In winter's tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid.
(Richard II 5.1)
The best production of The Tempest I ever saw wasn't in a professional theater. It was in a grade-school auditorium, and a 20-year-old actor sat on the edge of a bare stage with a guitar. With no preamble, he started to play and sing Bob Dylan's folksong, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Then ten more young actors from the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express ran onto the stage with a rope that they magically transformed into the riggings of a ship. They threw themselves around the stage making "wooshing" sounds with their mouths and thunder with their feet, and all of a sudden we were in the middle of a storm at sea.
I imagine that going to the theater was a bit like this for Shakespeare's audience. The plays they watched were not original stories, but familiar ones: English history, adaptations of Italian novels and Roman comedies, retellings of ancient British legends. Playgoers in Shakespeare's time attended plays for the pleasure of hearing beloved stories well told. They also got familiar folk songs, the excitement of seeing well-trained bodies in motion, and a few special effects created out of not much more than bits of string. How did these nice little entertainments end up becoming "great" English literature?
Many fantasy writers have tried to imagine how Will Shakespeare got his gift for turning mere stories into works of wonder. Neil Gaiman, in his wonderful Sandman series, has young Will Shakespeare commissioned by Morpheus, the King of Dreams, to write A Midsummer Night's Dream to be presented to Oberon, the Faery King, and his court. Morpheus confers on Will the power to bring dreams to life, on the condition that he write one more faery play (which turns out to be The Tempest) at his career's end. Sara Hoyt, in Ill Met By Moonlight, envisions a beautiful faery shape-shifter named Quicksilver, residing in the forest of Arden (just outside Stratford), as Shakespeare's male and female muse and guide to the realm of the Otherworld.
In truth, Shakespeare has almost become part of the folklore of the English-speaking world himself—his mysterious origins and awe-inspiring poetic gifts lead many to see him as a semi-divine figure; little wonder that we fantasize about from where such genius came.
Shakespeare was a master fantasizer himself, and a few of his 38 plays feature visitations from faeries, witches, magi, airy spirits and ghosts. Most of them, though, present earthly kingdoms that range from the legendary realms of Ancient Rome to Athens and pre-historic Briton, to the great Renaissance courts of Venice and Vienna and the exotic sands of Morocco and Cyprus. But why should Ophelia, noblewoman of Denmark, sing the songs of an English milkmaid? Why are there references to the Feast of St. Stephen in King Lear, which is set in pre-Christian England, or to St. Valentine's Day in A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in ancient Athens? Why is a play set in the legendary middle-eastern kingdom of Illyria called Twelfth Night? Shakespeare's rural English background comes through in the way he embeds rural and folk holiday traditions in his plays, which generally take place anywhere but the English countryside.
Busy as city life was, going to the theater was a mini-holiday for many Londoners. The plays were presented in the afternoon to make use of natural light (the Globe Theater was an open-air amphitheater), so workers, students and apprentices had to play hooky to attend. His audience was made up of a cross-section of London's population at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many folk were drawn to the opportunities of London from the countryside, where "partitioning" turned increasing amounts of farmland over to the more lucrative production of wool, throwing many rural farmers out of a job. Shakespeare himself was a country boy: he grew up in the market town of Stratford-on-Avon about 90 miles from London, the son and husband of prosperous farmers' daughters.
He came a long way in a few years: by the time he was 30, Shakespeare's plays were a fixture at the royal court, where they were usually presented as part of the holiday festivities stretching from Hallowmas (November 1) to Shrovetide (the beginning of Lent). Modern-day scholars are very interested in the association between drama and holidays because they believe that the medieval church feasts of Yuletide (the twelve days of Christmas) and Carnival (Mardi Gras: the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday) were times specially set aside for the common folk to blow off steam by mocking their social superiors. These were the days set aside to celebrate the "World Upside Down," when children and fools could lawfully pretend to be bishops and kings. The customs of these special times demanded indulgence in food and drink (because they celebrated the carnality of Christ), as well as the all-important masking or disguising.
Masks are the key element of Carnival, allowing revelers to pretend to be someone they're not, and also to protect themselves should they go a little too far. In England, holidays year-round (but especially Christmas and Midsummer) were marked by visits from masked mummers to the great houses. There, local folk would sing, gambol, and act out myths and legends, which always featured topical jokes and lampoons of the local gentry. For a brief time, the rural people were allowed to express their true feelings about the great folk while under the protection of their masks and the holiday spirit. They were even rewarded for their cheekiness with food, drink and money, because their noble hosts knew that such "license" was only temporary, and the next day these wickedly witty performers would go back to being humble peasants.
The professional stages of Shakespeare's London were direct descendants of the mummers' plays, removed from the great houses and given homes of their own. Inside the Globe Theater, historians believe, a kind of permanent Carnival took place. The audience was made up of people from many social classes, mixing together in a way they never would anyplace else in London.
The actors were workingmen dressed up in borrowed finery as kings and gods. The stories the audience came to see and hear were also a hodgepodge of comedy and tragedy, history and fantasy. The language was a gallimaufry of high love poetry and crude expletives, with every other kind of English in between.
It shouldn't surprise us that the art of drama is closely tied to holiday activities. Folklorists have long drawn connections between drama and religious ritual, and religious ritual is, of course, one of the main roots of our traditional Western holiday cycle. The other source is the collection of traditions associated with the yearly calendar of planting and harvest, and the greater, ever-turning cycle of birth, death and rebirth that is the land's way of marking time. Put them together—land and church, natural rhythms and human ways of marking them—and you have a portrait of the world in which William Shakespeare was born and for which he wrote his great plays. His world was equal parts rural and urban, arcane and everyday, magic and marketplace.
* * *
Two of Shakespeare's best-loved plays actually have holidays for titles— A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. They might have been given those titles to commemorate their first performances on those holidays—a Midsummer wedding at a noble estate, and for the Twelfth Night celebration at court. Both joyfully celebrate the giddiness of a world turned upside-down through disguises and love-play.
In Midsummer, four lovers and six amateur actors are pixy-led through the woods outside Athens. Mistaken identities cause chaos, not the least for Titania, the Queen of Faery, whose husband, Oberon, has charmed her so she falls in love with a common weaver named Bottom, who has been given an ass's head by the mischievous faery Puck. There's a darker confusion underlying the story, though—Oberon and Titania have been separated for some time, fighting over possession of a changeling baby. Because they are earth spirits, their divorce has frightening repercussions for the land:
. . . the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
. . . the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock. (2.1)
In other words, the earth responds to their discord with flood, pestilence and famine. Even worse, though, the seasons—and their holidays—have altered:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
. . . the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which. (2.1)
Shakespeare knew that Midsummer—the Summer Solstice—was a delicate time for farmers. Poised midway between the seasons of planting and harvest, the summer weather could make or break the season's crops. Summer Solstice bonfires were not kindled to call back the sun, as Winter Solstice fires were, but to purify land and animals from the diseases of warm weather. Urban audiences knew that summer was a perilous time in the city too—the season of plague and other "contagious fogs," sucked up from the sewage-filled Thames. Watching the dancing night spirits of the countryside putting all right through the power of love, however, was probably a welcome relief from the spirits of fever, rat, and flea that haunted their own hot, cramped rooms.
For another cool change, audiences loved well Shakespeare's festive comedy Twelfth Night, in which the world-upside-down-ness of the Christmas season infects a tale that has nothing to do with Christmas. It has everything to do, though, with disguising and mumming. Viola, a shipwrecked teenager, hopes to survive in the strange land of Illyria by disguising herself as a boy singer named Caesario to serve the Count Orsino. Her disguise fools everyone, probably because she learned boy's ways from her twin brother Sebastian, believed lost at sea. Orsino sends her to visit the beautiful Countess Olivia and deliver his vows of love, but complications arise: Viola is a reluctant messenger, because she has fallen in love with Orsino herself, and Olivia, who doesn't love Orsino, instead falls in love with the handsome "Caesario." The gender-bending humor that ensues is a classic example of the world upside-down.
As in Midsummer, though, there is a dark undertone to the holiday mirth. A subplot concerns Olivia's drunken uncle, Toby Belch, and his ongoing feud with her uptight butler, Malvolio. Toby and his bumbling friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, love drinking, dancing, singing, and laughter. Their partner-in-partying, Olivia's jester, Feste, is actually named for the spirit of festivity. When Malvolio interrupts one of their midnight songfests and threatens to tattle to Olivia, Toby snarls at him, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" With this line, we see that Malvolio represents the Puritan suspicion of Anglican church festivals, called "church ales," which, like rural celebrations, often featured freely flowing ale and sweets to attract the less-than-devout to holy services. Toby suspects Malvolio of wishing to suppress all holiday pleasure, not just his own. In this way, Malvolio plays the traditional role of the grim Winter King, who must be killed or banished for the sake of festivity.
Toby's revenge against Malvolio is swift and terrible. He tricks him into thinking Olivia is in love with him, and, when Malvolio appears before Olivia wearing an outlandish lover's getup of yellow stockings and ribbons, Olivia believes him mad and prescribes the common treatment of isolation in a dark room. Feste appears to him disguised as a priest and tries to exorcise Malvolio's demons, forcing him to confess his sinfulness. Twelfth Night, then, is titled for Christmas, but simultaneously reflects the activities of Carnival and Lent. Malvolio must do penance—he must become the sin-eater or scapegoat who suffers for the follies of the disguise-loving mortals around him—before the confusions about Viola's identity and who loves whom can be cleared up.
* * *
Holidays also figure prominently in plays not actually named for them. In The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock worries about his house's safety during the Carnival festivities in the streets:
What, are there masques? . . .
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, . . .
Stop my house's ears . . .
Let no the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house. (2.5)
He's right to worry: trashing the Jewish quarter was also a popular part of Christian celebrations of the Easter season in the anti-Semitic world of Early Modern Europe. This happens indirectly, though: a masked Venetian reveler elopes with his daughter and his moneybox.
This comedy has an even darker undertone. It concerns itself mainly with the fairy-tale story of the wealthy Lady Portia, whose hand can only be won by a suitor who guesses a riddle correctly, choosing among three caskets of gold, silver, and lead for the one that contains her picture. But her favored suitor, Bassanio, has a friend named Antonio—the merchant of the title—who is in mortal danger. He has jokingly signed a contract with Shylock promising to pay him a pound of his own flesh if he can't repay a loan, and the loan has come due just as Antonio's ships have all sunk. Antonio faces certain death if Shylock—who bears a grudge against the Venetian Christian community for countless humiliations besides the loss of his daughter—won't forgive the loan.
There are many references, of course, to Christian sacrifice and the Easter season in such a story, but it also counts on the audience's familiarity with the fearful folk belief that Jews at night (and especially at Easter) became vampires, cannibals, werewolves—ravenous eaters of Christian babies and drinkers of Christian blood. Shylock is repeatedly referred to as "wolfish," calling up fears of those shape-shifting flesh-eaters. These fears overwhelm the more religious notes of the tale, and it is not by the Christian "quality of mercy," but only by another brilliant masking that Antonio is saved. Portia dresses as a man and poses as a lawyer at the court hearing of Shylock and Antonio's dispute. Her disguise is completely convincing, and she wins the case, finding a loophole to free Antonio from Shylock's contract. Like Malvolio, Shylock is identified as the enemy of holiday mirth and is humiliated and banished, and the lovers are free to celebrate the life-giving pleasures of the flesh.
Art: John William Waterhouse - Miranda - The Tempest