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Was Shakespeare the father of the Christmas Special?

ShakespeareFor many families, sitting down to watch a Christmas Special is as much a part of the holiday season as the Queen’s Speech, a carol service in the parish church, or a trip to the pantomime.

But when did the tradition of a holiday-themed premiere start?

Professor Paul Raffield of Warwick Law School argues that the Christmas special can be traced back to the creative mind of William Shakespeare, and specifically the premiere of The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn on 28 December 1594.

Elizabethans celebrated across (and beyond) the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas Day itself to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, with feasts, entertainments, games, and social calls. The wealthy were expected to feed and entertain their servants and tenants and offer them seasonal ‘sports’ while at court Christmas was marked with singing, dancing, ‘guising’ and the performance of plays.

Professor Raffield explains more about that ‘premiere’: “The Chamberlain's Men - a licensed company of actors, of which Shakespeare was a "sharer" - performed The Comedy of Errors, probably for the first time, at Gray's Inn during the annual period of Christmas feasting known as the revels. Gray’s Inn is one of the four Inns of Court, where barristers were and still are trained.

“The play concerns specific themes that are relevant to Christmas: nativity, rebirth, forgiveness, and hospitality extended to those in need of sanctuary. Like Christ, the Antipholus and Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors – were born – ‘the calendars of their nativity’ in an inn.

“The decision to premiere the play on the evening of Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) was also not accidental: the Feast of Holy Innocents commemorated the slaughter of young, male children in Bethlehem, ordered by King Herod and recorded in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (2.16). Antopholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse were young, male innocents abroad: if arrested in Ephesus, they would have been executed. In the play, the consequence of a trade war between Ephesus and Syracuse was that the Ephesian Parliament had decreed that Syracusians apprehended in Ephesus should face the death penalty.

“In this respect, the performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn was an Elizabethan Christmas Special and ‘Must-See’ - certainly for lawyers - event.”

Carol Chillington Rutter, Professor of Shakespeare and Performance Studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick, notes another perspective on the ‘Christmas Special.’

Professor Rutter said: “Of course the ‘Christmas Special’ started – according to William Shakespeare – long before that ‘premiere’ at Gray’s Inn.

“Horatio recalls it for us in the opening scene of Hamlet. He and two soldiers standing watch just before midnight on the battlements of Elsinore have been terrified out of their wits by the appearance of a Ghost who looks like their dead king. Such hauntings are portents of ‘disasters in the sun’, of ‘fierce events’, of ‘doomsday’.

“The men stand trembling as the Ghost comes upon them a second – but then a cock crows and the apparition vanishes. In its wake, Marcellus observes: ‘It faded on the crowing of the cock’. And then he reflects beyond the here and now. He speaks of a miraculous intervention:

Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long.

And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;

The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,

No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,

So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

“As the playwright Shakespeare has Marcellus and Horatio tell it, then, the very first ‘Christmas Special’ of all was performed as an act of grace, a blessing on mankind played out in the birth of a child. ‘Special’ indeed.”

21 December 2018