Was Christmas Humbug for Shakespeare?

Shakespeare Silk Tie - Plays

Shakespeare Plays Pure Silk Tie

 

We have some great Shakespeare inspired products here at Fox & Chave that would make a great Christmas gift for anyone beloved of the Bard. Like the  Shakespeare Plays Tie (above) for instance.

 

But with the festive season almost upon us, ghosts who know of our Christmas past here in England come with strange tales that the man from Stratford wasn’t keen on Christmas at all, so why would that be?

 

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays with themes of mistaken identity, social climbing and transvestism no less, is Twelfth Night, a play traditionally performed at the seasonal time of year. It was in fact written for precisely the occasion given in its title, that being 12 days after Christmas day, on the last night of the dozen day long celebrations, an occasion reserved for theatrical performances at the Royal Court.

 

Yet there is nothing within the piece that refers to Christmas. No snowy climes, no festive foods, no choral renditions, no reference to a saviour from the east or a bright star in the heavens. Indeed the play has an alternate, but oft ignored title ‘What you will’, suggestive perhaps much more of that which you make resolution on for the coming New Year. The Elizabethans exchanging gifts on the occasion of New Year.

 

Shakespeare's Flowers Crepe de Chine Scarf

 Shakespeare's Flowers Crepe de Chine Scarf

 

In the entire Shakespearean cannon the word Christmas only appears 3 times, and two of those in the same play, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

 

A description minus the actual word might be drawn from the battlement at Elsinore when Marcellus speaks to Horatio & Bernardo after seeing the ghost in the opening scene of Hamlet;

 

"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."

 

But this might be concluded only by inference to the meaning of ‘our saviour’, and perhaps moreover is a general descriptor of Winter, and fitting of scene settting for Shakespeare’s most introspective study.

 

So it's there ever so fleetingly, but was this omission a deliberate act? Perhaps a political, even religious decision? At a time of religious conflict that was heavily entwined with the politics of the day these explanations are unlikely, perhaps he really was scrooge before scrooge!

 

 

Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

 Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

 

 

One of the references from Love’s Labour’s Lost goes thus;

 

"I see the trick on’t: here was a consent,
Knowing aforehand of our merriment,
To dash it like a Christmas comedy:
Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,"

 

In the taming of the Shrew, the character Christopher Sly, a drunken Tinker, shows disdain for an impending entertainment that might be alike to that traditional at Christmas time, when Shakespeare has him say;

 

"Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?"

 

A page reassures him;

 

"No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff."

 

Is that evidence that Shakepeare didn’t like Pantomime? Be it that his work is of an altogether different theatrical breed could we blame him for a little contempt here and there for lesser talents and productions?

 

Shakespeare Portrait Cuff Links

 Shakespeare Portrait Cuff Links

 

The likelihood is that the main consideration was cultural. Aside from the preference at the time for New Year celebrations over Christmas ones, that the festival of ‘Yule’ was perhaps more common at the time with its own traditions, and maybe most significant of all is that all the trappings of what we now consider ‘Christmas’, are a product of the 1840s in no samll measure because of another titan of the English written word, Charles Dickens, who was building on traditions of middle Europe popularised in England by Victoria & Albert.

 

Where the grand centre piece of a Dickensian Christmas dinner table for the fortunate would have been a turkey or goose, as familiar as we know it today, for the well to do Elizabethans the elaborate centre-piece was the ‘peacock pie’, in which the bird was cooked in one piece with the decorated head replete with gilded bill projecting through the crust.

 

Perhaps then Shakespeare, aside from his literary genius, was something of a clairvoyant and was offering a timeless forewarning of the excesses of consumption in all its forms, and so left Christmas references to a minimum for good reason.

 

Bard Humbug!

 

Ho, ho, ho...

 


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