Below is a link to the excellent documentary, Shakepeare Uncovered. In this episode, actress Joelly Richardson examines the character Viola from Twelfth Night, with the help of her mother, legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave:
Merry Christmas Eve everyone! Today I will be talking about how Shakepeare’s two royal patrons, Queen Elizabeth I and James I celebrated this holiday!
We have surviving records that prove Shakespeare and his troupe performed at Christmas during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. The buildings still exist so we can imagine what Shakespeare’s performancesal at court might have looked like. What follows is a bit of historical detective work, with a nice holiday flavor to boot.
How did Good Queen Bess celebrate Christmas?
Like her predecessor Henry VIII, Her Majesty Elizabeth accepted presents from the nobles on New Year’s Day instead of Christmas morning. From all over the kingdom, people would bring the best and most extravagant presents to the queen, hoping to gain her favor at court. Take a look at this true case of what her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley gave the queen for Christmas in 1588:
Dudley gives Queen Elizabeth a wristwatch
Unlike her dad however, Elizabethan Christmas was a more elaborate affair than a week of sitting and feasting. Yes, Gloriana had elaborate feasts, but she preferred to impress her nobles and visiting dignitaries with dances, jousts, and plays. She was an accomplished dancer and poet, and she loved court masques.
A masque is sort of like a combination masked ball and performance art piece. The nobles would put on costumes and masks and enact a historical or mythological event, like “the Golden Age Restored,” a masque Ben Johnson wrote for Twelfth Night in 1616. The intent was to flatter the queen and her court, as well as having a good time. Of course, Liz still made time on the dance floor for Shakepeare’s company!
How the plays were performed:
The plays would be in a large empty hall like the banquet hall or dance hall. Probably the tables would be removed from the feasting, then the dancing would begin. At around 10PM, the actors would take their places. There might be a makeshift tiring house, which was mainly just a curtain that the actors could hide behind to wait for their entrances.
The queen or King would be sitting on a throne on a raised platform so that she or he could be clearly seen by the actors and the audience. Which plays did They Perform?
In 1594 The Lord Chamberlain’s Men played before the Queen at Greenwich Palace. Alas, we don’t know which plays they performed this time. What follows is a list of the plays we do know Shakepeare’s company played at Christmas.
Love’s Labors Lost– 1597 at Whitehall palace. This time we know which play they performed before the Queen, because it’s listed right on the title page. I suspect that printing where the play was performed was designed to fire the imagination of the people who bought it. If you couldn’t be at court to see Shakespeare’s play, you could at least read his words and imagine you were there.
James I invited Shakepeare’s company to perform at Hampton Court many times. Below is an account of the plays for the Christmas holiday in 1603. Notice that Shakepeare’s name is spelled “Shaxberd.”
Here’s a list of some more plays we know Shakepeare’ performed at Christmas:
Midsummer Nights Dream- 1603 on New Years Day, Hampton Court.
Measure for Measure on Boxing Day 1603, Hampton Court.
King Lear on Boxing Day 1606.
Twelfth Night- Candlemas (Feb 2nd 1602).
Twelfth Night 1618 and 1619 (location unknown).
Below is an episode of the incredible documentary “In Search of Shakepeare.” The first twelve minutes show what Christmas might have been like at Hampton Court in 1603, the first year of King James’ reign.
James loved plays and masques even more than Liz, which is why he employed one of the greatest scenic artists of all time, Inigo Jones, to come up with extravagant stage designs and costumes for plays and masques. James’ Queen Anne Of Denmark performed in quite a few masques herself. James also treated the Christmas season as a time of charity, which might have inspired some of the lines in King Lear, which was performed ‘on the feast of Steven’ 1606:
“Poor naked wretches… who soer you are. I have taken too little care of this.” -King Lear, Act III, scene I (The Storm Scene).
We can recall the contrast between King Lear and Good King Wenceslas. In the scene I quoted earlier, Lear laments that he hasn’t been more charitable to the poor, now that he himself feels cold and homeless.
The Christmas season would carry on until oh January 6, aka Twelfth Night. This was the day when, according to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men finally got to Bethlehem and delivered their presents. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night is all about celebrations of feasting, fools and clowns, and of course, epiphanies. Over the next few days I will delve into the traditions of Twelfth night, and teach you how to make your own Twelfth Night feast!
Once Shakespeare became a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later The King’s Men, the royals often requested that he and his company perform as the official royal entertainment at Christmas. Christmas for Shakespeare from 1592 to 1613 meant work. Nevertheless, it must’ve been a thrill for this country boy from Warwickshire England to see how the king and courtiers of his country would celebrate Christmas with elaborate feasts, parties, dances, and of course drama.
We know for a fact that Shakespeare was asked to perform at Christmas. As you can see on this title page for Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost, we have records of his plays being performed by name for the Christmas feast. In Tudor and Jacobean times, The Master of the Revels kept records of which plays he permitted to perform during the Christmas season and those records reveal what kind of entertainment each monarch enjoyed at Christmas. Christmas at King Henry VIII’s palace
Although King Henry the Eighth died before Shakespeare was born, his Christmas feasts were so lavish I simply had to devote some space in this post to talk about him. Henry outlawed all sports and games at Christmastime during his reign, focusing instead on drama and feasts. Part of the reason that the king outlawed any kind of sports (except archery), was because of the huge caloric quantity ingested from his feasts. To be blunt, as Henry aged, his diet only got worse. Near the end of his life, he was so overweight, his attendants needed a crane to get him out of bed!
Henry’s Christmas feasts were the stuff of legend. One third of his palace at Hampton court was devoted to the kitchens! The feast would include as many exotic and expensive dishes as the king’s court could imagine!
Christmas turkey became popular in Henry the eighth’s day but it would certainly share a dish with peacock, hare, goose, and wild boar; the and most vicious animal to kill in the wild forest. There’s even a Christmas carol called the Boar’s Head Carol, which celebrates how hard it was to procure and prepare such an animal. For Henry, exotic food was a symbol of his power and so he stocked his Christmas feast with the most elaborate food a king could buy to impress his nobles and visiting dignitaries.
After the feast, the court would sing together, often to unaccompanied music called madrigals. These were short, secular songs in multiple voice parts and they were the pop songs of Henry’s day; he even composed a few himself! Here’s a video of a modern pop song in the madrigal style: Pop madrigal: Dark Horse
If you watch this video you can see an incredible documentary, where a group of historic food historians re-creating an elaborate tudor feast: A Tudor Feast
Tomorrow I’ll describe the Christmas feast of Shakespeare’s contemporary monarchs, but till then, I hope this post whets your “appetite.”
– Shakespearen Student
Well, Christmas is almost here; soon many of us will be traveling home to celebrate the holidays with our families, enjoying parties, presents, carols, and decorations. However, our modern traditions weren’t always the norm for people who celebrate Christmas. In the interest of historical curiosity, we here at Shakespearean Student would like to talk a little bit about how William Shakespeare might’ve celebrated Christmas!
As with everything in Shakespeare’s life, many times scholars have nothing but “what if’s” to go on, because few records exist, there were no photos from the period, and very few documents survive related to Shakespeare. He also kept no journals or diaries to record what his life might’ve been like. However, based in the holiday traditions of England that have lingered on to this day, we can surmise what Christmas might’ve been like in the late 16th century.
Part 1: Stratford
Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire England. As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare would not have known many of our modern Christmas traditions. The Christmas Tree as we know it didn’t come into being until Queen Victoria’s reign, (and she certainly didn’t light hers with electric lights). Victoria also invented the idea of putting presents under the tree. I’m not an expert on Christmas, but my research would indicate that probably Elizabethans like Shakespeare didn’t even give out presents on Christmas Day! Instead, in country towns like Stratford in Tudor times, Christmas was a time of feasting, singing, caroling, and theatre!
The Christmas season in Shakespeare’s day usually extended from Christmas Eve to the twelfth night after Christmas also known as Twelfth Night or Epithany. Common people usually decorated their homes with holly and ivy, and celebrated Christmas Eve by lighting their homes with candles and by burning the Yule log, an ancient tradition dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings controlled most of England. It was a symbol of light and warmth in the darkest time of the year.
Roast goose was a staple of the common man’s feast at Christmas. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth commanded the whole country to consume geese to commemorate England’s victory over the Spanish Armada. Other traditional fare included plum porridge, beer or ale, and the most celebrated Christmas beverage of all: Wassail!
The old tradition of caroling comes from an ancient pagan holiday tradition of showing charity to the poor at the winter solstice. People would go door to door asking for alms and occasionally a warm beverage. This ancient practice evolved into caroling and Wasailing!
The word “wassail” is an old Celtic word that means “lambswool,” it refers to the fact that the drink is covered with a thin foam that looks kind of like the wool of a sheep. It is also derived from the Anglo-Saxon “wassail,” which means “be in health,” so it is simultaneously a drink, a toast, and an explanation of what the drink looks like.
Like our modern-day caroling, people would sing and dance going door to door asking for a traditional glass of wassail or a mince pie. A mince pie is a traditional meat pie that is often filled with 12 different ingredients to symbolize the 12 days of Christmas.
Mince pies were popular with both peasants and kings, and contains both fruit and different types of meat including rabbit chicken duck and hare.
Wasailing also has its roots in ancient pagan holidays and that’s why it’s often accompanied with a traditional Morris dance, where the dancers are waving handkerchiefs, knocking sticks together and dancing with brightly colored ribbons. This was a great tradition back in the small towns and shires of England and continues to this very day. Below you’ll find a video where you can make some wassail yourself! I Just a note that in this recipe, the cook has left out the alcohol and has also left out the egg which is necessary to create the foamy lambswool. Nonetheless I think it’s a very good recipe and I welcome you to try it for yourself.
As the mayor’s son, young William had a VIP pass to see all traveling actors who came to town. Shakespeare’s dad would’ve decided who got to perform at the guild halls and local inns, so he and his son would’ve watched private performances of all the shows first. After that, John Shakespeare decided who got to perform, and who would be sent away. In addition to professional troupes at Christmas, craftsmen in Will’s hometown people in Warwickshire would come together and put on a show! These amateur dramatic pieces were known as Mystery Plays.
Mystery Plays got their name from the old meaning of mystery: a trade or skill. Much like modern nativity plays or community theaters, every year all the craftsmen from the town would put on a series of short shows derived from Bible stories at Christmas time, and showcase their crafts as well as their acting talents. For example the goldsmiths were in charge of the Three Wise Men story.
We know that Shakespeare liked these plays because he refers to one in particular many, many times: The play of King Herod. in the Bible, Herod The Great is fearful of the baby Jesus and sends his soldiers to kill any young baby that they can find in the city of Jerusalem. Very often when Shakespeare refers to any of his villainous characters he describes them as Herod-like.
The Mysteries were printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people in York, Coventry, and Wakefield England still perform them today! Here’s a video of a little girl who performed in the York Mystery play last year:
I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into the ancient traditions of the common folk back in Shakespeare’s England. This coming week, I’ll talk about how the queen and court celebrated the Yuletide.