Celebrating Birthdays in Elizabethan England

On April 23, it will be the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and will be celebrated all over the world! The question I had when I found out was the following: How would Shakespeare have celebrated his birthday when he was alive? Turns out most people didn’t celebrate their birthday in Shakespeare’s day, especially the poor, and there’s no indication that even monarchs celebrated their birthdays. There are very few records of birthdays being celebrated. Everyone had a saint associated with their birthday, and sometimes people would pay respects to that saint on their birthday.

When I researched birthdays in Elizabethan England, I found one mention of an Elizabethan birthday party, that of thirteen-year-old Mall Sidney, who, when she grew up, became a famous writer known as Lady Mary Wroth, Duchess of Pembroke. Lady Mary was the first woman to write a sustained work of prose fiction that came from a high-ranking family. There are records of her birthday being celebrated, however, no one knows for sure how Birthdays were celebrated in Elizabethan England.

In Shakespeare’s work, there are very few mentions of birthdays. Anthony and Cleopatra casually mentions that fact that it’s Cleopatra’s birthday, and they celebrate with a night of drinking, despite Cleopatra’s assumption that she’d be holding her birthday poor, meaning that she doesn’t expect anything at all. In Julius Caesar, there’s a casual reference to it being Cassius’ birthday shortly before he dies, although this is mentioned out of the blue.

What I never expected was how contemporary the popular beliefs regarding birthdays are. Since there is no clear answer in terms of how birthdays were celebrated in Shakespeare’s day, no one really knows how to celebrate theirs in a genuinely Shakespearean style!

How do you plan to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth? Feel free to share your way of celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in the comment section!

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