All right, dear readers, settle in for a quick history lesson. Got a mug of hot chocolate and a blanket? I’ll wait…
Yes, I did say in my last post that Shakespeare’s 447th birthday is this week. But I didn’t give you a specific day, did I? And that’s because scholars just don’t know when William Shakespeare was really born! It might seem weird to us that things like actual days of birth went unrecorded back then. The information could have been lost (the Elizabethans were notoriously spotty record keepers and were just starting to collect all this data right around the time of the Bard’s birth) or just never registered with the authorities.
In any case, scholars guess that Shakespeare’s birthday was April 23rd. Most babies at that time were baptized very quickly – just a few days after their birth. The Elizabethans celebrated all kinds of Saint’s Days, which were days honouring various saints (as you might have guessed), and babies were usually baptized on the first Saint’s Day after their birth.
We definitely know that Shakespeare was baptized on the 26th because, according to this nifty online resource, the baptismal records of the local Stratford church show the following name on April 26th, 1564:
Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare
That’s Latin for “William, son of John Shakespeare.” The 26th is not a Saint’s Day, but since we know for sure that Shakespeare was baptized on that day, we can count backwards and guess when he was born. Many scholars and historians in the past chose the 23rd of April because Shakespeare also died on that day, 52 years later in 1616. You have to admit, the symmetry is appealing. But really we have no idea what day was Shakespeare’s real birthday. We can only guess. Scholars around the world generally agree on the 23rd, and it is celebrated accordingly.
Whew – are you still with me after all that birthday information? There are plenty of websites where you can read all about the controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s life. There’s also a great, funny and easy-to-read book on the subject by Bill Bryson.
The truth is, as Bryson writes, we just don’t know much about Shakespeare at all. He wrote some of the world’s most famous, memorable, funny, moving, and innovative plays, but he left few marks of his own personality or life upon the world. We hardly know where he lived, what he thought, how he wrote or even how much time he spent with his family. That’s not necessarily unusual, since we don’t know a whole lot about other, similar figures from the same time period – as I mentioned, record keeping was spotty at best and downright nonexistent at worst. But it sure would be nice to know more about the man who gave us Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and all those other wonderful characters, wouldn’t it?
Nevertheless, just because we don’t know the man’s real birthday doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate! So come back on Saturday the 23rd for a special birthday post!