What’s the deal with “Greensleeves?

What's the deal with Greensleeves?

I think I speak for most people when I say that when we first think of Shakespeare, aside from a few famous lines, and an image of a balding middle-aged man in a ruff, what usually comes into our heads are the haunting chords of this song:

This song has become the quintessential Elizabethan song, and the one we most readily associate with Shakespeare himself, but why? Even odder, why has this song, which as you will soon discover, is not exactly children-appropriate, has lent its tune to a popular Christmas carol?

Part 1: Birth of a ballad:

The popular myth is that this song was composed by King Henry the Eight himself, in his attempts to woo Anne Boleyn, his future second wife, future ex-wife, and mother to his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. As you can see in the photo of Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl, this myth has even extended to how we see Anne Boleyn in popular culture. The character Anne Boleyn even a reference to it in the musical “Six” in the video below. However, there’s no record that Henry wrote the song; the first published version was registered in 1580 and the text was likely written in 1566, which was 20 years after King Henry’s death.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Chorus:
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

chorus

I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

chorus

If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.

chorus

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

chorus

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

chorus

Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.

chorus

Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.



Greensleeves is a ballad- a kind of traditional poetry that usually tells a sad story and follows a specific rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that not every line ends in a rhyme, which is part of the structure of the ballad. Ballads were published in collections and distributed among the countryside. Shakespeare actually dramatizes peddlers who sold ballads like Autolychus in The Winter’s Tale, who sold ballads for country folk to sing- a sort of 16th century Spotify:

Clown. What hast here? ballads?

Mopsa. Pray now, buy some: I love a ballad in print o'2145
life, for then we are sure they are true.

Autolycus. Here's one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer's
wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a
burthen and how she longed to eat adders' heads and
toads carbonadoed.2150

Mopsa. Is it true, think you?

Autolycus. Very true, and but a month old.

Dorcas. Bless me from marrying a usurer!

Autolycus. Here's the midwife's name to't, one Mistress
Tale-porter, and five or six honest wives that were2155
present. Why should I carry lies abroad?

Mopsa. Pray you now, buy it.

Clown. Come on, lay it by: and let's first see moe
ballads; we'll buy the other things anon.
Autolycus. Here's another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon2160
the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April,
forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this
ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was
thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold
fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that2165
loved her: the ballad is very pitiful and as true.

Dorcas. Is it true too, think you?

Autolycus. Five justices' hands at it, and witnesses more than
my pack will hold.

Clown. Lay it by too: another.2170

Autolycus. This is a merry ballad, but a very pretty one.
Mopsa. Let's have some merry ones.

Autolycus. Why, this is a passing merry one and goes to
the tune of 'Two maids wooing a man:' there's
scarce a maid westward but she sings it; 'tis in2175
request, I can tell you.

Mopsa. We can both sing it: if thou'lt bear a part, thou
shalt hear; 'tis in three parts.
Dorcas. We had the tune on't a month ago.

The maid and her green gown

During the period that the song was composed and the lyrics written, the sleeves of a ladies gown were detachable, fastened to the gown with laces. This meant that one pair of sleeves could be worn with a number of different gowns. The Lady Greensleeves in the song is inspired from the last line of the chorus “And who but my Lady Greensleeves”.

As the quote and the images above indicate, sleaves were detachable and interchangeable in this period, which means men could give them as gifts. One reason why I think the myth that this song is about Anne Boleyn endures is the fact that the lyrics mention several rich gifts that the male speaker of the song gives his indifferent beloved. It’s tempting to imagine Henry showering Anne with gifts as he attempts to make her his mistress and later his queen. This is also why the musical Six designed the costume of Anne Boleyn to have green cuffs.

Detail for the costume of Anne Bolen in "Six"

The colour green stands here as a verbal and visual symbol of fecundity, so to think of a literal gown of green is a misunderstanding: ‘wearing the gown of green’ is a euphemism for the amorous act performed lying down on grass; and ‘winning the gown of green’ is a euphemism for becoming pregnant. This is the late 18th century and mid 19th century, and the cultural currency of words and phrases changes over time.

https://earlymusicmuse.com/greensleeves1of3mythology/

Part 2: Greensleeves in Shakespeare

The first part of Greensleeves as it appeared in the English Scholar’s Library
1878 reprint of A Handful of Pleasant Delights, 1584.

 but [his words] do no more adhere
and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to
the tune of ‘Green Sleeves.

“Merry Wives of Windsor,” Act II, Scene i.

Why do we associate this song with Shakespeare? Partially it has to do with the construction of the poem. Greensleeves is written in iambic pentameter– Shakespeare’s most frequently used form of poetry. In addition, as you can see from the reprint of the title page, Greensleeves is referred to as a sonnet, and Shakespeare was famous for his sonnets. For the record, the song is not a sonnet- a sonnet is 14 lines long and Greensleeves is 18 lines.

Crafting the carol

The words of “What Child Is This?” came from poet/ author William Chatterton Dix in 1865. According to

Stories of the Great Christmas Carols by June C. Montgomery and Kenon D. Renfrow, Dix wrote the lyrics as a poem called “The Manger Throne.” It’s unknown who chose to set the poem to “Greensleeves” but according to Montgomery and Renfrow, it was probably composer John Stainer, who is listed as the arranger of the carol in the first published edition of 1871.

1. What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

2. Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

3. So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,
The Virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

It's likely that the popularity of the Christmas carol helped keep the tune alive, and then with the interest of folk songs in the 20th century helped generate interest in the tune itself. Since Greensleeves became the most popular 16th century song, it makes sense that it became associated with the most famous 16th century poet, and the most famously disasterous 16th century royal couple.


Sources

https://ig.ft.com/life-of-a-song/greensleeves.html#:~:text=Alas%2C%20though%20Henry%20VIII%20was,Lady%20Greene%20Sleeves%E2%80%9D%20in%201580.

https://onthetudortrail.com/Blog/2011/08/23/dressing-anne-boleyn/

funny Henry the eighth sketches from “Horrible Histories.”

I love the BBC Kids show “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary (who also appears in the show). The show is a Monty-Python like variety show that jumps from various periods in English history, (primarily), while highlighting the “gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,” elements of history that our teachers tend to gloss over.

One period of history in which the show excels at satirizing is the Tudor period; devoting several songs, sketches, and animations to the reigns of Mary I, Good Queen Bess, and of course, Henry VIII. Here are some of my favorite clips from the series, with Ben Willbond as Henry VIII:

The Awesome world of “Six”

One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.

The Cast of “Six” perform live at the 2021 Tony Awards.

This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.

The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.

Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story

Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.

I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.

I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.

Part II: The women take wing

During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.

TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by

III. Why “Six” Slaps

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have.
Emilia, “Othello,” Act IV, Scene iii.

Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.

Bravo.

Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:

Books

TV:

Web:
https://www.history.com/news/henry-viii-wives

https://sixonbroadway.com/about.php

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

  1. Shakespeare English Kings by Peter Saccio. Published Apr. 2000. Preview available: https://books.google.com/books?id=ATHBz3aaGn4C
  2. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_Our_Contemporary.html?id=QIrdQfCMnfQC
  3. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  4. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding Published: 16 Jan 2013.
    77ace26dfdee4259bf48d6eed1a59d57
  5. Will In the World by Prof. Steven Greenblatt, Harvard University. September 17, 2004. Preview available https://www.amazon.com/Will-World-How-Shakespeare-Became/dp/1847922961

TV:

The Tudors (TV Show- HBO 2007)

“The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (BBC, 1970)

Websites

The Lion In Winter On Discord

Please join me and the Shakespeare Online Repertory Company on Discord.com at 1PM. We’ll be reading “The Lion In Winter” by James Goldman, which, you may remember was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1968:

Original 1968 trailer for the film, “The Lion In Winter,” starring Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, and Peter O’Toole.

As many of you know, I’ve been in two plays with the Shakespeare Online Rep before, and like the production of “Lear” I did last month, this play is about a king, (the historical King Henry II played by Peter O’Toole), and his three children, who ruins his kingdom through his selfishness and inability to connect with his children. In addition, his wife Elenor De’Aquitaine (Hepburn) is powerful, cunning, and ruthless and will stop at nothing to get power away from Henry. She even manipulates her own children against Henry; John (the infamous king of the Robin Hood Legend), Richard (known later as Richard the Lionheart), and Jeffrey.

The acclaimed TV show “Empire” owes a lot to “King Lear,” but as you can see, it owes a lot more to “The Lion In Winter.” The character Lucius Lyon is much more based on King Henry, with his violent past, his mistresses, and his powerful wife Cookie, who is clearly an African American Elenor De’Aquitaine. Furthermore, the children are even more clearly derived from the three Plantagenet children: Hakeem, the spoiled, foolish philanderer played by Bryshere Gray, definitely has echoes of Kanye West, but Prince John is definitely in his DNA. Similarly, the talented Jamal, who is loved by his mother and hated by his homophobic father could definitely swap stories over dinner with Richard the Lionhearted, (though I doubt Jamal ever went on crusades). And lastly, the emotionally damaged Andre does have some Macbeth-like traits with his vaulting ambition and his brilliant, cunning wife Rhonda. But unlike Macbeth, Andre uses his business-savvy mind and his ability to manipulate his brothers to take power away from his father, which is exactly what Jeffrey does in “The Lion In Winter.”

Will our production be as cool as Empire, or as star-studded as the movie? Honestly, no. But I will say that after working with these actors before on multiple projects, this production should be fun, exciting, and moving, and definitely worth the hearing.