Shakespeare Trivia Question: WHAT major Shakespeare character was born on WHAT major Pagan Harvest Festival? Answer: in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is born on Lammas. Act 1, scene iii opens with the Nurse and Lady Capulet anticipating Juliet’s birthday; the Nurse asks, “How long is it now to Lammas-tide?”
Lady Capulet answers, “A fortnight [two-week period] and odd days.” To which the Nurse responds, “Even or odd, of all days in the year, come Lammas-eve at night shall she [Juliet] be fourteen- But as I said, on Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.”
So: in this Elizabethan play (dated to 1595, and in print by 1597), Shakespeare introduces Lammas at the top of Act 1 (scene iii); reiterates it three times in a row; and then moves the conversation on. The first thing apparent is that Shakespeare expects his audience will know what ”Lammas” means; he has no need to explain it; like “Casual Friday” or “Super Bowl Sunday,” “Lammas” will hit his audience’s ears as a familiar term. Lammas (in other words) continues in Elizabethan language, as of the late 1500s. [No, seriously- show of hands; how many Jugglers were aware that Shakespeare references Lammas?]
Now, the second thing: why does Shakespeare introduce Lammas as Juliet’s birthday? In this (our first introduction to the play’s heroine), the first thing that we learn about her is- she was born on Lammas Eve. Why is this significant?
It should be remembered that Shakespeare has inherited a character named “Juliet”: “Female of July.” The story of Romeo and Juliet first appeared in Italian (c. 1530), as the Historia di due nobili Amanti, by Luigi da Porto (in which the characters are called Romeo and Giulietta). An English translation is offered in 1562, by Arthur Brooke, titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (this is apparently Shakespeare’s source). Thus, Shakespeare inherits a heroine named “Female of July”- which means that she has to be born at some point during July (otherwise she would be Juniet or Augustiet).
However- through the ancient Celtic trick (maybe the Nordic Europeans did this too; I don’t really know) but- due to the Celtic trick of granting that the new day begins at nightfall (hence Halloween, the Night Before the significant Day of Samhain, or November 1st)- if Juliet is born on the Night of July 31st, she can be both “Juliet” (“Female of July”) AND born on Lammas: August 1st.
It is apparently Shakespeare who introduces the fact of Juliet’s birthday being Lammas, and I figure he must have had some reason for doing so. As he has introduced in the Prologue the theme of “star-crossed lovers” (meaning, as the Elizabethans were very astrologically minded, that these poor Italian kids have been born under misaligned or inauspicious stars), this connection with Lammas (our first impression of Juliet in the play) must have had some sort of similar “ill-fated” connotation to it (the rest of the Nurse’s speech gathers some disquieting images around Juliet, including a reference to the Nurse’s daughter Susan, who was born at the same time as Juliet, but who died in infancy). I figure something about being born on Lammas-Eve must have automatically struck Shakespeare’s audience as ”not lucky.”
I have come across one writer who intelligently speculates that Shakespeare means to associate Juliet with the grain of the field, ripening under the July sun, but now- at the peak of fullness- to be struck down by the reapers’ scythes (at the time that the play opens, Romeo and Juliet have something less than a week to live). A smart theory; for myself, I notice that, if you count nine months backward from Lammas- you arrive at Samhain. In other words, a child born on Lammas Eve would have been conceived on Samhain Eve- and it might well be that the Elizabethans possessed superstitions that this was not a lucky thing at all (being conceived on Samhain Eve).
Whatever is the answer to Juliet’s birthday being Lammas Night- for being referenced in Romeo and Juliet, numerous editors of the play have had to grapple with the question of how to define “Lammas.” Most editions (in my experience) cite Lammas as being August 1st- and leave it at that.
Fine and good- accurate, one can’t deny- but if someone has no prior experience of Lammas, knowing that it denotes ”August 1st” does not really help to understand it. I note that editions of the play that take the “Lammas question” one step further, and provide an explanation- overwhelmingly tend to define Lammas as “a medieval church feast-day,” and leave it at that.
In other words: “Lammas”- the day that the ripened grains of the field are harvested; baked into the first loaves of bread of the season; which loaves are then taken to the local church, to be blessed in the Name of Jesus by the priests. This is Lammas.
I have yet to encounter an edition of Romeo and Juliet that takes Lammas one step further, and identifies it as a “Pagan European Harvest Festival, celebrating the successful reaping of the grain and the baking of the first bread of the summer- co-opted by the medieval church.”
Happy Lammas, Jugglers, and Happy Birthday, Juliet!