The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.1005 Wednesday, 16 November 2006
Date: Wednesday, 15 Nov 2006 15:45:35 -0000
Subject: Shakespeare's Birthday
Arising from a discussion I have been involved in recently, I have been
taking another look at just what we know about Shakespeare's birth, and
thought that some SHAKSPEReans might find the result of some interest.
Michael Wood (p. 30) reproduces part of the Bishop's Transcript page
containing William's baptism. Including that entry, there are six of
them in all.
And here is what the newly published (1559) Book of Common Prayer (of
which the vicar John Bretchgirdle undoubtedly had a copy) said about the
timing of baptisms:
"Wherfore the people are to be admonished, that it is most convenient
that Baptisme should not be ministred but upon Sondayes, and other
holy dayes, when the most nombre of people may come together..."
On such a day, this is what you were supposed to do:
"When there are children to be baptized upon the Sonday, or holy day,
the parentes shal geve knowledge over nighte, or in the morning, afore
the beginning of Mornyng prayour, to the curate."
It is therefore interesting to note that not one of those Stratford
baptisms was on a Sunday (of which there were five in the period they
cover). One was on a Monday, two (including William's) on a Wednesday,
two on a Thursday, and one on a Saturday, none of which was even a 'holy
day'. It would seem, therefore, that people were actively avoiding times
when "the most number of people" would be there.
A possible reason for this is not hard to find. It must have been known
that bubonic plague was only a couple of days' ride away by then, and
would be bound to reach Stratford before long (as it did in fact on 11
July). As Stephen Greenblatt (p. 93) points out, nearly two thirds of
the babies born that year in Stratford died before their first birthday.
At such times, especially if you had already lost two children in
their infancy as the Shakespeare's had, you would have made sure that
any baby was baptized as soon as possible after its birth.
The Prayer Book also says: "Nevertheles (if necessitie so require)
children may at al tymes be Baptized at home" so I think we can guess
that this was the case with all six of those Stratford baptisms?
As we know, there is no evidence of exactly when Shakespeare was born.
Going from what is said on the monument, however, scholars calculate
that it must have been on 23 April 1564 or earlier, since neither the
24th or the 25th would have allowed him to be described as 'AEtatis 53'
on 23 April 1616. Given the above information, however, it seems more
probable to me that the '53' may well have been a mistake, and that the
birth, followed as soon as possible by the baptism at home on 26 April
1564, would have been on 25 April at the earliest.
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