Jours de Fête

Mark Thornton Burnett

  • Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage by François Laroque, translated by Janet Lloyd
    Cambridge, 423 pp, £45.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 521 37549 5

When Shakespeare et la fête appeared in 1988, it was building upon approaches already established in the studies of C.L. Barber, E.K. Chambers and Enid Welsford which related Shakespeare’s plays to Elizabethan calendrical customs. What distinguished Laroque’s book, however, was the breadth of its documentation and discussion, which spanned the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s writings, and its enviable command of recent explorations of popular culture, many of them the work of French folklorists and anthropologists. Now, much altered, it appears in English. Laroque has added further illustrations, comment about theatre audiences, reference to folio and quarto variants in Shakespeare, consideration of New Historicist interpretations of the period by Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Steven Mullancy and Peter Stallybrass (among others) and a chapter on Othello. This is less a translation than a new study in its own right.

One of the great virtues of Shakespeare’s Festive World is the scrupulous care with which its investigations are conducted. Arming himself with caveats, Laroque recognises how difficult it is to reconstruct forms that are essentially ephemeral; his modesty notwithstanding, he manages to recover a great deal in the ensuing chapters. Only those festive forms that bear upon Shakespeare directly are described: thus Laroque confines himself to the folklore of the Cotswolds, London and Warwickshire, occasionally straying outside these self-imposed borders but always arguing with rigour and exactitude. Particularly helpful is the way in which key concepts such as ‘popular’ and ‘puritan’ receive a detailed explanation of the meanings they have attracted; the French derivations of some terms are addressed, yielding reflections upon etymological cross-fertilisation and linguistic change.

Documents of a literary and historical provenance (travellers’ journals, diaries, parish registers, diocesan records and royal pronouncements) are marshalled in the first part of the study in an overview of the subject. The relationship between seasonal entertainments and agricultural cycles is described, and the efforts of the Church to integrate pagan celebrations into an ecclesiastical calendar are charted. It is clear from Laroque’s survey that festivity was deeply embedded in Elizabethan culture, from the activities of youthful fraternities to royal progresses. Festivity could be used to serve political purposes too, as Elizabeth I and James I realised: they resurrected older festive traditions or invented new ones, developing them into cults and electing themselves as the chief divinities. In his discussion of periodic jollifications Laroque is judicious, superbly informed and meticulous; he unearths pertinent historical instances while preserving an anthropological interest in the continuity of ritualised forms of behaviour and the organisation of time in earlier communities. Perhaps there is too great a reliance upon certain writers (such as John Aubrey and Philip Stubbes), and arguably the eccentricities of some folkloric approaches are countenanced over-generously: but Laroque would be the first to admit that the sources are fragmentary, and his coverage of a range of anthropological perspectives is indicative of the conscientiousness and persistence with which he elaborates his argument.

‘The cycle of calendary festivals’, the longest chapter, focuses upon specific festive events and distinguishes between secular and religious observances, steering a course between wakes, vigils, masquerades, gambols, holidays and sporting contests. With extraordinary precision Laroque is able to determine the point at which some festivals declined in importance while others gained in popularity, to ascertain the origins of certain practices such as the Morris dance, to contextualise the ambiguous responses towards revels registered by the Church authorities. Advent, Ascension Day, Hocktide, Lent, May Day and saints’ days – Laroque unpacks the calendrical significances of these and related occasions. If there are queries about dates, they are answered in the intricately assembled calendars which form the appendices.

Laroque might be challenged on a number of points. The gaiety of Shrove Tuesday is possibly stressed more than is strictly warrantable, while apprentice rebellions were sparked off by economic and political grievances as well as Lenten frustrations, factors which Laroque does not fully take into account. (Shakespeare’s silence on the subject of Shrove Tuesday insurrections is taken to indicate disapproval, but the activities and difficulties experienced by apprentices are fleetingly represented by the dramatist, in 2 Henry VI and Henry VIII.) Questions about the reception and appropriation of texts are sometimes left unresolved, and Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday is conceivably darker, less buoyant, than Laroque allows. From time to time one wonders how far these local readings might have changed in the light of recent studies of apprenticeship, the decline of hospitality, carnival and rebellion, by historians such as Felicity Heal, Martin Ingram, K.J. Lindley and Stephen Smith, which do not appear in the notes or bibliography. Inevitably, in an exploration as adventurous and exhaustive as this, there will be isolated interpretations which seem to strike a discordant note. But these are rare.

Laroque writes with an admirable sophistication of argumentation and a finely-tuned and nuanced style. Hardly an item of potentially useful information has been overlooked, and this extends to visual materials as well as to more conventional documentary sources. Paintings are analysed for the light they cast upon festive practices: a penetrating assessment of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Autumn, the 1573 portrait of a head composed of fruit and vegetables, enables him to introduce themes of consumption and digestion that are taken up in the later Shakespearean chapters. The painting offers ‘an impression of perpetual, teeming and festering proliferation ... In the most direct and apprehendable fashion, the picture reveals to us the process of metamorphosis that is such a feature of the popular culture of the Renaissance.’ Unravelling the complexities of the images represented in the stained-glass window at Betley Hall, Staffordshire, he is immediately sensitive to form and detail. With detective-like doggedness he tracks down the identity of each of the performers in the window, proceeding to make intriguing connections between Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, the Hobby-horse, the musician and the Fool and their counterparts in dramatic entertainments.

In the second, slightly shorter part of Shakespeare’s Festive World, he chases the ‘ramifications and transformations’ of festive ideas in Shakespeare’s plays, a task which he executes with aplomb and ability. It would have been tempting to fall into the trap of locating definite parallels between the texts and their contexts, but he resists such an easy theory of mimetic reflection and detects instead inexact refractions and echoes. His methodological procedure recalls a Foucauldian archaeology which takes note of, but is not a slave to, chronological considerations, an enquiry into ‘a veritable code whose specific temporal signposts and points of reference indicate a whole symbolic system’. Disentangling the celebratory subtleties of Shakespeare plays, Laroque is a bricoleur in the tradition of Lévi-Strauss who creates out of fragments the ideologies of discarded discourses. Equally enticing would have been to plot a smooth trajectory towards unqualified festivity in the later plays: Laroque prefers unevenness and finds, even in the sheep-shearing scenes of The Winter’s Tale, a darker note, the threat of disintegration and a mood of bewildered uncertainty.

Indefinite associations rather than perfectly-dovetailed correspondences therefore characterise the relationship between the Shakespearean text and its festive circumstances. This can be seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Falstaff’s final humiliation brings to mind the masquerades of the Mummers’ plays in which actors, wearing animal skins and antlers, would perform obscene dances. Or these vestiges of contemporary traditions manifest themselves in the struggle between self-indulgent excess and Lenten punitiveness in Romeo and Juliet, in the alternation between festivity and war in Much Ado about Nothing, and in the delicately muted harking-back to pastoral conventions in The Tempest’s masques and pageants.

A critical commonplace is that Shakespeare’s last plays are intimately preoccupied with the operations of time, with mortality and the transience of human achievement. Laroque’s interpretation is able to show the continuity of this concern throughout Shakespeare’s work, and to situate it in the contradictory interplay of cultural forces in the period. There is the opposition between the seasons in the songs which conclude Love’s Labour’s Lost, a conflict which is tied to a carnivalesque dispute between courtship and abstemious academicism. Elsewhere in his plays, Laroque suggests, Shakespeare follows not an uninterrupted, linear conception of time but the binary rhythms of the old calendar, which swings, pendulum-like, between extremes. As keen to historicise as to mount painstaking literary exegeses, Laroque describes that Shakespearean sensitivity to insubstantiality in terms of larger social, economic and political processes menacing English society in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During the course of the discussion of festive undercurrents in Shakespeare it becomes increasingly evident that the plays enlist popular forms only to subvert them and to subject them to parodic treatment. Inverting customary sequences is one of the means whereby Shakespeare reinvigorates faded or discarded traditions, or ensures an impact for his plays in the theatre. Hocktide festivities, marked by reversals of the social order, were occasions on which women were licensed to mete out comic punishment to their male suitors. The Taming of the Shrew is illuminatingly paired with these practices, Laroque contending that the play eventually disempowers women in Kate’s seeming acceptance of Petruchio’s authority. The calendrical muddles of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘it is night-time in the middle of the day, with moon and sun both shining at once’) are also seen to constitute a playful manipulation of expectations which insists upon an audience’s critical engagement.

Nowhere are the parodic elements more obvious than in the histories and tragedies. Henry IV is read as a ‘festival that keeps petering out before reaching its climax’ as it moves hesitantly towards a final celebration, the Prince’s coronation. Its mood anticipates that of the later tragic explorations, the grotesque skimmington ridings in Hamlet, the sinister banquets in Timon of Athens and the collisions between festivity and fasting in Antony and Cleopatra. A striking aspect of Shakespeare’s Festive World is the suggestion, amply supported, that festivity was not abandoned by Shakespeare but maintained to form an integral part of his most brooding experiments. With elegance and a dash of irony Laroque chooses to conclude his festive labours with tragedy and Othello. Certainly the comic antecedents of the play have been recognised: Laroque, however, carries these arguments a longer distance. Acting out the role of fool, Iago baits Othello, reducing him to mastiff status. The imagery of wind, the metaphors of bodily appetite, the destructive carnivalesque effect and the multiple animal associations combine to create a dramatic charivari, a pageant of tragic proportions. The care lavished on the materials is such that Laroque never quite establishes if festivity served to contain subversion or permitted the expression of transgressive impulses: a central debate in Cultural Materialist and New Historicist revisions of the English Renaissance. Although it might be felt that this issue should be tackled more forcefully, the decision to leave the question open is less a shortcoming than a sign of the accuracy and seriousness which are the hallmarks of the book. He has performed a service for the scholarly community in restoring history to the New Historicism. The publication of Shakespeare’s Festive World is something to celebrate.