Working at the American Shakespeare Center, I have had the opportunity to indulge my love both of Shakespeare and of history and to combine them in heretofore unimagined ways. As a historian, I have above all enjoyed placing the works of Shakespeare in a historical context. For me, coming to see the plays in the framework of their own place and time and not just as SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS, floating in a timeless vacuum, was something of a revelation. Above all, it has helped to humanize William Shakespeare, the man. Discovering the ins and outs of early modern theatre – the business, the technical details, the glorious heights and monumental lows – and the comedic and tragic facets of daily life in Elizabethan England, is still an ongoing process in my work, and the findings often overflow into my writing here. In that vein, I thought I would take a look at Elizabethan birthdays, and April 23 in particular, since it carries with it the added weight of also being an important, stand-alone English holiday.
"It is my birthday."
Although not the glut of presents, pointy hats, and party favors that they are today, a birthday would indeed have been a day of note in early modern England. After all, celebrating birthdays was a tradition which went back millennia; in his Histories, Herodotus says that the ancient Persians, presaging countless others down through history, liked to commemorate the occasion by eating “an abundance of dessert.” The tradition of making a cake to commemorate one’s birthday certainly existed in Shakespeare’s day, but there were likely no candles, due to the expense, and definitely no singing “Happy Birthday to You,” a jingle which didn’t appear until the twentieth century. The Elizabethans possessed an ever-growing love for sugar, which they had begun importing in increasing quantities from far off lands in the East and West, and which they incorporated into both their baking and medicine. On the day of his natality, Shakespeare might have enjoyed some Banbury cakes with family or friends, an original recipe for which appeared in the 1615 English cookbook, The English Huswife:
To make a very good Banbury Cake, take four pounds of Currants and wash and pick them very clean, and dry them in a cloth: then take three Eggs, and put away one yelk, and beat them and strain them with the Barm, putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon, and Nutmegs, then take a pint of Cream, and as much mornings Milk, and set it on the fire till the cold be taken awy; then take flowre, and put in good store of cold butter and sugar, then put in your eggs, barm and meal, and work them all together an hour or more; then save a part of the past, & the rest break in pieces, and work in your Currants, which done, mould your Cakes of what quantity you please, and then with that paste which hath not any Currants, cover it very thin, both underneath and aloft. And so bake it according to the bigness.
In addition to utilizing generous portions of sugar, this recipe also makes use of currants, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, all popular ingredients of Shakespeare’s world. If you'd like to make some Banbury cakes in his honor, but all that “baking according to the bigness” sounds a tad daunting, try the friendlier, modern recipe.
If April 23 really was his true day of birth, it is tantalizing to imagine Shakespeare taking special pleasure each year in the St. George’s Day festivities, enjoying the fact that his own birthday was being celebrated by all across the country. After all, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, St. George’s Day was a holiday of tremendous importance, on par with Christmas Day. There would have been music, dancing, and feasting, and men would often wear red roses, while the red cross of St. George’s flag would be flown proudly around the town.
In a compelling bit of symmetry, April 23 is also the day on which Shakespeare died, in 1616. Between these two matching bookends falls a life of soaring accomplishments and particular genius, as well as long, empty stretches of the unknown. So, whether you want to celebrate his life or his death, or anything that fell in between, there are lots of ways you can turn this Saturday, April 23, into a party! UNESCO has since declared April 23 “The Day of the Book,” in honor of the power of the written word throughout history, and especially of Shakespeare. It has also, unofficially, become “Talk Like Shakespeare Day,” so break out your “thees” and “thous,” and raise a glass to William Shakespeare…or to St. George, if you prefer. But don’t let the day slip by unnoticed.
And, while I won’t be around to see it, I like to think – and truly believe – that in another 447 years we will still be celebrating Shakespeare, in all his magnificence and mystery. (Unless, of course, we’ve discovered time travel…or cloned him.) Just look at all he has influenced; look at all there is to learn, and, should you accomplish that, all there is yet to find out. After all, as Ben Jonson declared in that oft repeated phrase from his own dedicatory poem to Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”