Wednesday, August 25, 2010

C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy

C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy; A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1990.

…much of Shakespeare’s comedy is festive in a quite special way which distinguishes it from the art of most of his contemporaries and successors. (3)

But in exploring this work, “festive” can also be a term for structure. I shall be trying to describe structure to get at the way this comedy organizes experience. The saturnalian pattern appears in many variations, all of which involve inversion, statement and counterstatement, and a basic movement which can be summarized in the formula, through release to clarification. /
So much of the action in this comedy is random when looked at as intrigue, so many of the persons are neutral when regarded as character, so much of the wit is inapplicable when assessed as satire, (4)

The saturnalian pattern came to Shakespeare from many sources, both in social and artistic tradition. It appeared in the theatrical institution of clowning: … It can illuminate occasion provides the clearest paradigm. (5)

Such holiday humor is often abetted by directly staging pastimes, dances, songs, masques, plays extempore, etc. But the fundamental method is to shape the loose narrative so that “events” put its persons in the position of festive celebrants: if they do not seek holiday it happens to them. A tyrant duke forces Rosalind into disguise; but her mock wooing with Orlando amounts to a Disguising, with carnival freedom from the decorum of her identity and her sex. The misrule of Sir Toby is represented as personal idiosyncrasy, but it follows the pattern of the Twelfth Night occasion; (6)

The plays present a mockery of what is unnatural which gives scope and point to the sort of scoffs and jest shouted by dancers in the churchyard or in “the quaint mazes in the wanton green.” And they include another, complementary mockery of what is merely natural, a humor which puts holiday in perspective with life as a whole. (8)

The butts in the festive plays consistently exhibit their unnaturalness by being kill-joys. On an occasion “full of warm blood, of mirth,” they are too preoccupied with perverse satisfactions like pride or greed to “let the world slip” and join the dance. (8)

While perverse hostility to pleasure is a subject for aggressive festive abuse, highflown idealism is mocked too, by a benevolent ridicule which sees it as a not unnatural attempt to be more than natural. It is unfortunate that Shakespeare’s gay plays have come to be known as “the romantic comedies,” for they almost always establish a humorous perspective about the vein of hyperbole they borrow from Renaissance romances. Wishful absolutes about love’s finality, cultivated without reserve in conventional Arcadia, are made fun of by suggesting that love is not a matter of life and death, but of springtime, the only pretty ring time. The lover’s conviction that he will love “for ever and a day” is seen as an illusion… (9)

Where the conventional romances tried to express intensity by elaborating hyperbole according to a pretty, pseudo-theological system, the comedies express the power of love as a compelling rhythm in a man and nature. (9)

The tolerant disillusion of Anglican or Catholic culture allowed nature to have its day. But the release of that one day was understood to be a temporary license, a “misrule” which implied rule, so that the acceptance of nature was qualified. Holiday affirmations in praise of folly were limited by the underlying assumption that the natural in man is only one part of him, the part that will fade. (10)

Shakespeare never made another play from pastimes in the same direct fashion. But the pattern for feeling and awareness which he derived form the holiday occasion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes the dominant mode of organization in subsequent comedies until the period of the problem plays. (11-12)

The part of Shakespeare’s earliest work where his mature patterns of comedy first appear clearly is, as I have suggested, the clowning. (12)

But burlesque could also have a positive effect, as a vehicle for expressing aberrant impulse and thought. When the aberration was made relevant to the main action, clowning could provide both release for impulses which run counter to decency and decorum, and the clarification about limits which comes from going beyond the limits. (13)

In creating Falstaff, Shakespeare fused the clown’s part with that of a festive celebrant, a Lord of Misrule, and worked out the saturnalian implications of both traditions more drastically and more complexly than anywhere else. (13)

The comedy expresses impulses and awareness inhibited by the urgency and decorum of political life, so that the comic and serious strains are contrapuntal, each conveying the ironies limiting the other. Then in 2 Henry IV Shakespeare confronts the anarchic potentialities of misrule when it seeks to become not a holiday extravagance but an everyday racket. (14)

Festivals which worked within the rhythm of an agricultural calendar, in village or market town, did not fit the way of living of the urban groups whose energies were beginning to find expression through what Tawney has called the Puritan ethic. (16)

Shakespeare, coming up to London from a rich market town, growing up in the relatively unselfconscious 1570’s and 80’s and writing his festive plays in the decade of the 90’s, 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. (17)

The general tendency, especially on the great festival occasions, was to organize it under leaders, usually a lord and a lady or a king and a queen, with attendants who paralleled the functionaries of a castle or a royal court. (18)

But there was a special group of entertainers representing the talent of the community. Some of these prepared a group dance like the morris, or a mummers’ play, or perhaps even a dramatic performance of some sort drawn from a more sophisticated source. Much of the entertainment, however, seems to have been of a simpler type, consisting of comic speeches or of special dances and songs by one or two characters. … After the local celebration the whole organization was often carried to the neighboring villages, the groups from villages in the same general region exchanged visits. Groups of performers also frequently went on rounds of visits to the castles of neighboring lords and to the more important towns during their holidays, becoming for the time bodies of strolling players. (18)

The May Game… they had it in their hands in the hawthorn branches: one name for hawthorn is “may.” The bringing home of May acted out an experience of the relationship between vitality in people and nature. … Nature is “May”—what they dance out to, and fetch home for decorating house and church. At the same time “May” is a lord, so they can express a relation to the season by doing honor to him and his lady Flora. (18-20)

Puritan Philip Stubbes in his popular Anatomie of the Country of Ailgna. … Against May, Whitsunday, or other time all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastime… And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastime and sports, namely, Satan, prince of hell. … But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings… (20-21)

The formal Lord of Misrule preside over the eating and drinking within-doors in the cold season. But the title was also applied to the captain of summer Sunday drinking and dancing by the young men of a parish, a leader whose role was not necessarily distinct from the Robin or King of the Maying. (24)

The winter lord of the feast reigns chiefly at night (24)

One can see why formal misrule would be most used in formal households, where people regularly ate, more or less in awe, under the countenance of My Lord. My Lord of Misrule, burlesquing majesty by promoting license under the forms of order, would be useful to countenance the revelry of such a group. (25)

The basic pattern of a mock king or lord was adaptable to a variety of occasions less formal than seasonal feasts: the Ale-cunner, for example, had this sort of role in presiding over village wake or church ale. Mock-majesty was often improvised in taverns, as we shall see in considering how Nashe presents Bacchus as a prince of tavern mates. (27)

In the Sunday pastimes of villages during the summer, a Lord of Misrule would be set up by “all the wildheads of the parish,” as Stubbes calls them… This could be a very different sort of role from that of the Lord of a gentlemen’s feast. … Then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, … And in this sort they go to the church (I say) and into the church (though the minister be at prayer of preaching) dancing and swinging their handkerchiefs over their heads in the church, like devils incarnate, with such a confused noise, that no man can hear his own voice. Then the foolish people they look, they stare, they laugh they fleer, and mount upon forms and pews to see these goodly pageants solemnized in this sort. / Then, after this, … banqueting houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet and dance all that day and (peradventure) all the night too. And thus these terrestrial furies spend the sabbath day. (27-28)

Stubbes is clearly exaggerating when he talks as though such groups regularly interrupted divine service inside the church. But the churchyard was certainly a center for merrymaking, partly because the church had taken the place of the pagan fane which dances once honoured, partly because the churchyard was in any case the parish meeting place, partly perhaps because to go there was excitingly impudent. The wanton mood would be abetted by encountering someone who, refusing to give homage to My Lord in return for one of his badges, declared himself a craven or a kill-joy, was “mocked and flouted not a little,” (29-30)

The highest class shared in the feeling for holiday freedom. But the conditions of court life made its expression complex, and put a premium on detached artistic realization. Of course the pastime presented were often not even indirectly expressive of festive attitudes or themes. There was much solemn flattery of Elizabeth; there were presentations of local or family history or heroes; allegorical shows of virtues and vices; romantic narratives tied to the appearance of local nymphs whom only Elizabeth could release from vile enchantments. Literary pastoral and mythology were the most common idiom, frequently handled in a merely literal way. (31)

And the traditional popular pastimes themselves were often an element in the entertainment, either as a spectacle performed by “the country people” and watched with complacency and amusement by the court circle…. (31)

Nashe’s handling of Bacchus illustrates the pervasive Elizabethan tendency to organize wit around a festival Lord, and so presents a striking prototype of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, whether or not there is any direct influence. (68)

Shakespeare may or may not have seen Nashe’s pageant. But it is clear from such a figure as Nashe’s Bacchus that in creating figures like Falstaff and Sir Toby, Shakespeare started with an established role and rhetoric. (72)

Love’s Labour’s Lost … The change goes with the fact that there are no theatrical or literary sources, so far as anyone has been able to discover, for what story there is in the play—Shakespeare, here and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and nowhere else, makes up everything himself, because he is making up action on the model of games and pastimes. (88)

The story of Love’s Labour’s Lost is all too obviously designed to provide a resistance which can be triumphantly swept away by festivity. The vow to study and to see no woman is no sooner made than it is mocked. … Everything is done in turn: the lords are described in turn before they come on; each comes back in turn to ask a lady’s name; each pair in turn exchanges banter. The dancing continues this sort of action; the four lords and four ladies make up what amounts to a set in English country dancing. We think of dancing in sets as necessarily boisterous; but Elizabethan dancing could express all sorts of moods, (89)

Such comedy is at the opposite pole from most comedy of character. Character usually appears in comedy as an individual’s way of resisting nature: it is the kill-joys, pretenders, and intruders who have character. (90)

To honor a noble wedding, Shakespeare gathered up in a play the sort of pageantry which was usually presented piece-meal at aristocratic entertainments, in park and court as well as in hall. And the May game, everybody’s pastime, gave the pattern for his whole action, which moves “from the town to the grove” and back again, bringing in summer to the bridal. These things were familiar and did not need to be stressed by a title. (119)

These lines need not mean that the play’s action happens on May Day. Shakespeare does not make himself accountable for exact chronological inferences; … And in any case, people went Maying at various times, “Against May, Whitsunday, and other time” is the way Stubbes puts it. This Maying can be thought of as happening on a midsummer night, even on Midsummer Eve itself, so that its accidents are complicated by the delusions of a magic time. (May Week at Cambridge University still comes in June). (120)

It seems unlikely that the title’s characterization of the dream, “a midsummer night’s dream,” implies association with the specific customs of Midsummer’s Eve, … The observance of Midsummer Eve in England centered on building bonfires or “bonfires,” of which there is nothing in Shakespeare’s moonlight play. It was a time when maids might find out who their true love would be by dreams of divinations. There were customs of decking houses with greenery and hanging lights, which just possibly might connect with the fairies’ torches at the comedy’s end. And when people gathered fern seed at midnight, sometimes they spoke of spirits whizzing invisibly past. If one ranges through the eclectic pages of The Golden Bough, guided by the index for Midsummer Eve, one finds other customs suggestive of Shakespeare’s play, involving moonlight, seeing the moon in water, gathering dew, and so on, but in Sweden, Bavaria, or still more remote places, rather than England. (123)

In the absence of evidence, there is no way to settle just how much comes from tradition. But what is clear is that Shakespeare was not simply writing out folklore which he heard in his youth, as Romantic critics liked to assume. On the contrary, his fairies are produced by a complex fusion of pageantry and popular game, as well as popular fancy. Moreover, as we shall see, they are not serious in the menacing way in which the people’s fairies were serious. Instead they are serious in a very different way, as embodiments of the May-game experience of eros in men and women and tress and flowers, while any superstitious tendency to believe in their literal reality is mocked. The whole night’s action is presented as a release of shaping fantasy which brings clarification about the tricks of strong imagination. (124)

The consciousness of the creative or poetic act itself, which pervades the main action, explains the subject-matter of the burlesque accompaniment provided by the clowns. If Shakespeare were chiefly concerned with the nature of love, the clowns would be in love, after their fashion. But instead, they are putting on a play. … But an organic purpose is served too: the clowns provide a broad burlesque of the mimetic impulse to become something by acting it, the impulse which in the main action is fulfilled by imagination and understood by humor. (148)

After examining the structure and artifice of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we can now ask how much reality is masters by its mirth. This comedy is the first that is completely, triumphantly successful; but it has the limitations, as well as the strength, of a youthful play. (157)

When Nashe, in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, brings on a Christmas who is a miser and refuses to keep the feast, the kill-joy figures serves, as we have noticed, to consolidate feeling in support of holiday. Shakespeare’s miser in The Merchant of Venice has the same sort of effect in consolidating the gay Christians behind Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained.” (163)

What is mocked, what kind of intruder disturbs the revel and is baffled, depends on what particular sort of beneficence is being celebrated. The Merchant of Venice, as its title indicates, exhibits the beneficence of civilized wealth, the something-for-nothing which wealth gives to those who use it graciously to live together in a human knit group. It also deals, in the role of Shylock, with anxieties about money, and its power to set men at odds. Our econometric age makes us think of wealth chiefly as a practical matter, an abstract concern of work, not a tangible joy for festivity. But for the new commercial civilizations of the Renaissance, wealth glowed in luminous metal, shone in silks, perfumed the air in spices. (167)

The Elizabethans almost never say Jews except on the stage, where Marlowe’s Barabas was familiar. They did see one, on the scaffold when Elizabeth’s unfortunate physician suffered for trumped-up charges of a poisoning plot. The popular attitude was that to take interest for money was to be a loan shark—though limited interest was in fact allowed by law. An aristocrat who like Lord Bassiano ran out of money commanded sympathy no longer felt in a middle-class world. (178)

Just as a saturnalian reversal of social roles need not threaten the social structure, but can serve instead to consolidate it, so a temporary, playful reversal of sexual roles can renew the meaning of the normal relation. One can add that with sexual as with other relations, it is when the normal is secure that playful aberration is benign. This basic security explains why there is so little that is queasy in all Shakespeare’s handling of boy actors playing women, and playing women pretending to be men. (245)


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