Why was Shakespeare’s playing company so popular at Christmas time?
When James I came to the throne in 1603, Christmas entertainments increased. In the first ten years of his reign there were over one hundred performances at court. On 23 December 1603, Lady Arbella Stuart wrote to the Earl of Shrewsbury ‘it is said there shall be 30 plays’ – Christmas at court with the new king! There were many more plays and increasingly elaborate masques which were favoured by the queen and her household. Arbella Stuart also wrote on 18 December:
The Queen intendeth to make a [masque] this Christmas, to which end my Lady of Suffolk and my Lady Walsingham hath warrants to take of the late Queen’s best apparel out of the Tower at their discretion.
In the early years of James I’s reign, the Venetian ambassador, Nicolo Molin, reported that the Christmas season was ‘devoted to fetes, banquets, jousts, as is usual in England from St Stephen’s to Twelfth Night’. Dudley Carleton, a courtier present at the first Christmas festivities hosted by James I, wrote to his friend John Chamberlain in January 1604:
We have had here a very merry Christmas and nothing to disquiet us save brabbles amongst our ambassadors, and one or two poor companions that died of the plague. The first holy days we had every night a public play in the great hall, at which the king was ever present and liked or disliked as he saw cause, but it seems he takes an extraordinary pleasure in them. The queen and prince were more the players’ friends, for on other nights they had them privately and have since taken them to their protection.
Shakespeare’s playing company was also contributing to the Christmas entertainments at court. They performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream on 1 January 1604. Other plays which may have been performed and were part of their repertory at the time were Twelfth Night, Henry V and Hamlet. Court records payment to the King’s Men for performances over the 1603-1604 Christmas period. They had performed six interludes or plays before the King and Prince Henry and received eighty pounds. A fortnight later the King’s Men received another payment, ‘by way of his majesties free gift’, of thirty pounds.
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