In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.
But not bad for a man celebrating his 450th birthday.
Don’t worry: You still have time to get Shakespeare a card. His birthday is traditionally observed on April 23, but the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., is getting a head start on the big 4-5-0 this year.
On April 3, Brian Cummings, Professor of English at the University of York, will deliver a free birthday lecture entitled “Shakespeare, Biography, and Anti-Biography.”
Families will want to drop by for the Bard’s birthday bash on Sunday, April 6, from noon to 4:00 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 also 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 23rd 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. I think that’s a later accretion.”
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. “Whether he celebrated his own is another question. When he celebrated it is even more problematic. We are guessing, as we so often do with Shakespeare. We are also being chauvinistic because we have collectively decided that the birthday of ‘the national poet’ coincides with Saint George’s Day, the celebration of a mythological patriotic British saint.”
Stanley Wells, the prolific scholar and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, agrees 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. But Shakespeare wouldn’t have had a cake with candles. And ‘Happy Birthday to You’ had still to be composed,” Wells said.
Which doesn’t mean we can’t sing it with the revelers on April 6.
Next weekend, on Sunday, April 13 at 4 p.m., Stephen H. Grant will be at the Hill Center to discuss his new biography, “Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger.” He’ll be in conversation with John F. Andrews, President of the Shakespeare Guild.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is at 201 East Capitol St. SE. There’s very little street parking available, so take the Metro to Capitol South (Orange and Blue).
Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital is at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Take Metro to Eastern Market (Orange and Blue).
All the events mentioned here are free and open to the public.