a performance-based research collective at the University of Alabama

Playing Holidays

Each season of the Alabama Shakespeare Project is an experiment. This year, we are offering a mini season, a half season, a semester of playing rather than a full year. While this comes out of practical exigencies (our leadership being on sabbatical in the spring term), it provides an occasion to think about broader realities. The fall of 2022 has seemed like in-between time, not-quite-returned-to-normal time in the wake of the coronavirus global pandemic. “Time is out of joint,” as Hamlet says. [1]

Figure 1. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague,” dir. Tess Nelson, feat. Mark Nelson, 11 Sept 2020, PBS. Originally published in The New Yorker, 1 Apr 2020.

The holidays are fundamentally role-playing times of year. Think about your own Halloween costume, or any performances you might put on during local religious practices – from children performing in a Nativity pageant to reciting the traditional blessings over Hanukkah lights. That ugly Christmas sweater, New Year’s Eve party hat, or playing Santa all constitute kinds of role-playing specific to the season. Across early modern England, role-playing games were part of festive traditions, including electing mock kings and queens of misrule. At a time of year when games involving class inversions were so popular, role-playing like this constituted what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described as the carnivalesque, or the productive de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, possibly as a collective antidote to repressive forms of power, argued by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White.[3]

A community eat, drinking, and participating in excess before Lent.
Figure 2. “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The absolute center of political power in Renaissance England, the Court, built a period of holiday misrule into its calendar. The twelve days of Christmas were filled with feasts, events, pageants, activities, concerts, and possibly a play every single night. The 1600/1 season included at least nine plays and masques performed by five different theatre companies: three adult or mixed-aged troupes (Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Lord Admiral’s Men, Earl of Derby’s Men), and two boy companies (Children of Paul’s, Children of the Chapel Royal).[4]

Since the 1950s, scholars have theorized that William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will was likely first performed on 6 January as part of concluding events to Christmas holiday celebrations. In the audience at Whitehall Palace were Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Bacon, Grigori Mikulin, the Russian Ambassador, an Italian diplomat bearing a name similar to one of the leading characters, Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, among other important members of the Court.[5] It would be the last Christmas season of its kind under a Tudor monarch in England.

While it was not typical to name the specific play performed in the accounts records of the Revels Office, the government bureau charged with arranging such events, scholars have hypothesized three other plays as part of the season’s entertainment alongside Twelfth Night: Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels and Every Man Out of His Humor, and a play by Thomas Dekker, “Phaeton,” now lost.[6] It is thought that the later play survives as a revision, The Sun’s Darling, by Dekker and John Ford, with some resemblance to that earlier lost version.[7]

In this little season, the Alabama Shakespeare Project invites you to join in an experience two plays, Twelfth Night and Cynthia’s Revels, that may have been curated together for the long-reigning woman monarch at the beginning of seventeenth century. Do you get a sense of similar characters? Shared jokes? Do they seem to have a common political message or stance? How do these two plays treat monarchs within their worlds? What outcomes derive from moments of chaos? Whom do they serve? We invite you to join us and find out what happens when the storm in the snow globe settles.

Court calendar, twelve days of Christmas

  • 1600-12-26: Whitehall: Lord Chamberlain’s Men
  • 1600-12-28: Whitehall: Admiral’s Men
  • 1600 end of year: Every Man Out of His Humour (Jonson, via character name, STC 17569)
  • 1601-01-01: Whitehall: Children of Paul’s
  • 1601-01-01: Whitehall: Earl of Derby’s Men
  • 1601-01-06: Whitehall: Children of the Chapel Royal, Cynthia’s Revels (Jonson, STC 14773)
  • 1601-01-06: Whitehall: Admiral’s Men, “Phaeton” (possible source to The Sun’s Darling, Ford and Dekker, Wing F1467)
  • 1601-01-06: Whitehall: Earl of Derby’s Men
  • 1601-01-06: Whitehall: Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, only in 1623 folio)


  1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623, eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, 3 Arden Shakespeare (Bloomsbury, 2006), Q1 5.156.
  2. Erika T. Lin, Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (Palgrave, 2012), 18.
  3. “Carnivalesque,” in A Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford Reference online edition, doi: 0.1093/oi/authority.20110803095550811.
  4. Marion Colthorpe, The Elizabethan Court Day by Day, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2017, 1600: 66-67 & 1601: 1­-6; Mary Susan Stelle, Plays & Masques at Court during the Reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles (Yale University Press, 1926), 120-22.
  5. For details and an image of the hall drawn in 1601, see Robert J. Alexander, “A Record of Twelfth Night Celebrations,” Records of Early English Drama, vol. 16, no. 1, 1991, pp. 12–19; John H. Astington, “A Drawing of the Great Chamber at Whitehall in 1601,” Records of Early English Drama, vol. 16, no. 1, 1991, pp. 6–11.
  6. Randall Martin, “Every Man out of His Humour: Stage History,” The Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson, 2022.
  7. Roslyn Knutson, “Phaeton: For What It’s Worth,” Lost Plays Database, Folger Shakespeare Library, 27 Mar 2018.