Exploring the influence of the ancient revels on Elizabethan Court masques
by Stephanie Hughes
This article was first published in the Winter 1997 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
Those of us who take seriously the hypothesis that the Earl of Oxford used William Shakespeare of Stratford as a standin must ask ourselves whether or not this was a situation that had precedents. Did it occur just this once, more than once, or was it more or less standard practice, that noblemen or women who wished to publish their writings used the name of a commoner? Unfortunately, if such was the case, it’s going to be a difficult practice to uncover since its purpose would be precisely to avoid discovery. We will also be limited in our search to Shakespeare’s own period, since true publishing had only just begun in England in his time. Which means that the only precedent we can hope to find will be practices of a similar nature in other areas.
Since a standin or a pseudonym is a form of disguise, we might ask ourselves what other kinds of disguises were commonplace then. What about the most obvious kind of disguise, clothing? Did the Elizabethans in general, and the aristocracy in particular, like to hide their identity by wearing different kinds of clothing? It would appear so. Throughout the period there were numerous angry commentaries on the confusion caused by members of one class wearing the kinds of garments that were perceived as belonging to a different class; what might be regarded as a sort of social, rather than sexual, cross-dressing. That this was regarded as a real problem is shown by the so-called Sumptuary Laws which set restrictions on certain garments, materials, fabrics, even colors (such as royal purple), as reserved for the nobility, others for the merchant classes, and so on down to the humble brown and green frieze that was all that was allowed for peasants.
As for reasons why such laws would be necessary, commoners who could afford to dress as their social superiors would no doubt get better treatment by merchants and vendors, while the nobility would have more freedom to do as they pleased when they went about dressed as commoners. Was this done? It was certainly done, over and over, on the stage, not only by Shakespeare, who was particularly fond of the psychological bait and switch of cross-dressing, both social and sexual, but by many playwrights going back to the ancients. Did this reflect a real facet of human behavior, or did it happen only on the stage, possibly as a sort of extension of the disguising that was an inherent characteristic of actors assuming identities other than their own? Well, we know that in her youth, Mary Queen of Scots and her ladies-in-waiting used to go out on the town, all of them dressed as young men in cloaks and doublets, boots and hose. We also know from several published commentaries that women frequently went to plays wearing masks.
Further than that we probably cannot penetrate except by reasoned estimates, but one facet of early modern English life that has remained relatively unexamined in this regard might help us better educate our guesses. This is the cycle of seasonal entertainments known as the revels.
They were referred to in documents of the time by their Christian names, The Feast of the Innocents, The Feast of St. Stephen, etc., but behind the gentle names of pious saints lurked potent remnants of strange and fearful tribal rituals that, despite the diligent researches of cultural anthropologists, continue to stand outside the firelight of collective memory or imagination. The prehistoric rites of the great goddess and her earthly lovers included the induction of altered mental and emotional states by means of drumming, dancing and chanting, the retelling or reenactment of communal myths, the invocation of gods and animal totems, the ingestion of mind-altering substances, of fermented spirits and hallucinogenic mushrooms, of various forms and degrees of sexual license and blood sacrifice, both human and animal. These early relatives of what we now regard as primarily forms of entertainment, certainly could not be considered entertainment, though some of the same elements of psychological release were present. Their chief purpose was the seasonal reinforcement of a potent sense of communal unity, the cohesion of the group mind, a necessity for a people armed only with stone and wood in a world fraught with danger from outside forces of nature, beasts and tribes of other men.
With the advent of Christianity, the darker aspects of these seasonal rituals faded or were suppressed , leaving only odd vestiges (such as Christmas trees, yule logs, mistletoe, maypoles, Easter eggs, hot cross buns, etcetera) clinging to the feasting, dancing, games and plays, which were mostly all that was left by the 16th Century. Still, there’s no doubt that a certain need for such rituals continued into Shakespeare’s time, particularly in rural districts where the church was never able to overcome the instinct to maintain some sort of physical connection with the natural cycles of planting and harvest, of animal fertility, birth, and death; and that Christianity notwithstanding, many a maidenhead was lost while out a-Maying; and many a husband or wife came home shamefaced to their mates after a night spent with a stranger, or someone disguised as a stranger, deep in the woods on mid-summer night’s eve.
The characteristics of the revels as they existed in Shakespeare’s time dated from the Viking influences of the North to the French influences of the South, from the Dutch and Danish influences of the East to the purely Celtic West, from one social class to another, and from Court to country village, but all followed a similar pattern. Some were preceded by a Church ceremony, but all ended with feasting, music, dancing, and the ingestion of a sufficient quantity of fermented spirits to take the edge off the ordinary divisions caused by rank and offended feelings within the community.
For the lower classes the revels usually included games such as football or blind man’s bluff, tests of strength such as wrestling, tugs of war or log throwing contests, simple homemade entertainments (like those that Shakespeare loved to parody, such as the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labor’s Lost or the rude mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream), Morris dances, and more or less professional entertainments such as acrobats, jugglers or puppet shows. The party would continue for some days until everyone was exhausted and ready to buckle down to another six-week stretch of pease porridge, hard work, and Christian virtue.
The longest revels took place at the winter equinox, and lasted from the beginning of December until the second week in January, a time when mariners and country folk slept late, relaxed and enjoyed themselves during the darkest and coldest part of the year. A bit like animals in hibernation, they fattened themselves with food, drink and excitement against the effortful months to come, of wresting a living from the ocean or the soil.
An interesting feature of the ancient Roman solstice festival, the Saturnalia, were the rituals of rank reversal, whereby some member of the lowest social order would be elevated for a week or two to a position of authority, and during that period waited on hand and foot by the real authorities. Vestiges of this ancient practice remained in Elizabeth’s time in outlying areas in the ritual of the Boy Bishop, particularly in the North of England. Rank reversal rites derived from the Roman Saturnalia expressed nostalgia for the Romans’ Golden Age of Saturn (the pagan version of the Garden of Eden) when all humans lived with each other as equals, before some had made themselves masters over the rest. (Such rituals of rank reversal appear also to contain elements of even earlier prehistoric rites whereby a tribal king was chosen from the people, feted for some period of time, then killed in a ritual sacrifice for purposes that are still a matter of intense scholarly debate.)
The importance of the revels at Court is shown by the fact that the department that dealt with all matters of entertainment and ceremony was known as the Office of the Revels. The revels at Court were different only in detail, not in substance, from the revels of town and village. There was feasting, music, dancing and the ingestion of a great deal of spirits. There were plays performed by professionals, but there were also entertainments created for the Court by its own members, in which courtiers took part, writing poems, songs and dramatic “interludes,” playing instruments, singing and dancing, and acting in masques.
This much is clear, yet in all discussions of the revels, from Court to country village, what is perhaps the most important factor is also one that generally sneaks right past our present day awareness due to the fact that there is little left in our modern life with which we can connect the reality behind the terms “mumming” and “disguising,” terms that continually recur in every commentary on the revels, and which are rarely explained sufficiently to convey their full import.
A disguising is a costume that is meant not just to enhance or to veil, but to totally disguise one’s identity. In rural and poor communities where people could afford nothing but the necessities, disguising usually meant wearing someone else’s clothing, often clothing of a member of the opposite sex, turned inside out, upside down, stuffed with pillows, with a stocking or homemade mask to completely cover the face, gloves to cover the hands, and so forth, and garnished with a silly hat or a mask that covered the entire head; the point being not so much to look like something specific as to lead all viewers away from any association they might be able to form with one’s true identity.
“Mumming” was the promenade through a community sometime during the Christmas holiday season (or, in Shakespeare’s day, most holidays) of a group of these disguised community members, known as “mummers,who sang, danced, performed whatever tricks or entertainments were theirs to share, and told jokes and stories in disguised voices. Some high-spirited youth of the community would be disguised as the Hobby Horse, a figure whose tribal origins appear to be lost in the mists of time, but whose present function was to terrify all those not in costume, to the delight of his fellow mummers.
Mummers paraded from house to house, and were invited in to some and given food and drink, while members of the household did their best to guess who they were. Although this may well have been a vestige of some pagan rite, with community members originally disguised as totem animals, vegetation gods, or some such, its more modern function surely was to bring the excitement of the unknown into isolated communities where everyone knew everyone all too well, and where strangers were usually feared and shunned, at the same time that it offered those in disguise a break from the identities, ages, and genders they were stuck with the rest of the year. As soon as a mummer was correctly identified, they doffed their masks and became themselves again, until it was time to take the show to the next house.
This was the gentler aspect of mumming. There was a darker side. Protected by their disguises and fueled by cups of cheer, mummers were at risk of being ignited by a sort of collective vindictiveness. If an illicit affair was known to be in progress, if it was perceived that wrong had been done by someone to the community, notes pinned on trees or doors informed the world. Gates put on roofs, farm animals turned loose, haystacks set afire, were a rough form of vigilante justice, and if some sort of appropriately funny twist could be added to the revenge, that would make it doubly enjoyable, doubly sweet. It was also dangerously easy for someone to hide an act of personal revenge as a mummers’ trick.
The Court version of the ancient rituals of mumming and disguising were known as “Masques,” or “Masks” as they spelled it then, because of course, everyone was masked, or in disguise. Since the Court could not afford the broad license of the country village, nor the psychological release of total anonymity, nor the consequences of social reversal, they came as close as they could by the partial disguising of the entire community in a Masque, which sought to create a fanciful “disguising” of all ranking members of the Court as some exotic community, such as a forest gathering of country swains and shepherdesses, a confluence of the forces of nature, a meeting of the gods and goddesses on Mt. Olympus, or of a fairy court ritual, with the monarch cast in some appropriately central and glamorous role.
Although there could never be a complete release from identity, nor a total social leveling, much of the pleasure of the Masque would come from a relative lessening of the tension created by rank, and the disguising of the community as a whole as something much different and much more pleasant than the nerve-wracking nightmare it must have been a great deal of the time. Thus the psychological needs met by the Court version of the revels differed in purpose from the country version only in degree.
That Shakespeare’s comedies were written originally as Court entertainments seems obvious, since so many facets of the ancient revels cling to them, the wooded settings, the sticking up of poems on trees, the evocation of animal totems or folk gods and the spells used to constrain or evoke them (Herne the Hunter, Bottom the ass, Sycorax and Caliban, Oberon and Titania, Puck, and Ariel), dancing and music. The tricks played on Malvolio by the revelers in Twelfth Night, and by Oberon and Puck on Titania and the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are simply glorified mummers pranks; and with both these plays the titles themselves make it abundantly clear for which of the seasonal festivals they were originally created.
Yet of all the devices of the revels used by Shakespeare, none does he use as much as disguising, chiefly women as boys, but also Falstaff as the Old Woman of Brainford and then as Herne the Hunter, Feste as Sir Topas, and so on. Although the gender reversal was used only in the comedies, in all his plays, again and again, for dramatic as well as comic purposes, he shows lords disguised as commoners. Possibly the oldest version of this play is the one he took from Ariosto (in I Suppositi, where it was in turn borrowed from the ancient Roman playwright Plautus) for the subplot of Taming of the Shrew, in which an aristocratic student exchanges identities with his manservant in order to get a job as a servant in the house of his beloved’s father and thus be in a position to make love with her whenever he pleases, while the servant is required to take his place at school and to speak for him when troubles arise with the neighbors (a plot not a whole lot different from one in which a Court writer exchanges identities with his servant so that he has the freedom to entertain his beloved audience, while the servant enacts the role of playwright and shareholder for legal purposes). Thus we see that “mumming” and “disguising” were at the heart not only of the plays of Shakespeare, not only of all Tudor and Jacobean Court entertainment, but that they were the very heart and soul of the ancient revels themselves. And further that mumming, as a custom with the deepest of roots in the ancient sources of culture, authorized revenges on local miscreants by means of various tricks and exposes, as a holiday pastime permitted to all members of the community that were able to maintain an impenetrable disguise. Thus it appears that the use of any standin, pseudonym or ploy that served to mask his identity, would have seemed perfectly within the bounds of ancient and honored custom to a nobleman who sought to delight some members of his community and punish others at festival time, which became, in the modern world to which Shakespeare helped give birth, anytime the trumpet sounded for a play.