This being the Shakespeare milestone year (his 400th death anniversary), it is tempting to speculate whether the Christmas festivities find mention in his writing, and if so, where.
Shakespeare makes extremely few references to Christmas in his plays; just four if one believes one source. But if this seems surprising, it shouldn’t be.
Until the beginning of the 1800s, the traditional Christmas festivities as we know them today were non-existent. The high point on the Christian calendar was Easter, a rejoicing of the Resurrection and all it represents, a cathartic experience after Lent and Holy Week.
The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840 made many German Christmas traditions from the Price Consort’s native Germany more widely popular, notably the Christmas tree bedecked with candles, decorations, fruits, sweets and gifts.
One clear Christmas connection in a Shakespeare play is to be found in Twelfth Night. The very title of this comedy betrays this: it was written to be performed at the end of the Christmas season, on the ‘Twelfth Night’.
Christmas was seen as a twelve-day commemoration (called Christmastide in England), and depending on whether one began counting from Christmas Day (25 December) or the day after (26 December, Boxing Day), the twelfth day fell on either 5 January or 6 January, the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings.
But Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has nothing more to do with Christmas, apart from its intended performance date. A clear reference to Christmas does appear however, in ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’. In Act I, Scene 1, Marcellus says to Hamlet’s friend Horatio and to Bernardo after they have seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father on the frozen battlements of Elsinore castle:
“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes/ Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / The bird of dawning 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 the time.”
So Christmastime is “hallowed”, and supernatural beings or forces, be they spirit, fairy, witch or planet are rendered powerless by it. But there is no mention of anything joyous about it.
(I found this on the Net and it’s quite clever!)
Two Christmas references by Shakespeare occur in Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his early comedies. In fact, its earliest recorded performance even occurred at Christmas in 1597 before the court of Queen Elizabeth II.
The first allusion to Christmas is at the beginning of the play, after the King of Navarre and his friends swear an oath to scholarship, which includes fasting and avoiding contact with women for three years. Berowne, one of the King’s attendants, hesitates before he joins in:
“Why should I joy in any abortive birth? / At Christmas I no more desire a rose / Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows; / But like of each thing that in season grows; / So you, to study now it is too late, /Climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate.”
Christmas is clearly not a time for shunning worldly pleasures, not for Berowne. And towards the end of the play, Berowne again brings up Christmas (Act V, Scene 2) when he fails to impress the ladies: “I see the trick on’t: here was a consent, / Knowing aforehand of our merriment, /To dash it like a Christmas comedy.”
What does he mean by “a Christmas comedy”? Could it be an inside joke, referring to the play itself, a comedy being performed on Christmas Day? Comedies were staged as entertainment in the Christmas season, and indeed Shakespeare’s own The Comedy of Errors was staged on 28 December 1594 at Grays Inn.
Shakespeare and his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were invited to perform their plays at the Inns of Court (the main hall in Grays Inn, an important location in Shakespeare’s London where young law students were educated and would gather for social occasions as well) on numerous occasions, especially during the annual Christmas festivities known as the Revels. Often at such events, the social order was overturned, with the lowliest member of the court invited to preside as Lord of Misrule, etc. It was a prestigious and lucrative gig for Shakespeare’s company; theatres were often closed for the winter, so an indoor performance to a captive audience of affluent lawyers was quite attractive.
The Gesta Grayorum, a sort of predecessor to today’s gossip magazine, reported of that performance: “The Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called the Night of Errors.”
So what happened? According to one account in the historical archives in Kew, from the Treasurer of the Chamber of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare seems to have undertaken a booking to perform for the Queen on Innocents Day (28 December) as well. They therefore attempted to honour both bookings, one (for the Queen) in the afternoon, and at Grays Inn in the evening. But the second performance didn’t go as planned, perhaps due to fatigue or overindulgence. Another version sees this as an attempt of the employers (Grays Inn) to shift the blame to Shakespeare’s troupe for their own folly of overcrowding the hall.
The last Christmas reference I could trace is in another of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Taming of the Shrew. In Scene 2 of the Induction of the play, a dramatic troupe has arrived at the house of Christopher Sly and he questions his servant about them:
SLY: Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a commonty [comedy] a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
PAGE: No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.
Sly has a rather low impression of Christmas festivity. But that should not be extrapolated back to Shakespeare himself. He probably enjoyed it as much as everyone else. Have thyself a Merry little Christmas too!
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)