Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Christmas

Dickens and Christmas we know about, but what about Shakespeare and Christmas? How did he celebrate? How do his characters celebrate? Alas, we know little about Shakespeare's life, so we cannot fully answer the first question. We know Yuletide was a festive occasion in Elizabethan and Jacobean London (becoming less so as the seventeenth century wore on and those Biblically-minded Puritans began waging their war on Christmas). Through the 1590s and most of the first decade of the seventeenth century, when Shakespeare was active as an actor and playwright in London, Christmas would have been a busy time for him and his company, who were called upon to stage entertainments for Queen Elizabeth and, later, King James during the Christmas season. The apogee of festivity (of festiveness?) fell on Twelfth Night, the eve of January sixth, the Feast of the Epiphany, a holiday I've discussed in an earlier post. (Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night was most likely named for the holiday during which it was initially presented.) Unlike us, who begin celebrating Christmas immediately after Halloween and are done with it by 1 p.m. on December 25th, Christmas celebrations during Shakespeare's time actually began on Christmas Day, and continued for the eleven days thereafter. The season was celebrated with feasting, dancing, revelry, and all kinds of enjoyable pagan behaviors, including the staging of masques and plays filled with mythological references and characters. It was a frantic time indeed for theater folk, but a lucrative one. 

We can assume Shakespeare took part in the hard work, as well, we hope, as some of the revelry. But our knowledge of his holiday habits is largely speculative. We can speak with a bit more authority about Christmas as it appears in his plays. Unlike Dickens, Shakespeare never wrote a work centered on Christmas, but he did write one play set during the Christmas season. Some may be surprised to learn that the play was Hamlet. Not much about that tragedy seems Christmasy, but Shakespeare made a point, in the play's first scene, to stress the coldness of the weather and the fact that the spooky Ghost (a perhaps redundant phrase) is making his appearance(s) during Christmastime. After Horatio suspiciously observes that the just-vanished Ghost "started like a guilty thing surprised" when the cock crew, a fact that seems to mark the Ghost as an "erring" or malicious, evil spirit, the guard Marcellus counters, "Some say that ever gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, / This bird of dawning [the cock] singeth all night long, / And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome then, no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed and so gracious is that time" (1.1.157-64). These beautiful lines imply that Horatio is wrong about the Ghost's unwholesomeness. It must be a decent Ghost, because the holy nature of Christmas keeps bad spirits from "stir[ring] abroad." If this isn't what Marcellus means, why did he even bring Christmas up? As for the rooster singing all night long, while there is a bit of confusion about whether this particular cock crow sounded at an irregular time -- Marcellus's lines are immediately followed by a reference to the rising sun -- we must note that fewer than ten minutes before, with no ensuing break in the scene, the clock struck one (see line 46). This is inexplicable, but maybe it's one of the miracles of a Shakespearean Christmas season. Shakespeare can do funny things with time. For example, A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests the short nights of summer, but the night represented in that play lasts about 72 hours, because when the lovers escape into the woods there are three more days until May Day, and when they wake up after one night there, it's May Day (and May Day isn't summer, either). Perhaps in Shakespeare-land, some sort of seasonal craziness happens, and December nights are short.

In any case, we know it's "bitter cold," because that's one of the first observations made in the play. So, let's all henceforth imagine Hamlet taking place during the dead of winter, with Hamlet soliloquizing next to a blazing Yule log in the palace lobby. This -- the snowy weather -- is one thing Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film adaptation of the play got right. (Casting Jack Lemmon as Marcellus is not.) Tim Burton's film The Nightmare Before Christmas also incorporated this spooky Hamlet Christmas vibe in an early scene where its melancholy protagonist, Jack Skellington, briefly removed his head and spoke to it, like Hamlet to Yorick's skull, singing a reference to Shakespearean quotations. And, come to think of it, Dickens also succeeded in honoring Yuletide Hamlet in A Christmas Carol, by having Marley's Ghost visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve, rattling his chains and speaking in a very Old Hamlet-ish way about the secrets of his purgatorial prison house. Fellow artists often intuit what commentators don't.

Where else does Christmas pop up in Shakespeare? His allusions to the holiday are subtle, but can be found in places even less likely than Hamlet. Antony and Cleopatra is set in the century before Christ's birth, but it's clear that this famous couple's moment in history put Shakespeare in mind of the impending event that would change the world and begin the holiday of Christmas. Veiled allusions to the first Christmas appear in the dialogue of Cleopatra's servants, one of whom seems to refer to the Virgin Mary's cousin Elizabeth's story when she jokingly expresses the hope to "have a child at fifty, to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage." (So far from revering John the Baptist, Herod asked for his head, which makes this a grim joke indeed.) Later, the death-bound Cleopatra is called the "Eastern Star." She's a setting star, but the reference reminds us of the star that will soon shine over Bethlehem, and, for the Western world, will displace the ancient gods of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Here Shakespeare is making a covert historical suggestion as well as a religious one. But it is typical of him to refer only indirectly to the Christmas holiday, as he did when he gave the title Twelfth Night to a play whose action seems to take place in the springtime. Perhaps there, as well as elsewhere, Shakespeare refers to Christ's birth as a way to emphasize the joy of the present moment: the birth of new joy taking place on stage. One of the best examples is found in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. The Comedy of Errors stages the reunion of family members long separated by shipwreck and wanderings, as well as the start of a new marriage and the renewal of two existing ones. Throughout the play, the dialogue doesn't clarify the month or the season, but the final, joyful line of one of the reunited spouses makes us think of Christmas. "After so long grief," she exults, "such nativity!"

Life has been hard for many of us this year, and grievous for some. Better times are coming. I look forward to the recession of our global plague and the start of a new year with this same Shakespearean thought: "After so long grief, such nativity!" Merry Christmas!

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