Ritual and Ceremony in Shakespeare's Plays
Research by cultural anthropologists and historians has contributed greatly to our understanding of the significance of ritual and ceremony in Shakespeare's plays. These scholars have demonstrated that when a community observes traditional ceremonies, it expresses its belief in universal order and affirms its own continuity. They also point out that although a society may be renewed through rituals, it can be disrupted when the sacred origins of these ceremonies are perverted to serve ideological purposes or personal ambition. Many literary critics argue that the disruption of ritual, the desacralization of ceremony, and discrepancies between the intent and the effect of ritual observances are central features of many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the English histories.
The perversion of ritual in Richard II, often described as the most ceremonious of Shakespeare's plays, is the focus of commentary by Barbara D. Palmer (1985), James Black (1985), Richard Harrier (1987), and Naomi Conn Liebler (1995). Palmer asserts that in Richard II, ceremonial pageantry is deprived of its principal functions and becomes a sham. She describes the uncrowning of Richard at Whitehall (Act IV, scene i) as a “negative or reversed” form of ritual. Black also views this scene as an inverted rite, arguing that it enforces the notion of Richard as a monarch more concerned with the outward show of majesty than its inherent meaning. For Harrier, the episode at Flint Castle (Act III, scene iii) represents the play's climactic depiction of Richard's affectation of the appearance of kingship as well as his refusal to take responsibility for the part he played in bringing about an end to his reign. By contrast, Liebler contends that Richard never loses his conviction that, as the king, he must honor the ceremonial basis of his culture. In her judgment, the Flint Castle scene and the formal deposition before Parliament show that Bolingbroke and his supporters are as responsible for the dissolution of traditional order as Richard himself.
Several critics have examined the use or misuse of ceremony and ritual in the two plays that follow Richard II in the second tetralogy: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Palmer maintains that in these plays it becomes evident that Henry understands how to use royal pageantry for political purposes. The critic also suggests that Shakespeare exposed the manipulation of courtly ceremony in the tavern scene (Part 1, Act II, scene iv), where Falstaff substitutes a simple chair for a throne, a dagger for a royal scepter, and a cushion for a crown. Minoru Fujita (1982) is principally concerned with what he views as Shakespeare's appeal to the conception of majesty derived from Elizabethan civic pageantry. Contrasting Hal's arrival in regal costume and procession in Act V, scene v of Henry IV, Part 2 with Falstaff's appearance in dirty and disheveled clothes, Fujita contends that the fat knight's disregard of ceremony and his mockery of royalty, though amusing in Part 1, can no longer be tolerated by the new king. Derek Cohen (1985) focuses on the relationship between Hal and Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1. Noting that the combat between them is preceded by a “provocative” exchange of boasts, he characterizes Hotspur's death as a ritual action that heals the nation and ensures its continuity. A similarly provocative exchange of boasts before combat is typical of characters in Henry VI, Part 1, as Sigurd Burckhardt (1967) points out. Describing this defiant, self-assertive style as “the ceremonial mode,” he argues that Shakespeare depicted the conflict between Yorkists and Lancastrians as the inevitable outcome of both parties' adherence to ritual combativeness.
The subversion of traditional rituals and ceremonies in Shakespeare's tragedies is the subject of essays by Susan Letzler Cole (1985), Stephen X. Mead (1994), Mark Rose (1989), Gillian Murray Kendall (1992), and Naomi Conn Liebler (1995). In an essay on Hamlet, Cole argues that the primary impulse of the play's dramatic action is Claudius's disregard for customary funeral rites. Because Hamlet is denied traditional expressions of his grief, the critic contends, he cannot make the transition from mourner to heir that would allow him to reconcile his ambivalent responses to his father's death. Mead suggests that the sacrificial death of Alarbus at the beginning of Titus Andronicus, though intended as a ceremonial means of appeasing the spirits of the dead and atoning for their deaths, not only fails to do this but instead instigates all the violent actions that follow. Similarly, Rose addresses the efficacy of ritual and the unintended consequences its observance may give rise to in Julius Caesar. He points out that the assassination of Caesar, rather than being a sacrificial death that restores the republic, leads to internal warfare and the institution of an imperial government. Both Kendall and Liebler consider Shakespeare's treatment of ritual and ceremony in King Lear. Kendall analyzes the trial by combat between Edmund and Edgar, arguing that for all its accoutrements of ritual, it is a hollow, artificial enactment of the idea that the outcome of such contests will affirm justice and social order. Liebler also finds no restoration of social order at the conclusion of Lear. Indeed, she regards the scenes on the heath as central to the play's vision of a society where custom, ritual, and law are all under attack. Liebler discerns similar violations of social customs and ritual in Macbeth, where, she contends, ceremonies meant to bind a community together fracture it instead.
Susan Baker (1989) and Frank Nicholas Clary (1996) address the theme of ceremony and ritual in two of Shakespeare's comedies: As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Baker examines the rites of passage that the characters undergo in As You Like It. The critic suggests that Shakespeare intended the theatrical experience of life in the Forest of Arden to be as transformative for audiences as it is for the characters in the play. Both ritual and drama, she contends, provide an opportunity to organize—or disrupt—human experience, and audiences attending this play as well as its characters are disconcerted by the movement from one perspective to another. Focusing on another rite of passage, the wedding night revelry in the final scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Clary evaluates the function and impact of the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude. He views it not only as an episode that serves as a transition between the nuptial ceremonies and the physical consummation of those formal unions, but also as an initiation rite for Hippolyta, the outsider who must be made part of Athenian society.