William Shakespeare Ritual and Ceremony in Shakespeare's Plays - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Susan Baker (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, Susan. “Shakespeare and Ritual: The Example of As You Like It.Upstart Crow 9 (1989): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Baker examines the rites of passage that the characters undergo in As You Like It and 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.]

Old theories die hard. Old evolutionary theories seem not to die at all, at least in the case of those propounded by the Cambridge classicists more than a half-century ago. The emergence of drama from ritual makes a good story, whether one of civilization's triumphing...

(The entire section is 6124 words.)

Frank Nicholas Clary (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Clary, Frank Nicholas. “‘Imagine No Worse of Them’: Hippolyta on the Ritual Threshold in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Ceremony and Text in the Renaissance, edited by Douglas F. Rutledge, pp. 155-66. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Clary discusses the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude in A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of the ritual of wedding-night revelry. The critic argues that although traditionally the principal function of this rite is to allay male fears of domestication, here it is also designed to initiate Hippolyta into Athenian society.]

The Pyramus and Thisbe episode at the end...

(The entire section is 4716 words.)

Sigurd Burckhardt (essay date June 1967)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Burckhardt, Sigurd. “‘I Am but Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI.Modern Language Quarterly 28, no. 2 (June 1967): 139-58.

[In the following essay, Burckhardt proposes that the hyperbolic, ceremonial language of Henry VI, Part 1 perfectly matches the play's dramatic action, in which the characters are impelled to disaster by their adherence to a ritualistic mode of confrontation, defiance, and combativeness.]

In speaking of Shakespeare's treatment of Joan of Arc, E. M. W. Tillyard observes that “in literature the things which initially are the most troublesome [often] prove to be the most enlightening.”1...

(The entire section is 7291 words.)

Minoru Fujita (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fujita, Minoru. “Royal Procession in Henry IV.” In Pageantry and Spectacle in Shakespeare, pp. 71-93. Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, 1982.

[In the following essay, Fujita contrasts 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, and 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.]


In his tribute to Hamlet, Fortinbras says that he was likely “to have proved most royal.” The ideals...

(The entire section is 8016 words.)

Derek Cohen (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “The Rite of Violence in 1 Henry IV.Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 77-84.

[In the following essay, Cohen views the combat between Hal and Hotspur in Act III, scene ii of Henry IV, Part 1 as a ritual purification of the violence that has engulfed England.]

Hotspur is a character whose career runs the gamut of dramatic expression. Commencing on a note of furious, even farcical, comedy, it concludes on a note of tragic grief so poignantly realized as to have inspired Northrop Frye's perception that his dying remark, ‘thoughts, the slaves of life’, comes out of the heart of the tragic vision.1 Hotspur's brave death is...

(The entire section is 6007 words.)

James Black (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Black, James. “The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 104-13. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Black contends that Act IV, scenes ii-iii of Richard II validate rather than mock the stately rituals of the deposition scene that precedes them. The critic argues that during the grievous pageant of his uncoronation, Richard becomes a self-declared beggar, praying for the same dispensation from Henry IV that Aumerle asks of him in the subsequent scenes.]

Everyone is by now perfectly familiar with the point of view that...

(The entire section is 4045 words.)

Barbara D. Palmer (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, Barbara D. “‘Ciphers to This Great Accompt’: Civic Pageantry in the Second Tetralogy.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 114-29. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Palmer points out the subtlety of Shakespeare's depiction of pageantry and ceremony as political tools in Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.]

A single definition of pageantry in Shakespeare's plays is elusive at worst and probably unprofitably reductive at best, but the diversity of forms that scholars have called pageantry does make discussion confusing. As Robert Withington...

(The entire section is 6964 words.)

Richard Harrier (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Harrier, Richard. “Ceremony and Politics in Richard II.” In Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism: Essays in Honor of Marvin Spevack, edited by Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, pp. 80-97. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms-Weidman, 1987.

[In the following essay, Harrier examines Richard's conduct in Act III, scene iii of Richard II. In the critic's opinion, the king's increasing inability to preserve the ritual show of monarchy is an outward manifestation of his loss of confidence in his entitlement to the throne.]

Interpretation of Richard II has inevitably focused on Richard's shortcomings as a man and a king. The special...

(The entire section is 6683 words.)

Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Liebler, Naomi Conn. “The Ritual Groundwork.” In Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, pp. 51-111. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Liebler examines the way ritual actions in Richard II are honored, abruptly curtailed, subverted, or ignored. The critic focuses on the joust between Bolingbroke and Mowbray at the opening of the play, the formal deposition of Richard at Westminster, and the continuing degradation of the sacred bonds of kinship.]

“What is a ceremony?” I asked. “It is a proper way to behave. You do this and that, so the gods do not punish you,” said Amah.


(The entire section is 14686 words.)

Susan Letzler Cole (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cole, Susan Letzler. “‘Maimèd Rites’: Shakespeare's Hamlet.” In The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence, pp. 41-60. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Cole compares Hamlet to Xerxes, the protagonist of Aeschylus's The Persians, arguing that because Hamlet has been denied the catharsis of traditional funeral rites, he becomes obsessed with replacing his father rather than forging his own, separate identity.]

All of the components which serve as links between funerary ritual and tragic drama are present in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There is not one...

(The entire section is 8099 words.)

Mark Rose (essay date autumn 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Mark. “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599.” English Literary Renaissance 19, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 291-304.

[In the following essay, Rose compares the political strife in Julius Caesar with the divisiveness that roiled the Protestant church in Elizabethan England. The critic contends that the late sixteenth-century Puritan campaign against church rituals and ceremonies is analogous to the anti-authoritarianism of Cassius, Casca, and the tribunes.]

Julius Caesar opens with Marullus and Flavius rebuking the plebeians for transferring their allegiance from Pompey and making a holiday to celebrate Caesar's triumph. It...

(The entire section is 5398 words.)

Gillian Murray Kendall (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kendall, Gillian Murray. “Ritual and Identity: The Edgar-Edmund Combat in King Lear.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 240-55. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Kendall argues that the elaborate ceremony surrounding the trial by combat between Edgar and Edmund in Act V, scene iii of King Lear betrays the hollowness of the ritual and highlights the ineffectuality of all human constructs designed to establish legitimacy or affirm a natural order.]

An enterlude!

Broken rituals...

(The entire section is 6685 words.)

Stephen X. Mead (essay date fall 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mead, Stephen X. “The Crisis of Ritual in Titus Andronicus.Exemplaria 6, no. 2 (fall 1994): 459-79.

[In the following essay, Mead contends that the ritual slaying of Alarbus in Titus Andronicus, intended as a means of appeasing the dead Andronici and forestalling further violence, instead initiates a cycle of retaliatory bloodletting.]

Shakespeare's first tragedy has often been defined as a spectacular tragedy of blood that is shed for its own sake.1 Frank Kermode writes in the introduction to the Riverside edition of the play,

there is small point in denying that an exhibition of horror...

(The entire section is 7751 words.)

Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Liebler, Naomi Conn. “The Hobby-Horse Is Forgot: Tradition and Transition.” In Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, pp. 173-223. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Liebler focuses on the violations of ceremony in King Lear and Macbeth.]


It is necessary to recall briefly the Aristotelian definition of tragic action as the violation of specific social bonds:

Now if an enemy does something to an enemy there is nothing piteous. … Nor … when the two are neither...

(The entire section is 12216 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Alvis, John. “A Little Touch of the Night in Harry: The Career of Henry Monmouth.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 95-125. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Argues that Hal/Henry's intent throughout the second tetralogy is to repudiate the concept of official, ceremonial monarchy and replace it with the spectacle of the king's personal glory.

Bristol, Michael D. “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello.Renaissance Drama n.s. XXI (1990): 3-21.

Compares the degradation and punishment of Othello to the carnivalesque social...

(The entire section is 1401 words.)