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Shakespeare & Beyond

Have yourself a merry Shakespeare Christmas

It’s that time of year, when some of us have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, many are looking forward to (or dreading) gathering with family and friends, and a certain subset of us wonder, somewhat longingly and not for the first time — what’s the closest thing we have to a Shakespeare Christmas play?


Hey, I should think dozens of us on this side of the pond have directed you to Opstart Crow, which did its own version of A Christmas Carol last year, following on from the episode with the death of Hamnet.
“Marlowe was dead, to begin with.”

Heather Owen — December 20, 2019

Classic — I wrote about UPSTART CROW earlier this year!

Austin Tichenor — December 20, 2019

As EVER: Well done, lad! SO much to ponder in this; you are, as always, well worth the read…

David Starzyk — December 21, 2019

As I read through your delightful article I kept waiting for the play that I felt certain would make the list – and it did right at the end: The Merry Wives of Windsor.
I seem to remember an RSC production from the late ‘80s that featured a scene of children frolicking outside in mummers’ costumes, and there may have been snow. It certainly gave the sense of being set in the Christmas season.

Also DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Co. did set Twelth Night in the Christmas season (in an airport!) a few years ago.

Id like to see As You Like It set at Christmas, just to see what could be made of it. Ant of the plays with a vaguely happy ending, really. Even Midsummer Night’s Dream, if the forest of Arden is in Australia.

Lynne — December 27, 2019

I’m surprised not to see ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ on the list (more alliteration!). If the opening scene’s intention to engage in the (traditionally autumnal) start of an academic year (or theoretically even three), the ‘dying fall’ of the end – preceded as it is by the mini-panto – reflects the joy and dying fall of the actual (post-)Christmas/New Year (anti-)climax. Not to mention the the songs of Spring and Hiems (Winter). Joyful melancholy….

Frederick Robinson — December 29, 2019

I don’t understand why you left out the one play that we know was actually performed on Christmas: King Lear. The title page of the 1608 quarto says it was “played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes”, and it was entered into the Stationers’ Register on December 26, 1606, presumably the day after it was premiered.

King Lear makes a lot of sense for Christmas. As bleak as it is, it’s a play that teaches us to be empathetic, and you can’t walk out of it without wanting to hug your loved ones and make sure the old men you encounter on the way home have a place to stay the night.

Lear makes far more sense to me as Shakespeare’s official Christmas play than Twelfth Night – that holiday is its own thing, the end of Yuletide, and a very different vibe from the beginning of the season. A Winter’s Tale, despite its name, could just as easily be associated with the Spring, which is the season of the second half of the play. Merry Wives is definitely a spring play, which is when the Order of the Garter festival is held, and in any case it would just be too mean to toss Falstaff into the Thames in the middle of winter, when it would be frozen over anyway. Hamlet takes place over too long a period of time to be associated with any one time of year. We know exactly what time of year Much ado takes place in and it’s definitely not Christmas: in the very first scene Don Pedro says it’s the sixth of July, and the play is full of summertime heat and passion. (And Merchant of Venice would be a terrible idea for so many reasons there’s no room for them here.)

I think Christmas would be an excellent time to do a reading of the sonnets, perhaps interspersed with some John Dowland songs. And even though its tropical setting could not be less seasonal, I nevertheless could see The Tempest as a welcome play at Christmas time, since it deals with themes of family, forgiveness, and the power that lies in the ambiguity of illusion and reality.

But I’m going to continue to lobby for Lear as the official Christmas play – anyone with me?

James Jacobs — December 29, 2019

James, I left off LEAR for a very good reason — I didn’t think of it! It’s an intriguing notion and I’d love to see it.

Austin Tichenor — January 3, 2020

As a footnote to my ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ suggestion, as well as to a comment in James Jacobs’, ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ features (albeit satirical) sonnets invented and spoken out by the King, Berowne, Dumain and Longaville.

Frederick Robinson — January 7, 2020

Mr. Tichenor – upon rereading my original post I realize how overwhelmingly negative and critical it is. I’m so sorry: just a bit of sleep-deprived exuberance in being able to discuss a topic that I’m passionate about and rarely get to address in my professional life.

In any case I have seen Twelfth Night staged as a Christmas play and it was lovely, but I think its association with its titular holiday makes it an even better candidate as a play to chase the post-holiday blues in January – a play about the relaxing and upending of norms and traditions, not codifying them. I could use that play right now, in fact.

And yes, Mr. Robinson, I could also imagine Love’s Labours Lost used for Christmas, though its themes of farewell and transition feel to me like the end of summer, which is when it was produced the time I directed the music for a production of it, which probably skews my perspective.

Also need to correct something I said in my unruly earlier post: of course Lear isn’t the only play Shakespeare mounted during the Christmas holidays. Another one was Comedy of Errors, performed on both December 28, 1594 and December 28, 1604. I’ve always thought that the play could be treated less as a rowdy circus-y free-for-all and more as a precursor to the romances, and perhaps a production that emphasized that aspect of the text could work as a holiday play that would still have plenty of laughs.

In any case I hope there’s a Shakespeare production next December in the DC area and I look forward to whatever it is they come up with.

James Jacobs — January 7, 2020