Bringing in the May

What inspired the works of Shakespeare?  

Academics who haven’t examined the authorship blindly accept the idea that Shakespeare was a professional, writing for money.  That everything defies this interpretation, from the nature of the plays themselves to the obvious fact that the author paid very little attention, if any, to getting them published, doesn’t bother the “experts” because they don’t really care who wrote the plays.  They can’t state it openly, but all but a few of these belong to the camp of: “We have the plays, what does it matter who wrote them?”  If all the directors of all their PhD committees were agreed that the author was Mickey Mouse, that were sufficient to have them convinced that Mickey was the Man, and anything else simply “preposterous.”

But to those who’ve paid some attention to the matter, those who know that the idea that the plays were written by a theater professional is absurd because when the first versions of these plays were being written, there was no professional theater in England.  You can’t call the earliest of the Early Modern playwrights professionals any more than you can call the Wright brothers professional aircraft engineers.  It’s easy enough to understand what inspired the designs of the first airplanes, but, if not to make money, what was the purpose behind these early plays?  Were they all written simply to entertain, as the orthodox would have it, was there a different purpose for each play?  Or were there, perhaps, categories of purpose?

Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s that emptied the oldest and most beautiful buildings in England of their religious art and functions, the Reformation ushered in by his son’s Protestant ministers emptied what churches were left of all that was dramatic or entertaining in the Catholic Service.  Is it any surprise that some of these buildings, or the lands on which they stood, metamorphosed into the theaters that took the place of the Church and its Service in the lives of their former parishoners?  Both of the first two commercial stages in London, built in 1576, were in Liberties, areas more or less under the jurisdiction of the Crown, not the City, areas that for centuries had been administered by the Church.  Blackfriars theater was in a section of the old monastery in the Liberty of Blackfriars, while Burbage’s public theater took the place of what had been the priory of Holywell in the Liberty of Norton Folgate.

Just as the land and the buildings that were once religious in nature turned into theaters, so the plays performed in them took the place of what had been religious observances.  The winter holiday plays took place on Christmas, Innocent’s Day, Twelfth Night (Epiphany), February 2nd (Candlemas), the last taking place on or around February 6, “Fat Tuesday” (Shrovetide), the last blast before Ash Wednesday and the start of the 40 days of Lenten fasting.  The series of spring holidays associated in the Church calendar with Easter, slipped back into the ancient May Day festivities, ending with the summer solstice on June 24th, the day after Midsummer’s Eve (the Feast of St. John the Baptist).

The Reformation sweeps clean

As Oxford turned from boy to man, the great country festivals that formerly “brought in the May” with garlands of flowers, May poles, Church Ales, and lovers trysts in the woods were vanishing.  Gone were the solemn processions that followed the priest bearing the cross through the newly planted fields and around the boundaries of the town, the clergy in their finest vestments tossing incense whilst intoning prayers in the mysterious holy language that the Great Lord in Heaven liked best, the one He chose for his Bible.  Gone were the pranksters, the minstrels, the Morris dancers, the St. Georges and the Dragons, the Robin Hood and Maid Marions, the Green Man and the Hobby Horse, the drinking, the feasting, and the hilarious and naughty chivarees.

But luckily for literature, Oxford had spent the early years of his childhood in the upper Thames valley , one of the last areas where there is evidence that some of these ancient “merrymaking” rituals still held sway (Hutton 98-9).  Though condemned by Edward VI, during de Vere’s years in the Smith household at Ankerwyke, the old ways returned for a final fling under Catholic Mary.

Surrounded by farms, with the great forest nearby, he would have experienced the buildup of excitement in the Smith household and in the rural community beyond as folk prepared for their ritural outpouring of Spring energies.  In the rush of events, the entire community that surrounded Old Windsor taking part, the crowds that filled the town moved in a single mind towards those peak moments, frightening or hilarious, that would serve as entertainment  at kitchen supper tables for months to come.

For the boy it would have been the equivalent of what a kid from a small American town in the 19th century experienced when the circus came through in the spring or summer, only in Edward’s case the circus was created by the townsfolk themselves, with maybe a few professional entertainers in to take advantage of the crowds and excitement.  If he did get to participate it would probably have been through the offices of one of the estate workers, since Smith was not one to enjoy such proceedings, at least so he claimed, nor would he have have approved of anything that might threaten the health or morals of his young charge. If we’re right in our belief that Friar Lawrence was to Romeo as Smith was to Oxford, he may simply have looked the other way.

With Elizabeth on the throne and the Reformers once again in control, these rituals began to dissappear.  What had originally been an effort to insure the propagation of the species back in the days of the hunter-gatherers, then in the Middle Ages transformed into a Courtly Love ritual honoring Nature and the forces of Desire, was seen by the Reformation as a licentious return to paganism and demon worship.  Other factors were involved as well.  During a period of financial stresses, funds spent on merrymaking were needed for more serous things.  Anything that smacked of Catholic ritual came to be seen in an increasingly dark light.  Local patrons, merchants, squires and lords who had formerly sponsored entertainments, withdrew.

For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot 

Thus, when the Church calendar, formerly the backbone of the social lives of the people, shrank to a few half-hearted observances, a great vacuum developed in English lives on all social levels.  It was this vacuum that Oxford was born to fill.  Out of his childhood memories of these festivities would come the grand chivaree that was Taming of the Shrew, Autolycus in the fair scene in Winter’s Tale, the Spanish Maze of The Tempest, the final “merry” act of Much Ado, out of time spent in the great forest of Windsor came Falstaff as Herne the Hunter, the love poems pasted on trees by Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It.  Most dear of all, from all of these came the magical adventures of the lovers, the rude mechanicals, and the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Most of Oxford’s early plays were “comedies” (early versions of today’s English pantomime) or wedding plays (everyone gets married at the end) written for the Court or for members of the Court.  Though less assiduously after his banishment in 1581 and even less after his loss of status c.1589, still he would continue to write for his community throughout his life, his last big production being the nine plays he rewrote for the festivities surrounding the marriage of his youngest daughter to the King’s favorite, the Earl of Montgomery over the winter holidsays of 1604/05. (Yes, I know he was supposed to be dead, but I believe he was only pretending as it was the only way then that an earl could retire.)

All but a few of these Court plays were written for the winter holidays and for weddings of those members of the Court community that were his particular friends or patrons.  Taming of the Shrew was written for the 1579 wedding of Lord Strange (Petruchio) to Alice Spencer (Kate).  A version of The Tempest was produced for the wedding of his daughter, Elizabeth Vere (Miranda), to the Earl of Derby (Ferdinand).  And A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written (or rewritten) for the wedding of his first love, Mary Browne, now the Countess of Southampton (Hippolyta) to the aging courtier, Sir Thomas Heneage (Theseus), May 2, 1594.

Although the title of A Midsummer Night’s Dream would seem to place it on June 23rd or 24th, that may have been a title it was given for a later production since the text itself places it on May Day.  Either date works for the play, since these moments (plus Valentine’s Day) grew out of prehistoric fertility rituals that were bound to the seasonal turning points of the year.  May Day saw the first thrust of summer flowers woven into wreaths, hair dressings, and garlands, worn by youths as well as girls.  Girls and unmarried women dressed all in white.  Churches and graves were decorated with bouquets and wreaths.

The ritual of dancing around the May pole brought the young men and women of the village together, arbitrarily separating them into couples as in a modern circle dance mixer.  The prettiest girl and the most admired youth were chosen King and Queen of the May, loaded with flower garlands, and carted around the village surrounded by young people laughing and singing, while smiling elders looked on.  There was a good deal of drinking and feasting, and if some of the couples slipped off into the woods, à la the lovers in Dream, everyone looked the other way.  Everyone but those Egeuses who didn’t approve when Nature circumvented their plans and whose Reformation finally overcame the human need for such communal outlets of emotional energy.

Whether Oxford had seen all of these elements of English medieval merrymaking is not the point.  Surely he saw some of them.  Shakespeare’s cry, repeated twice (in Love’s Labours Lost and in Hamlet)––“For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot!”––strongly suggests something he knew from personal experience, for a description alone would not have called forth this heartfelt lament.  The role of the Hobby Horse, a man in the costume of a horse––was to lead the procession of costumed revelers, the mummers’ parade, charging individuals in the crowd as he went, sending the women and children shrieking.  But Hobby was not interested in these innocents.  His purpose was to make a spectacle of persons who were in trouble with their neighbors; when he charged the local usurious money-lender, or the drunken father, or the unfaithful wife, everyone who knew why roared their approval.  Shame is a powerful adjudicator.  Hobby dispensed a form of rough community justice that obviated the need for the expensive and time-consuming litigation that would replace it.

The specific elements of merry-making that Oxford may have seen as a child in Old Windsor are less important than the atmosphere that emanated from them. It was the atmosphere, joyous, lively, intense, generated by these communal events that took place at the dangerous borderline between entertainment and riot.  It was this that he sought to capture in some small measure for his audiences, by then so thoroughly tamed by the Reformation, when he wrote his holiday comedies.

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