The celebration of various festivals and significant calendar events were very important to the Elizabethan people – Midsummer, Harvest time, Twelfth Night, New Year and of course, May Day. These seasonal feasts were not, as now, rare curiosities to be observed by folklorists in remote villages, but landmarks framing the cycle of the year. Shakespeare casually references holidays assuming that the whole audience is familiar with them. These were often modified pagan rituals which brought about a heightened awareness of the relationship between man and nature and acted as a release valve for human behaviour. In the terms of Freud’s analysis of wit, the energy normally occupied for maintaining inhibition is freed for celebration. They were times of misrule when social norms were turned on their head. Printed images, popular at the time show the world turned up-side-down – fish swimming in the air, carts pulling oxen, children punishing their parents.
It’s little wonder that May Day came under severe attack by the Puritans who banned it by an act of Parliament in 1644. In Philip Stubbe’s Anatomy of Abuses – a tract against all forms of merry making he has a section entitled ‘Against May’ where he decries the degree of sexual license taken at the festival:
Every parish town and village assemble themselves together. Men and women and children, old and young, and go off, some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, here they spend the night in pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birth-boughs and trees to deck their assemblies withal. I’ve heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credibility and reputation, that forty, three score, or a hundred youths, going to the woods overnight. They have scarcely the third part of them, returned home undefiled.
He refers to the maypole as a stinking idol. For many years the Maying celebrations were abandoned. When it returned it was in a sanitised form, with children as the main participants dancing round the maypole.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare basically conflates the May Day and Midsummer rituals. Lysander makes the connection between May Day and Midsummer when he speaks of May Day observances to Hermia:
If thou lovest me then,
Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.
Hermia insults Helena by comparing her to “a painted maypole”. Bottom can be seen as representing the inversion of the hobbyhorse one of the major figures of the May celebrations.
The hobbyhorse is one of the characters from the traditional Morris dance, which included Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Scarlet, Stokesley, Little John, the Fool and Tom the Piper. The line ‘For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot’ occurs twice in Shakespeare’s works, and is presumed to come from a popular folk song of the day. In Love’s Labour’s Lost this line appears as part of the banter between Armado and Moth concerning the vagaries of affection, and in Hamlet when Hamlet mocks Ophelia’s reminder that his father died “twice two months ago.” There are also numerous other references in the plays to this mock creature.
The hobby horse figure is aligned with a pantheon of mythic figures that are animal-human hybrids. Chambers locates the hobbyhorse’s origin in pagan worshippers careering in the skins of sacrificial animals; this view of the hobby horse seems to combine the ritualised promise of communal renewal and regeneration with the hybridisation of man and beast. He was the guarantor of fecundity, continuity and memory.
The Rev. Dyer describes the horse as:
… formed by a pasteboard horse’s head, and a light frame made of wicker-work to join the hinder parts. This was fastened round the body of a man, and covered with a foot-cloth which nearly reached the ground and concealed the legs of the performer, who displayed his antic equestrian skill, and performed various juggling tricks to the amusement of bystanders.
What the Rev fails to point out is the sexual significance of the hobbyhorse. The foot-cloth skirt was used for catching the village maidens in an aggressively mimed fertility dance – the more randy and athletic the better. Thus Bottom, although not disappointed at his experiences in fairy land really didn’t have the best part of the bargain!
The sexual association led to the term ‘hobby horse’ being used as a name for a loose woman. In The Winter’s Tale Leontes says to Camillo:
My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench that puts to
Before her troth-plight.
In Othello, Bianca says to Cassio of Desdemona’s handkerchief: “This is some minx’s token and I must take out the work? There; give it your hobbyhorse.”
In Hamlet, the hobbyhorse forms part of the dense sexual imagery of the play. Claudius is described in terms of half-man/half-beast: Hamlet refers to him as a satyr, a debased woodland wanton; the Ghost refers to him as “that incestuous, adulterate beast” (placing man’s sin with the behaviour of animals). To the Ghost, Claudius has reduced himself to his bestial components, cut off from the human side of himself, making havoc of natural order. With Hamlet’s use of the popular phrase ‘For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot’ in relation to the memory of his father, the hobbyhorse and satyr are positioned as opposites – one the defender of social continuity, and legitimacy – the other a destroyer of social order and structure. If the hobby horse is forgot the promise of renewal and continuity is broken.
Our perception and the importance of folklore in our lives may have radically altered since Shakespeare’s day but there is one element of folklore that remains strong – the power of storytelling. Alfred Nutt described how through folklore, knowledge, gathered and formulated is communicated by word of mouth and actions of various kinds from generation to generation – we can define Shakespeare’s plays and their allusions to folklore as part of the great folkloric tradition themselves.
A watch of The Wicker Man anyone? Happy May Day!
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian