Religion and Revelry in Shakespeare's Festive World

March 19, 2009

The title of this book alludes to two seminal texts on Shakespeare and festivity, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy by C.L. Barber and Shakespeare's Festive World by Francois Laroque. Phebe Jensen explains that her book differs from these and other works on the subject in aiming "to restore a sense of the devotional issues surrounding festivity to our understanding of its early modern cultural representations". Festivity in Shakespeare's time, Jensen argues, was inextricably linked to religious controversy, primarily because of its association with Catholicism, but also because of the way other strands of Christianity sought to redirect its energies for their own ends.

To make this case, Jensen assembles an impressive array of materials - some published but many available only in manuscript - that record religiously inflected festive behaviour, from disruptions of church services by piping and dancing to household revels. She is not shy of accounts that complicate the picture and show (for example) how Catholics "formed alliances with Protestants in defending traditional festivity against attacks by reformers", as they seem to have done in a Nottingham anti-Puritan libel of 1617. This inclusiveness will make her book invaluable as a resource for future researchers.

The complexity of Elizabethans' relationships with festivity is further demonstrated by a discussion of how Catholic festivals and saints' days were preserved in nominally Protestant calendars. In this context, Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar is presented as an attempt at calendrical reform, negatively associating certain pastimes with Catholicism in the May eclogue but redirecting others towards the worship of Elizabeth in April. Jensen contrasts this first with Spenser's later sanctification of his marriage day in Epithalamion, and then with Thomas Dekker's emphasis on the economic usefulness of festivity in The Shoemaker's Holiday: it becomes increasingly difficult to argue with her assertion that "the range of possible devotional meanings of traditional festive pastimes remained extensive throughout the Elizabethan period".

Jensen builds up a detailed picture of the context for Shakespeare's festive representations, but the playwright is often defined negatively in relation to that context, in terms of the things he doesn't include or subscribe to. Jensen's discussion of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, takes note of "Protestant accounts that defined belief in fairies as vestiges of popish superstition", only to argue that the play rejects that association, much as it engages with the cult of Elizabeth largely to parody it.

Her chapter on As You Like It refers to contemporary attempts to Protestantise medieval Robin Hood games (as in the Admiral's Men's Robin Hood plays, for example), as well as to the exclusion of English rural pastimes from Elizabethan pastoral, but then goes on to suggest that in its treatment of festive practices, Shakespeare's play defies both of these trends. Finally, she contextualises The Winter's Tale in relation to Jacobean absolutist appropriations of festivity and to the "alternative Protestant visions of festivity" evident in the work of Spenserian poets, but once again these serve as points of contrast, not contact.

Jensen might have explained such contrasts by arguing that Shakespeare was a Catholic, but she wisely concentrates more on the plays' dramatic effects than on their biographical sources, pointing out (for example) that the final scene of The Winter's Tale "allows for different responses from a devotionally diverse audience that held varied opinions about whether praying to painted statues was idolatrous". This means that her book lacks a straightforward polemical core, but it also provides it with a degree of openness that I (for one) welcomed: this is a rich, wide-ranging account that enables further argument, rather than closing it off with easy answers.

Religion and Revelry in Shakespeare's Festive World

By Phebe Jensen
Cambridge University Press
280pp
£50.00
ISBN 9780521506397
Published 15 January 2009

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