Anthony and Cleopatra

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!

What if Shakespeare…were a CHEF?

Welcome! Welcome to Shakespies! Home of the best meals on this side of whatever Thames you are closest to! Sit./Sit, sir,/Nay then (1) – you may stand while you eat. Yes, it’s the list (2): it items all we have here. Allow me to explain to you our specials!

Apple pie

We use only goodly apple[s] rotten at the heart. (3) In the cauldron, boil and bake (4) until they are soft as air. (5)

We begin the crust with two grains of wheat hidden in two bushels of chaff. (6) Fret not, this is just a prologue to an egg and butter. (7) We mix in three pound of sugar (8) to give it that extra sweetness. And last, for a garnish, we crack a fusty nut with no kernel. (9) Price: 5 pennies

Beef pie

We provide a great meal of beef and iron and steel (10). Along with our fine beef and assorted metals, we throw in a handful or two of dried peas. (11) Warrant, there’s vinegar and pepper in’t. (12) We finely chop some midnight mushrooms (13) and throw them into the mix. Then we spice up this dish of chastity with rosemary and bay. (14) Price: 1 shilling

A salad for the health-conscious

We begin by sow[ing] lettuce…[and] have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, (15) and mix in olives of endless age. (16) For that exotic taste, we throw in purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries (17). We chop up a large onion to aid those whose breath with sweetmeats tainted are. (18) We dress it with the oil, the balsamum, and aqua-vitae. (19). Price: 16 pennies.
This is just a sampling our sumptuous feast! So come to Shakespies: open from lovers’ food to morrow deep midnight! (20)

1. Anthony and Cleopatra. II.ii
2. Henry VIII. Iv.i
3. Merchant of Venice. I.iii
4. Macbeth. IV.i
5. Antony and Cleopatra. V.ii
6. Merchant of Venice. I.i
7. Henry IV. II.iv
8. Winter’s Tale. Iv.iii
9. Troilus and Cressida. II.i
10. Henry V. III.v
11. Midsummer Night’s Dream. IV.i
12. Twelfth Night. III.iv
13. Tempest V.i
14. Pericles.
15. Othello. I.iii
16. Sonnet 107
17. Midsummer Night’s Dream. III. I
18. Romeo and Juliet. I.iv
19. Comedy of Errors. IV.i
20. Midsummer Night’s Dream. I.i.

Valeo amici!