William Shakespeare turns 451 on 23rd of April 2015. His birthday is celebrated in thousands of places around the world every year. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, along with the other major English Shakespeare institutions like the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will of course be celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday.
Strange to think of the big birthday celebrations that we honour Shakespeare with, considering that birthdays weren’t celebrated during his time. In the Elizabethan era many people didn’t even know the date of their birth and, indeed, we don’t actually know Shakespeare’s birth date. We make an inference from the date of his baptism, which was recorded in the parish register. There is no record of the date on which he was born.
Perhaps the aristocracy marked their birthdays back then, but there is very little of that recorded. I have unearthed one mention of an Elizabethan birthday party, however – that of thirteen year old Mall Sidney.
Mall grew up to become the famous writer, Lady Mary Wroth, Countess of Pembroke. She was the daughter of Robert Sidney, the brother of the illustrious poet and soldier, Sir Phillip Sidney. They were a very high ranking family. Lady Mary was the first English woman author to write a sustained work of prose fiction. Like Shakespeare she also wrote a sonnet cycle. The American biographer, Margaret Hannay, produced a biography of Mall in 2010: Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth. She reports: ‘On 18 October 1600 Whyte came to Penshurst, no doubt along with other guests, to celebrate Mall’s thirteenth birthday.’ (p. 77) Unfortunately, Margaret Hannay doesn’t describe the party so we still don’t know how even those who did mark birthdays celebrated them.
There is no indication that even monarchs celebrated their birthdays. Everyone had a saint associated with their birth dates, though, and sometimes they would pay their respects to their saints on their birthday.
Perhaps the best confirmation of the lack of birthday celebrations is the fact that we don’t find much mention of them in Shakespeare’s works. There are references to a birthday only twice in his plays, although not in any way that indicates the kind of attitude that we have to birthdays today. For example, in Julius Caesar, a few moments before Cassius and Brutus engage in battle with Antony and Octavius Caesar, Cassius, feeling his imminent death upon him, says, ‘this is my birthday; as this very day was Cassius born.’ There is no more about it, just that wistful statement, that comes out of the blue.
In Antony and Cleopatra, though, we see Cleopatra grasping the opportunity for an unexpected celebration on her birthday. Antony has just had Caesar’s messenger whipped. He’s in a foul mood but somehow gets a new wind and calls for the servants to fill the bowls for some late night drinking. Cleopatra who has been feeling lonely and rejected is delighted with this change in mood. She says: ‘It is my birthday. I had thought to have held it poor,’ meaning that she had not expected anything for her birthday. But now she has something – not her birthday, though – to celebrate: Antony’s change of mood. ‘Since my lord is Antony again,’ she says, I will be Cleopatra.’
It’s doubtful whether Shakespeare gave a second thought to his own birthday, even if he knew what date it was. But we can imagine, on that day, John and Mary Shakespeare gazing down on the new member of their family, eyes tight shut, sleeping peacefully in the cradle at the foot of their bed. How could they know that the tiny creature they had just produced was going to be one of the greatest writers who had ever lived and was not to be outdone for at least four hundred and fifty years? It’s a sublime thought, isn’t it?