Shakespeare’s birthday is traditionally observed on April 23, but the Folger Library in Washington, is getting a head start on the big 4-5-0 this year.
Families will want to drop by for the Bard’s birthday bash on Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. Queen Elizabeth I will cut the cake, and kids can try their hands at quill pen writing, sword fighting and decoding spy messages. Actors, storytellers and musicians will entertain the crowd. Special tours of the library and the garden will be offered.
But all this festivity raises the awkward question of just when really is Shakespeare’s birthday.
Folger Library Head of Reference Georgianna Ziegler acknowledges that scholars don’t know the exact day he was born. “They guesstimate April 23 from the fact that he was baptized on April 26, 1564,” she says. “Christenings were very important, and a time for gift-giving and feasting. But I don’t get the feeling that in Shakespeare’s time, birthdays would have been celebrated with the festivities they are today.”
Gary Taylor, general editor of “The New Oxford Shakespeare,” points out that Ben Jonson — Shakespeare’s contemporary — wrote an “Ode to Sir William Sidney on his Birthday” that includes references to drinking, dancing and singing. “So Shakespeare certainly knew about birthday celebrations,” he says.
Stanley Wells, the prolific scholar and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says that birthdays must have been celebrated “to some degree” during Shakespeare’s time. “In his plays, both Cleopatra and Cassius say it’s their birthday, and the queen’s accession day was the occasion for major celebration and thanksgiving, with compulsory gifts from courtiers,” Wells said. “But Shakespeare wouldn’t have had a cake with candles. And ‘Happy Birthday to You’ had still to be composed.”
Karen Joy Fowler has won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” The $15,000 prize honors the best work of fiction published in the preceding year by an American.
Loosely inspired by the work of Winthrop Kellogg at Indiana University in the early 1930s, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” tells the story of a young woman raised with a chimp as a sibling. Fowler’s sixth novel received laudatory reviews in The Washington Post and other newspapers when it appeared last May.
Her book is, by far, the most popular of this year’s finalists, which include two collections of short stories (Joan Silber’s “Fools” and Valerie Trueblood’s “Search Party”) and two esoteric postmodern novels (Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles” and Percival Everett’s “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell.”)
Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas served as this year’s judges. They considered more than 430 American novels and short story collections, about the same crushing number submitted for the National Book Award for fiction.
With its disturbing portrayal of the abuse that chimps endure, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” also makes a strong argument against using these intelligent animals in academic and medical research. Fowler, 64, worked on the novel for more than a decade, but happily, just days after it was published, the federal government began the process of declaring chimpanzees an endangered species, a move that would prohibit their use in invasive medical testing. Calling itself “America’s largest peer juried prize for fiction,” the PEN/Faulkner Award often raises the profile of relatively unknown authors. Although previous winners have included such luminaries as John Updike and Annie Proulx, the jurors have not been averse to choosing relatively unknown writers.
But it was her most conventional novel, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” that earned her the most widespread attention. It was published in 2004, at a particularly fertile moment for American book clubs, and became a national bestseller.
Fowler and the four finalists will be honored at a ceremony at the Folger Library on May 10. Tickets ($100) can be purchased at the Folger Box Office (202-544-7077) or online at www.folger.