For want of a better term, I’m calling it “the wobble.” This is the period we’re in right now, the one we call the winter stolstice, that goes from, roughly, the 21st of December to the 6th of January, during which the earth changes its orientation to the sun. Life on earth experiences this as the return of light, sun and warmth. Days, which until now have been getting shorter, will begin to get longer, a process that will continue until the 21st of June, the summer solstice, when they will begin to shorten once again.
The interesting thing about this period, or one of the interesting things, is how the change occurs. Like so many changes, it does not happen all at once. If you check the times of sunrise and sunset you’ll see that as the day begins to expand on December 21st, it’s only the sunset that stops happening earlier and begins to happen later, while sunrise actually continues to take place a little later each day, as it has been doing since June, only changing to earlier on January 6th or 7th, when sunrise and sunset together begin the six month process of expanding the day at both ends, sunrise getting earlier each day while sunset gets later. It’s as though the morning continues on its downward path for another two weeks while the afternoon and evening are already turning towards spring.
Humans and animals experience this as a time of instability. With the planet undergoing the stress of a change of direction, everything on earth experiences a slight sensation of going too fast around a corner. This sensation is too slight to feel or see, but it is constant from the 21st of December until the 6th of January, known to the folk as Twelfth Night and to the Church as the Epiphany.
That the forces that pull and thrust the earth in its path around the sun (forces that are still very poorly understood by science) are in something of a conflict during this two-week period is reflected in the symbol of Janus, the Roman god of transitions for whom January is named, which shows a head with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. This is said to represent this period as both looking to the past and to the future. It can also be seen as looking to the Spring, the springing up of life, while continuing to mourn the Fall, into dearth, that is, seeming death.
The European peoples tradition has set the turn of the year, New Year’s Eve/Day, at a midpoint during this process. While the traditional solstice point is the 24th of December, opposite to the 24th of June, in ancient tradition the summer solstice, or Midsummer’s Day (note that for centuries it was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and that it is also the date in 1604 when the Earl of Oxford is supposed to have died). Because the actual moment of transition can occur anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours out of step with the dates assigned by the calendar, the 24th was the earliest that the ancients could be certain the transition had begun.
Ten lords a-leaping
Some readers may already have connected this period with the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which demarked, as the old carol describes, the period of holiday gift-giving, beginning on the day after Christmas and completing on the sixth of January, the twelfth night after Christmas. It cannot be coincidence that this period conforms exactly to “the wobble,” the two week period when the forces that drive the planet are in conflict with each other, with the earth pulled one way from midnight to noon and another from noon to midnight, until the dayward pull completes its takeover on January 6th or 7th. That Shakespeare, and the ancient astronomers and astrologers, were acutely aware of this process cannot be denied.
That the two faces of Janus, the source of the name January, are turned away from each other, suggests that these two forces––if conscious of each other, are in some conflict with each other––fits with the fact that wherever we have history of other times and in other parts of the world, this period has always been an upside-down time of reversal, a two week period during which social and religious conventions are turned around, when the everyday face of law and social propriety is forced to acknowledge humanity’s need to cut loose, as in the Roman Saturnalia.
During prehistoric times, before records were kept, there must have been rituals associated with this period that, in Christian times got turned into those holiday rituals of which we do have reports, such as the Boy Bishop in the parishes, or the Lord of Misrule at the colleges, and the Feast of Fools in France. In the rural areas it was the time when mummings and disguisings allowed the folk to drink and carry on like sailors “on liberty,” misbehaving in ways that normally would not be tolerated.
There were several other moments of the year when such license was allowed: Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, also known as Shrovetide and Carneval; May Day, May first; Midsummer’s Eve, June 23rd; and October 31st, All Hallows Eve (our Halloween); but most of these were but a single day or night, nor did they carry the upside-down quality of reversal. These rituals were, at least in retrospect, an effective way of allowing groups to blow off steam before situations got so desperate that they led to riot or murder.
Apart from the merry-making, the quality of reversal that marked the twelve days of Christmas gave the meek a chance to pretend they had already inherited the earth while authorities were reminded that their superiority was merely a temporary, or temporal, condition. It was preeminently a time when satires were rife, whether impromptu performances by mummers, or, in the cities, effigies of authorities to be mocked by the crowd. Unfortunately, the Reformation, that saw these “may games” first, as something conjured up by the Devil to drag mankind into the fiery furnace, and second, dangerous to authority, was so successful in eradicating them that very little information has come down to us about their nature, leaving folklorists just bits and pieces here and there with which to put together a scenario. As Shakespeare put it, twice: “For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot!”
Enter Shakespeare, laughing
Once the academic bonds to Stratford are broken so scholars are free to seek the poet and his works as they actually appear in history, it will become clear that the literary revolution he inspired by way of the London Stage was Nature’s way of providing the unhappy English, bereft of their beloved holiday traditions, with a viable substitute. As is clear from the record when we allow ourselves to read it directly, the London Stage was born as an outflow of the Court Stage, which is obviously where he began his career in the late 1560s to early 1570s. The plays that most agree are his earliest are the comedies with which the Master of the Revels began replacing masques as the primary winter holiday entertainment for the Court in the late 1560s and early 1570s.
Masques, the Court’s version of the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages, were inclined to get rowdy. With plays the audience remained quietly in their seats, transported to Prospero’s Magical Isle, to Illeria or Athens, through the magic of genius storytelling (these plays would not be labelled as by William Shakespeare until the late 1590s when the actors, forced to publish, needed a name for the title pages). Thus Elizabeth was able to provide her Court and its foreign visitors with a more intellectual version of the pleasures of an old-fashioned winter holiday while maintaining the dignity required by an unmarried female monarch and the first Reformation Court in Europe.
When these comedies began migrating from the Court to the London theater inns, the public, starved for entertainment, responded with such enthusiasm that entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe saw the creation of yearround public stages as a viable business opportunity. By replacing the uncertainties of passing the hat or the promises of patrons with a box office at the door, Burbage, a member of the Carpenter’s Guild and a part time actor with the Court-based company known officially as Leicester’s Men, hoped to guarantee a professional living for himself and his fellow amateurs. Thus did the first versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado and Twelfth Night, migrate from the Court to the London Stage, opening the door for the great histories and tragedies that would follow in times to come.
“No more cakes and ale”
All of these comedies show traces of their origins as Court entertainment for one or another of these periods of festal license, some containing stage directions that show breaks for music and dancing, even, as in The Tempest, for a possible feast. Most notable is Twelfth Night, where the subplot follows the traditions of this anomalous holiday period in the antics of Sir Toby, Maria, Feste and Fabian, while their battle with Malvolio reflects the war the actors were fighting with the London mayors and those Court officials who wanted them shut down. The “reversal” involved shows their success in getting the Countess to have her steward, Malvolio, incarcerated as a lunatic, and in Feste’s undoubtedly hilarious imitation of a Reformation prelate.
But the solemnity of Feste’s question, directed at Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?’ is posed, if not so directly, by all these holiday plays. Malvolio’s curse, with which the play ends: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” seems astonishly prophetic, considering how a few decades later the puritans would succeed in shutting down all the theaters in England, and that even after they reopened two decades later, Shakespeare would not be seen again in the form in which his plays were originally written for another 200 years! Perhaps by the time another benchmark arrives in another century we’ll have begun to accept the fact that the plays were written by a courtier, and not the illiterate William who gave nothing to the enterprise but his wonderfully punnable name and twenty years of sturdy silence.
Twelfth Night on Broadway throughout January
Although it’s most likely that it’s through serendipity alone and no occult design that this play in which the ancient reversal tradition is perhaps the strongest of all Shakespeare’s plays, is playing on Broadway during this year’s “wobble.” With that genius of the Shakespeare stage, Mark Rylance, in a starring role, this is one of those theater events that, for those of us who like our Shakespeare authentic, is not to be missed. Done to perfection in a sort of faux-sixteenth century style, nothing could be more “reversed” than the fact that Rylance has chosen to play Olivia rather than Sir Toby or any other of the male roles (with the marvelous Stephen Fry as Malvolio). This, plus the fact that all the female roles are played by males, however attributed to authenticity (all female roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare’s England), does not explain their Kabuki-like makeup or perambulation . For what’s most “authentic” about Mark’s approach is that, like Shakespeare, he takes what the past has to offer and by mixing it with something unexpected, achieves effects that no one else would dare to attempt.
Thus Rylance, whose brilliant treatments of Shakespeare were the major contribution to the success of the New Globe Theater while he was presiding as its Artistic Director for its first ten years, during which he used his, and its, popularity to awaken the public to the authorship question, shows himself again to be the grand master of reversals during this winter holiday wobble. On nights when he’s not playing Olivia he’s playing Richard III as a sort of royal Mr. Punch.
Here I am backstage at the great and beautiful Belasco Theater with this dear, generous, and incredibly gifted friend (photo taken by my daughter). God bless great actors, especially those who can make us laugh!
Passing the hat
As this time of year has always been devoted to requests for donations by worthy causes, I hope mine qualifies with some of you as worthy of support. I’m asking those readers who believe what I’m doing is contributing to the world’s knowledge (politicworm gets hits every day from all over the world), not only about Shakespeare and his works, but about the history of the period when he lived, I would be most appreciative of a little help in getting books that I need to have available for reference that I can’t get online, and that the library won’t let me keep longer than a month.
Should you feel inspired to help in this way, you can do so by purchasing a gift card through Amazon.com for politicworm at gmail.com. Any amount is greatly appreciated. You can take the option of putting your name on it, which means I can thank you personally, and if you wish, include you in the acknowledgements in the book that hopefully will be done this coming year. If you wish to remain anonymous, whether to me or to my readers, you just leave the name space blank (but of course I’d much prefer to know who you are).
Meanwhile I’m grateful to everyone who subscribes to this wobbelog. And to all who comment on my posts, who give me encouragement, inspiration, and food for thought, a fun and exciting winter wobble and a healthy and prosperous rising year.