Birthdays and Deathdays

It is a truth universally acknowledged that William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. This is fairly important because when it comes to Shakespeare, there are actually very few universally acknowledged truths. His birthday, for example, is unknown. He was baptized on April 26, 1564, and due to an unsubstantiated Victorian supposition that it was customary to baptize infants when they were three days old, it has been widely speculated that he was born on the 23rd. Unfortunately, that supposed custom is made-up claptrap, invented because later scholars and – let’s be candid – fans thought it’d be cool if Shakespeare died on his birthday.

Now, surely there must be some tangible facts about the birth of the greatest writer in the English language. Of course there are, but they’re rather a mess, and furthermore they don’t prove a damn thing. Allow me to explain.

Let us begin with the Book of Common Prayer, which, at the time of Shakespeare’s birth, recommended that children be baptized on first convenient Sunday or holy day after birth. It is then simple enough to start our search by consulting a calendar, remembering, of course, that Shakespeare was born before the shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, and far before its adoption in England in 1752. With all that in mind, April 26 fell on a Wednesday in 1564, according to the Julian calendar. The 26th also happens to be St. George’s Day, which is quite auspicious indeed as holy days go. Honoring the patron saint of England, St. George’s Day was often marked by festivals, pageants, and celebrations throughout the country, so it’s plain to see why Shakespeare’s parents might have wanted to baptize him then. The 25th is also a holy day, but it’s St. Mark’s Day: a date on the liturgical calendar known as “Black Crosses” and linked to all manner of morbid superstitions. According to folklore, Black Crosses marked the day when the spectral images of those who were to die during the coming year could be seen already haunting the churchyard in which they were soon to lie. This seems a strange superstition to associate with St. Mark the Evangelist, whose symbol was the mighty lion of Christ, but as a devotee of Game of Thrones, I am inclined to agree with Shakespeare’s parents that dragons are preferable to lions, and find their choice perfectly understandable.

Right, back to the (Julian) calendar. April 23rd fell on a Sunday in 1564. This would render a birthday before Friday the 21st unlikely, as he would have otherwise been baptized that following Sunday, the 23rd. It is worth pausing here to remark that an upper-middle-class woman like Mary Arden would not have seen fit to drag herself from childbed immediately after pushing a live human being from a very small bodily orifice. Therefore, unless the baby was in imminent danger, one can assume that there would be a period of at least a day or two between birth and baptism. That gives us a window of roughly April 21st through April 24th, which makes April 23rd a not unreasonable guess.

Ah, but wait! There are other documents to provide further illumination to this murky mystery and narrow down the date of nativity still further. According to the Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare died “Æetatis 53” or “in the 53rd year of his age.” Those who have shaper mathematical eyes than my own will have already noticed a potential discrepancy, as for Shakespeare to have been born in 1564 and died in 1616, Shakespeare could only have been 52 years old. However, in accordance with the reckoning of the time, one would be in one’s 53rd year as soon has one had celebrated one’s 52nd birthday. Specifically and crucially to our exercise, Shakespeare would have already turned 52 in order to be listed in the Parish Register as being in his 53rd year of life. That means we can rule out April 24th, as with that birthday he could not have started his 53rd year of life, having died on the 23rd.

Yes, but if Shakespeare was born on the 23rd, wouldn’t you think that maybe, just maybe someone might have remarked upon this when he died? There are no surviving contemporary documents regarding Shakespeare’s death, besides his will and burial record. In the years following, Shakespeare’s colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell published the First Folio to commemorate the works of their fallen friend, gone too soon from this world. The compilation features not one but two introductory notes by Heminges and Condell, detailing the circumstances of the publication. It further includes a small collection of elegiac poems by Ben Jonson, Leonard Digges, Hugh Holland, and other contemporary writers. Jonson waxes particularly eloquent, calling his departed friend “Sweet Swan of Avon” and asserting that Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time.” Given these copious lamentations, surely someone would have remarked upon the cruel irony of Shakespeare dying on his birthday, would they not? Lacking any reference to a birthday-deathday, can we safely rule out the 23rd as well?

Alas, we cannot. When it comes to cases, all this forensic analysis of dates and records is pure frivolous conjecture as it presupposes that Shakespeare or his parents even knew or remembered his actual date of birth. Shakespeare certainly wasn’t born the celebrated Bard of Avon, after all. He was the third child of a Snitterfield glover who was probably expected to grow up to be a glover himself. There was simply no reason to mark his date of birth, particularly at a time when one’s baptismal day was arguably more important. In the intervening years, who’s to say that his parents could remember anything beyond the fact that their son was born just before St. George’s Day.

And let’s be clear; when we discuss the Shakespeares, we are not discussing a family who has left us a record of precision. Indeed, it seems they couldn’t even agree on how to spell “Shakespeare” with any consistency. On legal documents, it’s listed variously as Shakespere, Shakspere, Shaksper, Shaxpere, and even Shagspere, which, frankly sounds like William’s adult film alias. (Coming soon: My Second Best Bed, starring Billy Shagspere and Anne Knickers-away.) With a disregard for the such minutia as consistently spelling their surname, it should come as no surprise that a little thing like William Shakespeare’s birthday might very well have been forgotten.

And so we arrive back where we started: mired in uncertainty. But let that be no deterrent. Shakespeare was born, graced us with some of the finest verse ever composed in the English language, and died. Whether or not he did so on his birthday is irrelevant to the enjoyment of that which he left behind.

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About Marginalia

Reader of books, writer of fiction, drinker of coffee. View all posts by Marginalia

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