Spring and Shakespeare's birthday are grand excuses for merrymaking.
The Folger Shakespeare Library marked his 419th birthday Saturday, so why not extend the celebration with your own reading or revel? Any time. The play's the thing.
A reading, of course, is easier, and a reminder of why the fascination with Shakespeare's work has lasted this long. Gather friends to read "Richard III," for instance, and you begin:
Now is the winter of our discontent? Made glorious summer by this sun of York . . .
Or open up "Macbeth" and there is the not-so-good Lady bemoaning: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
Or pick up "Othello" and meet once more one that loved not wisely but too well.
Shakespeare's words are as firmly planted in our memories as his characters. And who, when you think of a revel, comes more quickly to mind than Falstaff? A man whose excesses are such that when he asks Prince Hal the time of day, the prince responds:
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colour'd taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day (Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene II).
Shakespeare has even provided the perfect menu for a Falstaffian revel in the account list found in the sleeping Falstaff's pocket (Henry IV, Part I, Act II, Scene IV.): Item, A capon, 2s.2d. Item, Sauce, 4d. Item, Sack, two gallons, 5s.8d. Item, Anchovies and sack after supper, 2s.6d. Item, Bread, ob.
And if the money spent on sack, a wine that Elizabethans often sweetened with sugar, vastly outweighs that spent on bread, you know that your Falstaffian revel will produce more headaches than poetry.
Instead of sack, you might wash your revel with ale. Shakespeare's father, John, once served as one of Stratford's two ale tasters, checking the quality and setting the price of all ale that was offered for sale.
You could recreate a woods near Athens and serve the fairy food from "A Midsummer Night's Dream":
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, with purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries.
Or you could have a masked ball, as they did in "Much Ado About Nothing," and see how many guests slip into the trap with Beatrice, who mistakes Benedick and tells him he is the Prince's jester--a very dull fool.
You could invite a group to share with you the wedding feast from "The Taming of the Shrew."
Revels involve dancing, and the dances of Shakespeare's time were livelier than the stately promenades of an earlier era. There was the galliard, a jig with cinq pas (five steps) or, as Shakespeare called it, "sink-a-pace."
Queen Elizabeth was skilled at that, as she was in another dance popular at her court, the volta. In the volta, the male lifted his partner off the floor and swung her around. The Spanish ambassador to England expressed great shock at seeing the Virgin Queen sweeping through the air like a pendulum.
When you give a birthday for the Bard, there must be robust revelry.
When you arrange the banquet, do not put out individual forks. They were not in general use until the latter half of the 17th century. Serving forks are all right and and probably necessary for the traditional turkey or goose with sorrel sauce.
So far as the dark part of Shakespeare's past--missing years in his early manhood--when rumor has it he got into trouble poaching game from a nearby estate, you might serve a dish to honor his youthful folly. Perhaps a roast hare, which a 16th-century cookbook recommends stuffing with a forcemeat of grated bread, suet and herbs and spices.
You can also set out wine or distilled liquor (though for the common folk it was mostly ale), but do not offer coffee, tea or chocolate. None were in common use in England until after Shakespeare's death.
In their absence, it was the usual thing to drink beer at breakfast, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Elizabethans have come down to us as merry.