You probably know that I love to speculate and do a little historical detective work and find out whether Elizabethans like Shakespeare celebrated our modern holidays and then compare and contrast how they celebrated them back then versus how we do today. Valentines Day is a day we associate with love and poetry, so of course, I wondered if the most celebrated poet of the Renaissance celebrated it himself!
Based on my findings, if Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day, he probably did mainly what we did- writing letters and poems to his beloved and maybe sending a trinket of love. It’s unlikely he celebrated it like modern Catholics do to honor the martyrdom of a Catholic saint. In my research, I was surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day has been celebrated for hundreds of years and has its roots in a holiday that Shakespeare describes in one of his most famous plays.
Part I: The Feast of Lupercal: Valentine’s Day’s Dark ancestor
According to NPR’s podcast: “The Dark Origins of Valentines Day”, like Christmas, Halloween, and many other holidays, the Christian holiday of St. Valentines’ day was designed to replace the pagan holiday of Lupercal, which was a Roman fertility festival where men engaged in basically what we’d now call- swingers’ parties or key parties where they’d draw a woman’s name from a lottery and… couple for the night.
The Lupercal was also synonymous with the founding of Rome. Lupa is the name of the wolf that saved the infants Romulus and Remus, who would become the first kings of Rome. If you click here, you can read an article about a recent archeological discovery; a cave found under Rome that was once revered as the place where Romulus and Remus lived with Lupa:
Shakespeare actually starts his play of Julius Caesar on the Lupercal, and makes reference to its status as a fertility festival. In Act I, Caesar is watching Antony run a race and tells him to be sure to touch Calpurnia, owing to the superstition that if a man touches a barren woman on Lupercal, it will make her capable of bearing children:
Calpurnia. Here, my lord. 85
Caesar. Stand you directly in Antonius' way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
Antony. Caesar, my lord?
Caesar. Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say, 90
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony. I shall remember:
When Caesar says 'do this,' it is perform'd.
Caesar. Set on; and leave no ceremony out. Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii, Lines 84-95
Shakespeare leaves out that, according to tradition, Antony should be naked and anointed with goat’s blood and slap Calpurnia with a goatskin thong, but that was part of the Roman Lupercal festival.
Part II: The Beginnings of St. Valentines’ Day
St. Valentine was either a Catholic priest or bishop who was martyred in the 3rd century AD (Source History.com). According to tradition, he conducted Christian marriages in defiance of Roman law, and rejected the concept of Lupercalian coupling, which is why Emperor Claudius murdered him. Thus, the holiday is intentionally meant to replace Lupercalia, and celebrate monogamous relationships under the Christian God. The popular story is that before his death, he sent a letter to the young daughter of a family he converted to Christianity and signed it: “Your Valentine,” thus starting the tradition of signing cards in this manner. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius made Valentine’s day an official Catholic feast day to replace Lupercal once and for all.
Part III: The oldest surviving Valentines
Evidence is sketchy how the traditions of Valentines day evolved, in the Middle Ages, but in Catholic Europe the concept of celebrating married love on Valentine’s Day spread, and poets like Chaucer and Shakespeare helped popularize it.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of how birds would choose their mates on Valentine’s Day:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
According to History.com, there’s a possibility that Chaucer invented the idea of a St. Valentines feast, and forever linked it with the celebration of love:
The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer often took liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate.Hanes, Elizabeth. “Six Surprising Facts about Valentines Day.” https://www.history.com/news/6-surprising-facts-about-st-valentine
This theme has been repeated in other pieces of literature. In John Lydgate’s 15th century poem, “A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”, he writes of how it was the custom on Valentine’s Day for people to choose their love:
To look and search Cupid’s Calendar and choose their choose by great affection.John Ludgate: “”A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”
The Paston’s oldest surviving valentines
In the 1470s in a series of correspondence, from Margery Brews to her husband John Paston refers to the latter as “My right well-beloved Valentine, John Paston, Esquire.”
Margery also wrote adoring letters to John, who was probably away frequently, fighting in the Hundred Years War, and advising Margary’s kinsman, John Fastolfe, (whom Shakespeare mentions in Henry VI, Part I. Her poetry is very tender and must have comforted her husband much:
And if ye command me to keep me true wherever I go,
I wis I will de all my might you to love, and never no mo(re).
And if my friends say, that I do amiss,
They shall not me let so for to do,
Mine heart me bids ever more to love you
Truly over all earthly thing,
And if they be never so wrath
I trust it shall be better in time coming.
Margery’s letters are some of the earliest surviving Valentine’s poetry that proves that the tradition of giving poetry to one’s beloved during the month of February was around in the 15th century, and probably while Shakespeare was a child in the 16th.
Shakespeare’s contributions to Valentine’s Day
Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine’s Day twince within his works. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (a play that is set in Ancient Greece and has connections to Lupercal), he builds on Chaucer’s claim that Valentine’s Day is the day that birds couple for the night. Duke Theseus and Aegeus discover the fours lovers asleep. They are surprised that they are sharing the same ground, since Lysander and Demetrius (as far as the old men know), are rivals for Hermia’s affection.
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past: Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?
— A Midsummer Night Dream, Act IV, Scene ii.
Egeus. My lord, this is my daughter here asleep;
And this, Lysander; this Demetrius is;
This Helena, old Nedar's Helena:1685
I wonder of their being here together.
Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace our solemnity.
But speak, Egeus; is not this the day1690
That Hermia should give answer of her choice?
Egeus. It is, my lord.
Theseus. Go, bid the huntsmen wake them with their horns.
[Horns and shout within. LYSANDER, DEMETRIUS,]
HELENA, and HERMIA wake and start up]1695
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?
Shakespeare has a much darker reference to Valentine's Day in Hamlet.
Ophelia, has gone mad with the loss of her brother, her father, and Hamlet breaking her heart. She starts wandering the castle and can only communicate through songs. She sings a very melancholy song that alludes to the superstition that if two single people meet on the morning of Saint Valentine's Day they will likely get married:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose
And donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door
Let in a maid then out a maid
Never departed more.
Ophelia seems to be darkly admitting that she and Hamlet have had pre-marital intimate relations and she is no longer a virgin, The song implies that Ophelia entered Hamlet’s chamber a maid (that is, an unmarried virgin), but is let out a maid (unmarried), while the Hamlet very clearly has taken her virginity. Hamlet re-enforces this suspicion by commanding her to go to a nunnery, one of the only recourses for single mothers. It is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare is implying that Ophelia is in fact pregnant, and is driven mad with sorrow that she now has to deliver her baby without any form of support from her father (who is dead), from her brother (who is in France), or her baby’s father, who wants her to leave and never return. Ophelia’s song is a lament that she wishes the superstition were true, and Hamlet had indeed married her.
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day as a religious holiday, after all, Queen Elizabeth had made England a Protestant country. Celebrating a saint day could have been seen as idolatrous in Protestant England. Nevertheless, Shakespeare and other romantic writers helped transform Valentines’ Day into less of a religious holiday, and more as a secular celebration of love and monogamy, very different from its bloody, promiscuous roots.
- Paston Letters