Carriacou, Speaking Words of the Bard

Reciting Shakespeare on the island of Carriacou. Ann Banks photos.

A Shakespeare ‘Mas’ in Carriacou: A day where costumed performers compete to recite the playwrights’ words

By Ann Banks

The Shakespeare 'Mas' short for Masquerade, includes costumes, sword play and reciting Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare ‘Mas’ short for Masquerade, includes costumes, sword play and reciting Shakespeare.

It is early morning on Shrove Tuesday on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou.  In the hilltop village of Mt. Pleasant,  Cosnel McIntosh is pulling on a lace petticoat and telling of a vision, a dream he can picture so clearly it’s awonder it hasn’t already happened.  He hopes to form a company of the island’s most accomplished Shakespeare masqueraders and lead them to perform at West Indian carnivals around the world.

As Cosnel explains this  idea, he continues getting into costume: over the white petticoat goes a multi-colored tunic festooned with jingle bells and on the front a big black heart edged in lace on the  front.  Down below, his blue jeans are tucked neatly into black socks held up by strings tied in knots, as prescribed.  Regalia in place, he grabs a wire mesh face mask that has seen better days and a slender stick and we head out to the ceremonial confrontation awaiting at an intersection just down the road.

Costumed Masqueraders

One of the many performers in costume ready to recite as best as he can.
One of the many performers in costume ready to recite as best as he can.

Similar scenes are unfolding across the island, with gaudily costumed masqueraders converging on crossroads with sticks and words at the ready.  They will face off in pairs and challenge one another by declaiming from memory long passages from Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar.

The louder and more forcefully the better.  If a player fumbles a line or his delivery seems tentative, his opponent is entitled to whack him with the stick.

Carriacou’s  Shakespeare Mas (short for masquerade) is an annual highlight of the island’s pre-Lenten carnival and a subject of fascination to folklorists.  The tradition has its roots in the island’s Plantation era, says Cosnel.

“In slavery times there was one day – Ash Wednesday – when slaves were allowed to say anything to their masters with no repercussions.  But they would dress up and wear masks so they couldn’t be identified.”  Others say the Mas derives from the practice of forcing slaves to recite for their owners and thrashing them when they made a mistake.

The truth is that no one on Carriacou is sure when the Shakespeare Mas began though people remember hearing about it from the time of their great-grandparents.  The use of passages from Julius Caesar can be traced to a textbook called The Royal Reader that was standard in British West Indies schoolhouses from the 19th century through the 1950s.   The ritual stick fighting that punctuates the recitations has roots in African culture and also can be seen as a comment on the violence of plantation society.

Shakespeare’s English

Although the language spoken is Shakespeare’s English, the performances are less like conventional theater and more like rhythmic incantations accompanied by ritual dance steps and gestures. The speeches from Julius Caesar are recited as set pieces, but not necessarily in the order in which they occur in the play, nor is any one player restricted to the speeches of a certain character.

Performer in costume.
Performer in costume.

Cosnel, a vigorous 78, returned to Carriacou in 1999 after decades working in New York and London. He first took part in the Shakespeare Mas as a young boy, and at the time, he says, he probably could recite 50 percent of Julius Caesar by heart. “You would practice the speeches while you were by the roadside tending your animals.”

Many Mas players are now getting on in years and he worries for the future of the tradition. He and a group of Mas players have given demonstrations at the local high school in hopes of recruiting new blood. So he’s especially heartened this morning in Mt. Pleasant when two children show up to participate. Ashley, 9, and Neeguan, 7, are studying Shakespeare in school.

They are self-conscious at first but after spirited encouragement from the spectators they hit their stride and begin reciting the speeches they have learned with increasing volume, while pretend fighting and smacking their sticks on the ground.  When Ashley hesitates in the middle of Cassius’ speech to Brutus (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”) Cosnel gives her a quiet prompt.  Ashley is already a Shakespeare Mas veteran – this is her third time – and if she follows the usual pattern she will memorize new speeches to add to her repertoire each year.

Dogs and Goats Wander through

The Shakespeare Mas in Carriacou.
The Shakespeare Mas in Carriacou.

The match here at the crossroads is gentle and low-key.  Dogs and chickens and goats wander through the action.  One Masquerader, a woman, starts declaiming, “Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome / No Rome of safety for Octavius yet…”  but loses the thread and dissolves into giggles behind her mask.

Another launches into Mark Antony’s funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.”  The spectators in Mt. Pleasant know what’s coming, and as Antony begins to incite the plebians, they shout, “Read the will!  Read the will!”

Things can get a bit wilder in other villages.  When Masqueraders don’t know their Shakespeare very well, Cosmel tells me disapprovingly, the stick fighting takes precedence. “The younger ones like the swordplay more than the speeches, and sometimes they use the Mas to take revenge on enemies.”

Toward sunset I have a chance to witness the rowdier side of the Shakespeare Mas.  By tradition, the victors of the village duels during the day converge on the main town of Hillsborough for a final showdown and celebration. There is nothing casual or laid back about the atmosphere here. It’s fast-paced and much noisier than in Mt. Pleasant. For these  encounters the players add protective layers to their costumes — stiff capes made of cement bags glued to animal hides and covered in colorful fabric.

Bell Ringers

Besides shielding the wearer from sticks, the capes amplify the sound of the blows, serving almost as drums.   Each player/combatant is accompanied by a second, not in costume, whose job is to pull him away if the stick fighting starts to get too ferocious.

Cheering fans crowd the action, and barely avoid getting whacked themselves while yelling encouragement to their favorites.  Bell ringers dance their way through the scene, adding to the commotion.  Now and then I catch a fragment of Shakespeare dialogue that I recall from my own long ago school days.

It’s a fascinating spectacle: Shakespeare, but also ritual.Folklorists call the Shakespeare Mas a syncretic artifact — a cultural practice melding diverse traditions.  Carriacou was populated originally by Carib and Arawak Indians, then starting in the 1600s was handed back and forth between the French and British before becoming incorporated into the British West Indies in 1763.

Today it is inhabited almost entirely by the descendants of slaves abducted from Africa to work on the plantations. (Many Carriacouans can tell you exactly which tribe in Africa their ancestors were from.)

Ex-Slaves into Loyal Subjects

When Parliament abolished slavery in 1833, Great Britain faced the problem of how to turn ex-slaves in the colonies into loyal subjects of the Crown. The answer, in part, was compulsory Shakespeare.  Schoolchildren throughout the Caribbean were required to memorize and recite passages from the Bard.  Colonial rule ended in 1974; Shakespeare endured.

And on Carriacou they have turned him to their own purposes.  The island’s Shakespeare Mas expresses both love of the Bard’s language and mockery of the cruel abuses of the past.  It’s cultural appropriation turned on its head, a rare example of a less privileged group borrowing and transforming the culture of the dominant one. One can only admire and cheer – while being careful to keep back a little way from the sticks

In Shakespeare in the Caribbean, a podcast from the Folger Shakespeare Library, two Shakespeare scholars discuss the playwright’s influence there.   The Shakespeare Mas is discussed briefly.

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Ann Banks
Ann Banks is a journalist and writer living in New York. She has written for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, The Nation, and USA Today, where she served as a member of the Board of Contributors. She also wrote regular columns in Parents and Parenting magazines. Selections of her essays may be found at right and at annbanks.comHer travel writing has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, Arthur Frommer Budget Travel, The New York Times, Vogue, and Parents and at gonomad.com.She also has published eight books for children.She has taught writing at Boston College, The New School University, and the School of Visual Arts. She is a board member and former president of the Writers Room, a writers' colony in New York City. She also is on the board of City Lore and the Coney Island History Project, and has served on the membership committee of PEN USA and as a judge for the National Book Awards.