Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

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4 responses to “Shakespeare and Christmas

  1. Very unlikely that ‘Titus and Gisippus’ is a scribal error for ‘Titus Andronicus’ as it (‘Titus and Gisippus’) is a story by Bocaccio repeated in Elyot’s ‘The Governour’ (1537) which many believe to have been a major source for Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’ Happy New Year, Alexander

  2. True, but it may also be that the scribe knew the story, or at least the title, of Titus and Gissipus, which as you suggest, was well-known then, but did not know the story of Titus and Ronicus, which he may have thought was a mistake for the better known story.

    We have no idea who actually wrote up the blurbs that ended up in the record once a year, usually months after the winter season, or how closely they were connected with the stage. This one could simply have been a clerk in the Court payments department. (I would think that this might be something someone could successfully research.)

    Although Elyot’s book was not included by Smith on his library list, it’s impossible that he didn’t know it well, as Elyot lived near Cambridge while Smith was Vice-Chancellor of the University. It must have been his own guide to teaching undergraduates as the book was published during his own early teaching years at Cambridge, where it soon became the primary teaching manual.

    A happy New Year to you as well, Alexander. And thanks for participating.

  3. I’m at a loss as to why you aren’t ‘published’.

    It’s all here, pretty much chapter-by-chapter, with a little proof-reading and editing and an index – as important and cogent a contribution as ANYONE else has made.

    What are you waiting for?

    Whatever;

    A very Happy New Year, Stephanie.

  4. Thanks for asking. I’m waiting for the book I’ve been working on for the past four years to be finished (maybe another two months) so I can start shopping for a publisher. That may prove to be almost as labor intensive as writing the book, since publishing is in a state of flux right now, as it has been for some time, and who knows what fresh hell awaits the hapless author. The Authorship Question is not an easy sell, the community of seekers is still not big enough to attract a big name publisher or agent. And there must be certain guarantees, a capable and understanding editor, proofreaders, a useful index and a readable design. I’m hoping to find one that will offer readers a choice of hardback, paperback and kindle. There has to be a hardback option because libraries don’t buy paperbacks. (And I personally hate them!) It would be nice also if the publisher is sufficiently enthusiastic to put some effort into publicizing it, and does not look solely to me to traipse around the world giving book talks. Sigh! Anyway, the outreach must be done, it’s coming, and soon. Only a matter of months.

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