Shakespeare, Shrove Tuesday, and lent
What is Shrove Tuesday?
According to the Christian calendar, today (Tuesday) is Shrove Tuesday AKA fat Tuesday, AKA pancake day, AKA Fasnacht Day, (if you live in Pennsylvania ) It is the season that commemorates the time in Jesus Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days, then he then entered Jerusalem with his followers, had his last meal the last supper was betrayed by Judas. was crucified, died and ascended to heaven on Easter Sunday.
Every aspect of the Easter story from Christ’s entry to Jerusalem to the Holy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper, to his death and the cross on Good Friday has been ritualized by the Catholic and many Protestant churches. Incidentally, Holy Thursday is determined by the Jewish calendar, which is in itself coordinated by the Paschal moon, the last full moon before the Vernal Equinox.
Growth and fertility; pain and pleasure, privation, and excess, things dying and things born. These extreme states of being and the dramatic stories of Christ’s passion are, of course, very good theater, so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare would choose to incorporate the themes and motifs of Shrove Tuesday into his plays.
Shakespeare and Shrove Tuesday
Shakespeare loved pancakes!
Shakespeare uses a lot of Christian imagery and theology in all of his plays but he also specifically refers to Shrove Tuesday, with its pancake suppers, use of theatrical disguise, and carefree attitude. He also refers to Lent, and the threadbare and lean times it represents. In a general sense, a lot of his plays deal with the swinging back-and-forth of Time, where society is simultaneously getting ready to purge itself of sin and deny itself of pleasure. I thought I’d explore that by taking a look at some examples of text Shakespeare that deal with these themes.
First, let’s talk about Shrove Tuesday; in As You Like It, Touchstone makes reference to eating pancakes, traditional food for Shrove Tuesday in a lot of Christian communities. There are variations like donuts and fasnachts, but the idea is to eat up the fat and oil in your house. This is because to begin the start of length a time when Christians are supposed to abstain from fat, people would use the remaining oil and butter in their houses to have pancake suppers.
This modest pancake supper is one tradition of Shrove Tuesday, but there are many more elaborate ones. As I mentioned Shrove Tuesday goes by many names but the most extreme and extravagant celebration of the purging of sin in preparation for Lent is, of course, Mardi Gras. The celebration of Mardi gras in New Orleans is an offshoot of the Shrove Tuesday tradition which is why it is often celebrated as an extravagant party with food, drink, and sometimes lewd behavior. Sometimes, Mardi Gras celebrations even incorporate Shakespeare plays as a theme:
Masks and Mardi Gras
As you can imagine getting the chance to purge yourself from sin and do things that you wish you wanted to do might make you a bit self-conscious which is why traditionally in a lot of cultures mardi gras is celebrated by the wearing of masks where people can hide their faces, and adopt an extreme personality, and indulge in dancing and drinking. Venice is another city famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations and Shakespeare uses this tradition heavily in his play The Merchant Of Venice.
Shakespeare’s debt to Italy
First of all, credit where credit is due, many of Shakespeare’s comic characters are directly inspired from character types created in a form of Italian comedy called “Commedia Del’Arte-” The Comedy of Art. These were short improvised vignettes where performers donned masks and acted out a sort of improvised skit. Each actor spent years learning the voices and mannerisms of these stock characters like the scheming maid, (Columbina) the crafty servant (Arlequinno or Harlequin), or the greedy, dishonest innkeeper Brighella, who might have influenced Shylock himself. If you click on this website, there are some great scholarly articles about Commedia’s influence on Shakespeare, and how these characters helped forge all of his comedies, not just Merchant Of Venice.
Masks and Venetian culture
As this video from the Youtube historian Metatron explains, Commedia masks were just one of the masks that were front and center in Merchant Of Venice. Masks were part of Venetian society, not just during Carnival, which allowed Shakespeare to make masks part of the plot of Merchant Of Venice.
It’s not explicitly said, but I believe Shakespeare sets Act II of The Merchant Of Venice during a Carnival masquerade revel, where young men danced through the streets wearing masks. This might very well be during a carnival celebration, which means the play might very well be taking place during the twin seasons of Easter for Christians and Passover for Jews. This might very well be what Shakespeare was intending, as this clashing of religious dogman is at the heart of the play.
First, there’s Graziano, Bassanio’s wild and raunchy friend. In this speech, he deftly parodies the duelling concepts of Shrove Tuesday and Lent, by promising to be austere, wise, and virtuous tomorrow, but not tonight, when he and his friend Lorenzo will be walking through the streets in their masks.
Bassanio. Why then you must. But hear thee, Gratiano;745
Thou art too wild, too rude and bold of voice;
Parts that become thee happily enough
And in such eyes as ours appear not faults;
But where thou art not known, why, there they show
Something too liberal. Pray thee, take pain750
To allay with some cold drops of modesty
Thy skipping spirit, lest through thy wild behavior
I be misconstrued in the place I go to,
And lose my hopes.
Gratiano. Signior Bassanio, hear me:755
If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer-books in my pocket, look demurely,
Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sigh and say 'amen,'760
Use all the observance of civility,
Like one well studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam, never trust me more.
Bassanio. Well, we shall see your bearing.
Gratiano. Nay, but I bar to-night: you shall not gauge me765
By what we do to-night.
Bassanio. No, that were pity:
I would entreat you rather to put on
Your boldest suit of mirth, for we have friends
That purpose merriment. But fare you well:770
I have some business.
While Gratziano and his friends are playing masquerade outside, Shylock instructs his daughter Jessica to shut up his doors and do not let the maskers in, or even look at them.
It’s entirely possible that the play itself might very well conclude around the time of Easter which is especially significant considering that it ends with a scene that inverts, subverts, and questions the Passion story of Jesus.
The courtroom scene from Merchant of Venice is almost a Passion Play in itself, where Shylock attempts to take a pound of flesh from the Christian Antonio, (who gives it as willingly as if he were Christ himself). Even though Jesus was crucified by Romans, for millennia the Jews were blamed for his death, and Shakespeare uses this anti-semetic imagery where Shylock stands in for the austerity of Mosaic law, rejecting the concept of divine Grace. Meanwhile, Portia is playing the judge, and she utters a poignant speech about mercy with almost God-like eloquence. This scene illustrates the established theological basis of Lent and Easter. According to Christian theology, the whole point of Lent is to remember and celebrate Christ’s sacrifice where we are redeemed from our sins. As she says, “We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy.” In a way, the sinful nature of mardi gras is not just a purging of human sin, it is also a way of acknowledging how far we fall short of God’s perfect ideals.
In that sense, Mardi Gras and Carnival are not a flouting or a rejection of Christian theology; it’s a reinforcement of it. Christians indulge in sin and acknowledge their sins the next day on Ash Wednesday, where they don black clothes and become contrite and this is our way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice and how necessary it was.
However, Shakespeare doesn’t have Antonio die like Christ, instead, it is Shylock the Jew who will metaphorically die and be reborn; he will convert to Christianity (and thus be dead to his former community), and his riches will give stability to Jessica and Lorenzo when Shylock dies. Shylock’s punishment at the end of the play is intentionally harsh and cruel, and many scholars have shown it as a demonstration of the limits of Christian mercy. Like the masks they put on every day, Venetian Christians seem pure and pious, but are inwardly corrupt and degenerate.
Shakespeare and Lent
You might have noticed that I used the word “purge” repeatedly in reference to what people do on carnival and mardi gras as a way of releasing their sins. The Purge movies do in fact have a basis in this concept. Traditionally the flowers that are part of purge days are actually given at Shrove tide. The Purge is also traditionally celebrated in mid March around the time of the vernal equinox, so the purge movies are a more extreme version of mardi gras, with the belief that the one illegal tendency people would indulge in alloed, would be murder, (which is a very bleak comment on human society).
What’s interesting is that Shakespeare creates his own sort of purging of society in his play Measure For Measure, and he creates a villain who is very much like an embodiment of um of lentin But
no man can is without sin and no and it is incredibly dangerous to assume that 1 Possibly making fun of her clothing and possibly also calling her a whore or a prostitute that that um you see it was traditional to eat Is the food a drink length until It’s a sexual It’s not as enjoyable and probably lower quality than the norm normal because of course the tradition of lent is a tradition of self denial and and in measure for measure he creates a character who is obsessed with his own piety and self denial the character of the judge Angelo in measure for measure he is a judge who is known for his piety and a society that is that it’s become too loose too loose to carnival ish and he is charged by the Duke who has chosen to Leave Vienna to with to become more dracodian to become more our strict and and legalistic and punish people use the fear of the law in order to command good behavior he sets the same standards for everybody else that he does for himself and that’s why the central conflict of the play is between him and Isabella whose brother who hasn’t committed any sins on stage but her brother Claudio is guilty of adultery well not no not guilty of adultery hes technically guilty of fornication in that he has consummated his marriage with the Woman before proceeding with the marriage rituals that I mentioned in my most recent Romeo Juliette portpost so hes being punished by 4 and a Kate for fornication fornication in in the the strictest and most technical definition of fornication he loves this woman he has made a pledge for her to be his wife legally they are married but it’s not good enough unless they make a formal request they get the consent of the parents and they and they are and they have a marriage ceremony performed in a church unless he does all of those things in Angelo’s mind he is guilty of fornication So you can see that Angelo has a stricter nature than most people would permit themselves and he is utterly and the concept of mercy is just as alien to hit him as it was to Shylock the main difference between the 2 characters that’s Angelo heights behind Christian piety not Jewish piety Ione and he turns out to be even more morally degenerate than Shylock because he is it is he is trying to manipulate uh manipulate Isabella in order to get her to sleep with him he wants to sleep with a nun because he thinks he deserves her he thinks that she is a reward for his piety
Angelo forgot what any person who celebrates mardi gras and ash Wednesday does that the purpose of lent is to remind ourselves that we are human know that we need mercy and to celebrate the sacrifice the Christ made so that we can continue to be human and not try to utter utterly lady destroy our imperfections that make us human so measure for meta The diconomy between Lynton and and a boccanelli or carnum Leonora carnival’s morals morals and in the end Isabella emerges from that crucible Victorious she defeats Angelo she exposes him as a failure as a failure she failure she ransoms her brother almost as definitely as Christ renziming humanity humanity and in the end she is offered the chance to either become a nun as she wanted or to become the Duke’s wife and therefore Queen of the whole country Taking a face value it looks like it seems like a fairy tale ending where this is the sort of person who should be governing somebody whose morality is tempered with mercy but but Shakespeare’s play is much Messier than that if you actually read it or see it performed formed it has Siri it’s a racist serious questions about how helpful oh helpful this this particular concept the concept is to women especially since Particularly when it comes to failings of the Flash in most productions I’ve seen you’ve Jew seen Juliet in measure for measure to for measure is as mocked and as disdained and is the and abused it’s viewed as Claudio is and Is life a reputation which is really all a woman had back in this period so Shakespeare does a good job of of showing the virtues of letting and carnival in Is illings of such rules it’s all very well and good to say we are allowed to be human man but very often women are set to higher standards than the men when it comes to if comes to standards of purity and piety
No hare, sir; unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie,
that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent.
An old hare hoar,
And an old hare hoar,
Is very good meat in lent
But a hare that is hoar
Is too much for a score,
When it hoars ere it be spent.
Romeo, will you come to your father’s? we’ll
to dinner, thither.
–Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet
Lent and Measure FOr Measure
the Lenten season probably appealed to Shakespeare because much like “Twelfth Night” it is a season that momentarily subverts and then enforces the status quo. People indulge themselves in debauchery briefly, then commit themselves whole-heartedly to sobriety and piety. It shows the tendency towards the extreme in human nature, whether it be the grotesque, the sinful, the lusty, or even the austere. Like the masks at Carnival, we find these extremes of nature fascinating to watch as they dance before us and therefore, they also make for very good drama.