Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 179
Many of us have holiday traditions: we trim trees, spin dreidels, trick-or-treat, set off fireworks, and host parties. People had holiday traditions in Shakespeare’s time too: they crossdressed, roleplayed, fought, acted in amateur theatricals, ate pancakes, and watched cockfights. If you’re thinking a few of those activities sound familiar from Shakespeare’s plays… well, you’re right.
Dr. Erika T. Lin studies holidays in early modern England. Some of them, like Christmas and Easter, are still big dates on today’s calendars, while others, like Martlemas, Shrovetide, Midsummer, or The May, are less familiar. Lin talks with Barbara Bogaev about how people celebrated and how they might have felt about Shakespeare’s plays in a period when the line between holiday festivity and theater wasn’t quite clear.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Dr. Erika T. Lin is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. You can find her writing on Elizabethan festivals and holidays in a couple of places. Her article “Popular Festivity and the Early Modern Stage: The Case of George a Greene,” appeared in Theatre Journal in 2009. Her chapter entitled “Festivity” appeared in the 2013 book Early Modern Theatricality, edited by Henry S. Turner and published by Oxford University Press. Her book Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance won the 2013 David Bevington Award in Early Drama Studies. Lin is a past Folger fellow.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published November 23, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Revels, Dances, Masques, and Merry Hours,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits a transcript of every episode, available at folger.edu. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio.
Shakespeare Unlimited: Women Performers in Shakespeare's Time
We talk with Clare McManus about where and how women performed in early modern Europe: emerging from mechanical seashells in elaborate court masques, dancing across tightropes, and on the stages of the European Continent.
Shakespeare and Beyond: Christmas, New Year’s Day… and Plough Monday?
Find out how Elizabethans celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the deep cuts like Plough Monday.
Shakespeare and Beyond: Happy Holidays from Elizabethan England
Was "Merry Olde England" really that merry? There may be some truth to the idea.
MICHAEL WITMORE: I can’t prove this definitively, but go with me. Here’s something that people may have once heard William Shakespeare actually say. Ready? “Good sir! A Festive Martlemas to you.”
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. There is a lot about everyday life in Shakespeare’s time that we just would not recognize today, and one thing that falls into that category is: Holidays. Martlemas—that word I said earlier?—that was one. So was Midsummer. So was The May. There were others, and each one had its own customs and rituals. Some of them have come down to us today. Some haven’t, and others are present in ways that we don’t even recognize.
Dr. Erika T. Lin studies Elizabethan holidays and—as you’ll hear—her work has yielded some surprising revelations. Revelations not only about holidays themselves, but about the relationship between holidays and what we now think of as “theater.”
Dr. Lin joined us recently from a studio in Brooklyn for a podcast that we’re calling “Revels, Dances, Masques, and Merry Hours.” Dr. Erika T. Lin is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Since many of us Americans aren’t that familiar with the holidays that were celebrated in England in Shakespeare’s time, why don’t we start there? For instance, what was Martlemas?
ERIKA T. LIN: Martlemas was a holiday in November that was the feast of St. Martin. It was the time when they salted down the meat to preserve it for the winter. So they would eat up anything that they couldn’t actually preserve. It’s often understood as the beginning of the winter cycle which then lasts until Shrovetide in February.
BOGAEV: Okay, so people celebrated or observed it mostly by feasting?
LIN: Yeah, they would observe it mostly by feasting. And there are a lot of feasting holidays, actually. Shrovetide is, kind of, the bookend holiday season where there’s a lot feasting.
Christmas we all know, but Shrovetide, which is Mardi Gras, also involves feasting. It was a holiday where people would celebrate by eating pancakes, and that happened on Tuesday. On Monday they eat fried meat called Collop Monday. Collops of meat, or cuts of meat.
You can think of this as going full circle in terms of the food. Pancake Day is still what they call it in England.
BOGAEV: Pancake Day, yum. Okay, so moving on, tell us about Midsummer.
LIN: Midsummer was the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24th. And it was often celebrated with bonfires and also parades. They had giants and unicorns. Lots of the craft guilds, actually, would march in procession. They would decorate their houses and so forth.
It’s one of the holidays that ends a cycle that begins at Easter. So what you have is, you have the winter of cycle of holidays and you have the summer cycle of holidays, from Easter to Midsummer, which included the time of year they referred to as “the May.”
BOGAEV: The May. Okay, we know about dancing around the maypole and the May Queen, am I right? So, The May were the May Games?
LIN: Yeah, so the May was the May Games. It was also… It referred to not just a single day, May Day, but also to a series of holidays including Trinity Sunday, Whitsunday, which is Pentecost, Corpus Christi Day.
These holidays together included not only a maypole, but also building of an arbor to cover the May Queen or the May Lady. Sometimes they also had a May Lord or May King. These terms are interchangeable actually, so the term Summer Lord is also a term that gets used frequently—or Summer Lady—for these figures. One of the things they would do is they would do a lot of roleplaying and there was actually a lot of crossdressing during this holiday as well.
LIN: And one of the crossdressed figures… Yeah.
BOGAEV: Okay, interesting. Tell me more.
LIN: It was popular at Christmas too. Crossdressing was one of the ways that they celebrated these holidays. And you see that more formally in a holiday festive dance known as the Morris dance.
There’s Morris dancing today as well, it looks a little bit different, but there’s some similarities. So they would tie bells around their ankles and put scarves or napkins in their hands and hop up around.
But they also had characters in the Morris dance including Maid Marian from the Robin Hood tales. And often a friar as well, or a fool, and they would dance together. There’s a kind of informal roleplaying. But this Maid Marian was often a boy and that was just… it wasn’t understood as particularly subversive. In fact, you might understand it as fairly conservative in that period.
BOGAEV: Fairly conservative. Wait… It’s good we’re talking about Robin Hood, I’m really interested in Robin Hood. Was there—you mentioned Maid Marian and Friar Tuck, was there also a Robin Hood character and a Robin Hood holiday?
LIN: Yeah, so Robin Hood was another term that was used sometimes for the Summer Lord. The Robin Hood figure served more than one function. So, there were stories back then, but in addition to that, he was simply a prominent member of the community who would organize the activities. A layperson.
BOGAEV: Oh, as opposed to an outlaw.
LIN: Yes, he’s an outlaw in the stories, but in the festive context, in local parishes, each year they would have a Robin Hood who would be in charge of all the administrative functions. Some people actually tried to beg off because they didn’t want to have to do that labor.
They would dress in green and there would be archery and so forth. But the main thing that they did was to sell livery badges, which were little paper badges you would put in your cap. It’s like selling raffle tickets for a church bazaar, so that you can raise money to, say, fix the leaking roof in the church. By having people buy one of these livery badges, so then they too become one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men.
BOGAEV: Oh, so this is kind of…
LIN: It’s a kind of roleplaying game. Mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: Right, I was going to say elaborate roleplaying/school bake sale.
LIN: Yes, exactly. They had a lot of food drink too, so these things were also called church ales. Ale being the drink, but also the name for the party, right? It’s like saying a kegger.
BOGAEV: A kegger. Fantastic, a Robin Hood kegger. All right, so, but there was a Robin Hood and there was a Summer Lord and sometimes they were the same. And it sounds like from your writing, sometimes there were two of them and the two would square off against each other in games.
LIN: Well, so these terms are really fluid. Sometimes you would have more than one Robin Hood. We think of Robin Hood as an individual character, but you see references to “the Robin Hoods” and it indicates that this person is a functionary. That their job is both festive leader, in terms of the roleplaying, as well as administrative head.
Summer Lord was another term that gets used in other records in relation to that. But often, the kind of games that they would use as fundraisers included various kinds of athletic combat or dancing. There were certainly various kinds of festive combat games where people would spar off, and it’s a spectator sport, right? Not unlike football today.
BOGAEV: Huh. Because we’re going to be talking about how all of this contributed to or evolved into professional theater, what was the roleplaying like, then? Because it sounds like you were kind of stuck with doing this administrative work. It sounds kind of like a drag, but also very fun if you were Robin Hood or the Summer Lord. But did these people really get into the roleplaying? I mean…
LIN: Yeah, they dressed up. They were certainly into the roleplaying. As far as we can tell from the records they were involved in some small dramatic skits. We don’t have very long scripts. These skits are really rudimentary, kind of, excuses in order to stage a fight and so forth. But as far as we can tell, you know, people would enjoy playing this the way that somebody might enjoy playing Santa Claus today or something.
LIN: There’s a series of, kind of, signifiers to indicate that this person is the Robin Hood. They definitely played a variety of other characters as well and you see some references to these, like Diana and her Nymphs are in the procession and so forth.
Anyways, the figure of the Robin Hood, it’s a form of communal bonding. Just like at Halloween today, there’s an opportunity to dress up and to play a character you don’t normally get to play. They also did that. So, the crossdressing and the Robin Hood games are inter-related in that way.
BOGAEV: I’m really glad you brought that up, because I was always Robin Hood for Halloween when I was a kid.
LIN: That’s so great.
BOGAEV: I’m interested in these sports matches because sports functions this way too, as a community bonding and building event. I picture this as, kind of, a wild festival where people are dressed up and you’re all raising money. But you’re also really getting into the sport and it’s a little bit like capture the flag.
LIN: Yeah, they definitely enjoyed playing these sports during many of these holidays. Shrovetide, in particular, was known for football which is not the same as U.S. football, but there’s a lot of records to various kinds of violent activity. And, you know, I sometimes tell my students this was more of a risk in the era before antibiotics.
But these kinds of games, you really do see the legacy of it today in football, both in the U.S. and abroad. The way the fans behave, where they dress in the colors of their team, right? There’s a lot of eating and drinking at tailgating parties. All of these kinds of activities: the mascot, which is a form of roleplaying and the spectacle involved. These are things that are very much part of that long festive tradition.
BOGAEV: Yeah, let’s dig into the roleplaying some more because I’m thinking of Halloween when you have your costume on and you are pretty much yourself, a lot of the time. But some people just, you know, if they’re Dracula, they’re Dracula the whole night. They really go method on the whole holiday. So what was the expectation during these festivals or these festive days?
LIN: So for them, the notion of a character isn’t the same as what it is for us. We think of a character as a fully fleshed out entity with a childhood and a psychology and so forth.
BOGAEV: Yeah, a backstory.
LIN: Yeah, backstory. Exactly. And for them it’s more of a functionary. If you have, say, the banker in Monopoly. The banker has a role to play in the game. But, you know, it’s not like you can say, “Oh, the banker has some sort of personal history.”
To some extent, there’s a developing notion of character in this time period, which really makes a difference in terms of how we interpret what’s happening on stage. Because we often think of the characters on stage as fully fleshed out beings, and that’s how they’re performed today in the theater. But I think there’s a transition period happening here where people are understanding character as something they play regularly themselves and something that has a kind of communal function—that the point of crossdressing is not to pass as another gender, but rather to participate in a festive activity that involves various kinds of spectacle and games and dancing and singing and eating and drinking. And, together, then, it reinforces social bonds through a communal ritual.
BOGAEV: That’s interesting, because as you say, everything was in flux. Some of these holidays, like Christmas, you have Father Christmas and you have Shrovetide theatricals. Was that developing at this—in this period in more elaborate ways? For instance, in aristocratic households?
LIN: Yeah, there was quite a lot of theater in aristocratic households at those two particular holidays. At Christmastime, including the twelve days—so it goes, you know, all the way until January 5—as well as during Shrovetide. In fact, some people understand the Christmas season as lasting all the way from Christmas to Shrovetide.
The evidence in aristocratic households is a little more elaborate because they were literate and kept records. But companies like Shakespeare’s company would perform there. You do have references to some of the famous plays that are being performed at that time of year in those households. And they were also performed elsewhere such as the Inns of Court, which is where the lawyers were trained.
I’m very interested in the crossover between that and the way regular people understood their activities as like drama in some ways. “Drama” doesn’t exist as a concept in the same way yet at that time. Where they’re coming from is a notion of performance that’s ubiquitous; it’s something everybody does. As part of that, then you start to develop into a thing that we can understand as scripted drama. But that transition hasn’t fully happened yet.
BOGAEV: Okay, so there is all of this, what we’d call now amateur theatrics going on around these holidays and festivals. I just picture it as kind of a head scratcher when professional acting companies started appearing and began charging money for doing what everyday folks were already doing for fun and for charity. I mean, what was that transition like?
LIN: Well, so this is actually one of the key questions that drives my current book project. Which is, that people are performing Robin Hood and playing all these characters, so why would they actually go into the theater and pay money? And pay money before they have even seen anything: they pay money on the way in, rather than afterwards.
One of the things that’s interesting to me is that characters that we think of as fully fleshed-out characters in Shakespeare’s plays and so forth may actually have served a very different function if we think of it in this holiday context. So that holidays may well have entered into theater not only in terms of representations of actual holiday practices—“Oh, here is a sheep shearing festival in the Winter’s Tale,” or something like that—but rather in terms of the particular performance dynamics that they would use to make people feel incorporated into the play the way they would feel incorporated into a festive practice during a regular holiday. Except now, you have to use your imagination instead of actually, literally, doing that activity yourself.
BOGAEV: Seems a lot less fun, right?
LIN: Well, it is. I mean it’s a heavy lift if you think of it that way, right? Yeah, I mean, people are trained into a process of, how do I say… they’re trained into understanding fiction as a suitable substitute for actually enacting the thing themselves, and I’m interested in how exactly that happens.
I wouldn’t say that it’s only that they’re trained into it. The audience too functions as an active agent in that process. They’re expecting certain things and asking certain things. The whole process develops. So, it’s an interesting process with a lot of different factors to it, including the purpose-built playhouses in London, which didn’t exist prior to this era.
BOGAEV: But there was precedent for paying for entertainment, obviously. I mean, you know, to go watch fights or bears, right?
LIN: Yeah, well, so there’s the… there are touring players prior to Shakespeare’s era. And some people say, “Okay, well, so they perform plays. So, then what is actually going on with Shakespeare’s era?”
One way I like to think about it is that in that time period, they were paying for things that other people couldn’t do. They would pay for acrobats to do special tricks. Rope dancers, which is walking on a tight rope or a slack rope. Or bear baiters, people who would bring around their bears, animal entertainers of various sorts. And so those are presentational.
BOGAEV: Yeah, those are specialists. You’re paying a premium for their expertise.
LIN: Exactly. Those are, in fact, the same people who ended up on stage. There are actually records of acting companies who also do these sorts of activities and get paid for them.
LIN: They’re known as “feats of activity.”
BOGAEV: Okay. But theater is something different and, as you say, Shakespeare and, at this time, professional theatrics involved incorporating and fictionalizing these popular holiday traditions and integrating them into fiction. I’m thinking an obvious example are things like Morris dances in Shakespeare performance.
Was that all about putting people in seats in the theater by using familiarity? Or, you know, the way theaters now always put on Dickens and the Nutcracker at Christmas?
LIN: I think it’s more complicated than that. In that time period, they didn’t just perform a single show for a certain run of however long of two weeks, four weeks, et cetera. They would perform a different play each day for at least 14 days before they repeated one even once. And those plays that were—
BOGAEV: Which is remarkable and which is a sign of virtuosity, like a performing bear, right?
LIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you can imagine the memorization that was involved in such a practice. So they were to some extent, understanding these plays as kind of formulas for a certain kind of activity.
Whereas A Christmas Carol is performed once a year, some of these plays, they might be performed at a different time of year if they’re popular enough to continue. So, while they might open—and I have some evidence that I haven’t published yet on Titus Andronicus where I argue Titus Andronicus is a Shrovetide play. It’s not normally understood that way, but this play has a lot of themes that are similar to that holiday.
BOGAEV: Like what?
LIN: Well, so Shrovetide I mentioned before, is a feasting holiday, right? Where you feast on pancakes but also on collops of meat. But they also had a variety of other kinds of violent activities. Football was very popular at that time, but also what one scholar refers to as, “Violence against poultry.” You had cockbaiting.
BOGAEV: That’s very serious, actually. I shouldn’t laugh.
LIN: Violence against poultry. Yeah, I mean, you know, they had cockfighting and cockbaiting. But they also had a thing known as cock-throwing, which involved putting a chicken in the ground and burying it up to its neck in dirt and then throwing sticks or stones at it or hitting it with a flail. Or sometimes they would tie it to a stake instead of burying it until it was dead.
In the 17th century, late 17th century, you actually start seeing people who are, you know, kind of early animal rights activists saying that this really isn’t cool.
LIN: And that they start using effigy chickens instead.
BOGAEV: Ah, but I can see the connection now, as you’re talking Titus Andronicus. I mean, just the bloodiness, the, just, brutality. Yeah.
LIN: Right? I mean it’s one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays, right? And it involves a cannibalistic feast at the end. I argue Aaron the Moor actually is buried up to his neck and asked to starve. So, underscoring the question of who gets to eat and who doesn’t, but also in this representation of cock-throwing.
I’ve done a little bit of work on the Titus Andronicus ballad, which shows an image that I argue looks very similar to the pie which—sorry, spoiler, end of Titus Andronicus involves baking the antagonists in a pie as revenge, right? But it has this chicken topper on top of it, so it’s an interesting kind of parallel.
But, you know, if you look at the records as to when this play was likely performed and then you start tracing these themes, you can start to see some of the connections that are unexpected if you read the play merely as a script that’s performed year-round.
BOGAEV: So your argument means that these early audience members would watch Titus Andronicus and immediately recognize this as cockbaiting or cock-throwing?
LIN: I don’t know that it’s that explicit, but I would say that the play gives them a sensation that feels familiar at that time of year when they’re already doing this sort of activity themselves.
There’s a way in which it’s… Our sense of time is a homogenous sense of time that is the same day-in and day-out, year-round. And, occasionally, certain times of year, the holidays, for instance, we have a sense that, “Okay, this is the time of year when certain kinds of things happen.” Charity, for instance, which is an early modern practice as well.
But in this time period, I would say in order to make a case for why commercial theater is going to be worthwhile for audiences to pay for, they have to give them something that they’re already seeking.
Part of what’s happening too is there’s a social shift. In London, of course, it’s not as big as it is now, but it was a very large city for its own time period. People are in a different situation, and you’re creating social bonds in the absence of what you actually have.
You do have parish activities in London in this period related to holidays, but people are seeking this kind of connection. You still have that today in theater in a lot of ways, right? With the pandemic and everything, people have been isolated. When you come together in the theater, there’s a kind of joyousness of a communal ritual that you’re all sharing an experience together. That’s a very powerful thing.
BOGAEV: Yeah, it is a really powerful thing. And, these holidays and the shared culture, that was very powerful. But in this transition, is theater borrowing these customs and tropes and characters from the festivals and the holiday culture? Or are they using them because they’re inherently dramatic or theatrical, right? Maybe that’s one and the same.
LIN: Well, I mean, it’s an interesting way that you put it, right? To say they’re borrowing them because they’re inherently theatrical—there is no theater prior to this. This is what theater is, right?
LIN: Is, in fact, you know…
BOGAEV: So, it’s just organic.
BOGAEV: It’s just this organic transition.
LIN: Right. Time is moving forward for them, right? From their perspective, they live in a culture where everything is highly theatrical all the time. Performance is ubiquitous. It’s a thing that everybody does.
So then, in order to understand theater as some sort of entity that is a separate institution that is a, quote, “art form,” i.e. well bounded and framed, that’s a process that happens over time.
I’m not convinced—like, we look at it from the 21st century and we say, “Oh, Shakespeare is an artist, a literary artist,” and that he’s well bounded. We read him in high school classes, and so he’s written on the page. Then, we do the back formation and say, “How did they perform it?” But for them, I think they’re thinking, “This is actually just what we do all the time.” And so, in fact, the innovation is to actually have a script, right?
LIN: The innovation is to have a fully fleshed-out character and story—or it’s becoming fully fleshed-out, it’s not fully there yet. You know, even characters like Hamlet, I would say are to some extent stock figures.
BOGAEV: In what sense?
LIN: Well, I would say Hamlet is a revenge character, but also serves a festive role. He’s the one who foments the play-within-the-play, in addition to the revenge tragedy tradition, right? He functions, in some ways, and he refers to himself sometimes, in relation to the fool, or he fakes madness, and these are tropes also. You have the fool also in the Morris dancing and you also have these Robin Hood figures or Summer Lords. So, Hamlet is a mock king, in that festive sense of a Summer Lord or a Robin Hood figure.
Then you also, of course, have a variety of other kinds of activities. There’s a big sword fight at the end, which is all very exciting. This is kind of festive combat that’s not dissimilar. There were other kinds of festive combat happening, not only in the parish context, but also actually literally in the same playhouses where they would actually do plays.
BOGAEV: Huh. So in that light, are modern audiences able to think about Shakespeare as playing in the sense that Elizabethan audiences did? Since we don’t have this cultural tradition of amateur theatricals. And, you know, it’s not deeply ingrained in us as it once was in England. So do we just come at this just from a totally out-there angle?
LIN: Well, I mean, if what you’re asking is how modern audiences can imagine themselves into the mindset of somebody who was alive in Shakespeare’s day, probably the closest would be to think of an activity that you just do for fun. Whether that’s, you know, host a party and offer food and drink and people are very gregarious at such events. Or, you know, they might watch—
BOGAEV: Like a Super Bowl party?
LIN: Yeah, like a Super Bowl party or something like that. It’s not a thing that you understand as work, it’s just a thing you do. It’s play. We call Shakespeare’s actors “players” because they understood themselves as playing, not working.
That’s starting to change. They are getting paid, but there isn’t a cultural category yet for that concept. And so there’s a transition that’s happening in terms of the commercialization of theater in this period from something that everybody does to something that only specialists, professionals do.
BOGAEV: Well, given that, then, what’s the most surprising thing that you’ve unearthed in terms of it changing your understanding of Shakespeare? Either a passage or a reference to holidays in his work.
LIN: I think there are a lot of different ways to be surprised. One of the ways that we often think about Shakespeare is to look at the literary images. This is what you do in a high school classroom. “Oh, what does this mean in this context,” you know, “In this particular sentence?”
But considering that we’re not even sure which script was actually performed on stage… There’re three different versions of Hamlet. There’re two different versions of King Lear. I mean, these are major plays. I’m not just talking something you’ve never heard of, right?
Those kinds of differences… a lot of scholars have talked about the differences between those various kinds of texts. But one of the things that I think interests me is to rethink Shakespeare from the perspective of spectacle. Instead of focusing on some sort of narrative continuity in all cases, we think about Hamlet as the play with the great swordfight at the end. Or, say, As You Like It, as part of what’s enjoyable about that is watching the crossdressing. The same thing with Twelfth Night, where you have a figure like Malvolio who, with the people in the peanut gallery making fun of him. He doesn’t realize they’re there when he’s reading this letter supposedly from his lady.
This kind of practice we understand often in the terms of these literary themes, but if we rethink them less in terms of literary themes… Or even: people have done some work on the very cultural context, like they talk about, say, prostitutes crossdressing in order to solicit customers and so forth—that’s a fairly limited perspective if we think about the fact that everybody’s crossdressing at every holiday. It really does change your understanding of exactly what’s going on onstage. Are people identifying with those characters, then, and thinking of themselves as participating in that activity?
Rather than reading Shakespeare as this literary artist, as an author, as an authority in that sense, as the buck-stops-here kind of authority, we can think of Shakespeare as a working artist, as a working theater-maker, in a culture full of people who understand themselves as everyday theater-makers and artists.
Even these terms are really complicated because the concept of “art” doesn’t come into being until a little bit later than this time as we understand it today, as a separate entity that can be, essentially, commodified and turned into a production.
So, if we think of this as a way that people come together, it’s more similar to going trick-or-treating and bringing together the neighbors, and the parents can chat while the children ask for the candy and so forth. Or a sporting event where people gather together, or a variety of other festive practices. Political protests are actually one of the ways that people also can bond together socially today.
There are a lot of overlaps with the variety of different things. And after a period like we’ve all experienced during the pandemic, I think coming together and really savoring what it means to have those social connections is a powerful thing. If we think of Shakespeare in relation to that kind of communal ritual and bonding, it can give us a broader dimension of exactly what Shakespeare can mean to us today.
BOGAEV: I imagine Shakespeare taking part in some of these festivals, and in his mind he’s writing lines for his role or a role or the Summer Lord.
LIN: Well, I mean, you know, another way to think about it, right, is that lines are something that arise naturally and organically out of these experiences, you know? As far as we can tell, considering how often they performed and how many plays they had, they could barely keep track of which one was up today.
BOGAEV: That’s true! I should think of him as just taking notes on his neighbors as they’re the Summer Lords.
LIN: Well, and there’s a kind of organic, like, “What would you say in a situation such as this?” Some boy comes in, right? And you can say, “Oh,” you know, well, let’s just say, “What ho, what news from France? Okay!” You know?
Then some other character comes in and you can imagine what happens then in a situation like this. Whatever creates more fun and helps move you to the activity, to the spectacle is what you want to say happen. Artists today talk about how improvisation is always, “Yes, and,” right? There’s a little bit of that going on there, too.
BOGAEV: Yeah, this is “What ho, and…”
LIN: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a great opportunity, you know? You have a setup and then you can just see how it spools out, right? Falstaff can’t pay his bar tab, so he wants to romance both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. They then compare notes, they get sent the same quote-unquote “love letter,” but they’re friends. Then, of course, the women want revenge. What’s going to happen here? There’s going to be crossdressing, there’s going to be roleplaying, right? They’re going put Falstaff with horns on his head in the forest.
BOGAEV: There’s going to be feasting. You know that.
LIN: There’s going to be feasting. There’s going to be, you know, dancing, right? You’ve got children dressed up as fairies. I mean, this is exactly the sort of thing that would happen. You have a setup that allows you to get to that point.
I would say, like, rather than thinking of it in terms of lines and characters that are fully fleshed-out, there are a variety of scenarios that allow you to build off of them and then play with them. A good play is essentially a good set of scenarios that then elicit certain kinds of affect from the audience, and, I would argue, brings everyone together in this experience.
BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait to see my next Shakespeare play and have my head in this space, and it’s all thanks to you.
LIN: Oh, well, thank you. That’s very kind of you.
WITMORE: Dr. Erika T. Lin is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. You can find her writing on Elizabethan festivals and holidays in a couple of places. Her article “Popular Festivity and the Early Modern Stage: The Case of George a Greene,” appeared in Theatre Journal in 2009. And her chapter entitled “Festivity” appeared in the 2013 book Early Modern Theatricality, edited by Henry S. Turner and published by Oxford University Press. Dr. Lin was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “Revels, Dances, Masques, and Merry Hours,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s a really important way to get out the word about what we’re doing here, especially to people who don’t know the podcast already. Thanks so much for your help.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.