Both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night take their names from seasonal celebrations. Francois Laroque considers the cultural and theatrical context for Shakespeare's festive comedies, and their exploration of merrymaking, disguise and the natural world.
Shakespeare’s frequent association of the world of the stage with the cyclical holidays of the calendar – May Day, Midsummer, Twelfth Night – is not a chance or fortuitous one but a form of discrete manifesto inscribed in the margins of his early playtexts. The titles of his festive comedies refer to some well-known seasonal celebrations. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest near Athens, like the forest of Arden in As You Like It, is a place of freedom away from the tyrannical rule of an angry father. It is also a green world alive with the magic of flowers: the wild pansy known as ‘love-in-idleness’, for instance, has the power to make the character on whose eyes its juice has been pressed fall in love with the first person he or she sees when waking up. In Twelfth Night, music and dancing, misrule, disguise and holiday foolery turn the world upside down until Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria and the fool Feste are interrupted by the apparition of Olivia’s steward, the stern and puritanical Malvolio. These festive comedies thus become associated with mirth, sexual excitement and freedom until some sort of block or obstacle obliges the protagonists to bypass, counter or overrule such prohibitions.
Photograph of Sara Kestelman and David Waller in a Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970
Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream dazzled audiences with a ground-breaking new interpretation. The result, in the words of one critic, was ‘a box of theatrical miracles’.
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The backgrounds of Shakespeare’s festive comedies
In Shakespeare’s day, long after the Reformation, the calendar, as it had been established by the Church with its series of saints’ days and its fixed and moveable feasts, still played an important role. It constituted a matrix of time, the effect of which was to subordinate events of secular life to those of the sacred cycle of the year (the moveable feasts of Christian worship ranging from Shrove Tuesday to Corpus Christi) and to commemorate a host of popular beliefs and folkloric traditions that had developed over centuries. The year was by and large divided into two halves: the winter or sacred half ranging from Christmas to 24 June (the latter date not only corresponded to Midsummer but also to the latest possible date for the feast of Corpus Christi), and the summer half with its mainly rural feasts and host of local and occasional celebrations which went from 25 June to Christmas.
Festive vs. city comedy
If Ben Jonson’s characters in Every Man Out of His Humour (1598) begin in the country and end in the city, Shakespeare’s festive comedies are structurally built on a contrary movement that takes its protagonists away from court into the green world. The contrast between London and the provinces was to become an increasingly important one with the spectacular urban and commercial boom that took place in the last decades of the 16th century. To Jonson and the upholders of city comedy, London was the centre of throbbing life, a kaleidoscope of manners, of intrigue, vices and folly, and a great source of comic inspiration. For Shakespeare, the opposition between the city and the country lay at the heart of the whole phenomenon of festivity, for even if it was through the towns that festivals were developed, embellished and enriched, the festival itself was still the product of a rural, popular culture whose seasonal rhythms and pre-Christian beliefs were linked with the mysteries and the magic of natural fertility.
Songs, music and lyrics are particularly important in Shakespeare’s festive comedies. They are there to entertain the audience but also to contribute to the general mirth and to the dancing spirit that accompany the rites of love and restore harmony at the end of the play, like some final, almost impossible miracle.
Broadside ballad on Robin Goodfellow
Content from Shakespeare’s plays was also ‘borrowed’ to create new songs, such as this folk ballad on Robin Goodfellow.
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Folklore and forest rites
In Shakespeare’s age, the countryside lying outside the city walls was still the object of superstition and of deep-rooted fears. The forest associated with royal privileges was the domain of hunting, of wildness and the sacred. There was also the world of folklore and the ballads of the ‘old Robin Hood’ as well as the iconography of the Wild Man whose antics at Midsummer may well be linked to Malvolio’s ‘Midsummer madness’ (3.4.53) in Twelfth Night according to the Countess Olivia.
The May Day and Midsummer morris dance was also a significant festive occasion, even though, as Hamlet complains, the hobby-horse was often ‘forgot’ (3.2.125) due to the repeated attacks against maypoles and popular merry-making by Puritan pamphleteers like Philip Stubbes in The Anatomy of Abuses (1583).
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods near Athens, and the forest of Arden in As You Like It are both Shakespearean versions of the pagan, ritualised vision of a traditional green world with its hunting rites and grounds and its utopian, topsy-turvy scenarios. The green world was regarded as a place of escape from the constraints of the law and of everyday life, a site of change (of gender, of identity or of both) and deep interior transformation. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon has Bottom transformed into an ass and he makes Titania, the fairy queen, fall in love with him thanks to the magic juice that has been spread on her eyelids during her sleep. In Twelfth Night, the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a page named Cesario to serve Duke Orsino with whom she is in love. The Duke then uses her as a go-between to bring messages to the Countess Olivia, a lady he is totally infatuated with; but, due to the wickedness of disguise, Olivia then catches ‘the plague’, i.e. falls in love with Viola/Cesario instead of listening in the least to Orsino’s love laments. All these misunderstandings lead to more transformations and hilarious incidents, in particular when Malvolio puts on cross-gartered yellow stockings and keeps smiling in the hope of pleasing her, thus securing what he thinks is the love she feels for him, having been before misled in believing all of this by a forged letter which he finds on his way during a walk in Olivia’s garden.
Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works
Titania and Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 1 by Henry Fuseli.
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May Day, Midsummer and Twelfth Night
But the green world of merry-making and festivity does not limit itself to forest and green pastures as, in several comedies, the late spring festivals are also a source of confusion and disorientation that question identity and sexual desire. Indeed, Shakespeare associates the popular May Day festival with the disorder of the senses. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he plays on the similarities between the festive customs of May Day and Midsummer in order to add to the overall confusion. The sequence of comic chaotic situations symbolises the unpredictability of the festive time in a green world marked by fortune, chance or luck. Enchanted time, now suspended, now accelerated, working in mysterious lunar cycles, is the true counterpart of these enchanted places.
William Blake painting of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream
In a wood, the fairies perform a ring dance evocative of May Day and Midsummer folk customs.
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In popular memory, Midsummer was associated with the London parades. The famous Midsummer Watch, suppressed in 1539, was usually staged at nightfall with torches, with the pageant of St George and the dragon together with giants and Wild Men (also known as ‘woodwoses’) all equipped with candles, lanterns or ‘cressets’, as they were then called. This created among its audiences a tinge of delight and fear.
In, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s last festive comedy, the comic resolution is not achieved through fidelity but through fluidity or flexibility as Olivia seems quite happy to take Sebastian for Viola, and Orsino, Cesario/Viola for Olivia. At the same time, unrequited desire is exposed and stigmatised in Aguecheek and Malvolio who embody the antitypes of hypocritical restraint on the one hand, and ridiculous excess on the other. The below stairs, carnivalesque sub-plot does provide some boisterous or obscene moments that vaguely suggest a link with the usual Twelfth Night celebrations at the end of the 12 days of Christmas.
But, by allowing Olivia’s steward to isolate himself in the sub-plot, Shakespeare powerfully illustrates the wisdom of folly in a farewell to the genre which may also be read as a manifesto in favour of the superiority of festive comedy over comical satire. Twelfth Night, whose title claims an affinity with the Christmas season and carnival, deals with the psychological value of revelry and its limits. But the play also illustrates the tradition of ‘mumming’ (minstrels putting on masks in order to gatecrash the houses of the nobility) and Christmas hospitality as well as of carnival, which generally ended with the baiting or expulsion of the stranger.
Photograph of Stephen Fry in a 2012 production of Twelfth Night directed by Tim Carroll
Stephen Fry as Malvolio in yellow, cross-gartered stockings.
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Copyright: © Robbie Jack / Robbie Jack / Corbis
Inevitably, Shakespeare’s green world comedy would gradually lose its significance and centrality on the public London stages. All the same, his plays keep us in touch with ‘the world we have lost’, to take up Peter Laslett’s title, since, as a playwright, Shakespeare was personally interested in the old holiday pastimes, carnival abuses and morris dances. These provided him with the staple of popular entertainment, with Midsummer and Twelfth Night games and celebrations, i.e. with a rich store of images borrowed from English country life and old-standing calendar traditions. He was certainly unique as a playwright in the way he promoted an entertainment culture that subverted the divide between high and low.
 Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (London: Methuen & Co, 1965).
The contributor has asked for the following credit: Article by Franҫois Laroque, author of Shakespeare's Festive World, Cambridge, CUP, 1991.