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William Shakespeare
(Part 23)


Holidays, Spectacles and Festivities. May Day. Whitsuntide.

In the town the chief holiday spectacles and entertain-ments were those connected with the Christmas, New Year, and Easter festivals, the May-day rites and games, the pageants of delight of Whitsuntide, the beating of the bounds during Rogation week, and the occasional representation of mysteries, moralities, and stage-plays.

In relation to the main bent of the poet's mind, and the future development of his powers, the latter constituted probably the most important educational influence and stimulus which the social activities and public entertainments of the place could have supplied. Most of these recurring celebrations involved, it is true, a dramatic element, -- some hero or exploit, some emblem or allegory, being represented by means of costumed personations, pantomime, and dumb show, while in many cases songs, dances, and brief dialogues were interposed as part of a performance.

There were masques and morris-dancing on May-day, as well as mummers and waits at Christmas. In a number of towns and villages the exploits of Robin Hood and his associates were also celebrated on May-day, often amidst a picturesque confusion of floral emblems and forestry devices. In Shakespeare's time the May-day rites and games thus included a variety of elements charged with legendary, historical, and emblematical significance.

But, notwithstanding this mixture of festive elements, the celebration as a whole retained its leading character and purpose. It was still the spontaneous meeting of town and country to welcome the fresh beauty of the spring, the welcome being reflected in the open spaces of the sports by tall painted masts decked with garlands, streamers, and flowery crowns, and in the public thoroughfares by the leafy screens and arches, the bright diffused blossoms and fragrant spoils brought from the forest by rejoicing youths and maidens at the dawn. May-day was thus well fitted to be used, as it often is by Shakespeare, as the comprehensive symbol of all that is delightful and exhilarating in the renewed life and vernal freshness of the opening year.

After May-day, Whitsuntide was at Stratford perhaps the most important season of festive pageantry and scenic display. In addition to the procession of the guild and trades and the usual holiday ales and sports, it involved a distinct and somewhat noteworthy element of dramatic representation. And, as in the case of the regular stage plays, the high-bailiff and council appear to have patronized and supported the performances. We find in the chamberlain's accounts entries of sums paid "for exhibiting a pastime at Whitsuntide."

Shakespeare himself refers to these dramatic features of the celebration, and in a manner that almost suggests he may in his youth have taken part in them. However this may be, the popular celebrations of Shakespeare's youth must have supplied a kind of training in the simpler forms of poetry and dramatic art, and have afforded some scope for the early exercise of his own powers in both directions.

This view is indirectly confirmed by a passage in the early scenes of The Return from Parnassus, where the academic speakers sneer at the poets who come up from the country without any university training. The sneer is evidently the more bitter as it implies that some of these poets had been successful, -- more successfull than the college-bred wits. The academic critics suggest that the nurseries of these poets were the country ale-house and the country green, -- the special stimulus to their powers being the May-day celebrations, the morris-dances, the hobby-horse, and the like.

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