Friday, May 13, 2011

Apostrophe: O, Sleep, Whither Have You Gone?

O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum'd chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That with the hurly death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

From Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare



In this, another fine example of Shakespeare’s insights, King Henry laments his inability to sleep before concluding that his humble subjects receive the gift of sleep while he, who must bear the heavy burdens of leadership and royal duty, receives no rest. Readers can trace Henry’s shifting moods by paying close attention to the apostrophes, the rhetorical strategy featured in this post.


An apostrophe is a direct address to an abstraction such as a divine being or something or someone not present. For example, one of my witty Facebook pals often addresses a day of the week or an event as if it were one of the Fates or a personified force. One of his posts might read: Okay, Friday, get along now; I’m quite done feeling frustrated and unloved.

In Shakespeare’s speech for Henry, the first apostrophe to Sleep is gentle sleep who is then compared to Nature’s soft nurse. Both in word choice and image, the speaker suggests that he admires sleep and that he understands her function in the human experiences. She binds all our wounds and woes while we sleep.

The second apostrophe reveals Henry’s irritation at being unable to sleep. His subjects lie down to sleep in the worst conditions: they lie in smoky cribs and sleep while buzzing flies annoy them. Henry has perfumed chambers and sweet melodies to soothe him, yet Sleep lies with commoners and not kings. Now, Sleep is a dull god, unaware, undiscerning.

Sleep even visits the ship’s boy, granting him restful sleep while a storm rages wildly, rocking the boy’s bed. Henry concludes that if sleep visits commoners on land and at sea, yet passes by the king, then Sleep is partial and plays favorites. Thus, in the third apostrophe, Henry has surrendered to Sleep’s whims, concluding as I noted at the outset, that kings cannot rest as easily as commoners for the safety and survival of the entire kingdom is the king’s burden.

Like the short, emphatic sentence, apostrophes, used effectively will emphasize messages and unify passages.

Writing Challenge:

Try your hand at using the apostrophe to unify a passage and reveal several aspects of some abstraction. Here’s how:

Imitate Henry’s soliloquy line for line, using an entirely different subject. For example:

Oh, Red Velvet Cheesecake, my rich, gooey friend,
the Factory’s fiend, how I have longed to taste thee,
That no more will my taste buds aspire to your fatty swirls. . .

Choose any object or abstraction and follow Shakespeare’s lead from first line to last. You can even make soliloquies or monologues a semi-regular writing exercise, and in doing so, you will become more conscious of and adept at using the apostrophe.

Reading Challenge:

Read Henry IV, Part II or Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. In each one of these, you will find apostrophes. You will also find epic action and adventure in Homer.





Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

King Henry laments his inability to sleep, concluding that his humble subjects receive the gift of sleep while he, who must bear the heavy burdens of leadership and royal duty, receives no rest.

The sentence above, taken from the first paragraph in this post, illustrates the use of commas to set off non-restrictive clauses that separate nouns (in this case, a pronoun: he) and verbs (receives). The relative pronoun clause beginning with “who” and ending with “duty” could be plucked from the entire passage without damaging the message. If that is the case, writers must wrap the “unnecessary” clause with commas.

Of course, when I added those words, I did not do so just to take up space. I wanted to offer a reason that kings cannot sleep as well as their subjects, the same reason that Henry realizes by the end of his speech. Nevertheless, in spite of the usefulness of the clause, I could dispense with it altogether without wrecking the message. I could choose to make the same point about a king’s burdens somewhere else, perhaps in a sentence all by itself. I did not need that clause right there in order to show the contrast between subjects and king, and because I did not need that clause right there, I must wrap it in commas. It’s an add-in; thus, it must be set apart.

This week’s GUM lesson relates to others that have appeared previously. If you wish a more thorough review of punctuating complex sentences, also read posts from August 13, 2010; August 20, 2010; and January 28, 2011.

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach.