Merry Christmas Eve everyone! Today I will be talking about how Shakepeare’s two royal patrons, Queen Elizabeth I and James I celebrated this holiday!
We have surviving records that prove Shakespeare and his troupe performed at Christmas during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. The buildings still exist so we can imagine what Shakespeare’s performancesal at court might have looked like. What follows is a bit of historical detective work, with a nice holiday flavor to boot.
How did Good Queen Bess celebrate Christmas?
Like her predecessor Henry VIII, Her Majesty Elizabeth accepted presents from the nobles on New Year’s Day instead of Christmas morning. From all over the kingdom, people would bring the best and most extravagant presents to the queen, hoping to gain her favor at court. Take a look at this true case of what her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley gave the queen for Christmas in 1588:
Dudley gives Queen Elizabeth a wristwatch
Unlike her dad however, Elizabethan Christmas was a more elaborate affair than a week of sitting and feasting. Yes, Gloriana had elaborate feasts, but she preferred to impress her nobles and visiting dignitaries with dances, jousts, and plays. She was an accomplished dancer and poet, and she loved court masques.
A masque is sort of like a combination masked ball and performance art piece. The nobles would put on costumes and masks and enact a historical or mythological event, like “the Golden Age Restored,” a masque Ben Johnson wrote for Twelfth Night in 1616. The intent was to flatter the queen and her court, as well as having a good time. Of course, Liz still made time on the dance floor for Shakepeare’s company!
How the plays were performed:
The plays would be in a large empty hall like the banquet hall or dance hall. Probably the tables would be removed from the feasting, then the dancing would begin. At around 10PM, the actors would take their places. There might be a makeshift tiring house, which was mainly just a curtain that the actors could hide behind to wait for their entrances.
The queen or King would be sitting on a throne on a raised platform so that she or he could be clearly seen by the actors and the audience.
Which plays did They Perform?
In 1594 The Lord Chamberlain’s Men played before the Queen at Greenwich Palace. Alas, we don’t know which plays they performed this time. What follows is a list of the plays we do know Shakepeare’s company played at Christmas.
Whitehall Palace by Dankerts, 1675.
Love’s Labors Lost– 1597 at Whitehall palace. This time we know which play they performed before the Queen, because it’s listed right on the title page. I suspect that printing where the play was performed was designed to fire the imagination of the people who bought it. If you couldn’t be at court to see Shakespeare’s play, you could at least read his words and imagine you were there.
James I invited Shakepeare’s company to perform at Hampton Court many times. Below is an account of the plays for the Christmas holiday in 1603. Notice that Shakepeare’s name is spelled “Shaxberd.”
Here’s a list of some more plays we know Shakepeare’ performed at Christmas:
- Midsummer Nights Dream- 1603 on New Years Day, Hampton Court.
- Measure for Measure on Boxing Day 1603, Hampton Court.
- King Lear on Boxing Day 1606.
- Twelfth Night- Candlemas (Feb 2nd 1602).
- Twelfth Night 1618 and 1619 (location unknown).
Below is an episode of the incredible documentary “In Search of Shakepeare.” The first twelve minutes show what Christmas might have been like at Hampton Court in 1603, the first year of King James’ reign.
In Search of Shakespeare: For All Time
James loved plays and masques even more than Liz, which is why he employed one of the greatest scenic artists of all time, Inigo Jones, to come up with extravagant stage designs and costumes for plays and masques. James’ Queen Anne Of Denmark performed in quite a few masques herself. James also treated the Christmas season as a time of charity, which might have inspired some of the lines in King Lear, which was performed ‘on the feast of Steven’ 1606:
“Poor naked wretches… who soer you are. I have taken too little care of this.” -King Lear, Act III, scene I (The Storm Scene).
We can recall the contrast between King Lear and Good King Wenceslas. In the scene I quoted earlier, Lear laments that he hasn’t been more charitable to the poor, now that he himself feels cold and homeless.
The Christmas season would carry on until oh January 6, aka Twelfth Night. This was the day when, according to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men finally got to Bethlehem and delivered their presents. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night is all about celebrations of feasting, fools and clowns, and of course, epiphanies.
If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my new online class, “What Was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?” I’ll go further into the traditions of Elizabethan Christmas and add some insight into Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.” Register now at Outschool.com!
The Shakepearean Student
FMI look at “The Christmas Revels”