's sympathy for her plan, the heroine draws attention to their Penelope-like predicament: ‘Don't you long for your children's fathers when they are away at war?’ (99–100). To be sure, the sex strike will be taxing for the frustrated women, forced to lie in bed ‘without a hard dick’ (143), but it will cause their men to return their longing. When Lysistrata's fellows begin to falter, complaining of six sleepless nights of occupation (758–61), she equates their plight with that of their men: ‘Perhaps you miss your husbands; but do you think they don't miss you? I know it well, they are spending tough nights (ἀργαλέας νύκτας)’ (763–5). And she exhorts the women to be confident and hold on a little longer, for there is an oracle predicting victory.

Lysistrata's speech has a Homeric texture: ἀργαλέος is a markedly epic adjective, appearing as it does some 60 times in Homer, as opposed to only eight in comedy and none in tragedy. Specifically, Lysistrata mimics Odysseus' address to the Greek warriors in Iliad 2, in which he shows appreciation for their distress, caused by a nine-year-long separation from their wives, yet urges them to be enduring and recalls Calchas' favourable prophecy. Lysistrata reworks the speech by stressing the men's desire for their faraway wives and by emphasizing the identical frustration of both. By attributing a longing that upsets sleep to the sexually starved men, she points up the effectiveness of the women's strike.

Lysistrata also mocks another wakeful figure typical of tragedy and epic: the ruler in the grip of anxious deliberation. The play begins with the heroine complaining that the women she has summoned are still dozing (14) while she has forsaken sleep to put together her plan: ‘I have turned it this way and that for many wakeful nights’ (26–7). Lysistrata is the protagonist of a lonely vigil, and it is her unsleeping thinking, like Zeus' or Oedipus', that launches the plot.

Two more plays feature lonely vigils. The motif clearly appealed to Aristophanes, possibly because its high register and the emotional intensity it conveys offered ready material for comic distortions. Seriousness is mocked and solemnity desecrated in the scene in Thesmophoriazousae in which Agathon's servant prays that nature would sleep, so that his master could compose undisturbed: ‘May all the races of birds slumber, and the feet of the savage beasts that run in the woods not be loosened’ (46–8). The prayer meets with a disrespectful interjection, βομβαλοβομβάξ, from Euripides' kinsman, and with more heavily profane rejoinders as the servant continues (50, 51, 57). Furthermore, nature's slumber would serve as backdrop not for some painful predicament, as in epic or tragic lonely vigils, but for a display of poetic hyper-cleverness (59–62).

Clouds begins with another lonely vigil. It is not dawn yet. Though the rooster has crowed, the day is slow to rise (3–4). The worried Strepsiades tosses and turns, considering how to deal with his debts, while his son Phidippides is deep in sleep, along with the house's servants. In this case the scene draws its comicality not so much from the activity of the wakeful party (Strepsiades is seriously beset by anxiety) as from its background: instead of a silent night, the sleepers' bodily noises. Strepsiades notes that ‘the servants are snoring’ (5) and that ‘this brave young man here does not stay up at night but farts, wrapped in five blankets’ (8–10). Sleep talking crowns the scene, with Phidippides upbraiding a racehorse in his dream (25) and continuing to comment on the race until his father's complaints rouse him, but only briefly (35–8).

As in Lysistrata, unsleeping cogitation yields the core plot, prompting Strepsiades to seek out Socrates, from whom he can learn to cheat off his creditors. The plan, however, is not disclosed while Phidippides sleeps or when he awakens the first time, or even after he dozes off again. The first part of the scene revolves around Strepsiades' complaint of insomnia and its causes, and features the sleep-talking episode, while in the second, which begins with Phidippides' second snooze, he gives some background history. Before revealing the plan that he has conceived in his ‘nightlong thinking’ (75), he announces that he will call his son: ‘But first I want to rouse him. How can I do it as gently as possible?’ (78–9).

This call marks the launching of the action proper, whereas in the first eighty lines little happens. Strepsiades' vigil and his son's stubborn sleep have the dramatic function of delaying the plot's beginning to allow the spectators to settle down and stop talking. For the playwright needed to rouse the interest of a probably unruly audience before detailing the plot.128 In Clouds the sleep-and-sleeplessness scene provides the entertainment that stirs the audience's attention, which Aristophanes finally summons with Strepsiades' wake-up call to his son.

A similar pattern appears in Wasps. Like Clouds, Wasps begins before sunrise.129 Two servants are supposed to be on guard duty, but one is snoozing: ‘–Hey, wretched Xanthias, what is this? – I am teaching myself to end my nightlong watch’ (1–2). The tragic figure of the sentinel longing to sleep (as in Agamemnon and Rhesus) is turned comical by the watchers' lack of vigilance and by the cause for their lethargy: drink. Copious imbibing has changed their watch into a revel, and it eventually compels them to doze off, lulled by the Phrygian Dionysus (9–10).

The sleepy servants spend the first 53 lines of the play shaking each other awake, faintly fighting against sleep's spell, nodding off (6–9),130 recalling the recent attack of ‘drowsy slumber’ (11–2) and finally telling each other their dreams and exchanging a few political jokes: in other words, doing and saying nothing that is essentially related to the plot. During this time the audience will have settled down and got ready to listen to the announcement of the subject matter, which suddenly ends the servants' bantering (54). As in Clouds, the action proper begins with a movement from sleeping to waking, with Bledycleon shouting to the servants, ‘are you dozing?’, and them marking, ‘he is getting up’ (136–7).

Birds likewise exploits sleeping and waking in its opening scenes. Hoopoe is taking a siesta after a good meal when Euelpides and Pithetaerus find his residence (81–2). Awoken by his slave bird, he appears in his impressive apparel. Here the summons has the function of introducing not the core plot but a character crucial for its execution. The awakening call also portrays the life of the birds as one of quiet and leisure, just as life will be in the city that the two heroes are seeking: ‘a soft blanket in which to curl up’ (122). The birds eat and sleep well.

Hoopoe's wife, Nightingale, is also taking a nap. After hearing the brilliant plan that the two heroes have for a city of birds, Hoopoe rouses her, urging her to sing and convene the other birds: ‘Now, my companion, cease from sleep and let out the strains of the sacred songs with which your divine mouth mourns Itys, much wept by you and me’ (209–12). Again, this call is not designed to introduce the essentials of the plot; rather, it prepares for the music that is instantly heard off stage, which creates an expectation of the appearance of the birds that compose the chorus. Hoopoe awakens the music and the audience's attention to it, building momentum towards the chorus' climactic entry.

Wake-up calls play a greater role in Aristophanes' comedy than in tragedy, where there are only three,131 all found in the Oresteia and Rhesus, in accordance with the thematic prominence of vigilance in those tragedies. This difference might be connected to the comic playwright's more overt effort to focus the audience's attention on the play's development. Though addressed to characters, the calls might have functioned like the written signs that ask modern audiences in movie theatres to turn off their cell phones after the sequence of commercials and previews, which, like the sleep scenes prior to the calls, will have allowed plenty of time to settle down.

The greater number of awakening calls in comedy is also due to register: they are too low level for tragedy, as are natural sleep, eating and drinking. Only the undignified and repulsive Erinyes are awoken onstage, while in the other two cases (Clytemnestra in Agamemnon and Hector in Rhesus) the call glosses over the homey reality of sleep by keeping it out of view. In contrast, the much smaller corpus of Aristophanic comedy features several snoozers kicked awake before the spectators' eyes.

This happens again in Thesmophoriazousae, which exploits sleeping and waking to concentrate the audience's attention on the final scene. The Scythian policeman who is guarding Euripides' kinsman dozes off at some point during the last choral ode, before Euripides makes his appearance in a procuress' dress, along with a hussy and a piper. Music and dance rouse the Scythian: ‘What is this booming sound? Revellers (κῶμο) awaken me!’ (1176) There follows the hilarious scene of Euripides' planned seduction of him (1172), which ushers the plot to its happy ending, allowing the kinsman to sneak out. Euripides could have rescued him on the sly while the guard was dozing. Instead, the Scythian is shaken out of his torpor to become the spectator, and soon the victim, of the play's last effervescent invention. Can we read in his awakening a metatheatrical reference to the power of comic wit and revelling (κῶμος) to keep the audience riveted to the performance until the play's very end?


In the remnants of Menander's plays, sleep is scantily represented. Drunken, snoring and farting snoozers are at variance with the sober restraint characteristic of his comedies. There is only one sleeper in them: Cnemon, the cantankerous old man. Sick from falling into a well, incapable even of standing on his feet, he ‘slumbers, alone’ (Dys. 893–5). While he lies helpless on a bed, his servants plan to steal his pots to make him pay for his boorish refusal to lend them any. But they will not just carry off his wares: they will force him to watch the scene and to be watched as he suffers his own demise. After dragging him out of his house and laying him on the ground asleep, one of the servants starts pounding on his door and shouting to musical accompaniment. The noise awakens the crippled man: ‘I am done for! Alas!’ (911).

The audience will instantly think of tragic episodes in which sleep builds towards a climax. Cnemon is relieving his pain through anaesthetic slumber, like Heracles in Trachiniae and, like him, he is carried onstage unconscious, by bearers who take care to walk on tiptoes: ‘–don't make noise! –I am not making noise!’ (908) We are reminded of the muffling of sounds characteristic of all tragic sleep scenes.132 Cnemon's servants, however, do not mean to protect the sleeper, but to guarantee the success of their revenge. While the healing slumber of a Heracles or an Orestes is watched apprehensively, with the hope that it will last indefinitely, Cnemon's is to last only as long as it allows the servants to set him in full view of his cherished door, to be violated pronto.133 Unlike any tragic character, he is brutally awoken when his sleep is no longer needed.

Cnemon's slumber is not just instrumental to the servants' revenge; it is also an apt retribution for his constant claim that he could do without his fellow men. While he is unconscious, the self-sufficient misanthrope is at the mercy of others who take advantage of his lack of self-awareness to move him around: ‘let us drag him out’ (898); ‘put him down here’ (909). Helpless sleep completes Cnemon's defeat by nullifying his pretensions to self-reliance. He is still ‘alone’, but the adjective, in the emphatic position at the end of the line (893), connotes no longer autarchy but frailty and exposure.134

While Menander does little with sleep, he makes sleeplessness the protagonist of at least two sustained scenes, both in plays that became famous in antiquity.135 Phidias, the hero of Phasma, suffers from chronic insomnia. His pedagogue lectures him:

When you complain of sleeplessness, what's really

Your [problem]? I'll tell you the cause. You stroll

[All round the market], come straight home when [legs]

Are weary, bathe in luxury. Then up you get

And [take a] pleasant [stroll. Your] life itself

[Is] sleep! So, finally, there's nothing wrong with you.

This [sickness] you've described is – well, [a] rather coarse

Expression comes to mind – forgive me, master –

The saying goes, you are so well off you don't

Have anywhere [to shit], I'd have you know!136

In the servant's assessment, the condition that is upsetting his young master exists only in his imagination. If he is sick, it is from a life of luxury and excessive leisure, with no real, healthy problem (‘nowhere to shit’). His insomnia is the outgrowth of waking sleep. The real cause of Phidias' condition, however, seems to have been his encounter with the Apparition that gives the comedy its title. In the play's prequel a woman, upon marrying, left the daughter she had had out of wedlock with foster parents who lived next door. So that she could continue to see her, the woman dug a hole in the wall connecting the two houses and decorated the area with sacred paraphernalia to make it look like a shrine and disguise the real reason for her frequent visits. One day Phidias approached the shrine and ‘was startled and terrified by his first sight of the beautiful girl, thinking that he had seen a vision of some spirit’.137 According to one reading, Phidias developed depression, and with it insomnia.138 He was apparently cured by the discovery that the girl was real, which caused him to fall in love with her.

On another reading, though, love is not the remedy for but the cause of Phidias' insomnia.139 The servant, to whom he has not confessed his passion, scolds him for idly imagining a disease that does not exist. But the disease is love. The dialogue gains in effectiveness if it assumes a gap of knowledge between the audience and the servant: while the servant, ignorant both of Phidias' predicament and of literary history, misreads his master's behaviour, the audience would promptly identify in it the typical symptoms of frustrated passion.140 For love-induced sleeplessness was a familiar motif – familiar, above all, from the comic stage.141 Plutarch recognizes in it a comic topos (Mor. 513E).142

Insomniac lovers, to be sure, are better represented in Roman comedy than in Greek, on account of the state of our evidence,143 but Menander put on stage one of the best known of them in antiquity: Thrasonides, the soldier turned lover who opens Misoumenos in the middle of a wintry night by confiding his unhappiness to Night Itself:

O Night – for you have the largest share in sex

Of all the gods, and in your shades are spoken

Most words of love and thoughts charged with desire –

Have you seen any other man more racked

With misery? A lover more ill starred?

Now either at my own front door I stand,

Here in the alley, or I saunter up

And down, both ways [?], when I could lie asleep

Till now, when you, O Night, have nearly run

Half course, and clasp my love. She's in there – in

My house, I've got the chance, I want it just

As much as the most ardent lover – yet

I don't…I'd rather stand here shivering

Beneath a wintry sky – chatting to you!144

Thrasonides behaves like the exclusus amator of Roman elegiac poetry. He enacts a paraklausithyron (‘lament beside the closed door of the beloved’), pacing back and forth in front of the house where his girl is sleeping. This paraklausithyron, however, is peculiar, for it is not the girl that has shut out Thrasonides, but Thrasonides himself. As we learn subsequently, he had told her that he had to leave urgently in the middle of the night, to see somebody. The story was a lie meant to test her affection. If she loved him, she would beg for him to stay. But she did not, and he had to go. Menander handles a literary commonplace with sophisticated irony by turning the paraklausithyron into a self-inflicted accident,145 and he gives the audience a cue to this novelty by having Thrasonides say that he is standing or walking outside while he could be sleeping with his beloved in his arms. How could the protagonist of a paraklausithyron in due form have that cosy option? Something must be amiss.

Menander's irony extends to the insomnia motif, which he highlights with marked emphasis. Thrasonides presents the alternative to his wandering at night as ‘sleeping with the beloved’, and his slave Getas, drawn on stage by his lament, addresses him with the question, ‘why don't you sleep?’ Faced with Thrasonides' self-absorption, which prevents him from hearing the question, he rephrases it as ‘or are you slumbering? Wait, if you are awake and see me!’ (21–2) Getas directs the audience's attention to his master's insomnia yet again when asked whether someone had ordered him to come out: ‘Good heavens! No orders came from men asleep!’ (26) This stress on Thrasonides' failure to find rest winks at the conventionality of the motif. The playwright's irony testifies to the readiness with which the audience could recognize the commonplace, which was soon to reach beyond literature and become a staple of magical spells.146 A memorable specimen of the sleepless lover is the Medea of Apollonius' Argonautica, to which I now turn.

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