Twelve drummers drumming


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Twelve drummers drumming,

Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping,

Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking

Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying

Five gold rings,

Four calling birds, three French hens

Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree

I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe.

The drum is the instrument of war – used to rally the troops, keep a steady rhythm for infantry advances, and for signalling in battle. The Rigveda, a Hindu sacred text and one of the earliest known Indo-European texts, and to at least 1500-1200 BC, includes multiples lines to the war drums.

Thunder out strength and fill us full of vigour: yea, thunder forth and drive away all dangers.

Drive hence, O War-drum, drive away misfortune: thou art the Fist of Indra: show thy firmness.

It’s hardly surprising, then that by Shakespeare’s time the association between drums and war would be deep-rooted that drums could and were used as a shorthand for the latter.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays take place in or around war. Not just the obvious histories, but a number of the tragedies – Othello is a general, Macbeth starts and ends in battle, Coriolanus eventually leads an army against his own city. Even the comedies get in on the act – in All’s Well that Ends Well, Bertram goes off to war to avoid Helena (it doesn’t work out for him) and in Much Ado About Nothing almost all of the male characters have just come back from the wars. It is perhaps an obvious – too obvious? – way to introduce drama into proceedings, or may reflect the belief that being a soldier was a natural stage of life.

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

I doubt very strongly whether Shakespeare had any personal knowledge of war. England’s only major conflict in his adult lifetime was the Anglo-Spanish War, and (as we all know) the fighting did not reach the mainland. Closer to home was the Rising of the North, when English Catholics attempted to replace Elizabeth I with her Scottish cousin Mary. But this occurred when our Will was only 5 years old.

Perhaps this lack of experience is why he can manage to take such an even-handed tone in his characters – there are those that love war

Why, then we shall have a stirring world again. This peace is nothing but to rust iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers.


Plenty and peace breeds cowards; hardness ever
Of hardiness is mother.

As well as those that seek peace

Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births

Will you again unknit
This churlish knot of all-abhorred war

I think it is this balance which allow such different interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays as Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s productions of Henry V, and I strongly urge you to see them both.



One thought on “Twelve drummers drumming

  1. What a great way to finish. I love how you’ve managed to weave the Bard into every one of the 12 days so successfully – it’s been a great read.
    Interesting to see how very much war figures in the plays written by a civilian. But then, it has played such a huge role in defining the country and its people. Fascinating stuff.


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