A bauble on a Christmas tree.

7 Christmas Traditions Ruined by Shakespeare

Christmas is very different today than it would have been in Shakespeare’s time – there was no John Lewis back then, for starters.

Unsurprisingly, then, some of his plays are a little bit down on our beloved Christmas traditions.

For your festive entertainment, here are seven Christmas traditions which Shakespeare kinda doesn’t get (but we love him anyway):


1. Gifts

In real life, there’s an absolute menagerie of Shakespeare-themed presents to give your loved ones. William himself didn’t have that luxury.

Gifts in Shakespeare’s plays are quite often disastrous: from King Lear’s attempt to divide his land up between his daughters, to the fateful handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello.

And then there’s Ophelia – she not only breaks the cardinal Christmas sin of regifting, but she tries to regift TO THE PERSON WHO GAVE HER THE PRESENT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

A quote from Ophelia: "My lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you now receive them."

Poor form, Ophelia. Poor form.


2. Winter

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Sound familiar? Exactly. One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes places the words ‘winter’ and ‘discontent’ right next to each other. What a buzzkill.

But hey, there’s The Winter’s Tale! Maybe that’ll be a bit more positive?

A quote from Mamillius: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins."

Wow, thanks Mamillius. I quite fancied watching Elf, but never mind. You do you.


3. Chimney Surprises

This one’s literally just here because of THIS quote in Henry IV, Part I:

“… and then we leak in your chimney, and your chamber-lye breeds fleas like a loach.”

Yes, that’s a guy joking about urinating down someone’s chimney to attract fleas. Merry Christmas everyone.

Santa climbing down a chimney.
Better hope he’s bringing presents down that chimney.


4. Pantomime Dames

Gender in Shakespeare is a pretty fluid thing.

Once you’ve gotten used to the idea of a boy dressed as a girl impersonating a boy who’s playing the part of a girl, your typical pantomime dame seems a bit dull.

No offence, Biggins – it’s us, not you.


5. Rural Walks

There’s nothing quite like taking a long, relaxing stroll out in the countryside on Christmas Day.

Unless you’re in a Shakespeare play. When his characters venture out into rural areas, weird things start to happen.

There’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who walks alone into the forest for just a few yards before getting transformed into an ass. Then there’s Oliver from As You Like It, who actually gets on pretty well in the forest of Arden – until he gets attacked by a lion.

But what if you’ve had an argument with your family and want to blow off some steam?

Again, it’s probably safer to stay indoors – King Lear went for a walk on the heath and look what happened to him.

A forest.
Probably best not to go in here – there could be donkeys or lions or fairies or ghosts or vagabonds or bears or storms…


6. Christmas Spirits

We’re not talking about the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present or Future here.

Alcohol, whether it’s a mulled wine by the fire or one too many vodkas at the Christmas party, is a huge Christmas tradition.

It’s a shame, then, that so many Shakespeare characters are so goddamn sensible about the whole thing!

Take Michael Cassio, who reacts to his drunken actions like basically everyone who’s ever woken up after a night out on Wind Street:

A quote from Cassio: "My reputation, Iago, my reputation!... O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!"

And Iago only asked him to stay for one drink – yep, Iago is THAT friend. “It’ll only be a quick half, don’t worry about it.”


7. Christmas Stockings

Twelfth Night. Malvolio. Bright yellow. Nothing more needs to be said.



There we go – seven Christmas traditions ruined by William Shakespeare!

Hopefully you’re not too discouraged from indulging these traditions, and many more of your own, over the next few days – with a few gifts related to everyone’s favourite bard thrown in, if you’re lucky!

We’ll be back after Christmas with our guide to Shakespeare in Wales for January.

Until then, Nadolig Llawen! Merry Christmas!

Much love,

Shakespeare Cymru

Lady Macbeth and her husband.

Shakespeare in Pictures: Telling a Story

Dr Michael John Goodman is the Welsh creator of a brand new database: the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, or VISA. It’s an online resource collecting thousands of Shakespeare images from the Victorian period. You can see the first part of our interview with him here.

Dr Goodman is clearly very proud of the website he’s created. But outside of the digital skills you need to put together a project like this, what’s been the main thing he’s learned?

“Firstly, on a broad level, I’ve discovered this sense of… ‘what are we missing with Shakespeare?'”

“People always say with Shakespeare ‘it’s all been done before’ – but considering the importance, the significance, the centrality and the amount of illustration in the Victorian period, there’s hardly any work on it at all!”

“What else is there that we can’t quite see yet?”

A headpiece for 'The Merchant of Venice', illustrated by H. C. Selous.
A headpiece for ‘The Merchant of Venice’, illustrated by H. C. Selous.

During the process of building the website, Goodman studied, scanned, treated and tagged each of the more than 3000 illustrations individually.

Yet he’s surprisingly certain about his favourite images from the archive.

“The two I always go back to are these illustrations of Ford and Falstaff in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. They’re very strong images and they’ve come to symbolise my work.”

“They’re compelling – on the page they’re facing each other, so you’ve got this cool artistic dialogue going on.”

Ford and Falstaff facing each other in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'.
Ford and Falstaff facing each other, as imagined by Kenny Meadows in the 1846 edition of the Collected Works.

Particularly interesting in this illustration is Sir John Falstaff – scowling, gruff and hunched low in his chair, this is an entirely different presentation of Shakespeare’s great comic figure than the one we’re accustomed to today.

“What it shows us is that this idea that Shakespeare’s characters and plays are set in stone and always presented in a particular way – that’s not true. The plays demand interpretation.”

Dr Goodman, who has a background in film and drama, says the archive shows the similarities between the 19th and 20th century’s unique methods of storytelling: illustration and film-making.

“It’s no coincidence that the illustrated Shakespeare edition falls out of favour at exactly the time that cinema began to come in. There’s always this desire to experience Shakespeare visually.”

“I think it allows us to see things we can’t otherwise see. Take the shipwreck in ‘The Tempest’, for example, which you can’t get on the stage. It’s a springboard for our imagination.”

A full page illustration of 'The Tempest', featuring the shipwreck.
A full page interpretation of ‘The Tempest’, featuring the shipwreck. Illustrated by William Harvey for Charles Knight’s ‘Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere’.

Dr Goodman believes his site makes it easier to see these illustrations in their full historical context, and to better appreciate them as a result.

“These illustrators weren’t just working in their own little bubble, in isolation. Like every artist they’re influenced by other areas, other illustrators and visual culture generally.”

“These images speak to each other, I think. I really like that.”

The reaction to the project’s shown that there’s clearly a demand for databases like VISA.

Since it went live, the site’s been added to digital resource lists by prestigious institutions such as Cambridge University and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Articles about the archive, like this one from Open Culture, have been shared tens of thousands of times.

The site’s creator says he wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response.

“People are always interested in Shakespeare, so I thought it would get some positive feedback. But I have been a bit overwhelmed by the scale!”

Othello and Iago, illustrated by John Gilbert.
Othello and Iago, illustrated by John Gilbert in an 1867 edition of the Complete Works.

When asked whether he’d consider doing a project like this one again, Goodman laughs.

“That’s such a good question… I would never say never again.”

“I argue in my thesis that Shakespeare’s first folio is the ‘new media’ of the Jacobean era, just as these illustrated editions are the new media of their time. We’re using the digital here, which is the new media of our time, to bring this kind of work to a new audience.”

“That’s exactly the way I came at it and I think that’s why it’s had such a reaction. This has been a form of self-expression, a creative process. It’s like a theatre play – this is my own production of Victorian illustrated Shakespeare.”

“It’s been a long old trip, but it’s been so rewarding.”


You can follow Dr Goodman on Twitter @mikeygoodman1 – and we’re there too @ShakesCymru.

You can also like us on Facebook.

Hamlet holding Yorick's skull.

Shakespeare in Pictures: A Victorian Archive

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then Dr Michael John Goodman’s latest project is like a dictionary.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, or VISA, collects thousands of Shakespeare illustrations into one online database. It’s lovingly crafted, it’s easy-to-use, and it’s all completely free.

Dr Goodman, who’s based at Cardiff University, says the idea for the database stemmed from a discussion with his PhD supervisor.

“My original idea was going to be looking generally at Shakespeare illustration in the Victorian Period. I’ve got a film and drama background, so the visual part of the project really appealed to me.”

“But my supervisor, Julia Thomas, had previously worked on a project with her colleague Anthony Mandal: the DMVI, or Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration.”


Edgar leading his blind father in 'King Lear'.
Edgar leading his blind father in ‘King Lear’, illustrated by H. C. Selous in the 1860s.

He says the DMVI inspired him to attempt a similar project with Victorian illustations of Shakespeare.

“It feels like I’ve discovered a treasure trove. We’ve got these amazing images, and they’re all public domain, free to everyone – but they’re hidden away in library archives up and down the country.”

Once he’d decided on his final goal, Dr Goodman was faced with the daunting task of converting thousands of Victorian engravings into digital images.

He says he didn’t really know what he was letting himself in for.

“The editions which make up the archive are the four most significant illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s work from that period.”

“To get one play uploaded, tidied up, treated in photoshopped, tagged with metadata… that takes five to six hours. And for each of the four editions we’ve got between 35 and 37 plays.”

He began with an 1843 edition of the Complete Works illustrated by Welshman Kenny Meadows, who was born in Cardigan.

Malvolio from 'Twelfth Night', drawn by Kenny Medows.
Malvolio from ‘Twelfth Night’, as imagined by Welsh illustrator Kenny Meadows in his 1843 edition.

“Everything’s been scanned in as high a resolution as possible, so you can zoom in and really see these images in a way they’ve never been seen before.”

“I treat each image individually in Photoshop to make it look clean and fresh, in a way which they would never have looked before but in a way which speaks to us today. It helps people, if they want to use the images, to repurpose them and do with them whatever they like.”

“It’s a long, laborious process but it’s worth it. I was just worried that someone else would do it first!”


For the second part of our interview with Dr Goodman, click here.

Why not explore the database yourself and let us know what you find? You can access it here.

You can follow Dr Goodman on Twitter @mikeygoodman1, and don’t forget we’re there too @ShakesCymru.

Welcome to Shakespeare Cymru

Hello! Welcome to Shakespeare Cymru, your new home for all things Shakespearean in Wales.

We’ll be bringing you all the latest from stages, screens, schools and communities, finding out how the bard’s being adapted for a 21st century Welsh audience. We’ll have interviews, news, and details of how you can get your regular fix of Shakespeare in performance.

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Stay tuned for more creative content from Shakespeare Cymru, and check back soon for our first #ShakespeareSunday – your monthly guide to Shakespeare in Wales.

See you then!