So, traditionally Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated on April 23. This date is probably not accurate, but let’s face it, it is certainly convenient since he also died on April 23. For Shakespeare to have lived exactly 52 years just seems serendipitous. And it is certainly one less date to memorize. His actual birthday is unknown. Birth certificates were not issued during that time, but the parish register records Shakespeare’s christening on April 26 with a simple entry, “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere,” or William, son of John Shakespeare. He was more than likely born in April, although the idea that children were baptized three days after birth is not precise.
April 23 has anther enticing draw. It is also St. George’s day, the patron saint of England, as well as a major saint in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. Surprisingly, he is also known and respected in many Muslim traditions, a true rarity among religious figures. What better imagery to associate with Shakespeare—England’s national poet, the Bard of Avon, the crosser of traditions, time, and borders—than the venerated saint that also crosses time and cultures? Shakespeare may not have slain a dragon, but he explored and conquered almost every aspect of the human psyche within his plays and poems. Quite a feat for the son of a glover in little Stratford.
Some authors and scholars, like Professor Dennis Kay, propose that there may have been another reason for associating Shakespeare with the 23rd and Saint George. Kay suggests,
If Shakespeare was indeed born on Sunday, April 23, the next feast day would have been St. Mark’s Day on Tuesday the twenty-fifth…St. Mark’s Day was still held to be unlucky, as it had been before the Reformation, when altars and crucifixes used to be draped in black cloth, and when some claimed to see in the churchyard the spirits of those doomed to die that year. (Shakespeare 54)
But what of birthdays in Shakespeare’s time? In early Christian traditions, the idea of celebrating one’s actual day of birth was reviled, due mostly to the extraordinary extravagance and self-indulgence associated with birthdays in pagan Roman traditions. (On a side note, the idea of raucous parties and noisy toys on birthdays is a vestige of pagan tradition born of the belief that evil spirits would visit on the anniversary of birth. The noise and crowds would scare them away.) In place of these celebrations, Christians instead celebrated “name days,” that is, the feast day associated with the saint whose day falls closest to one’s birthday. In fact, in some strict Orthodox traditions, name days are still preferred.
During the English Renaissance, when religious traditions were still in upheaval, thanks mostly due to the in-fighting between Anglican, Puritan, and Catholic powers, many common folk still embraced the idea of the traditional “name day.” For one thing, it certainly made naming one’s child easier as many children were simply named for the saint whose feast day fell closest to their birth. It also made remembering such dates much easier. And hey, celebrations were built in! However, celebrating birthdays or christening days became extremely popular with the noble classes during the Renaissance in England, especially among royalty. In fact, Chaucer makes note of King Cambuskan’s birthday celebration in “The Squire’s Tale” in his famous Canterbury Tales.
Shakespeare, if he celebrated his birth at all, would probably have been more prone to the tradition of the “name day.” Though he was baptized by a Protestant, his mother was from a long line of Roman Catholics, and his older sister, Joan, was baptized in the same parish by a Catholic priest. Again, religion was a constant source of upheaval and danger throughout England for those on all sides. More than likely, Shakespeare wouldn’t have given a hoot for his birthday, especially since he seems to have been a shrewd businessman and would have cared more for his investments in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, as well as Blackfriars Theatre and the Globe.
Yet, Shakespeare fanatics like me truly enjoy celebrating his birthday simply because we love him. We have readings, throw theme parties, have dress parades, bake traditional Renaissance sweets or even modern goodies, anything to celebrate the Bard and his glory. Somehow, I don’t think Shakespeare would mind the hoopla. After all, if any author ever had a sense of humor, it was Shakespeare. His mind invented not only some of the greatest tragedies in the English language, but some of the most riotous and side-aching comedies, not to mention the character of Falstaff, who speaks for himself: “To the latter end of a fray, and the beginning of a feast, / Fits a dull fighter, and a keen guest” (King Henry IV Part 1 4.2.78-79).
Happy 448, Willy!