In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of the “detailed and dazzling” The Private Life of William Shakespeare, explores key moments in the Bard’s life. From asking just when was Shakespeare’s birthday, to his bequest of a “second-best bed,” to his own funerary monument, you can read the complete series here.
When was Shakespeare’s birthday?
Shakespeare made his first entrance into history on 26 April 1564, the day he was christened in the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Most of us want to know the birthdate, not the baptism, but unfortunately our only clue to the birthdate is the baptism. By the middle of the eighteenth century, consensus had begun to form around a 23 April nativity. Later biographers were bent on proving the theory to be true.
In 1848, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips observed that the Tudor astrologer John Dee had four children, two of them baptised three days after birth. “Three days was often the period which elapsed between birth and baptism,” Halliwell-Phillipps declared. Those who came after him called the three-day interval “common practice.” In 1904, Charles Isaac Elton advised that “we should go by the rule in the Prayer-book.” According to the authorized Book of Common Prayer, baptism “should not be ministered but upon Sundays and other holy days.” Since Shakespeare was not baptized on 23 April, which was a Sunday in 1564, it follows that he cannot have been born before 23 April. Elton disposed of the inconvenient fact that the next holy day after 23 April was 25 April, dedicated to St Mark, by suggesting that the christening would have been delayed until 26 April 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, these pieces of “evidence” are not really evidentiary. What John Dee’s family did two times out of four cannot be said to be statistically significant. With a record base constituted almost exclusively of baptisms and few known birthdates to correlate them to, it is impossible to demonstrate larger patterns. Meanwhile, if we reconstitute the calendar for 1564 and return to the Stratford parish register, we find that the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was more honoured in the breach than the observance. Of 48 baptisms in 1564, just nine occurred on Sundays and five on other holy days. In 1561, the infant Mary Beard was taken to the Stratford baptismal font on a supposedly inauspicious 25 April. At least seven additional St Mark’s Day christenings would be performed before the turn of the century.
How is it that the Book of Common Prayer had inspired biographers to abandon common sense? Since they already knew that 23 April was a Sunday in 1564, they should also have known that 26 April was not a Sunday. Nor was 26 April celebrated as a feast day on the English calendar. Authorized restrictions to “Sundays and other holy days” had no bearing on Shakespeare’s baptism.
The prayer book favoured days when “the most number of people may come together.” Holy-day christenings “testify the receiving of them that be newly baptized into the number of Christ’s church,” and “in the baptism of infants every man present may be put in remembrance of his own profession made to God in his baptism.” In other words, sanctioned practice was about the godly community more than the spiritual or physical health of the individual child. We should not be surprised that many families went their own ways. Shakespeare’s parents, for example, had already lost at least one daughter by 1564, if not two, and they may have hastened to christen their son immediately for fear of repeated infant mortality. Equally, however, they may have decided to delay till midweek in order to avoid a Sabbath assembly that, as with any crowd, would have seemed to increase their newborn’s risk of exposure to contagious disease. Or they may have chosen a sacramentally inconsequential Wednesday for no other reason than that they would be busy on Thursday, which was market day in Stratford. Gloves and other leather goods, which the Shakespeares produced, were among the town’s leading market products.
Why were Halliwell-Phillips, Elton, and their followers so eager to drive the evidence to that 23 April birthdate? For two reasons. First, according to his funerary monument, Shakespeare died on 23 April—a marvellous symmetry. Second, 23 April was the feast day of England’s patron saint, St George—a marvellous portent. The eighteenth-century editor and biographer Edmond Malone had deemed it “a happy presage, as it should seem, that his name and reputation should for ever be united with that of England.” Others would conclude that there was a divinity that shaped Shakespeare’s beginnings.
By now, we have all agreed to celebrate his birthday on 23 April. This is probably a necessary convenience. But the only thing we can know from available evidence is that Shakespeare was born on or before 26 April 1564.
Featured image: A booke of Christian prayers … Day, Richard, b. 1552. FSL collection (CC BY-SA 4.0).