The last couple of days I have focused, perhaps obviously, on the festive period. It is of course Christmas after all. But while Dickens and CS Lewis have been considered Shakespeare, except in Muppet-fied form has been noticeable by his absence. About this time last year I rewrote the twelve days of Christmas all about Shakespeare plays, from Henry V to Macbeth which you can check out here. However, for a man who is supposed to be ‘for all time’ (or so Jonson would have us believe), Shakespeare seems oddly absent from Christmas. it is instead a season dominated, for the most part, by Victorians, with Dickens at the helm. But why is this, and what did Shakespeare have to say about Christmas?
When I was younger I remember pouring over Where’s Wally books one boxing day, this year my boxing day read has been The Drood Case – a book with an impressive number of appendices and which also involves a search, namely for that ever elusive Edwin. But it has been sadly lacking in the number of red and white figures, don’t worry I wasn’t looking for Santa. So, in the manner of a Where’s Wally search, I decided I’d look a little deeper and scratch below the surface for the missing man of the season: Shakespeare.
My first port of call was of course to check out Shakespeare’s complete works and see if he’d actually referenced the festive season at all. A few clicks on Shakespeare’s Words later and lo an behold three, yes a whole three, references to Christmas. There was the obvious rose quote and a couple of others, two from Love’s Labour’s Lost and one The Taming of the Shrew for those intrigued about the exact quotes I have reprinted them below:
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.
– Love’s Labour’s Lost I.i.105-7
That’s the one you might see on a Christmas card, preferably with a tacky rose in the middle of a snowy scene which seems to suggest (though I know I’m no gardener so correct me if I’m wrong) if nothing else that the card crafter has rather missed the point of the words.
Or perhaps worse still a scene which depicts Jesus in a rose cradle (yes, such things exist) which inadvertently if captioned with these lines suggests he is unseasonal. Sacrilege! Ok, not quite but lovely though these lines are they are hardly a celebration of Christmas in the classic sense – not it seems something Shakespeare went in for in as many words in his canon – but rather Christmas is used to be indicative of a season, namely winter, where roses (besides I know, I know, the Christmas rose – a flower far newer than Shakespeare) wouldn’t haven’t survived a frost. Just as in May if we saw snow it would certainly be unusual. That’s really what it seems to me he’s getting at in these lines. In essence I wouldn’t want a rose at Christmas because in all likely cases it’d be rotten and besides it’s not natural those delights are reserved for the right season, but bring on the snow, though not in May for goodness sake when we’re well into spring and almost ready for summer.
Pye seemed to think the lines pretty self explanatory too, ‘I cannot conceive any difficult in this’ he said, but difficult or easy these lines leave us no further forward as to why Shakespeare is strangely absent in the Christmas scene.
Context is of course key, and just to set the scene only a few lines before Berowne has been accused by the King of being like a frost, and this is because he kicks up a fuss at having to give up so much in the place of study. Now that’s the Christmas spirit folks! Ok, maybe not. Though I can relate to the brief break being desired during study as much as I love it and spend many a moment when I’m on a break thinking about it (it never goes away you know), breaks as I am persistently told are sometimes a good thing, and in the eyes of these Lords at least if a few women are added to the picture, the better for it.
But back to Christmas, a season of breaks after all, and as I write this we are in the bizarre limbo between Christmas and New Year where after all the gift wrap is tidied up, the turkey demolished and games played with any child willing to share their new toy, we can feel left at a loose end. But my Shakespeare search has kept me fairly occupied.
There is, as I said before, no escape – the moment you begin looking for something (unless of course you’ve lost it) it begins appearing everywhere. And Shakespeare was no different. Not just because I received this book for Christmas – Santa clearly knows me well!
Confused at his absence I swiftly became very aware of his hidden presence. Not in the conventional sense admittedly, there were no screenings of his plays to the masses on the TV as a couple of year’s ago when we were treated to the Boxing Day Hamlet which I think aired the same year as both the new Great Expectations BBC series and The Mystery of Edwin Drood which a quick Google search tells me was 2012. But Hamlet isn’t particularly a Christmas play unless you make the slightly tenuous connection with it’s ghosts, supernatural elements and the Victorian tradition of ghost stories at Christmas and besides, it’s Christmas and Shakespeare in general I was concerned with. As a couple of examples over Christmas we watched Nativity! and Still Open All Hours (I have yet to watch Dr Who but they usually manage a literary reference or two so perhaps Shakespeare also cropped up) and different though they may seem Shakespeare appeared in both of them.
Nativity! stars a character who is not only called Gordon Shakespeare but also, when urging his troops (aka a group of private school pupils) over the fence to charge on opposing forces (aka a group of kids from a Catholic primary school) he utters the words of Henry V, from the eponymous play and they charge into battle:
God for Harry, England, and Saint George!
– Henry V III.i.34
Alright, I know this is hardly conclusive evidence that Shakespeare is more seasonal than we might expect but it was intriguing. The connection to Shakespeare in Still Open All Hours was even more tenuous perhaps and was more as a reference to literature than to Shakespeare or his plays, a touchstone. Just in the way that Shakespeare uses Christmas in those words from Love’s Labour’s Lost an indicator of the wider picture. Perhaps then Shakespeare is less the main event, the Turkey say, but more the goose fat that coats the potatoes, hinted at but not overtly present. You can smell it, taste it, even see it before it goes in, but when the dinner comes out it’s probably not the goose fat you’re most excited about.
Back to those other direct reference to Christmas in the plays and sticking with Love’s Labour’s Lost where the second reference to Christmas occurs again spoken by Berowne:
I see the tick on’t. Here was a consent,
Knowing aforehand of our merriment,
To dash it like a Christmas comedy.
– Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii.460-463
Again, like before Christmas is an image employed to indicate something bigger; this time an art form (slightly ironic given the artifice at the heart of Love’s Labour’s Lost): Christmas comedy. This remark comes after the muscovite-dressed lords have had their plans foiled by the astute women who have swapper favours (given to them by their suitors) so the men declare their love to the wrong women. Perhaps it doesn’t immediately sing Christmas, but their are certainly elements there: the exchange of gifts, disguised bearers of presents, happy singing and dancing despite the curfew. But this reference by Berowne is less specific to the season and more a linguistic link to the theatre of the festive season and being made a mockery of, in true comedic manner (an act of course not limited only to the yuletide season).
The final reference appears in The Taming of the Shrew and is in a similar vein to the previous instance in Love’s Labour’s Lost the frolics, entertainment and merriments associated with the season. Looking back at the various Christmas parties many of us have attended with vivid (or perhaps more hazy depending on the quantity of mulled wine consumed) memories of colleagues and friends behaving in ways open to ridicule it seems not much has changed since the Renaissance!
The words here are spoken by Sly who is uncertain as to what a (comonty) comedy is:
… Let them play it. Is not a comonty a
Christmas gambold or a tumbling trick?
The Taming of the Shrew Induction.ii.135-6
Again this reference is in relation to Christmas comedies, gambold simply refers here to pastime or frolic. Although a quick search for the instances of ‘Christmas’ in the canon is hardly a comprehensive investigation it is a quick skim across the crowds of criticism – the Shakespearean equivalent to the bystanders in a Where’s Wally book.
When I was thinking about which play I thought might be a likely candidate for a Christmas Shakespeare showing, the play that came to mind most immediately was neither of the plays in which it was mentioned but The Winter’s Tale for the season itself and then perhaps a tie between The Tempest and Hamlet. Perhaps I’d better explain. Primarily for all three’s seasonal supernatural elements and the final uniting of families at the conclusion of each play. Ok, Hamlet isn’t a traditional heart-warming Christmas comedy with the likes of Love Actually but they do share some attributes which capture the Christmas spirit later to be found in the more conventional Christmas stories penned by the likes of Dickens. Father-figure and son reunited through supernatural journeys, revenge meets redemption, the once thought dead are raised to life. Well, you get the picture.
In reality however, I’m not necessarily advocating for a Shakespeare Christmas play to be elected, but rather this brief search has made clear that while Shakespeare perhaps takes a back-seat during the Christmas season now (his plays continued to be aired throughout the winter season by hardy theatre frequenters in the Renaissance as Shapiro notes in the opening pages of 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare) he is name-checked or referenced. I’m not suggesting these themes wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Shakespeare, far from it. Perhaps, it’s time (shock horror) someone else took centre stage. A tradition the RSC are perhaps embracing with their staging of The Shoemaker’s Holiday – a comedy at Christmas. I think it’s good others are in the limelight during the festive season, and every season.
While the Where’s Shakespeare has returned only a handle of results, his position as the fat cooking the potatoes with Dickens perhaps as the turkey is not to say that he is wholly absent but rather in the wings with plays available ready to be performed with Christmas elements if necessary but not a man of the season in the way that his Victorian literary friends may be.
Comedy, Tragedy, and History, yes Shakespeare may be performed on any occasion but should he always be? The canon will remain narrow if that occurs and new works, or works once lost will remain under the empty gift wrap while the celebrity annuals dominate once again. The spirit of Shakespeare nevertheless (though not always explicitly) lives on in the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.