The carnival world shows up in the more somber context of Shakespeare's great tragedy, King Lear. This, too, is a world upside-down, where a father—the mythic King Lear—banishes his favorite daughter for failing to brag about her love for him, and a loving son is condemned to death because his illegitimate brother accuses him of plotting to murder his own father. For Shakespeare, the darkest dark side to the merry world of Carnival was the possibility it opened up that even our most sacred ties of love and respect could be jettisoned.
The dismayed and frightened voice of this particular world is that of Lear's jester. He is the opposite of Twelfth Night's Feste—where Feste mocks fools who are too rigid and too serious, Lear's Fool mocks the King for failing to respect the natural order of things:
LEAR: When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?
FOOL: I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches,
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among. (1.4)
The Fool's voice is the voice of the powerless who fear the damage the powerful can do when they begin to lose their grip on sanity. Lear has given his crown to his two remaining daughters and trusts them to give him a home. However, they refuse unless he gives up his royal retinue of servants and soldiers, and the proud Lear prefers to be homeless. The Fool follows the King across a stormy wasteland, crying from cold and exhaustion, but unwilling to leave his master alone. The "good and faithful servant" who wastes his life in the service of a man who doesn't appreciate him is, in this play, accompanied by a number of references to St. Stephen's Day—the day after Christmas, nowadays called Boxing Day, when traditionally the great reward the lowly for their service.
We know that this play was actually performed before King James on December 26, 1606; whoever chose the plays for royal performances had a keen sense of their folk significance. Stephen's feast was traditionally the day of the Christmas season associated with "good housekeeping" and charity. Great folk were reminded by carols such as "Good King Wenceslaus" (who brought food and fire to a poor man "on the Feast of Stephen") to share their Christmas plenty with the poor, and the "poor boxes" were opened in the churches. The begging on this day could get fairly aggressive, and rich manors hastened to avoid being labeled a "hard house," subject to "forced giving."
King Lear and his Fool are turned away from Lear's daughter's house and sent into a winter storm—the reverse of the Wenceslaus legend. Popular sayings insisted, "Blessed be St. Stephen/There's no fast upon his even," and King James I, who valued traditional customs highly, even made hospitality on this day a law. But Lear's daughters violently break this law, refusing shelter not just to the poor, but to their own father.
The Fool sees where this is headed with tragically wise eyes:
When nobles are their tailors' tutors;
No heretics burn'd, but wenches' suitors;
. . . When usurers tell their gold i' the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
. . . This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time. (3.2)
Referring to the legend of Arthur, the "King under the Hill," the Fool knows that the breaking of this King means the breaking of the land.
Another popular centerpiece of the Christmas season, the "Feast of Fools" also began on St. Stephen's Day and lasted until December 28 (the Massacre of the Holy Innocents). The focus of this three-day holiday-within-a-holiday was Christianity's message of hope for the weak and powerless, but many popular traditions grew up around this festival to take advantage of the Church's temporary tolerance—even celebration—of foolish and chaotic behavior. The "Lord of Misrule," chosen in rural and urban observances of this festival, presided over mummings, dances, drinking games and songs, his purpose being to encourage chaos and silliness.
This is exactly what Lear becomes after he abdicates his responsibilities as King. His thoughtless division of the kingdom opens the door to chaos and mayhem as his two daughters plot against one another and his third daughter brings an army from France into England to challenge them. Lear's madness in the storm becomes an outward symbol of the misrule he has unleashed on the land. But even King Lear, in his madness, gains some of the Fool's perspective:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! (3.4)
Realizing at last that the poor suffer most for the sins of the great, he admits he has been careless. He has lost a kingdom, but has gained much-needed compassion for the common folk.
Shakespeare's audience would have been particularly moved by this plot. Many of them were, like Shakespeare himself, young folk who had to leave home and family to seek their fortunes in the city. Living in an impersonal metropolis may well have made people long for the security, however patronizing, of the manor and the farm, where people knew their place and strong customs demanded that the rich look after the poor.
In London, of course, the poor disappeared from sight into dark alleys and tumbledown tenements, while the wealthy kept to their banqueting halls and never saw the people who washed their clothes or groomed their horses. The countryside's sense of community disappeared, and King Lear offers a poignant metaphor for the chaos that occurs rapidly when those on top forget their duties to those on the bottom.
Such tales inserted popular holiday associations into mythic settings in order to help their audience connect with a deep well of shared history and national identity. King Lear is a tale from England's pre-literate legends; its plot is drawn from the ancient tales, "Cap O' Rushes" and "Love Like Salt," both of which deal with a daughter's love for her undeserving father. Evoking the day of St. Stephen—with its equal share of church and folk elements—Shakespeare creates a sense of continuity between ancient hearthside tales and newfangled church-and-town customs.
* * *
Sometimes Shakespeare took the opposite strategy, depicting country customs onstage for the amusement of his courtly audience members. One of his late plays, The Winter's Tale, evokes the custom of tale-telling by the fireside at the death of the year. Such tales are often tales of suffering and redemption, and this one is no different. A well-respected King, Leontes, takes the sudden notion that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has slept with his best friend, who is making a winter holiday visit. Enraged, Leontes publicly accuses and imprisons Hermione, where she apparently dies of grief after giving birth to a girl, Perdita. The maddened King orders that the baby girl be killed, but his servant, unwilling to do such a horrible deed, merely leaves the girl at the seashore to be adopted by a common shepherd.
When we next see our fairy-tale lost princess, sixteen years have passed and she is about to be crowned Queen of the Sheep-Shearing festival. In England, the traditional date of this festival was around June 5: this is a feast of high summer in spite of the play's wintry title. A couple of courtly visitors come by to watch the charming country festivities, and Perdita (who has no idea that she's a princess) greets the visitors in the deeply coded language of flowers:
For you there's rosemary and rue; these keep
Seeming and savour all the winter long:
Grace and remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our shearing! (4.4)
Oddly, she offers winter herbs. The visitors comment that her choice was a gracious reference to their own mature years, but Perdita answers that, since it's high summer, her favored spring flowers are gone, and the only available garden flowers are "our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,/Which some call nature's bastards." She then offers a more appropriate herbal bouquet:
Here's flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. You're very welcome. (4.4)
The "language of flowers" has a long tradition made up of equal parts folk and classical sources. The bouquet Perdita offers comments wittily on the place, season, and celebration at hand. Lavender and mint are herbs used to preserve fleeces from insects, but they are also known as "hot" herbs in reference to the doctrine of humors. All living things, in this system, are made up of a combination of hot and cold, wet and dry elements. "Hot" herbs have properties to counteract the "coldness" of winter, age, and other "cold" maladies like melancholy or rheumatism. Savory and marjoram in particular were herbs of love—even aphrodisiacs—and often part of bridal bouquets, as were mint and lavender. The marigold's Latin name is calendula, and it was believed that this flower constantly turned its head to the sun, tracking it through the day. A herbal timekeeper, it was associated with the cycle of the year.
Perdita, the Winter child and Summer Queen, wears so elaborate a garland that she is compared to Flora, goddess of Spring, clothed all in flowers—though it's late summer. In this play, she represents Time, which is so easily lost (perditus in Latin) by the careless. There are a number of seasonal mix-ups in her presentation—maybe Shakespeare was subtly poking fun at his courtly audience, who probably wouldn't know enough about the countryside to notice the inconsistencies. Or perhaps Perdita, a winter-born child, views both the spring symbols and the summer ones with suspicion, and feels more comfortable with the wintry qualities of wisdom, introspection, judgment and high rhetoric.
The important thing is that Perdita, a noblewoman even if she doesn't know it, has a classical, courtly approach to the language of flowers. Her loving foster-father, however, admits she's not much of a country hostess:
Fie, daughter! when my old wife lived, upon
This day she was both pantler, butler, cook,
Both dame and servant; welcomed all, served all;
Would sing her song and dance her turn; now here,
At upper end o' the table, now i' the middle;
On his shoulder, and his; her face o' fire
With labour and the thing she took to quench it,
She would to each one sip. You are retired,
As if you were a feasted one and not
The hostess of the meeting . . .
Come, quench your blushes and present yourself
That which you are, mistress o' the feast: come on,
And bid us welcome to your sheep-shearing,
As your good flock shall prosper. (4.4)
Perdita may look the part of the Queen of the Sheep-Shearing, but she neglects the homely duties of cooking, hostessing, drinking, and even dancing on the table. These activities, of course, were necessary for the "good flock" to "prosper"—in the folk ritual of sympathetic magic, the Queen of the Flock needed to enhance her own fertility to ensure that of the sheep! The "hotness" or appropriateness of the bouquet was not nearly as important as the sexual attractiveness of the Shearing Queen. Perdita carries the floral symbols of fertility, but is hesitant to engage in activities like dancing and drinking that so often lead to more "fertile" activities.
It's as if Perdita knows at some level that her rural identity is really a disguise. She herself seems uncomfortable with her "goddess-like" getup. She notes that she's acting like Whitsuntide (May 15) players, perhaps because she's wearing a costume: "sure this robe of mine/Does change my disposition." The Whitsuntide players and Morris-dancers often dressed as "green-men" or wild forest men, and wore bells and garlands of ivy and greens as they danced—in fact, the party features a "dance of satyrs," classical figures of fertility. These dances were often ribald; perhaps it's the bawdy aspect of Whitsun-players that makes Perdita nervous about looking like one.
Her fears are well founded. The shepherd she loves and dances with is a disguised prince, and his father, the King of Bohemia (one of the elderly visitors, himself in disguise), angrily forbids his son to marry a common shepherdess. Perdita, dismayed, promises "queen it no inch farther,/But milk my ewes and weep."
Because this is a fairy tale, though, all comes right in the end. The Winter's Tale is designed for a courtly audience, so its folk elements are "tamed" into the mere setting of sheep-shearing and flower-gathering. Perdita is quickly removed from her adopted home, because the values of this tale are the courtly ones of contemplation, forgiveness, self-control, loyalty, and seeing through disguises. The tale soon returns to the court of the penitent Leontes, where Perdita is reunited with her family and her shepherd-prince, and forgets her childhood in the country.
* * *
. . . Now I want
spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be redeemed by prayer . . . (The Tempest, Epilogue)
The Winter's Tale is a rare "courtly" play for Shakespeare; although his plays were often performed at court, it seems clear that his intended audience was the average Londoner. In his final play, Shakespeare creates a magician named Prospero who, with nothing but magical words, has
. . . bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war . . . . Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, ope'd, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. (5.1)
However, after getting his enemies to admit their wrongs to him and finding his daughter a suitably princely husband, he gives up his "rough magic" in favor of a return to court. This is not a happy choice; he notes that, once he leaves the island, "My every third thought will be my grave." Shakespeare, who would shortly take his theatrical profits and retire to Stratford to be a wealthy landlord, was probably equally ambivalent about leaving the stage for a quieter, soberer, more contemplative life. He only lasted three years as a courtly gentleman; it seems that his heart was back with his "spirits" in the London theaters.
Shakespeare, the master tale-teller, knew that his audience was made up of people who, like him, both hated and loved their city. In smoky, crowded London, it must have been difficult to see the sun or to experience the change of season as vividly as in the country; Shakespeare offered his playgoers a temporary taste of holiday pleasures, reminders of the rural cycle of the year. His references to such holidays became an effective way to create emotional depth in stories whose plots were familiar and whose themes might otherwise be awe-inspiring or even depressing. Literally evoking tales told by the hearth, at a mother's knee, he forged a link between the folkloric and the historic, between the personal and the political. We may no longer "get" all the references; we may no longer ourselves be in touch with the rural rituals that his plays invoke, but like Shakespeare's audience, we yearn to be part of a larger story, to put down roots into the past. His plays give us that chance to connect with the stories that make us human.
- C.L. Barber. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. New York: Meridien, 1959.
- Dale M. Blount. "Modifications in Occult Folklore as a Comic Device in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." Fifteenth-Century Studies 9, (1984): p. 1-17.
- Thomas A. DuBois. "'That Strain Again!' or, Twelfth Night: A Folkloristic Approach." Arv: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 56, (2000): p. 35-56.
- Alan Dundes. "'To Love My Father All': A Psychoanalytic Study of the Folktale Source of King Lear." Southern Folklore Quarterly 40, (1976): p. 353-66.
- Phyllis Gorfain. "Contest, Riddle, and Prophecy: Reflexivity through Folklore in King Lear." Southern Folklore Quarterly 41, (1977): p. 239-54.
- François Laroque. Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Season Entertainment and the Professional Stage. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge UP, 1991.
- Leah Marcus. "Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts." Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 168-78.
- Kristen McDermott: An Early Modern Holiday Calendar. https://www.chsbs.cmich.edu/Kristen_McDermott/ENG235/EM_calendar.htm
- Kenneth Muir. "Folklore and Shakespeare." Folklore 92, no. 2 (1981): p. 231-240.
- Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest (a beloved alternative-history tour de force: a world in which Shakespeare's plays are history)
- Susan Cooper, King of Shadows (a sudden illness sends a teenage boy back in time to inhabit the body of Nat Field, a boy actor in Shakespeare's troupe)
- Pamela Dean, Tam Lin (a contemporary working of the fairy tale, with many allusions to Shakespeare's plays and characters throughout)
- Wendy Froud and Terri Windling. A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale and The Winter Child (two tales of Sneezle, a young fairy in Titania's retinue, are told and richly illustrated with photos of Wendy Froud's enchanting figures)
- Neil Gaiman, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sandman #19), collected in Dream Country
- Neil Gaiman, The Tempest (Sandman #75) collected in The Wake (in a nice parallel to Shakespeare's play, this is the final issue of the Sandman series and Gaiman's farewell to his readers.)
- Sarah Hoyt, Ill Met by Moonlight and All Night Awake (young Will Shakespeare discovers his poetic inspiration in the form of his "master/mistress," the Faery Lord/Lady Quicksilver)
- Garry Kilworth, A Midsummer's Nightmare (young adult fantasy)
- Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (a funny treatment of the witches from Macbeth)
- Leon Rooke, Shakespeare's Dog (an irreverent look at Shakespeare's world through his dog, Mr. Hooker's, eyes)
- Marina Warner, Indigo (the events of The Tempest updated and told through the eyes of Caliban's mother, Sycorax, a Caribbean priestess)
- Tad Williams, Caliban's Hour (a sequel to The Tempest, focusing on Miranda's life after leaving the island)
About the Author:
Kristen McDermott is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Central Michigan University, specializing in Early Modern English Studies (particularly Drama and Theater History) and Shakespeare.
Copyright © 2003 by Kristin McDermott. This article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2003 . This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.