The Christmas Archives

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S CHRISTMAS

An historical tale by Maria Hubert

This is not a factual report, but a fictitious story based on the facts and peoples surrounding Shakespeare, presented in a way to give a literary impression of how he might have spent a Christmas. The main characters in the story are actual people; Shakespeare did have a shareholding in a company of players called The Lord Chamberlaine's Players, with James Burbage and his two sons Richard, who was one of the company's principal players, and Cuthbert, who was to arrange the printing of the play in 1598. The actors Will Slye and Samuel Crosse were also real people. Tim is not, we do not know the name of the young boy who played the female heroines in 1598. A little later it was one called Lessington. Shakespeare's only son Hamnet did die in 1596 whilst his father was on tour.

The events are topical events of the times built into a story around the final days of the production of one of Shakespeare's plays, which he was presenting for Queen Elizabeth's Court. The named facts relating to the play are correct. The Christmas activities described are accurate to the time, though may or may not have been part of Will Shakespeare's own Christmas; for the sake of the story I have assumed so. Love's Labours Lost did indeed become one of the plays which pleased Queen Elizabeth most.

Rehearsals were over, Will Shakespeare sat on the dais which was to be the stage for his new production, and wondered, as he did every time, whether they would ever be ready on time. He was very happy with the play, which he had called Love's Labour's Lost. He had written it out of an old tale, adapting it to suit the tastes of his courtly audience and stamping it with his own inimitable style.

If it pleased her Majesty, he mused, he might have it printed next year. Indeed to play it next year after publishing the play as having been first performed before Her Majesty, would surely make the play more popular and assure him an better audience. He slapped his knee in silent approval of his thoughts, but turned as suddenly sombre as he thought that next year he might have to find himself a new Princess of France. Young Tim's voice was sounding suspiciously cracked now and again to the trained ear of the great playwright.

He had heard it happen so often before losing, him some of his most talented young boys who could play the female roles. For this was 1597. Good Queen Bess had been on the English throne a full thirty-six years, and whilst encouraging play-acting to the point of establishing her own Court Players to act out his own plays and those of his contemporaries, it was still disapproved to have female players, thus boys whose voices had not yet broken played the parts of the heroines

Sadly, their fame lasted but a short while. They must be tall enough to play elegant young women, and old enough to deliver their lines well - yet still possess the soft downy faces and sweet voices of childhood. This gave them only two years to achieve fame before the voices broke, and they were added to the ranks of non-descriptor players.

He voiced his fears to his friend and business partner Richard Burbage. "What think you, Dick, of young Tim, is his voice going?"

Dick stopped hammering the stool he was repairing and looked at his old friend. Will had first been friend to his father, James. Together he his brother Cuthbert and their father has joined talents with Will and become shareholders in the Lord Chamberlains Company of players, formed by the queen herself. They were close and did not pretend what was not so. , "He will not last, Will" he said bluntly. "By next summer we will needs be looking for a new lad to play the sweet doxy for the company!"

The subject of this conversation sighed as he shoved his arms which of late seemed too long, and his hands too large into the silken sleeve of the gown he would wear for Master Shakespeare's new play which was to be performed in just a few days. Most of the Christmas productions were shown on the Feast of Stephen, December 26th, or the 28th which was the Feast of Holy Innocents. lf only they could be performed on Twelfth Night, perhaps the company would have a more leisurely time for Christmas itself but it was always the same..

Tim's face was still fresh and girl-like, and his voice, everyone said the sweetest soprano yet to perform; but Tim had a secret and such a secret his stomach churned at the thought. At least he believed it to be so! Occasionally, just occasionally, his voice had begun to crack on those high notes. Not, thank goodness during a performance yet but alone, when he practised, alone in the meadow beyond the city gates. There he practised and there his voice was, he took a deep breath as he gave finally a name to his thoughts his voice was breaking!

Tim did not notice Master Shakespeare come into the room where the costumes and props for the plays were stored, and he started, ripping the sleeve of the gown at the sound of the voice.

"Ho, Tim lad, why so solemn, 'tis soon Christmas, and a time for joy, even for such as we who have to work whilst others take their leisure!"

Will had a soft spot for Tim, his own son, Hamnet had died at the age of 11 the previous year, and this lad had taken his place a little in the Master's heart. Perhaps he felt a little remorse that he was away touring the provinces last August when his only son died. Be what may, he had since shown special tenderness to this orphan lad. He ruffled Tim's curly head, picked up a discarded hat "to try on Dick's oversized head" he said as he left Tim to his thoughts.

Tim decided that whatever happened he would do his role right well and not disappoint this great man who had taken him under his protection. It was bad enough for them all being here instead of with their families at this time of year. Why, in two days it would be Christmas. Her gracious Majesty was entreating the Lords with country seats to go home and attend their families and tenants at Christmastime, and here were her players, in lodgings and sharing their Christmas with strangers in order to attend and entertain the Queen. What a contradiction, he thought. Then cheering up he realised that the players were his family anyway, so he was lucky, and did not have much to complain over.

Apart from the love he had for his son Master Shakespeare evidently had little care for being home at Christmas anyway. His relationship, so the said was grown cold with his wife, Anne. She was some ears older turned 40 and looked it thought Tim from the one time he had seen her. She had come up to London as a surprise but was not well received by her husband.

Dutifully Master Shakespeare went home once every year, but since the plague died down, he had spent most of his time in London and with the help of My lord Southampton, who was a very rich young noble man who sponsored Master Shakespeare he bought a share in the Queens own players, which in turn was sponsored by her cousin the Lord Chamberlain. Master Shakespeare spent much time with his richer friends and patron in the taverns, thought Tim, "Mayhap that is why his accounts of such things are so vivid!" he said out loud.

"And what things would they be that you worry your young head over," asked old Judith, bustling in with an armful of costumes newly altered for their wearers. She had looked after Tim since he was small and was nurse, cook, wardrobe mistress and all practical things womanly to the players when they were on tour,

"Master Burbage is calling for thee, go you quickly afore he loses that temper of his, and leave the hows of Master Shakespeare's experiences to those old enough to criticise!"

Tim ran off to find Master Burbage, partner of Shakespeare in his company of players, aware of his importance, and not one to be trifled with.

As it happened, Dick Burbage was in a mellow mood, and had heard of a street fair, which he intended to take some of the younger members of the company to. Each was to have a penny to spend, and a hot mutton pie with some spiced small ale for their suppers as a treat. They had all been working so hard this past week, that Will, Dick and the other shareholders decided that a treat would encourage rather than spoil them at this special time of year.

The Fair was all it promised to be and more. The tumblers and men on stilts; the jonglours in their colourful red and yellow costumes juggling with sticks of fire, and then swallowing the flames; the wrestlers and the cock fight, which Judith had warned Dick to keep the boys away from . "Soon enough for them to see such horrors" she exclaimed with righteous disapproval . Critically aware of the moral needs of her charges, she was forever admonishing the men against leading the boys into occasion of great sin, as she put it.

Tim decided to buy her a stick of twisted sugar, that he knew she was partial to. He got two for half a penny, and sucked the other with long savouring licks, curling his tongue around the twists and enjoying every single one of this singular treat. He gave his other half penny to the old blind man with the one eared dog and the dancing bear. The bear was better treated than most of its kind, its fur was brushed and its muzzle strap lined with sheepskin to protect its tender nose from rubs - and old Ned was known to feed his pets before himself even. So soft-hearted Tim felt that this was a worthwhile use of his half-penny, especially as Dame Judith was forever telling him to remember the poor.

Dick rounded up his charges before the evening was too advanced and the pimps were abroad, plying their trades and occasionally luring young boys away to add to their business company as they oft called the dingy houses where they plied their trade. He chuckled at the thought of what old Judith would say if he were to go home without one of his young charges!

The next morning was Christmas Eve. Judith made sure that the young members of the Company attended Mass, then it was down to the final rehearsal on the actual stage. After this morning, they would have to rehearse elsewhere as the Court would require their hall for other entertainments.

The places were marked out. The entrances and the exits marked, and Will was short tempered as everyone suddenly seemed to forget their places, their lines - that they were actors at alleven! Stomachs rumbled as the Vigil feast began to bite at their innards and dull their brains. As even! Stomachs rumbled, as the Vigil Fast began to bite at their innards, an Lord Biron, attendant to the King of Navarre in the play, said his lines, "Say, can you fast? Your stomachs are too young, and abstinence endangers maladies. . . "

There were several groans of agreement, breaking up the threads of the play even more.

But finally they reached the end and Winter's song, and the final lines of the play by the fantastical Spanish lord, Don Armado....where was Armado?

"Will, Will Slye, where art thou, thy lazy villain" howled Shakespeare, barely holding together his wits after such a performance. Will rushed on stage, stumbled, tore at Winter's sleeve, and mumbled his way through the line, spitting crumbs over anyone near enough,

The, er, ahem, yea,... the words of Mercury are harsh after the son of Apollo. You that way, we this way"

He scuttled offstage into the arms of Samuel Crosse who frowned at Will's drooling mouth, and crumb spattered sleeve. But the tension was broken,, and all laughed heartily at poor hungry Will Slye, who could never fast for a full Vigil!

On Christmas Night all were bidden join the Court in the long Hall for a grand feast. The Players were fairly far down one side, but there was food and wine enough to reach them, and fill them. Will Shakespeare, Dick and the other shareholders could have had places further up the table but preferred to stay with their 'family'- the men they shared their whole lives with in good days and bad. It was a merry evening. The entertainment was good. Some wit even recited Shakespeare's own poem, 'Venus and Adonis' - whether in respect - or for an audition the company did not know. But poor and overplayed as it was, Will Shakespeare cheered and applauded as loudly as the rest, raising his tankard to the would-be actor.

The feasting went on well into the morning of St Stephens Day and before the company went to their beds, they were to hear the cries and calls of the tradespeople, shaking their clay boxes and begging for their Christmas Alms at the gates of the great house. For the Players, the next few hours, whether daylight or no, would be spent in deep slumber for they must put the final touches to their costumes and parts before nightfall and be ready for the great day after Stephen's.

Innocents Day dawned rainy and dull. Judith rubbed her aching fingers as she put the last few stitches into costumes, and begged the palace servants to light a fire in the room which had been allocated to the company as their day-time resting room. in various corners, the principal actors were going over their lines one last time. Tim was having his costume sleeves lengthened to cover his gangly hands, and the Playwright was discussing final directions with the main player's. This was only his sixth play, and he was to go on to write fourteen more before the end of the century. But he was still new enough at his task to be nervous about his work, though it was agreed that he had no immediate challenger. Earlier masters of the acted word, Green and Marlowe had died, and Shakespeare stood with few contenders. His sponsor, Lord Southampton had great faith in him and the Queen herself made him her own Playwright yet still he worried!

He continued to worry right through the performance. From the first words spoken by the King of Navarre he worried. He constantly watched the Queen to see her reactions. When the Clown , Costard appeared Will worried incase his lines were not funny enough; and when Tim came on as the Princess of France, he worried incase the lad s voice should let them al1 down - but thank God it did not, and the Queen and her company laughed at all the right places, and applauded well at the end.

Later that evening her Majesty commanded the playwright to her private chambers pleased? - was she going to dismiss him? Flushed with his apparent success and the ensuing celebratory winecup or two, Will once more began to worry. He knelt at the doorway, awaiting the great queen's command.

"We enjoyed your pleasant little conceit Will Shakespeare" she said, putting out her jewelled hand for his obeisance.

"You must perform it again for us, perhaps for our birthday. This play of yours will be the one which most pleases us, methinks." Turning she walked towards her inner chamber, and taking this as a sign of dismissal, Will bowed his way out of her presence. He stood outside the closed door, and took a deep breath, savouring the moment to himself for a few precious seconds, before he hurried to find his players and give them the royal verdict.

They spent the rest of Christmas merrily enough at the palace. They enjoyed Twelfth Night and its extravagant games, the maskers and the mummers, the minstrels - and of course the freely flowing wine and non-stop food. Early in the New Year Will decided to put his adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost to print, and one frosty morning discussed its presentation on paper with Cuthbert Burbage, who would arrange for its printing.

"The most important message you must arrange Cuthbert " said Will, "is the following". He passed across a piece of much used vellum on which were inscribed the words: A Pleasant conceited comedie CALLED Love's Labour's Lost -

As it was presented before her Highness this last Christmas.

...... THE END .....

1997