Issues of Identity

Where would literature be without disguise?  How could Robin Hood have outfoxed the Sheriff of Nottingham without his amazing ability to disguise himself?  How could Sherlock Holmes have accomplished his devilishly clever investigations without the ability to so thoroughly disguise himself that even his close friend Dr. Watson was never able to penetrate them?  Perhaps the granddads of all such masked heroes were the knights of the Round Table, who, for one reason or another, rode around in perpetual disguise, sometimes killing their own brothers and best friends simply because they happened to be carrying somebody else’s shield at the time.

It is from these disguised vigilante knights, no doubt, that we have inherited such heroes in disguise as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent aka Superman, wimpy Peter Parker aka Spiderman, “withdrawn and reserved physicist” Dr. Bruce Banner aka “the Hulk.”  While the Lone Ranger’s real identity got lost somewhere down the trail, he must, like Zorro and Bat Man, have been a wealthy aristocrat (think how much those silver bullets must have cost).  As they dangle over a pit of hungry alligators or await some other torture concocted by the fiendish forces out to destroy the world, these chaps might well agree with Hamlet’s despairing cry: “the time is out of joint, O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.”

Exchanged identities

Yet issues of identity, which function so largely for Shakespeare’s comic muse, came to him not purely as a response to anxieties he probably shared with most of his audiences, but as an integral part of the theatrical tradition he inherited from the Greeks on one hand, and on the other, ancient  even prehistoric tribal sources in the Celtic and Brithonic traditions of his own people.

We see this in the sub-plot of Taming of the Shrew, borrowed by Shakespeare from the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, wherein a young student persuades his valet to exchange identities with him so that he can get a job as a servant in the household of the girl he loves.  Not only do they switch identities, but the resourceful servant frightens a wealthy traveller into taking on the identity of the student’s father, so that they can provide the appearance  of official consent to the marriage.  This kind of identity-switching is the stuff of many ancient Roman comedies, and later, of the improvisational Comedia dell Arte that grew out of it.

For the Greeks, the implications of identity form the very crux of their sense of the dramatic.  The climax of a tragedy, known as the moment of recognition, occurs when one protagonist realizes the identity of the stranger, whether it be one of joy, as when Iphigenia and Orestes recognize each other on the Island of Tauris; or that most terrible of all moments in Greek tragedy, towards which Sophocles moves by inexorable degrees from the very beginning, the recognition by Oedipus that the man he is seeking, the murderer of his father and the seducer of his mother, the cause of all that is wrong in Thebes, is, in fact, himself.  From the start Oedipus has, through no fault of his own, been a man in disguise, his true identity hidden, not only from his people, his wife and his children, but also and most terribly, from himself.

Such themes of identity fed into the English dramatic tradition on essentially two levels: the educated nobility who had access to the ancient Roman and Greek drama, and the educated and the uneducated alike who found them in the Revels.

What were the Revels?

To ask a rural resident of Shakespeare’s time to explain the Revels would be like asking someone from our own time to explain television, Happy Hour at the local bar, the Rose Bowl game, their daughter’s wedding, and the company Christmas party all rolled into one annual six-week hullabaloo.  In Shakespeare’s time, the Revels, though still strong, were just beginning to lose their hold as the primary source of communal pleasure that they had maintained, in changing forms, since before the dawn of history, fragmenting into the mutations we now call entertainment, sprinkled in disconnected bits here and there throughout the year.

The Church calendar was still the structure by which life was lived on every level in Shakespeare’s time, its holidays the feast days of saints.  These holidays in most cases masked what had been, in the far-off times before the Church came to dominate the culture, pagan festivals that themselves had grown out of grim prehistoric tribal rituals with which men and women, in their efforts to survive in a hard world, sought interaction, sometimes beastly, with the gods and goddesses of weather, fertility, the hunt and the harvest.

These rituals took place throughout the year, with the big ones occuring at the the solstices when the sun was at the lowest and highest points of its annual cycle, in winter the longest night, in summer the longest day of the year.  The second most important times were the midpoints between the vernal equinox and the advent of summer, that delicious moment when nature burgeoned with new life; and again between the autumnal equinox and the advent of winter, when that precious life was harvested into the granaries, insuring survival through the dark, cold months of winter.  Vestiges of these ancient festivals remain in the cards and candy of Valentine’s Day, in the white dresses and flowers of June brides, and in the pumpkins and goody bags of trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

Most meaningful of all were the holidays surrounding the December solstice, most particularly that of Twelfth Night, January 6, when the earlier rising of the sun signified an end to the dying half of the year and the beginning of the rising half of the festival year.

Beneath the yule log kept burning on the hearth, the Christmas tree that springs to brilliant light on Christmas day, the candles of Chanukah and other sequential rituals from the many winter festivals of light around the world, lies the ancient prayer that the sun will halt its journey into darkness, that there will be yet another spring, another summer, another season of planting, another harvest, another year of life.  With the harbors frozen and the fields and roads covered with snow, no work could be done, so this was the time for visiting friends and family, for feasting, drinking deep, music, dancing, partying, plays; and for other less well-known forms of entertainment, some of which have come down to us under the mysterious label of mumming and disguising.

The burden of identity

Whatever the ancient or perhaps even prehistoric sources of this rather strange business––in which we can clearly see the origins of present day trick-or-treating at Halloween, of caroling at Christmas, and of Carnival in New Orleans, Venice and Rio di Janeiro––one thing seems clear (though the anthropologists don’t really spell it out) which is that this holiday behavior, which in a more general way gave these hardworking people a break from their yearlong toil with the elements, gave those who chose to go mumming another kind of holiday: a break from the burden of their identities.

Whatever they endured throughout the rest of the year and the entirety of their lives in terms of their reputation with their neighbors, their size, age, sex, sexual orientation, personal attractions or lack thereof, the burdens that they bore as a result of their family histories, of their own previous behaviors and those of their mates and family members, they got an hour or two of respite.  For this brief period, no one knew who they were.  For this brief period they themselves became the dangerous stranger who knocked at the tabooed door, spoke strangely and behaved unpredictably.  Unable to ever enjoy the anonymity of the modern urban dweller, or of the small town dweller who takes a trip now and then to the big city, or just to the local mall, they were able to obtain a needed moment of anonymity through this ancient ritual of mumming.

That this tradition was still very much alive in Shakespeare’s time we know from records that have come down to us.  The government office in charge of Court entertainment was still known as the Office of the Revels.  Accounts of holiday entertainments speak frequently of “mumming and disguising.”  The masques that were so popular at the Court of Henry VIII and James I derive the name masque from the fact that the central feature of these rather loosely-organized entertainments was, in fact, a disguising; only here, rather than old foul weather gear and pillows, everyone who participated was richly costumed according to a central theme of some sort.  As with its homely counterpart in rural Newfoundland, these masques included a great deal of music, dancing, storytelling, feasting and drinking of fermented spirits.

Although the Court could not afford to allow those involved to totally hide their identities, these elaborate rituals enabled the entire community to disguise itself as a company of shepherds and shepherdesses, of nymphs and satyrs, of knights and their ladies, of fishermen and mermaids, or anything that seemed more innocent, light-hearted and free-spirited than did their ordinary identities, burdened by infinite distinctions of rank, age, gender, function, and reputation.

The Court needed entertainment for these holiday times that would bring them needed relaxation, but were also of the highest possible quality, that would reflect them to themselves and to foreign visitors as the most witty and gay, sophisticated and learned bunch to be found at any Court in Christendom, a reputation that Elizabeth’s Court did in fact maintain throughout her reign, as is evident from the admiration that exudes from the letters and journals kept by foreign envoys and other visitors.

If it were not for the problems created by the biography of the Stratford Shakspere, it would be impossible for Shakespeare scholars to ignore the otherwise glaring certainty that the early comedies of Shakespeare were written to provide this entertainment.  Plays such as As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labor’s Lost reflect the rituals connected with the warm weather festivals, The Tempest those of Shrovetide (Carnival), while Twelth Night reflects those of the winter holiday.  Even its name identifies it as a twelfth night ritual that took place on January 6th, trationally the final day of the two-week observance of Christmas. All these plays are rife with identity issues of class and gender; all include the disguising of one or more of the central characters; all abound with clowns, jokes and charming songs, while the plots involve tricks that make fools of those who take themselves too seriously.

The Court Revels were the fertile field that spawned Shakespeare. Denied the old holiday traditions by the Reformation, he sought to capture essential elements of the Revels, containing what had been the wild and spontaneous mumming and disguisings within the boundaries of the stage, where they could be saved and brought out every year for the rather less strenuous holiday pleasure of audiences that, not so very long before, would have been more or less anxious participants.

Still, we shouldn’t blame the loss of these traditions on the Reformation, for their days were numbered anyway.  In modern times, as urban areas get bigger and travel easier, the need for costume balls is going where went the bustle and the periwig.  For most of us today, it’s easy to be anonymous, to go where nobody knows us––maybe too easy.

As Community tends to become more and more diffuse, our need is more to find identity than to escape it.  For many modern Americans, urbanites in particular, identity is not only not a heavy burden, it’s more like something fragile, something easily lost.  Born strangers, identity is something that takes a great deal of effort, first to create and then to maintain.  Which may be the major reason why so few people today can understand why Shakespeare would have wanted to hide his.  The answer to the hiding of the true author lies in the rituals, needs and fears of his time, so different from our own.

Autre temps, autre moeurs.

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