This year Whit Sunday fell on 18 May. When I was a child, half term in the Summer Term was Whit Week, but it only occurred to me the other day that this is no longer the case. Since 1971, we have had the Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May, and most schools take the rest of that week off. Whitsun seems to have been forgotten.
Since Norman times, Whitsun was the English word for the festival of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.(The Acts, Chapter 2 vv 2-4)
From at least medieval times, Whitsuntide was a holiday for agricultural workers, and there were many traditional celebrations, such as pageants, fairs and morris dancing.
There are at least two Shakespearean references to the festival. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia has disguised herself as a boy to follow her lover Proteus to Milan. There, as Proteus’s ‘page’, she has to deliver to his new love, Silvia, a ring which she herself gave him. In the ensuing dialogue, she does not reveal herself but claims to know the unhappy ‘Julia’ well:
Silvia: How tall was she?
Julia: About my stature: for, at Pentecost,
When all our pageants of delight were played,
Our youth got me to play the woman’s part,
And I was trimm’d in Madam Julia’s gown;
Which served me as fit, by all men’s judgments,
As if the garment had been made for me.
She claims that ‘Julia’ played the part of Ariadne, betrayed by Theseus. In The Winter’s Tale, the reference seems happier, but the scene will end in turmoil. Perdita, the shepherd’s daughter, does not know she is really a princess, but has to dress up like the goddess Flora to be hostess of the sheep-shearing feast:
Perdita: Methinks I play as I have seen them do
In Whitsun pastorals.
In both scenes, Shakespeare uses customs typical of Whitsuntide to present a piece of play-acting that, unbeknownst to most or all of the characters, is nearer truth than fiction.