There was a star danced, and under that was I born…
Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing
By Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
Welcome to William Shakespeare’s 459th birthday in 2023.
Did people in Shakespeare’s time celebrate their birthdays with cakes, candles, balloons and parties? The short answer is “no” – balloons wouldn’t be invented until 1824, so they were out of the question. But people didn’t really celebrate birthdays at all: not even Queen Elizabeth I, whose daily custom was to dress with immense amounts of gold and silver bling as well as a heavy coating of lead-infused white makeup.
Queen Elizabeth, aged 31, had been Queen of England for 5 years by the time William Shakespeare was born. Little did she know that this baby would become the preeminent dramatist in the whole of England, inspiring her to grace his company with the title, “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”
We have no idea as to whether Shakespeare’s mother breastfed him in his infancy, since she had some financial means but was not of the nobility. Noblewomen of this time were routinely discouraged from breastfeeding so that they could get pregnant again more quickly and produce more heirs (factoring in the likelihood that some of their offspring would likely die in infancy). Noblewomen would hire wetnurses to breastfeed for them, and their infants would most often live away from home with the wetnurse, returning to live with their biological families at about two years of age. Because of this – and because breast milk was believed to be composed of the four humors whose balance resulted in a person’s character – mothers selected their wetnurses very carefully so as to engage a woman of high moral character to transmit her “affections and qualities through the milke into the child” (Thomas Raynalde).
“The day of your birth leads you to death as well as to life,” cautioned the philosopher Montaigne. This reminder that death is the ultimate end of life has a special resonance for Shakespeare, whose registered birthday is the same as his death day 52 years later. Other notable figures from this time who also managed this synchronicity were medical writer Thomas Browne and statesman Thomas Cromwell. In a very religious period, the alignment of birthdays and death days was felt to have a symmetry that could have been ordained only by God.
Birthdays in Shakespeare’s time were grouped in climacterics. A climacteric was a period of 7 years, and a person who lived for 9 climacterics (reaching the “Grand Climacteric”) was thought to have lived a complete life. Philip Henry wrote of his 63rd birthday, “This Day finisheth my commonly Dying-Year, which I have numbred the Days of, and should now apply my Heart more than ever to Heavenly Wisdom.” In other words, having lived to his Grand Climacteric and therefore been granted his full allotted measure on earth, Henry was happy to redirect his gaze from earth to heaven. While Shakespeare makes few references to birthdays, he does make use of the climacteric and of the number 7 more generally. Olivia in Twelfth Night vows not to allow men into her world for a full climacteric, while Jaques in As You Like It tells us of “the seven ages of man” that trace his passage from the frailty of birth to the frailty of death.
In this period before photography, some nobility had their portraits painted on select birthdays, as did Thomas Whythorne no less than seven times. On visiting the home of the artist who first painted him, Whythorne remarked:
I did see many pictures, as well of those that were much elder than I, as of some such that were of my years, yea, and much younger than I was. The which caused me to think that as some young folks have a pleasure to behold their beauties and favours [and thus] caused their pictures to be made, so those that were older than I… did cause their pictures or counterfeits to be painted from time to time to see how time doth alter them.
A portrait speaks eloquently of mortality, it seems, while simultaneously plucking one’s image away from the injurious grasp of time itself. Happy birthday, William Shakespeare, and everyone who is born on this day! Special shout-out to my beloved niece Tess Kelly, Shakespeare’s birthday companion!
Special Birthday Video from Philippa: https://youtu.be/DzmzEuI53a0