In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of “Detailed and Dazzling” The private life of William Shakespeare, explores the key moments in the life of the bard. Whether it’s asking when Shakespeare’s birthday was, his legacy of a “second best bed” or his own grave monument, you can read the full series here.
When was Shakespeare’s birthday?
Shakespeare made his first entry into history on April 26, 1564, the day of his baptism in the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Most of us want to know the date of birth, not the baptism, but unfortunately our only clue to the date of birth is the baptism. By the middle of the 18th century, a consensus had begun to form around a nativity on April 23. Later biographers were determined to prove the theory true.
In 1848, James Orchard Halliwell Phillips observed that Tudor astrologer John Dee had four children, two of whom were baptized three days after birth. “Three days was often the period between birth and baptism,” Halliwell Phillipps said. Those who came after him called the three-day interval “standard practice.” In 1904, Charles Isaac Elton advised that “we should follow the prayer book rule”. According to authorization common prayer book, baptism “should only be administered on Sundays and other holy days.” Since Shakespeare was not baptized on April 23, which was a Sunday in 1564, it follows that he cannot have been born before April 23. Elton disposed of the inconvenient fact that the next holy day after April 23 was April 25, dedicated to St. Mark, by suggesting that the baptism would have been delayed until April 26 because St. Mark’s Day was known. to be unlucky, “prolific in superstitions.” For more than a century now, Elton’s ‘rules’ have been repeated in Shakespeare biographies.
Learned as they appear, however, this “evidence” is not really conclusive. What John Dee’s family did two out of four times cannot be considered statistically significant. With a record base consisting almost exclusively of baptisms and few known birth dates to correlate them, it is impossible to demonstrate broader patterns. In the meantime, if we reconstruct the 1564 calendar and return to the Stratford parish register, we find that the 1559 common prayer book was more honored in the breach than in the observance. Of 48 baptisms in 1564, only nine took place on Sundays and five on other holy days. In 1561, the infant Mary Beard was taken to the baptismal font at Stratford on a supposedly inauspicious 25 April. At least seven more St. Mark’s baptisms would be celebrated before the turn of the century.
How come the common prayer book inspired biographers to abandon common sense? Since they already knew that April 23 was a Sunday in 1564, they should also have known that April 26 was not a Sunday. April 26 was also not celebrated as a feast day on the English calendar. The restrictions allowed on “Sundays and other holy days” had no bearing on Shakespeare’s baptism.
The prayer book favored days when “the greatest number of people can gather together”. Baptisms on holy days “testify to the reception of those newly baptized into the number of the church of Christ”, and “in infant baptism every man present may be brought to remembrance of his own profession made to God at his baptism. In other words, the sanctioned practice concerned the godly community more than the spiritual or physical health of the individual child. We shouldn’t be surprised that many families have gone their own way. Shakespeare’s parents, for example, had already lost at least one daughter by 1564, if not two, and they may have been quick to baptize their son immediately for fear of repeated infant mortality. Likewise, however, they may have decided to delay until the middle of the week to avoid a Sabbath assembly which, as with any crowd, would have seemed to increase their newborn’s risk of exposure to a contagious disease. . Or perhaps they chose a sacramentally inconsequential Wednesday for the sole reason that they would be busy on Thursday, which was market day in Stratford. Gloves and other leather goods, produced by the Shakespeares, were among the main products of the city market.
Why were Halliwell-Phillips, Elton and their supporters so eager to lead the evidence to this April 23 birth date? For two reasons. First, according to his funeral monument, Shakespeare died on April 23, a wonderful symmetry. Second, April 23 was the feast day of England’s patron saint, St George – a wonderful omen. The 18th century publisher and biographer, Edmond Malone, had deemed it “a happy omen, it seems, that his name and reputation should forever be united with those of England.” Others would conclude that there was a deity that shaped Shakespeare’s beginnings.
By now, we’re all set to celebrate his birthday on April 23. It’s probably a necessary convenience. But the only thing we can know from the available evidence is that Shakespeare was born on or before April 26, 1564.
The featured image: A book of Christian prayers … Day, Richard, b. 1552. FSL Collection (CC BY-SA 4.0).