The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.1005  Wednesday, 16 November 2006

From: 		Peter Farey <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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.

Peter Farey

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
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