| Mathilde Charras | Mars 2021 |




February approaches, and with it, Carnival’s festive scent and wish for dazzling music and colours. Even though this year’s celebrations and festivals are to be postponed, one can still dwell upon Carnival’s history and its appealing kinship with theatre. Let us breathe together this air of freedom and wonder, through literature, whether Carnival is truly the place of societal contest it is said to be.


A short history

It is no easy task to trace back the origins of millenary traditions. One could consider Lupercalia, a similar festival organised in Ancient Rome, as the ancestor of Carnival. The celebrations were meant to purify the evil spirits from the city and give a fresh start to its society. In the Republic of Venice, the oldest edict mentioning the word “Carnival” dates back to 1094. Quite early on, these celebrations have been related to entering Lent and to the omnipresent power of the Catholic Church. Yet, inversion rituals have heathen roots, even in festivals such as the Feast of Fools, where the subjects could be jocularly crowned Bishops. To remind people of their proximity with nature and its most grotesque features – like the ass –, as well as to define a set time during which people can do as they please are enduring traditions.

What is the purpose of such a tradition then? For a long time, Carnival has been theorized as a moment of rare freedom, during which political claims can be made without their authors being charged for it. Transgressive behaviours topple society’s constraints and give a voice to unheard subjects. The plurality of speeches thus emerging has even been seized upon by literary critics such as Mikhaïl Bakhtine. Describing what defines novels as a literary genre, he studied their carnivalesque character, coming up with one the most important concepts of his time: polyphony. By introducing several voices and languages – cultural, political and unconscious ones – into one narration, novel gains its artistic dimension and its right to be considered as worthy of attention as poetry.

There is certainly one literary genre whose kinship with Carnival is even more blatant than novel: theatre. Cross-dressing, embracing new codes of representation and taking on a new role in a short period of time is precisely what performance traditionally consists of. Especially at the time of Shakespeare, when only men were allowed to play onstage. Any performance could then be considered as carnivalesque as boys were cross-dressing in order to play women’s parts. Playwrights were also keen to play on the kinship between theatre and Carnival. In many comedies, festivities often happening between Christmas and Lent are included in the plot. Let us have a look at two specific plays and see how they intertwine Carnival and performance. I am talking about Twelfth Night, written in 1601 by William Shakespeare and The Rover, published in 1677 by Aphra Behn.


Carnival and theatre, a love story?

Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, is the last night of festivities that bring Christmas time to an end. It is both the peak and the solemn resolution of the topsy-turvydom that has previously been going on .[1] Shakespeare chooses that precise moment to stage the complicated story of a young woman, Viola. She decides, after a shipwreck, to disguise herself as a man in order to make an honest living. Becoming Cesario, the clothes become part of her identity, changing her into a hybrid creature, loved both by a woman – Olivia – and by a man – Orsino. Even when everything goes back to “normal”, her identity remains somehow linked to the clothes she is wearing. Twelfth Night destabilizes traditional gender representations by showing their performative dimension. Manhood is but a show and Viola manages to pull it off perfectly under a rake’s supervision: “it comes to pass oft, that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him”. [2] Carnival and cross-dressing gives Shakespeare the opportunity to question identity and show these interrogations as outliving festivities. In that perspective, Carnival and performance do entail custom’s contestation.

The Carnival of Venice serves as backdrop for our next play, The Rover. Two sisters are unhappy with the fate their father destined them for: an arranged wedding and nunnery. They take advantage of the festival in order to pursue their desire for freedom. Anonymity empowers these women and enables them to evolve in the public sphere, acting for themselves without supervision. It is no wonder that the playwright, the first female professional writer, gave to her heroines the exact tools that enabled her to succeed, namely an independent spirit and anonymity. The eponymous character, Willmore or the Rover, is a libertine, challenging societal expectations in his own way. Yet, Carnival is by itself a performance, blurring the public and the private sphere. Therefore, characters engaging in transgressive behaviours weaken the challenging power of their actions by perpetrating them in a timeframe already dedicated to misrule. Even if our two sisters manage to escape their doom, the comedy remains very cynical and clear-headed when it comes to women’s condition. The libertine himself get to be reintegrated in proper society through marriage and Carnival’s power of contest seems to decline as soon as celebrations are over.

Theatre and its relationship with Carnival help us shed a light upon its true ability to shake societal constraints. If it has some effect on private affairs, it seems unable to lead a real renewal. Carnival can even be seen as a tool meant to strengthen the ruling power even further.


Carnival and power enforcement

Several scholars have highlighted the fact that the idea of a politically and socially challenging Carnival is a myth easy to debunk. Anne Elaine Cliche identifies parody as the literary transcription of Carnival. One could apply her words about parody to the politically engaged festival-goer:

« La prise de conscience que révèle la parodie […] devient plutôt ici une position limite occupée par un sujet qui refuse la convention et l’idolâtrie, mais ne parvient jamais à les faire éclater réellement, la négation restant alors purement rhétorique » [3]

Some historians have even proved that Carnival and other festivities were tools used by clever monarchs to enforce and stabilize their current power. The Tudors and the Stuarts considered them as a valuable moment to release popular energy and tensions. Monarchy even “anglicanised” these celebrations, usurping the place of the Church and giving impetus to these festivals. Livia Segurado Nunes explains how Queen Elizabeth understood the power of such canalized recreations; on the contrary, Cromwell went as far as closing theatres and banning several of these traditions, generating resentment. [4]

Theatre and Carnival have a lot in common and going through celebrated plays helps putting into perspective commonplaces such as the power of Carnival. Yet, one cannot forget that many modern festivals have been created to voice political and social claims, such as the Notting Hill Carnival, taking place in London since 1965 to celebrate the Afro-American and Caribbean communities.


Mathilde Charras



[1] Topsy-turvidom is a state of extreme confusion and disorder, where everything seems to be turned upside down.

[2] shakespeare, William, Twelfth Night, Act. III, sc. 4.

[3] cliche, Anne Elaine, « Un romancier de carnaval ? », Vol. 23, n°3, A la jeunesse d’André Belleau.

[4] segurado nunes, Livia, Back to the roots: Shakespeare and popular culture in the 20th and 21th century [2013]


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