For Shakespeare scholars, Shakespeare’s actual birthdate is still a bit of a mystery. To paraphrase King Lear’s famous lament, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools — especially when they forget to record the date of your actual birth.” Coincidentally, his birth is tied to a deadly pandemic, very similar to what we are experiencing now with coronavirus.
So when was Shakespeare born? The short answer is — no one really knows. Shakespearean scholars and biographers have simply settled on a date, a best guess, on which to honor the world’s most famous and gifted poet and playwright: April 23, 1564. What is known for certain is when he was baptized — April 26, 1564 — and when he died — April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. For all we know, Shakespeare’s birthday jumped around the calendar, much like modern-day Easter, frustrating poor little Will: “When do I get to blow out my birthday candles this year, Mum?”
So why did biographers settle on April 23? Bill Bryson, drawing on the work of many respected Shakespearean biographers explains: “Much ingenuity has been expended on deducing from one or two certainties and some slender probabilities on the date on which he came into the world. By tradition, it is agreed to be 23 April, St. George’s Day. This is the national day of England, and coincidentally also the date on which Shakespeare died 52 years later, giving it a certain irresistible symmetry.”
Similar to the coronavirus pandemic of the present day, Shakespeare was also born during a frightening, deadly pandemic. The bubonic plague (known as the Black Death) was sweeping through Europe. The Black Death was painful and lethal: people who were infected suffered headaches, vomiting, fever, delirium, coughing up blood, and painful enlarged lymph nodes (known as buboes). The mortality rate was 50%; and 65% for infants. Thus, given the high rates of mortality during the 16th century (about 20% of the entire population), it was customary to baptise an infant soon after birth — but exactly how many days later is simply conjecture. As S. Schoenbaum notes in his landmark biography, Shakespeare’s Lives, “It would be frequently be assumed that [Shakespeare] was born on the 23rd on the unwarranted assumption that baptism customarily took place three days after birth. The Prayer Book of 1559 merely prescribed baptism not later than the next Sunday or other holy day following birth. In 1564, 23 April fell on Sunday; if Shakespeare was born then, he should have been baptized by the 25th, St. Mark’s Day.” Bryson adds: “Some people thought St. Mark’s Day was unlucky and so, it is argued — perhaps just a touch hopefully — that the christening was postponed an additional day, to 26 April.”
Understanding the impact of the bubonic plague when William Shakespeare was born leads to the realization of one of the most remarkable strokes of good fortune in the world of literature — it was a miracle that Shakespeare escaped the lethal clutches of the bubonic plague. Realize that just a few houses over, a neighbor of the Shakespeares lost four children to the plague that year. Bryson summarizes it this way: “In a sense William Shakespeare ‘s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving his first year.” Evidently, where there’s a Will, there’s a way…
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For further reading: Shakespeare’s Lives by S. Schoenbaum
Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition by Bill Bryson
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro