Christmas For Shakespeare Part III: Performing for Queen Elizabeth 

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.
 

Whitehall Palace by Dankerts, 1675.
 
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:

  1. Midsummer Nights Dream-  1603 on New Years Day, Hampton Court.
  2. Measure for Measure on Boxing Day 1603, Hampton Court.
  3. King Lear on Boxing Day 1606.
  4. Twelfth Night- Candlemas (Feb 2nd 1602).
  5. 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.

In Search of Shakespeare: For All Time 

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!
Happy holidays!

The Shakepearean Student

 

Sources: http://www.unofficialroyalty.com/columnists/the-laird-othistle/will-shakespeare-at-christmas-court/

http://home.hiwaay.net/~paul/shakespeare/revels/revelsacct1.html

http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/christmas/jacobean.shtml

http://www.shakespeare-online.com/theatre/theroyalpalaces.html

 

http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/lifetimes/society/court%20life/festivals.html

FMI look at “The Christmas Revels”

What was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?

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 Shakespeare family home at Christmas
Candleglow%20PR%20small[1]

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.

 

Replica of Shakespeare’s kitchen.
Feasting- 

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!

Wasailing-

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.

Plays

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.

Till next time!

-The Shakespearean Student

Sources:

  1. Historic UK: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Tudor-Christmas/
  2. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Christmas At Shakespeare’s Houses: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit-the-houses/whats-on.html/christmas-holidays.html
  3. The Anne Bolyn Files: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/resources/tudor-life/tudor-christmas/
  4. Wassailing and Mumming: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/wassailing.shtml

Remember, Remember GUY FAWKES DAY!

Hi Everyone!

For most of us Shakespeare geeks, November the Fifth isn’t just the day where we celebrate the move/comic book V For Vendetta, it’s also a celebration of one of the most infamous plots in English History, the GUNPOWDER PLOT, where 13 Catholics including Guy Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament and kill King James of Scotland. To this day, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on November 5, and little children chant:

   The Fifth of November

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!
    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.
    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.
    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.
    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

The plot went down in 1605, the same year Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth! A lot of scholars believe that a plot to assassinate the rightful king of Scotland gave Shakespeare the inspiration to craft his most paranoid, frightening, and topical play, similar to the way he chose to write Romeo and Juliet right after the plague closed the playhouses of London and wanted to write about the ancient plague of family vendettas.

Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.
                          Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.
Other scholars suggest that Shakespeare chose to write “Macbeth” to show support of James’ right as king. Shakespeare definitely needed to do this, after all, James was his royal patron and he needed to make sure that he was on the king’s good side. More importantly, Shakespeare’s family was on thin ice when it came to their loyalty to the crown. Remember, Shakespeare’s father and mother were both lifelong Catholics, just like the conspirators who tried to blow up the king! Not only that, but Shakespeare’s father was friends with Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the whole plot! Even worse, Shakespeare’s favorite bar the Mermaid Tavern, was a meeting place for Catesby and his gang! So Shakespeare might have written “Macbeth” as a way of proclaiming the king’s legitimacy, and his allegiance to the crown.

So let’s be thankful that the king never suspected Shakespeare, because I for one wouldn’t want to live in a world without Macbeth.

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Enjoy this quiz on the history of Guy Fawkes Day: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/how-well-do-you-know-what-happened-during-the-gunpowder-plot-a6721096.html 

Finally, a little video about the gunpowder plot from “Horrible Histories,” which also includes some useful tips on internet safety.

Ira Glass Backtracks From “Shakespeare Sucks” Tweet.

I just saw on the “Tonight Show” a clip where Ira Glass from NPR retracts his statement on Twitter a week ago that “Shakespeare sucks,” after seeing a production of Shakespeare In the Park. Glass said to Jimmy Fallon that he immediately caught heat on the internet “Apparently Shakespeare has a huge internet presence.” To that i say, “Good job Shakespeare nerds!” As Fallon pointed out, Shakespeare is a rallying symbol to all smart people, and that’s why we need to defend him.

Enjoy this video, and enjoy watching Ira squirm.

By the way, if you’re interested in seeing John Lithgow in King Lear, here’s the official website: http://www.publictheater.org/en/Tickets/Calendar/PlayDetailsCollection/SITP/King-Lear/

Benedick and Beatrice’s Infinite (Variety) Playlist

Benedick and Beatrice’s Infinite (Variety) Playlist

This is a game I created for a Shakespeare workshop back in 2012. I would recommend it for any teacher who wants to connect their students to a piece of literature: basically you make a list of songs that A: relate to the personality of a Shakespearean character, and B: relate to moments of the show.

Introduction:

Have you ever met people who go around everywhere with their MP3 players and their earbuds? The kind of people who walk around playing their own personal soundtrack? Well, what do you think would happen if the characters from Much Ado did this, and you happened to glance at Benedick or Beatrice’s iPod? Well that’s what we’re going to pretend in a little game I like to call “Benedick’s Infinite Variety Playlist.” Below is a list of the major events in the play that happen to Benedick. The problem is: they’re all on shuffle. Your job is to figure which song matches which event, put them in chronological order, and submit your answer in the comments below. Later this week, you can play the same game with Beatrice’s playlist. Have fun and remember, as Shakespeare said: “If music be the food of love, play on!”

Events For Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in random order (Match these with the songs from the playlist below)

  1. Benedick and Beatrice have a brief fling and break up before the play begins
  2. Benedick sees Beatrice and fights with her with his wits.
  3. Benedick dances with Beatrice at the party.
  4. Beatrice insults Benedick mercilessly at the party.
  5. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato claim they overheard Beatrice confessing her love to Benedick.
  6. Benedick decides to be “horribly in love” with Beatrice.
  7. Convinced that Beatrice loves him, Benedick tries to spruce up his appearance.
  8. After the wedding scene, (where Claudio discraces Hero), Beatrice asks Benedick to “Kill Claudio.” Benedick must choose between being Claudio’s friend, and becoming a real man.
  9. Benedick tries to coax Beatrice into admitting that she loves him
  10. Benedick marries Beatrice

Shakespeare the Father, Shakespeare the Son.

I realize Father’s day was last weekend, but I thought I’d like to cap off that week of posts with one final insight into Shakespearean fathers, only today they won’t be fictional! Today I’ll be sharing with you some details from the lives of William Shakespeare and his father, John Shakespeare. We’ve been talking about good, bad, and dad dads, so after reading this post, what do you think- were these men good fathers, or not?

-Bio of John Shakespeare c1530—to 1601

Ancestry-

Shakespeare Family Tree
Shakespeare Family Tree
  • John Shakespeare was born around the year 1530 (exact records no longer exist). He came from a long line of prominent farmers in Snitterfield, and moved to Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire, in the year 1557 John married Mary Arden, who also came from pretty posh country stock; records trace the Arden family back before the Norman conquest in 1066!
  • John and Mary’s children
    • Altogether, John and Mary had 8 children (see the family tree above.)
    • Sadly, their 2 eldest daughters Margaret and Anne died in infancy, making William the eldest child, and the son and heir of his father’s wealth.
    • William’s brother Edmund became an actor, while his sister Joan took over John’s old house.
    • Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a modest house on Henley Street, which still stands today!
The house on Henley Street, where Shakespeare was born in 1564. Click here to learn more about Shakespeare's birthplace.
The house on Henley Street, where Shakespeare was born in 1564. Click here to learn more about Shakespeare’s birthplace.
  • Mayor, Bailiff, Glover When John and Mary moved to Stratford, John established himself as a great fixture of the community- he started as the local glover, and rose to the highly respected office of town ale taster (no, I’m not kidding). At the height of his career, John became Mayor of Stratford, and an Alderman- a town counsilor who helped make decisions like whether or not to let local theater troupes come to town! Maybe John took his young son to watch the travelling players and helped inspire Will’s lifelong love of theater.
  • Teach Your Children Well Shakespeare got to go to one of the first ever public schools in England, where he learned English history, poetry, and the art of persuasive speech, everything he needed to become the great writer he would become.
  • Brogger not Blogger As I mentioned in my first post, Shakespeare’s dad had an illegal side business as a wool dealer. All wool was controlled by the English government, so selling it directly to people was a crime, and eventually John Shakespeare was caught. Fortunately, the fine he paid wasn’t enough to ruin him financially…yet.
  • Closet Catholic The biggest financial problem John Shakespeare faced was his religious beliefs. In 1757, archeologists unearthed a pamphlet where John confessed to be a secret Catholic in a society where the Church of England was the national religion. Scholar Michael Wood believes that John’s Catholicism led to financial ruin; he refused to go to Episcopal church and had to pay crippling fines every time he failed to appear.
  • John’s Descent At the same time, John’s debts kept mounting and he was afraid to go to the town council house for fear of more collectors, even though he was the mayor. The final blow came in 1576, when John was booted off the town council.
  • Son of Fortune John’s son William would eventually repair the family dignity when he became a success. In 1596, William made himself, and all the male members of his family gentlemen, by applying for a coat of arms. Below is a picture of Shakespeare’s family crest.
Shakespeare's coat of arms, as depicted in the Folger Shakespeare Library window.
Shakespeare’s coat of arms, as depicted in the Folger Shakespeare Library window.
  • John Shakespeare died in 1601, shortly after his son’s play Hamlet was published. Will might have honored his father’s memory by playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

-Bio of William Shakespeare as a Father 1564-1616.

  • Drawing of Anne Hathaway, original artist unknown.
    Oil reproduction by Roger Dunn of an alleged drawing of Anne Hathaway. Reproduced with Permission, Shakespeare’ Birthplace Trust. Click on the picture to find out more about this work of art!

    Roger Dunn BA

    Wedding Bells In 1582, Will married Anne Hathaway (not the Oscar winning actress from Les Miserables, although that one has shown some love for Shakespeare too. Based on the timeline, it’s very likely that Anne was already pregnant when William married her. Some claim that the Bard was basically in a “shotgun” marriage, but nobody has proven otherwise. We do know that he wrote a sonnet to her on their wedding day, click here to read it!

  • Shakespeare’s Children Shakespeare and Anne had three kids (Judith, Susanna, Hamnet) Susanna was born in 1583, while the twins were born 5 years later.
  • Hit the Road! Sometime around 1590, Shakespeare moved to London and must’ve gotten a job with a theater company. Unfortunately, no records survive between the birth of Shakespeare’s children, and his first success as a playwright in 1592, which is why scholars refer to this period as “The Lost Years.” It was probably a tough life for the Shakespeares, with the father away in the city while they were cooped up in Stratford with their grandparents.
  • RIP Hamnet. Shakespeare’s only son died August 9th He was away in London at the time, and undoubtedly the news was a terrible shock.
Burial Registry of Hamnet Shakespeare
Burial Registry of Hamnet Shakespeare

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00144940209597737?journalCode=vexp20

  • Will’s daughters Shakespeare had two girls, Judith and Susanna. Naturally, it’s hard to tell anything about Shakespeare’s personal feelings, but looking at his plays and his future actions, Shakespeare must have really loved his girls. Many of his later plays explore the relationships between fathers and daughters, and as you’ve probably noticed, most of the fathers on my previous countdowns have at least 1 girl. Shakespeare was preoccupied with his daughter’s futures and helped them find husbands, Susanna Shakespeare was arrested for refusing to take protestant communion Susannah married Dr. John Hall, a respected puritan physician. She also bore William his only grandchild, Elizabeth Barnard (pictured below).
Elizabeth Hall, 1608-1680. Shakespeare's granddaughter.
Elizabeth Hall, 1608-1680. Shakespeare’s granddaughter.

Will clearly loved his daughters, especially his daughter Susanna. His last 5 plays were about fathers trying their best to improve their daughter’s lives. In his will he gave his daughter Susannah 100 pounds of English money, as well as a dowry To his other daughter Judith he left 30 pounds, all of his silver, and permitted her to live in one of his houses on Henley street.

FMI:

  • by Michael Wood: A fantastic documentary/ book/ website, which looks at the life of William Shakespeare and his work. On this website is an interactive timeline that shows pictures of the places Shakespeare lived and worked, and the documents with his name on them: http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/events/
  • Will In the World by Steven Greenblatt: A great biography of Shakespeare by a celebrated Harvard scholar and editor of tne Norton Shakespeare edition. Click here for a review: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Will-in-the-World/. 

So that ends my posts on Shakespeare and Father’s Day. Stay tuned for another post about a very interesting holiday!

Illustration of the Shakespeare family, wife and children, 1890.
Illustration of the Shakespeare family, wife and children, 1890.