The giddiness of Midsummer’s Day
On Midsummer’s Day, we take a look at how the Elizabethans celebrated one of the most popular festivals in early modern England
How did Shakespeare and his early audiences greet the height of summer in the late sixteenth century?
The rites and habits associated with ‘midsummer’ clustered around a number of dates in Shakespeare’s time. The June solstice occurs on a day between the 20 and 22 June, but ‘Midsummer Day’ was fixed in the calendar as 24 June (also known as St John’s Day). Midsummer was one of the most popular and keenly-observed festivals throughout the early modern period. Rural communities marked it with Morris dancing, processions, late-night drinking, the blessing of crops and the ritual banishment of devils and other unwelcome sprites – precisely the sort of pagan-originating, Catholic-saint-encompassing mishmash that Protestant reformers despised.
‘Midsummer was one of the most popular and keenly-observed festivals throughout the early modern period’
Flinty-eyed provincial Puritans were particularly irritated by the giddiness of Midsummer Day because it had been barely more than a month since everyone had got up to the same sort of thing on May Day, the ancient celebration of spring that overlapped in many respects with the conventions of Midsummer. In Shakespeare’s play, ‘Maying’ rituals seem to be on his mind despite the title: planning his elopement with Hermia, Lysander instructs her to meet him in the woods beyond Athens where he did ‘meet thee once with Helena / To do observance to a morn of May’. Later in the play, when Theseus and his train discover the dishevelled lovers asleep in the forest, he concludes that ‘they rose up early to observe / The rite of May’.
Theseus is putting it decorously, but the ‘rites of May’ known to Shakespeare from his rural upbringing could take a turn for the raunchy. In The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), his assault on all sources of fun in late Elizabethan England, the religious reformer Philip Stubbes alerted his readers to the lewd goings-on in the country’s summertime forests:
[On] May[day], Whitsunday or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes […] And no marvel, for there is a great lord present amongst them, as superintendent over their pastimes and sports, namely Satan, Prince of Hell.
Stubbes regarded late-night summer partying as a time of dangerous sexual excess, when the usually strict rules of propriety and chastity were relaxed. Don’t underestimate Stubbes’s outrage in the phrase ‘pleasant pastimes’, which would have conjured up in Puritan minds a vision of devilish erotic adventurism.
And if Stubbes’s warning of al fresco debauchery was a little over-heated, it was based on real behaviour. On holiday nights in May and June, men and women took advantage of mild temperatures and the privacy afforded by a shady grove to spend time together with a freedom that would have been impossible in day to day life. Like cultures the world over, pre-modern English people understood the significance of set times in the year when disorderly conduct was permitted – even encouraged – as long as the festive cycle concluded with a return to strait-laced ‘normality’.
‘The Puritans viewed late-night summer partying as a time of dangerous sexual excess, when the usually strict rules of propriety and chastity were relaxed’
But by the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, May Day and Midsummer rituals were rare in large towns and were gradually being abandoned in the countryside. Opposition from the church, and from bourgeois society concerned with respectability, put paid to the license of Midsummer. Shakespeare’s neighbours in London were probably more likely to have watched a version of the rites of May in the theatre than to have participated themselves.
That’s not to say their passing wasn’t marked. The pamphleteer Humphrey King, in a poem published early in the seventeenth century, honoured the ‘May-Game Lords and Summer Queens’ and ‘milk-maids dancing o’er the greens’ who ran afoul of local disapproval:
But I wonder now and then,
To see the wise and learned men,
With countenance grim, and many a frown,
Cr[y], ‘Masters, pluck the May-pole down!’
To hear this news, the milk-maid cries;
To see the sight the ploughman dies.
Shakespeare evidently thought it important to bring rural culture onto the metropolitan stage, as we’ve seen in our season of YouTube Premieres. From The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the start of his career to The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Winter’s Tale at the end, he found ways to weave country habits – Maying, Morris dancing, and midsummer madness – into plays written for urban spectators increasingly distant from the pre-Reformation ways of earlier generations.