Street theatre and survivals of the ritual year in Shakespeare’s Stratford

The Guild Hall was the principal venue in Stratford for visiting troupes of players, who would perform beneath the room where Shakespeare and his fellow schoolboys laboured. But at many Elizabethan schools, performing plays formed part of the curriculum. It was true of prestigious schools such as Westminster, where Ben Jonson studied, Merchant Taylors in London, which Thomas Kyd attended, and King’s School in Canterbury where Christopher Marlowe was a pupil, but it was also true of many others, among them, more locally, Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Elizabeth herself was known to attend performances at Westminster.

Latin dramas were typical, although at Westminster at least, there were English dramas too. If the same were true of the school at Stratford, Shakespeare may well have also got his own first taste for acting in the Guild Hall. And even if there were no such school performances in Stratford, or Shakespeare played no part, it is hard to believe that he would not have seen any theatre in this space. There is no evidence, of course; but it certainly seems implausible that a man who would be part of the professional theatre for over 25 years might have contrived to miss all of the travelling players who came to Stratford during his years here.

Theatre, of one kind or another, was hard to miss, in fact. Outside the confines of the Guild Hall there were other players, too, some very much closer to home. Playing in early modern England was as much about participation as performance; it was only in Shakespeare’s lifetime that it became primarily a passive spectacle. The growth of professional companies such as those that Shakespeare would join was in part fueled by the forced decline of other dramas, which had formed part of the entertainments of the ritual year. ‘Of late time, in place of those stage plays, hath been used comedies, tragedies, interludes and histories, both true and feigned; for the acting whereof certain public places have been erected,’ writes Stow of London’s playhouses in 1598.

But that was later. Now, a few days before Susanna was born in late May 1583, Davy Jones, husband to Anne’s cousin Frances Hathaway, was paid 13s 4d, for staging, together with his company of players, a’pastyme at whitsontyde’, Whitsunday falling on the 20th that year, five days before Susanna, Shakespeare’s first child, was baptised. Traditionally, most villages and towns did not stage elaborate Whit Monday pageants. Most concentrated instead on Rogation week, which culminated in Ascension Day, ten days before the Pentecost – the feast which Whitsun marks – and on Corpus Christi, which was ten day later. However, the period was important in Stratford, since a three-day fair began in the town the following Sunday, Holy Trinity Eve.

Perhaps that explains the expense: thirteen shillings was not a small sum of money to be paid, and more than many touring companies could expect. It suggests, among other things, that the entertainment Jones offered was fairly elaborate. No doubt it was not on the scale of the pageants at Chester, which involved 24 different biblical themes and lasted for three days. But it would almost certainly have been staged around pageant wagons – ‘at Pentecost/… all our pageants of delight were played’, recalls Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona – which would have started from either Holy Trinity or the Guild Chapel, weaving their way around the borough, a long procession behind them. Drummers probably led the way, alongside minstrels and other musicians; women followed after, strewing flowers of the season, the clove-scented pinks and oxlips, and other green things; ‘take your flowers’, laughs Perdita to Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, ‘I play as I have seen them do/ In Whitsun pastorals’.

The wagons bore representations of biblical characters – images, statues or impersonating players, probably masked; dramas were enacted, both wordless and scripted. Typical play subjects were, if not biblical then certainly Christian: those at Shrewsbury, for example, included the passion of Christ; the martyrdoms of Saints Feliciana and Sabina; St Catherine; and St Julian the Apostate. The story Julia remembers, however, is of Theseus and Ariadne – perhaps from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and although there is no specific record of such a performance at Whitsun, it seems an implausible detail for Shakespeare to invent.

‘Whitsun ales’, meanwhile, were proverbial, which tells us much about the tone of the celebrations, and then there was the dancing, often wild and riotous, and seemingly unending. All England might be ‘busied with a Whitsun morris-dance’, said Henry V; these were not small, or indeed brief, affairs. Dances could last long into the evening; some lasted for days. Records of one such, at Ludlow in Whitsun week 1619, survive because its participants took the communion cloth from a nearby church to use as a morris flag on their two-day dance.

There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare found such pleasures innately laughable.


NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in my other posts on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre.

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