A Shakespearean Festival Experience

Context: My Ongoing Robin Hood Obsession

I have become obsessed with the link between Shakespeare’s comedies and the tradition of Robin Hood storytelling, song and festival in early modern England. This began as a tangential exploration, sparked by the proliferation of Robin Hood tunes that a musicologist named Ross Duffin has identified as being connected to the songs in some of Shakespeare’s plays [1]. Since I began looking into this, I have been surprised to discover that several of Shakespeare’s plays are intimately connected to the rituals, celebrations and performative activities that together formed the major rural festivals in England in the sixteenth century.

The idea of Shakespeare’s theatre being connected to festival culture is by no means new; this topic is explored in detail in Cesar Lombardi Barber’s book, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy [2]. Within this book, Barber identifies a number of different festivals that feature in the performance style of Shakespeare’s comedic work: the May Games and of course, Twelfth Night. Funnily enough, the character of Robin Hood turns up at all of these festivals in early modern England, either as a lord of the summer time bounty in the case of the May games, or to bless the future harvest in the case of Twelfth Night. This kind of Robin Hood is a little different to the version of the character we have come to know in our own popular culture. The Robin Hood of the May Games was celebratory, presiding over festivities on Whitsunday, which included archery, dancing, communal singing and amateur plays performed by local rural communities all over England and Scotland [3]. On Twelfth Night, Robin Hood became the Lord of Misrule, who presided over eating and drinking at the end of the winter holiday season. The point of all this in connection to Shakespeare is that it helps us to think of his work as much more communal than we often give it credit for in the 21st century.

Wassailing at Maplehurst: A Twenty-first Century Festival Experience

It's the way of a PhD sometimes, to take an obsession as far as it will go. For me this culminated in an actual festival experience a little south of London in Sussex, UK on Twelfth Night (6th of January) in early 2018. I found myself in a tiny village called Maplehurst, where the local pub, The White Horse, hosts a Wassailing festival every year.

 

What is Wassailing, you might ask? For centuries in England, rural communities have held Wassailing festivals to bless their local orchards on Twelfth Night for the coming spring harvest. This still happens in villages and towns around the country, and it is a great way to experience something of the England that Shakespeare knew. Here is how the night played out in Maplehurst:

1. Morris Dancing

After the whole village had finished a hearty meal in the White Horse Pub, the local Morris Dancing group, The Broadwood Men, signalled that the festive part of the night was beginning with music and dancing in rows out the front of the pub, performed by groups of all-male and all-female dancers. 

A group of all-female morris dancers perform a traditional dance, accompanied by a local band of fiddlers and recorder players.

A group of all-female morris dancers perform a traditional dance, accompanied by a local band of fiddlers and recorder players.

2. Into the Orchard and Drinking the Cider

After some time the dancing came to an end and the Broadwood Men led us down the main street of the village and into the orchard, where we enjoyed some raw local cider, fresh out of the barrel!

Two of the Broadwood Men enjoying the local cider, fresh from the barrell.

Two of the Broadwood Men enjoying the local cider, fresh from the barrell.

3. Reveal of the Bonfire

A spectacular moment of the night's festivities came next when we were led to a bonfire in the middle of the orchard. The way it was revealed to the crowd was a great moment of pure theatricality: a giant fire spitting and crackling in the strong winter wind. We all crowded around and shared the warmth.

Crowding around the bonfire.

Crowding around the bonfire.

4. Practice ritual on the first apple tree

After some minutes of stillness around the fire, the leader of the Broadwood men announced that we would now head off to bless the first apple tree. And so we gathered around the bare branches a relatively small apple tree at the start of an orchard row. The Broadwood leader took the initiative to walk right up to the tree and bash it with sticks. He told us that this was to scare away any spirits that might hinder the apples from growing in the spring. After he was satisfied, he proceeded to drench the tree with his cider bottle and invited people to come and place toast in the lower boughs of the tree. Then we sang a wassailing song. The leader assured us this tree was a 'practice run' and the main event was coming. Anticipation was high!

One of the Broadwood men rekindles his torch ready to head over to the apple trees.

One of the Broadwood men rekindles his torch ready to head over to the apple trees.

5. The Main Event: Enter the Green Man

The crowd was moved along to another tree in the centre of a row. It was much bigger than the first one and was introduced as a special tree for the night's festivities. But this time, something special, a man came up to the tree in a mask and was announced to be the Green Man, who performed the whole ritual again: banging the tree with a stick, pouring cider on the roots and inviting children to place toast in the boughs.

Enter the Green Man, the leader of the Wassailing ritual.

Enter the Green Man, the leader of the Wassailing ritual.

The Green Man is a name that was given to a Robin Hood figure in English festival in Shakespeare's England, and here he was in 21st century Maplehurst! As his ritual came to an end, the Green Man led us in a final round of the Wassailing song.

Lyrics by torchlight: singing the Wassailing song.

Lyrics by torchlight: singing the Wassailing song.

With that the festivities came to a close and we were invited to return to bonfire or head to the cider shed for another drink.

What a night! I will definitely be keeping a lookout for other traditional festivals going on around England when I am next here in the summer. If you would like to look up the Morris group who ran the Wassailing festival in Maplehurst, they are on Facebook: The Broadwood Men.

Everyone from the village around the bonfire in the orchard.

Everyone from the village around the bonfire in the orchard.

 

 

[1] See Ross Duffin, Shakespeare’s Songbook (New York: Norton, 2004).

[2] Cesar Lombardi Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1963).

[3] You can read about this in Stephen Knight, “Robin Hood: The Earliest Contexts
Separating Play-games and Ballads” in Lois Potter, Joshua Calhoun (eds.) Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), pp. 21-40.