Monday, January 4, 2010

What You Will

"If music be the food of love, play on."
Opening line of
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

When I was in high school, we were extremely fortunate to have an English Department that sponsored an annual trip to the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut. I feel sorry for people who claim they never got into Shakespeare. Chances are, they never saw one of his plays performed.

Of all the plays I saw on those trips, my favorite was Twelfth Night. Of course, it helped that I had a front row seat and that Sir Toby Belch was played by Fred Gwynne (aka Herman Munster--how cool is that?). Still, Twelfth Night was also one of Shakespeare's most complex and masterful comedies. The title puzzled me, though, seeming to have nothing to do with the play.

I've read since that scholars think the play was either written as an entertainment for a Twelfth Night celebration, or that its ongoing theme--that everything is upside down, everything the opposite of what it appears--is typical of Twelfth Night revelry.

So what is Twelfth Night? Depending on local customs, it's either the eve or the night of January 6th. According to the Christian calendar, this is Epiphany, the day churches tell of the journey of the Three Wise Men who followed a star in the east until they found Jesus. The gospel is the last reading of the year in which Christ is still a small child. January 6, or the Sunday after in some churches, is the liturgical end of the Christmas season.

Until very recently, when stores and advertisers began dictating our holiday calendars, most folks kept their trees and decorations up until Epiphany. I still do. Why would I want to shorten a season that encourages "peace on earth"?

Twelfth Night used to have customs of its own. Nowadays, June is the most popular wedding time, or Valentine's Day. As I stated in POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, in the 18th century, many couples were married on Twelfth Night. And wedding or no, the biggest parties of the year were more likely to be on Twelfth Night than New Year's Eve.

Writings of the period that mention well-heeled Twelfth Night festivities speak of "groaning boards"--that is huge food buffets, usually spread with desserts and a wassail bowl. A "Twelfth Night Cake" or "King Cake" (named for the Magi) would be prepared--a large, ornate, sometimes wreath-shaped confection in which were hidden two tokens. These could be as simple as a bean and a pea, or silver coins, or even a tiny cast or carved figure of Infant Jesus. Slices of the cake were passed around. The woman and man who received the tokens in their slices were crowned king and queen of the festivities. Sometimes these offices came with added responsibilities--the man was expected to host next year's party and the woman was expected to bake the cake for it.

Now, now, the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean is the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.
poem by Robert Herrick, 17th century

And of course, you'd have entertainment. Mummers plays were popular (especially those with mock sword fights), but so were jugglers, card playing, apple-bobbing, blindman's bluff, fiddlers and dancing.

Seems a shame we've let Twelfth Night revelry be forgotten. Not too late to throw a party this week, is it?

As for Shakespeare's title? Well, this might just be the writer in me, but I think the title he really wanted was probably rejected by his patron, so he slapped on the moniker: TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL. Meaning, you don't like my title? Fine, if you think you know so much, come up with one of your own.

A great while ago the world begun,
With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Closing song from Twelfth Night

Peace in the New Year,

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