It’s that time of year, when some of us have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, many are looking forward to (or dreading) gathering with family and friends, and a certain subset of us wonder, somewhat longingly and not for the first time — what’s the closest thing we have to a Shakespeare Christmas play?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, from December 25 to January 6, was apparently “the longest and most enthusiastically celebrated festival in the Elizabethan calendar,” and yet William Shakespeare never wrote a play that told what we might call a Christmas story. Presided over by the so-called “Lord of Misrule,” the Elizabethan Twelve Days were filled with a loosening of established mores, and a warmth and hospitality that marked a departure from the rest of year, but they also carried echoes of both paganism and popishness, providentially proving pretty unpopular with Puritans (despite being alliteratively amazing). Perhaps Shakespeare felt that writing a play celebrating the abandonment of societal norms in a medium that regularly depicted murder, rape, and dismemberment amidst sometimes-comic, sometimes-tragic family squabbles was a little on the nose.
Did Shakespeare then ever refer obliquely to the spirit of our contemporary holiday season? Twelfth Night leaps out as an obvious candidate, its title referencing the Eve of the Catholic Festival of Epiphany (January 5, the twelfth night after Christmas). The season’s traditions of music, revelry, and social inversion (such as servants dressed as their masters, men and women cross-dressing, etc) feature prominently in Twelfth Night, but the title probably references the occasion of the play’s first performance rather than any of its thematic or narrative elements.
Perhaps The Winter’s Tale, then, is a more likely candidate for a Shakespeare Christmas play. The seasonal setting certainly works and, viewed generously, in what might be described as the Christmas spirit, Leontes’ journey of redemption can be seen as a Scrooge-like story of forgiveness. The rustic comedy of the later acts and the happy ending of a family reunion also speak to our modern holiday sensibilities. In fact, several of Shakespeare’s Romances might be right for the Christmas season, in that they deal with themes of family, redemption, and the light of spring following the darkness of the solstice that fueled the holiday’s pagan origins.
Speaking of Scrooge, telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is an old tradition that Charles Dickens popularized, but Shakespeare mentions it too. In The Winter’s Tale, Mamillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins.” Textual clues suggest that Shakespeare’s great tragedy Hamlet is set at Christmastime when Marcellus claims, sort of desperately, that they can’t possibly have seen a ghost on the battlements because “they say, no spirit dare stir abroad” during “that season… Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated…so hallowed and so gracious is that time.” (Don’t tell that to Dickens!) But in a scene that might very well have inspired the author of A Christmas Carol, Richard III is visited on the eve of battle by the spirits of the people he’s murdered — his Ghosts of Victims Past — all of whom condemn him to die the following day. A cautionary tale, but not a terribly festive one.
Soldiers returning home from battle is how Much Ado About Nothing begins, and director Christopher Luscombe chose to set his Royal Shakespeare Company production just after the end of World War I, which finished in November 1918. Chris told me in an email that “the festive side of the play seemed to be enhanced by a Christmas setting. It was also interesting to see how the darker side of the play works in an icy, winter, English setting. Despite the putative ‘Messina’ location, it feels much more like an English country estate to me!”
But maybe the spirit of commerce is paramount to you, accompanied by fears of incurring massive debt to pay for presents. And maybe you think the December holiday season is dominated too much by Christmas to the exclusion of other traditions. That might make The Merchant of Venice your cup of bitter holiday nog. Or maybe you’re fed up with shopping, the same endlessly repetitive Christmas carols, and obnoxious relatives—in which case the carnage and bloodletting of Titus Andronicus could be a cathartic holiday hit. Or maybe your grim feeling that seasonal generosity and holiday largesse is foolish and rarely repaid makes you want to just settle down by the fire with Timon of Athens.
I’m not the only one in search of a Shakespeare Christmas play, and some folks are doing something about it. Playwright Paco Jose Madden has written A Shakespeare Carol, in which “Shakespeare, not Scrooge…visits past, present, and future to rediscover the love he lost and find the desire to write once more.” Dan Beaulieu, the co-founder and artistic director of the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, has also written a play called A Shakespeare Carol, in which the ghost of Christopher Marlowe visits Shakespeare and encourages him, with the help of other spirits, to turn away from the darkness of plays like Macbeth towards the Romances, “where Magic is used for good, forgiveness abounds, and Hope prevails” (according to the press description). Madden’s play had a production this fall at Arizona State University; Beaulieu’s play just had its first public reading this week. Maybe one of them — or both! — will become the Shakespeare holiday classic we need.
Until then, I for one would love to see a Christmastime production of The Merry Wives of Windsor — for goodness’ sake, the word ‘merry’ is right in the title! The domesticity of its comedy, with its squabbling relatives, fractured romances, empowering female friendship, and even pretend elves, seems perfect, right down to some of its final words, when Mistress Page declares:
Heaven give you many, many merry days. —
Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire—
What a wonderful seasonal image, and my new holiday toast. May heaven give you many, many merry days.