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!

A 20th century interlude: Happy Bloomsday!

If you are in the Dublin area, or if you are a fan of James Joyce, you might be taking time today to celebrate Bloomsday in your own way. If you are not familiar with Bloomsday, allow me to catch you up.

On Thursday June 16, 1904, soon to be renowned author James Joyce went on his first outing with Nora Barnacle, seen here.

Nora would soon shed her unfortunate surname in favour of Joyce’s. As a present to his darling wife, Joyce set the date of his greatest work, Ulysses, on the day of their first outing, June 16, 1904.

Ulysses is the story of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, and those around him. It follows Mr. Bloom from 8:00am to just after midnight. In great detail, Joyce tracks Bloom’s movements and actions. Today in Dublin, groups of people are recreating Bloom’s journey through their city as part of Bloomsday celebrations.

Ulysses is celebrated for its monumental achievements in style, its depth and breadth, its humour, and for Mr. Leopold Bloom, one of the greatest characters in literature since Hamlet. In fact, Joyce was notably influenced by Shakespeare and there is a bit of Hamlet in both Bloom and Stephen Deadalus, Joyce’s supposed alter-ego.

But of course, I would not be posting this on a Shakespeare blog if there were the only loose Shakespearean connection. Joyce’s reverence of the Bard is clearly laid out through the voice of Stephen Deadalus in Ulysses, in the episode “Scylla and Carybdis”


— You will say those names were already in the chronicles from which he took the stuff of his plays. Why did he take them rather than others? Richard, a whoreson crookback, misbegotten, makes love to a widowed Ann (what’s in a name?), woos and wins her, a whoreson merry widow. Richard the conqueror, third brother, came after William the conquered. The other four acts of that play hang limply from that first. Of all his kings Richard is the only king unshielded by Shakespeare’s reverence, the angel of the world. Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?

— That was Will’s way, John Eglinton defended. We should not now combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel by George Meredith. Que voulez-vous? Moore would say. He puts Bohemia on the seacoast and makes Ulysses quote Aristotle.

— Why? Stephen answered himself. Because the theme of the false or the usurping or the adulterous brother or all three in one is to Shakespeare, what the poor is not, always with him. The note of banishment, banishment from the heart, banishment from home, sounds uninterruptedly from The Two Gentlemen of Verona onward till Prospero breaks his staff, buries it certain fathoms in the earth and drowns his book. It doubles itself in the middle of his life, reflects itself in another, repeats itself, protasis, epitasis, catastasis, catastrophe. It repeats itself again when he is near the grave, when his married daughter Susan, chip of the old block, is accused of adultery. But it was the original sin that darkened his understanding, weakened his will and left in him a strong inclination to evil. The words are those of my lords bishops of Maynooth: an original sin and, like original sin, committed by another in whose sin he too has sinned. It is between the lines of his last written words, it is petrified on his tombstone under which her four bones are not to be laid. Age has not withered it. Beauty and peace have not done it away. It is in infinite variety everywhere in the world he has created, in Much Ado about Nothing, twice in As you like It, in The Tempest, in Hamlet, in Measure for Measure, and in all the other plays which I have not read.

He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage. Judge Eglinton summed up.

— The truth is midway, he affirmed. He is the ghost and the prince. He is all in all.

— He is, Stephen said. The boy of act one is the mature man of act five. All in all. In Cymbeline, in Othello he is bawd and cuckold. He acts and is acted on. Lover of an ideal or a perversion, like José he kills the real Carmen. His unremitting intellect is the hornmad Iago ceaselessly willing that the moor in him shall suffer.

— Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuck Mulligan clucked lewdly. O word of fear!

Dark dome received, reverbed.

— And what a character is Iago! undaunted John Eglinton exclaimed. When all is said Dumas fils (or is it Dumas père?) is right. After God Shakespeare has created most.

— Man delights him not nor woman neither, Stephen said. He returns after a life of absence to that spot of earth where he was born, where he has always been, man and boy, a silent witness and there, his journey of life ended, he plants his mulberrytree in the earth. Then dies. The motion is ended. Gravediggers bury Hamlet pére and Hamlet fils. A king and a prince at last in death, with incidental music.


This whirlwind of words is typical of Joyce, but in it contains his views on Shakespeare: namely that Shakespeare stood above the world and encapsulated within himself, every inch of humanity. That Shakespeare is both Hamlets (the father and the son) suggests Shakespeare’s universality. But what I find most fascinating in this little rant is Joyce’s theory of banishment in Shakespeare – how it is present from the early works (Two Gentlemen) right until The Tempest.

There is a truth in this that we do not often consider. How many of Shakespeare’s characters are banished – whether self-banishment or by others? Perhaps Romeo’s laments are now ringing in your ears as he lies sobbing in the Friar’s cell. Hamlet too is banished by Claudius in Act IV. Malcolm and Donalbain, and Fleance too, are banished (or if they did not flee they would have been killed.) Perdita – banished. Prospero and Miranda – banished. Rosalind and her father – yes. Shylock suffers a spiritual banishment at the hands of the Christians. Coriolanus – deadly banishment. How many of the characters of the history plays are sent into exile? I think you get the idea. Banishment in Shakespeare knows no limit: comedy or tragedy, or history – there is a separation of characters from their homes. But why? Joyce does not quite answer this.

What are your thoughts?

Ulysses is a novel that celebrates home even as Leopold Bloom is estranged from it. Bloomsday is a day to celebrate Dublin if you are there, but home wherever you are. Even in the midst of pondering over banishment in Shakespeare, take this time to celebrate your home – whatever that may be.

Happy Bloomsday to one and all!

Valeo amici


Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

We may never know for sure if today is really Shakespeare’s birthday – but why let that stop us from celebrating?

Delicious-looking Bard-themed cake!*

We here at Shakespeare in Action wish the Bard a very happy 447th! This year we’ve been invited to participate in the Happy Birthday Shakespeare blog project, which is exactly what it sounds like – bloggers all over the world joining together to wish Will a happy one. Click here to find out more about this project and read the other blog posts! It is being run by the great people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

We thought we’d honour the Bard by writing a little bit about why we love his plays, how we first encountered his language, and just what makes him so special to us.

Laboni Islam, Education & Outreach Coordinator:

I met Shakespeare in middle school, where some students put on a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was an acrobatic adaptation – the fairies sprung and flung off trampolines and vaulted over things.

In high school, I did what most students do, tracked the patterns of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet, deconstructed Macbeth’s ambition,  contemplated poor Yorick’s skull – imbued each word, phrase, and passage with such meaning, knowing that a third of my final grade rest on how well I accomplished the task.

Then when I was on the flip side and teaching, we had an annual Shakespeare production.  I worked with some amazing Grade 6, 7, and 8 students on four shows – The Tempest, Macbeth, As You Like It, and Henry IV I & II (abridged, of course – that was an ambitous year).  There were many memorable moments, one of the funniest when, in the final fight, in the final scene, in the final performance of Macbeth, Macbeth’s exhausted sword split in half.  Young Siward, slain and dead upon the ground, was generous enough to toss the stunned Macbeth his sword.  Such fun!

And so it has continued.

I return to Shakespeare’s work time and time again because he was so perceptive – he paid attention to people.  He understood a range of human motivations, actions, and experiences.  He packaged it all into compelling stories and astute metaphors: hope, a lover’s staff; glory, a circle in the water; our life, a mingled yarn; the world, a stage.  He [gave] to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.

Kathleen Keenan, Senior Administrative & Production Intern:

I can’t remember how or when I first encountered Shakespeare, but I know when I first started to really understand Shakespeare: grade 11 English class. We read Macbeth, and thanks to a great teacher I fell in love with this tale of witches, magic, murder and mayhem. (The previous year I had absolutely hated reading Romeo and Juliet.) Part of the reason our class loved this play so much was due to our teacher’s belief that Shakespeare should be read aloud and acted out in the classroom. We filmed our own version of the famous opening scene where Macbeth encounters the witches, and put together the soundtrack, costumes, and set design ourselves. We also spent a lot of time reading scenes from the play aloud and puzzling over what the words meant.

It’s now a few years later, and after several university courses in Shakespeare, a couple of fantastic play-going experiences (from the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival to student theatre at Queen’s University), and even the opportunity to teach a Shakespeare for Kids workshop, I still think the best thing about Shakespeare is how alive and fun his language can be. Shakespearean language is meant to be experienced, whether onstage, in film or just with a group of friends reading aloud.

And now, having seen Shakespeare in Action’s production of Romeo and Juliet more than a few times, I finally get the appeal of that particular play! And so I wish the Bard a very happy birthday – he’s enriched countless lives and given us plays to read, study and perform for many years to come.

Patricia Sarantakos, Creative Environment Intern:

Happy Birthday Shakespeare! Oh how you have touched my life! So, why do I love Shakespeare so much? My love for Shakespeare started in Grade 12, when my class had to read King Lear. At first I dreaded reading Shakespeare because I did not understand what he was trying to say! But my teacher got us excited about reading King Lear and broke every sentence down for us, making it understandable for the class. From that moment on, I began to love Shakespeare. What I love about his work is that it allows you to use your imagination and create your own interpretation of his stories.  You can relate his stories to everyday life, even today. His words are beautiful- if only we could all describe our love for someone the way Shakespeare did!

I now work for a company whose focus is to make Shakespeare more understandable and enjoyable for students. I love seeing kids get excited about Shakespeare!  We’ve laughed and cried with Shakespeare and will continue to dig through his stories for years to come!

Jaclyn Scobie Scoger, Senior Administrative & Production Intern:

It’s one thing to read Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  I first studied Shakespeare in High School for the required plays, but I never truly experienced Shakespeare until I was bringing alive his scripts onstage.  That is when I truly felt the beauty of his words and poetry.  It is like silk to speak those words.  I did not understand the meaning of a seemingly foreign language when reading it in school, and without a connection to reading it and understanding, I did not feel the spark of passion inside myself toward it.

That all changed for me when I first spoke and brought to life the words written in front of me, without a script in hand, but free to be that character.  I owned those words.  And instead of seeming like a foreign language, and forcing myself to interpret and understand, I experienced his lines.  I felt his lines.  And to speak those melodic words…It opened a world to me that I continue to crave and search for opportunities to live again.  It didn’t resonate from reading it, and it didn’t fully resonate with me to hear it performed by others.

All this to say:  There is nothing like experiencing Shakespeare’s works for yourself.  Pick up a play or sonnet and read it out, feel his words, for yourself.  Look into the depth of the lines and what his words mean to you.  It changed my life as an actor.

The Shakespeare in Action team obviously loves Shakespeare; he’s the inspiration behind our company, after all. But what’s great about the Bard is that each of us loves him for a different reason. He means so many things to so many people. Once again, happiest of birthdays, Shakespeare!

* Photo credit here.


By: Kathleen