In reading about the holiday practises of the Elizabethans, one frequently comes across the term “mumming and disguising.” I had no idea what that meant until I read a very important book by a group of anthropologists who, back in the late 1960s, traveled to Newfoundland to examine the holiday practises of the fishermen who live along the weatherbeaten northeastern shores of the Atlantic. Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland describes the, to us, bizarre ways in which these folks celebrated their holidays. The report is dry reading for anyone looking for human interest. It’s like photos, not just in black and white, but in infra red. But somehow that makes the story even more interesting.
These descendants of English and Irish fishermen who, after centuries of fishing off these shores had finally established permanent colonies in the 16th century, and who were still largely cut off from a changing world by wild ocean and rugged, undeveloped land, were just beginning to open to the outside world in ways that would soon be eradicating their ancient traditions. At the time of the anthropologist’s visit, a paved road had just been built connecting them for the first time with St. John’s by land. A television connection was about to be made. It seems this was the final moment for the kind of investigation undertaken by the scientists.
Long story short: mumming is what anthropologists call the “house visit,” that is: going from house to house in disguise with a group of other mummers, as on Halloween, while disguising means costuming so thoroughly that one’s identity is hidden, a practice similar to Carnival, except that Carnival costumes as we know them don’t necessarily obliterate the wearer’s identity. There are also traces of the Christmas tradition of going from door to door in groups singing carols and collecting money for the Church. These three represent the vestigial remains of what we can guess was a universal winter solstice pracise during the Stone Age.
These isolated communities, consisting solely of fishermen and their families, lived much as they had since their ancestors first came over from England and Ireland. They had plastic buckets, no doubt, and the latest foul weather gear, but without television or roads, they lived very simply. They spent no money on their costumes, but simply did as their ancestors had done, disguising themselves with whatever was at hand, mostly each other’s clothing, plus pillows, bedspreads, mops, paper bags, and foul weather gear. The goal was to render oneself, not something romantic, as in the Venetian Carnival, but something unrecognizable. As long as one could not be recognized, the game was on.
A party of mummers would gather in someone house, gear up, and set off for whatever house was closest that they figured would let them in. Once in, the group would entertain their uncomfortable hosts by singing, telling stories and dancing, in other words, each member doing some routine, speaking and singing in a peculiar but traditional manner that disguised their voices. As soon as the hosts recognized one of them, off would come the mask and the gloves and the monster would metamorphose into a relative or neighbor. As soon as everyone’s identity was guessed, on went the disguises again and they were off to the next house. This was through piles of snow, of course, so far north, so they were bundled up against the cold as well. Needless to say, a great deal of alcohol was consumed in the process, along with various homemade holidays treats.
That men generally dressed as women and vice versa probably says something about the emotional satisfactions of the tradition as a factor apart from the need for total disguise. It may also suggest that the gender-bending in Shakespeare’s holiday plays have a broader basis in tradition than modern critics, fond of ascribing it to various psycho-sexual factors, are willing to acknowledge.
These people could not go fishing for two or three months during the winter while the harbors were frozen, so the community occupied itself with repairs to gear and otherwise eating, drinking, and making merry in the same ways that their fathers’ fathers’ fathers and mothers had done. At some of these get-togethers they might put on a version of the old mummer’s play, but as this folk play, a sort of plum pudding of themes and heroics from ages past, all lumped together into one utterly plotless (but probably hilarious) entertainment, has been described elsewhere I will not describe it. It is great-great-grandparent of the Christmas pantomime, thankfully still joyously alive and well in Britain between Christmas and New Years.
The anthropologists said that it was very difficult to get the people to talk about their holiday practises. They were shy about talking to strangers about anything, and particularly shy about this tradition. The scientists got the feeling that they weren’t being told everything. This for at least two reasons. First, such holiday practises were dangerous. Shameful things could happen during this period when everything was turned upside down. It was not only a time of making merry, it was potentially a time of reprisal, of setting things straight, of settling old scores. There was a lot of drinking. Things could get rough.
Second, these people were afraid of strangers. With no outside access to the community other than by water, they didn’t see too many strangers, and when they did it often meant trouble. The Devil was seen as a stranger. In fact, the word stranger itself had a dangerous connotation. As strangers who would leave after a certain time, the anthropologists were seen as potentially dangerous. Why were they asking these questions?
But beyond these reasons lay centuries of silence on the subject of year-end rituals, a silence that may have emanated from the rituals themselves, as sacred events about which it was forbidden to speak, or in the face of the disapproval of the Church, as it came in and eradicated or civilized the ancient rituals of the oldest faith, the one that hears sermons in stones and books in running brooks.
The burden of identity
Several things came clear from this that were not discussed by any of the researchers. First, it is clear to me that these people who lived so close to each other year in, year out, whose families all knew each other intimately, and knew everything there was to know about each other’s family histories, some of it no doubt shameful or embarrassing, needed a break from being themselves. They desperately needed a few hours of being with people without the burden of their ordinary identities.
This is not something that would be immediately understood today. If anything, people today, city-dwellers in particular, tend to suffer from the opposite problem, from being too unknown, too anonymous. Today, if we should feel the need to shuffle off our identities for a time, we can go downtown or to the mall or take a drive to another town or city. If we live in the country, we can go to the city, or we can fly off to some distant beach resort. But for people living in small, isolated, unchanging communities for their entire lives, the ritual may have been a psychological necessity.
As I read, I could see the ritual as it was found in Newfoundland in 1967 as a reflection of those enacted at Queen Elizabeth’s Court during the winter holidays, on May Day, and at weddings. The Court version of mumming and disguising was the masque. The entire Court dressed to an agreed-upon theme, there would be a show, similar to a present day musical, with a very light plot and a lot of singing and dancing led by those members of the Court who excelled, in which all members of the Court were expected to join to some extent, followed by a feast where quantities of alcohol were consumed.
Unlike the simple fishermen of Newfoundland, it was not possible for the members of the Court to get this kind of break from their burdensome individualities. To have allowed total disguise would have been dangerous, giving access to those who meant harm (witness the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Their version was to imagine themselves as members of a romantic community of some sort, shepherds and shepherdesses, mermaids and mermen, medieval knights and their ladies, with all dressing the part. Vestiges of this remain in modern weddings where the bridesmaids and groom’s men all dress alike.
“Disguisings” in Shakespeare
Shakespeare is filled with disguisings. His use of them for wicked or destructive ends is shown by the coup in Thomas of Woodstock (aka Richard II Part One), in which young King Richard and his cronies pretend to be actors, only to kidnap and later assassinate Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. It is also shown in The Spanish Tragedy, in which the tragic final act is a play within a play wherein the leading actor in an amateur performance takes advantage of the plot to kill another actor for having murdered his son.
Throughout the centuries and up until the reign of Elizabeth, it was masques that were the standard Court holiday entertainment. Plays began to take over in the 1560s. Following the Queen’s death, masques once again take over and remain popular until the Interregnum. What caused the shift from musical party to play and back again to musical party? Need we ask? Ben Jonson said it best in his Ode to the “Star of Poets” whom he and his audiences mourned “like night,” and despaired day, but for his “volume’s light.”
Shakespeare had two kinds of plays at the beginning: the one, modelled after Greek and Latin writers, both comic and serious, meant to entertain the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, and the other, wedding or holiday comedies for the Court community that drew more heavily on folk traditions. These two communities often overlapped, but the Inns of Court community was more masculine, more highly educated and far more democratic than the Court community. Even the poorest law student at one of the Chancery Inns could muster up the price of an evening at Blackfriar’s once a term.
The comedies Oxford wrote for Court holidays and weddings are those that show their roots in the old mumming and disguising traditions. They all take place in some version of Illyria, in the enchanted wood of fairy tales and the medieval past. They have the same elements, a lord disguised as a poor man, a girl disguised as a boy, there are comedy routines, including a comic sword fight, drinking, merrymaking and misbehavior, the pompous are satirized, the plot turns on identity confusion (Who is Cesario? Ganymede? Portia? Which lady is Berowne wooing? Who was kissing Borachio?)
Love’s Labor’s Lost, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It were written originally as Court holiday plays; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest were wedding plays. (Stritmatter holds that The Tempest was a Shrovetide play, which it may have been for the particular moment he has in mind, but it was certainly also the play given at Oxford’s daughter’s wedding in 1595.) Some, like Taming of the Shrew and Merry Wives of Windsor began as wedding plays and changed into something else with subsequent revision.
In any case, Shakespeare saw the stage as a way of using language much like the old Revels used music and dance. The wit, the conceits, the jesting duels, the comedy routines, the happy finale when all disguises come off, Jack has found Jill, upside down is right side up again, and all offenses are forgiven. All these were gradually included within the framework of the play itself, so that what had been a loosely organized series of small events, often spread out over hours or even days, was gradually pulled into a single event with many scenes within it, some funny, some scary, some sad, but all tied into a plot that had a beginning, a middle and an end. This was Shakespeare’s genius. This was Oxford’s genius.