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?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, from December 25 to January 6, was apparently “the longest and most enthusiastically celebrated festival in the Elizabethan calendar,” and yet William Shakespeare never wrote a play that told what we might call a Christmas story. Presided over by the so-called “Lord of Misrule,” the Elizabethan Twelve Days were filled with a loosening of established mores, and a warmth and hospitality that marked a departure from the rest of year, but they also carried echoes of both paganism and popishness, providentially proving pretty unpopular with Puritans (despite being alliteratively amazing). Perhaps Shakespeare felt that writing a play celebrating the abandonment of societal norms in a medium that regularly depicted murder, rape, and dismemberment amidst sometimes-comic, sometimes-tragic family squabbles was a little on the nose.
Did Shakespeare then ever refer obliquely to the spirit of our contemporary holiday season? Twelfth Night leaps out as an obvious candidate, its title referencing the Eve of the Catholic Festival of Epiphany (January 5, the twelfth night after Christmas). The season’s traditions of music, revelry, and social inversion (such as servants dressed as their masters, men and women cross-dressing, etc) feature prominently in Twelfth Night, but the title probably references the occasion of the play’s first performance rather than any of its thematic or narrative elements.
Perhaps The Winter’s Tale, then, is a more likely candidate for a Shakespeare Christmas play. The seasonal setting certainly works and, viewed generously, in what might be described as the Christmas spirit, Leontes’ journey of redemption can be seen as a Scrooge-like story of forgiveness. The rustic comedy of the later acts and the happy ending of a family reunion also speak to our modern holiday sensibilities. In fact, several of Shakespeare’s Romances might be right for the Christmas season, in that they deal with themes of family, redemption, and the light of spring following the darkness of the solstice that fueled the holiday’s pagan origins.
Speaking of Scrooge, telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is an old tradition that Charles Dickens popularized, but Shakespeare mentions it too. In The Winter’s Tale, Mamillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins.” Textual clues suggest that Shakespeare’s great tragedy Hamlet is set at Christmastime when Marcellus claims, sort of desperately, that they can’t possibly have seen a ghost on the battlements because “they say, no spirit dare stir abroad” during “that season… Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated…so hallowed and so gracious is that time.” (Don’t tell that to Dickens!) But in a scene that might very well have inspired the author of A Christmas Carol, Richard III is visited on the eve of battle by the spirits of the people he’s murdered — his Ghosts of Victims Past — all of whom condemn him to die the following day. A cautionary tale, but not a terribly festive one.
Soldiers returning home from battle is how Much Ado About Nothing begins, and director Christopher Luscombe chose to set his Royal Shakespeare Company production just after the end of World War I, which finished in November 1918. Chris told me in an email that “the festive side of the play seemed to be enhanced by a Christmas setting. It was also interesting to see how the darker side of the play works in an icy, winter, English setting. Despite the putative ‘Messina’ location, it feels much more like an English country estate to me!”
But maybe the spirit of commerce is paramount to you, accompanied by fears of incurring massive debt to pay for presents. And maybe you think the December holiday season is dominated too much by Christmas to the exclusion of other traditions. That might make The Merchant of Venice your cup of bitter holiday nog. Or maybe you’re fed up with shopping, the same endlessly repetitive Christmas carols, and obnoxious relatives—in which case the carnage and bloodletting of Titus Andronicus could be a cathartic holiday hit. Or maybe your grim feeling that seasonal generosity and holiday largesse is foolish and rarely repaid makes you want to just settle down by the fire with Timon of Athens.
I’m not the only one in search of a Shakespeare Christmas play, and some folks are doing something about it. Playwright Paco Jose Madden has written A Shakespeare Carol, in which “Shakespeare, not Scrooge…visits past, present, and future to rediscover the love he lost and find the desire to write once more.” Dan Beaulieu, the co-founder and artistic director of the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, has also written a play called A Shakespeare Carol, in which the ghost of Christopher Marlowe visits Shakespeare and encourages him, with the help of other spirits, to turn away from the darkness of plays like Macbeth towards the Romances, “where Magic is used for good, forgiveness abounds, and Hope prevails” (according to the press description). Madden’s play had a production this fall at Arizona State University; Beaulieu’s play just had its first public reading this week. Maybe one of them — or both! — will become the Shakespeare holiday classic we need.
Until then, I for one would love to see a Christmastime production of The Merry Wives of Windsor — for goodness’ sake, the word ‘merry’ is right in the title! The domesticity of its comedy, with its squabbling relatives, fractured romances, empowering female friendship, and even pretend elves, seems perfect, right down to some of its final words, when Mistress Page declares:
Heaven give you many, many merry days. —
Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire—
What a wonderful seasonal image, and my new holiday toast. May heaven give you many, many merry days.
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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! https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/06/28/ben-elton-upstart-crow-all-is-true/
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