Sunday, April 5, 2009

Shakespeare on holiday

If there is anything everybody understands, it's a holiday.

If there is anything that everybody had to read that almost nobody understood, it's Shakespeare.

So I am in a mild state of shock to now realize that holiday is central to understanding Shakespeare's plays.

The idea is nothing new - C.L. Barber first published Shakespeare's Festive Comedy fifty years ago, in 1959. I have owned at least two editions of the book over the years. But it's taken me more than twenty years of dabbling in Renaissance scholarship to finally read it, which is the fun of dabbling: you get to discover the classics when you need them and feel them.

Check out this bit. Barber is talking about how holiday meant one thing in the conservative countryside, like where Shakespeare grew up, and another thing in the progressive city, like in London, where he made his name and fortune - and that difference meant one thing under Queen Elizabeth, and another under thing King James.

Attitudes that meant one thing in the static, monolithic world of village and manor meant other things, more complex and challenging, when continued in the many-minded world of city and court.

Under Elizabeth, the court circle kept high days without making an issue of them and enjoyed the elaboration of native customs in all sorts of neo-classical guises. Under James, courtiers and their literary spokesmen began to be militant in defending holiday, the king himself intervening to protect the popular pastimes from Puritan repression. In the Jacobean period the defense of holiday pleasures by a group whose everyday business was pleasure often became trivial and insincere.

Shakespeare, coming up to London from a rich market town, growing up in the relatively unselfconscious 1570s and 80s, and writing his festive plays in the decade of the 90s, when most of the major elements in English society enjoyed a moment of reconcilement, was perfectly situated to express both a countryman's participation in holiday and a city man's consciousness of it.
What I like best is Barber's story turn on core concepts - city vs. country, transitions between regimes - that are still powerfully in effect. I feel like I can use what I learn in how I think about things as they are changing today.


Image of Will Kemp, a clown who worked with Shakespeare, from Kempes Nine Daies Wonder.

Madonna video of "Holiday" from original release period.

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