Sadly, I get to spend the day not in celebratory reading of the plays (or viewing the new Hamlet with Dr. Who and Captain Picard —oops, excuse me: David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart; and that really was just a joke — Patrick Stewart is reprising the role of Claudius [this time in combination with The Ghost], which I first saw him perform in the BBC series of all Shakespeare back about 1982, starring Sir Derek Jacobi [who played Claudius to Kenneth Branaghʼs Hamlet in the Branagh film] as the melancholy Dane — one of my favorite versions of the play, as Advanced English students from then until the turn of the millennium must have realized from being forced to watch it).
I need to get ready to be a trainer of enumerators for the Census next week, so I will be hard at work (and no, that is not prettying up “hardly working”) checking boxes of supplies, typing up class schedules, calling trainees and practicing my verbatim instruction. Yesterday and today. And probably some of Saturday as well. Itʼs going to take all of my forty allowed hours to even get close to feeling ready to attempt this (and I have to practice fingerprinting as well). But back to the Bard. Even if the guy from Stratford-upon-Avon really did write his plays (and he did — hmmm, more on the Authorship Controversies could give me any number of ranting posts for the future, without even having to summon the spectres of Push Limburger or Grotesque Beck or the Bimbo from the not-Yukon… but I wander from my subject, again)… Even if the glovemakerʼs kid from Stratford wrote his plays, as he certainly did, regardless how little manuscript “evidence” remains for us to enjoy (and there is none, by the way, to the endless greedy glee of the anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theorists), he may not have been born on April 23 — probably wasnʼt, in fact.
If you were unaware, the first document extant on young William Shakespeare’s life is the record of his christening at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, an event which occurred on April 26, 1564. Today it might not seem odd for a family to wait three days before baptizing their child; indeed, most people wait longer nowadays. But in Shakespeare’s day the infant mortality rate ran better than 20%, and as Stratford records show within a year of little Will’s apparent birth, Plague ran rampant in those Early Modern years, killing in a small town like Stratford hundreds in just a few months. Furthermore, unlike me, people in those days were religious and took their religion Very Seriously: killing those who disagreed with their accepted belief (as clearly a few excessively Faithful appear willing to do today, not even counting radical fundamentalist Muslims). An unbaptized child, those Renaissance folk believed, went straight to hell, or at best Limbo (sorry, not a Rush order) — neither a very pleasing prospect. So it is not likely that John and Mary Shakespeare would have waited three days to baptize their new baby boy — destined to become their oldest surviving son.
Various arguments have tried to buttress the sanctity of April 23, 1564, as Shakespeareʼs Birthday, but theyʼre all holey. Here are some such trite treatises. Some scholars argue that an intervening holy day would have delayed the christening, but other scholars disagree wholeheartedly. The tradition that the world’s greatest writer/poet/playwright was born on the 23rd goes back to the eighteenth century and has become honored by tradition because April 23 is also St. Georgeʼs Day, celebrating Englandʼs patron saint. The coincidence with Englandʼs most-everything author has been too rich to resist. Besides, the man died on the very same date 52 years later! (Itʼs all so coincidental, there has to be a conspiracy, right?)
Even anti-Stratfordian paranoids on this day generally think more about the Bard of Avon (even if they think he was Edward de Vere or the Earl of Derby or the untimely dead Christopher Marlowe or Queen Elizabeth herself [ha!] or Sir Francis Bacon [who, genius that he was, couldnʼt have begun to imagine the emotional depth of the Shakespeare plays for himself — sorry kiddos] or…) than the rest of the year, much as that fact may frustrate every conniving one of them. Perhaps they should take some cold comfort in the realization that the “Stratford Butcherʼs Boy” or whatever other colorful putdown one of them tries to adopt for the genuine genius of the English language probably wasnʼt or may not have been born on this day (but at least he was alive right through the heyday of his playsʼ appearance and first publications).
Personally, I still think what I first figured out for myself back in high school, hearing about all this upheaval over the Authorship: the conspiracy-ists are snobs. They donʼt want the Universal Artist to be a slightly educated kid from a small town in what they perceive as the middle of nowhere; thatʼs why all their alternatives are noble (or royal) or otherwise already famous and very well educated (even poor, sad, dead Marlowe indubitably went to University). Anti-Stratfordian snobbism is also a lesson I tried to impart suggestively to those hundreds of latent geniuses taking my classes at Andrew High School for the past thirty-five years — “Psst, donʼt let the Establishment keep you down” (sad to say, we reside in our own small towns in the midst of erehwon).
No matter what, todayʼs the day that thousands descend on the modern tourist trap in Oxfordshire (Stratford-upon-Avon) — and quite a lovely little community it is, with its preserved Elizabethan/Jacobean structures, including Shakespeareʼs fatherʼs house, where the puling infant presumably first drew squawling breath — to celebrate the glamour of language in the hands of astonishing and bold brilliance. And perhaps billions around the globe stop to wonder at the Wonder of the Globe (Theater, that is… and The Rose and The Swan and…).
Raise one up for, Will, folks!
So very few bother to read his plays and poems or attend performances of his work.
And with that, I had better get back to government document D-553. (Oh, the “joys” of the written word!)
Best wishes, by the way, to my friend Jack Jones, who was born today, and to Bing and Betty Norton (parents-in-law) who were married on this date!