A few years after someone we love has passed, many of us find ourselves wondering which is better: to celebrate their birthday or mark the anniversary of their death?
Luckily with William Shakespeare, we don’t have to decide. With regard to the Bard, April 23 is widely considered to be both his birthday and his deathday.
April is Poetry Month. It’s also the month in which theater groups, English teachers, and Shakespeare geeks around the globe celebrate Shakespeare’s beautiful and magnificent oeuvre. If you plan on honoring Shakespeare, scroll down for some fun and creative ideas.
But really, was Shakespeare's birthday his deathday too?
Shakespeare--arguably the world's Greatest. Writer. Ever--died at 52, on April 23, 1616. Records show that he was baptized on April 26, 1564; at that time babies were usually baptized three days after birth, so Shakespeare’s birthday is traditionally also celebrated on April 23.
Hey, what’s more poetic than dying on your birthday?
While Shakespeare seems to have cared a great deal about the popularity and success of his writing, the publication of his works was apparently not of great interest to him.
It wasn’t until after his death that friends from his acting company, the King’s Men, took on the epic endeavor of collecting almost all of Shakespeare’s plays (he’s widely credited with 37 scripts) into a large printed book called a folio. Thanks to the work of John Heminge and Henry Condell, the world still enjoys the gift of Shakespeare’s words 400 years later. Talk about honoring your friend’s memory!
Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t seek renown through publication, but he clearly believed that his words would lend him, and his subject matter, immortality. He straight up says so in one of his most famous sonnets.
Shakespeare frequently skewered the way his contemporaries wrote love poems; in Sonnet 18 (out of 154 sonnets!) he suggests that using “a summer’s day” is a lame analogy for beauty, since summer days so often disappoint. He suggests that, unlike a summer day, his beloved’s beauty will not fade because, now that he’s written about it, it will live forever.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines* to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this*, and this** gives life to thee.
*the lines of my poem which are going to last forever
Ways you can celebrate Shakespeare’s beautiful life this year:
While circumstances related to COVID-19 mean we can't go out and march in a parade until at least a midsummer's night, there are so many creative ways to honor the life of William Shakespeare. And since you've got time on your hands, we've got ideas!
- Watch a Shakespeare-inspired movie such as: Shakespeare in Love; Ten Things I Hate About You; She’s the Man; Westside Story; Ophelia; or All is True.
- Instagram a picture of yourself enacting a scene or line from Shakespeare and ask your followers to guess what scene it is.
- Watch recorded live performances you missed, such as the spectacular 2019 Public Theater Shakspeare in the Park Production of Much Ado About Nothing which is available now on PBS.
- Follow #shakespeare #shakespearesbirthday #shareyourshakespeare and see what comes your way
- Compare multiple movie versions of the same play or scene and see who’s version you prefer.
- Starting listening to @thehamletpodcast for ten minute episodes that illuminate the play in great and enjoyable detail.
- Pick a speech, sonnet, or passage to memorize (memorizing and reciting poetry is a natural anxiety reliever). Make memorizing easier by finding a rendition of a speech or sonnet you like on Youtube and listening to it over and over again.
- Behold Patrick Stewart @SirPatStew reading One Sonnet a Day on Twitter
- Set up a zoom meeting with other Shakespeare fans and share your #favoriteshakespearemoments with each other.
- Read Saving Hamlet or Nothing Happened by Molly Booth, wonderful YA novels for Shakespeare fans of all ages.
- If you had a Shakespeare teacher who made a difference in your life--reach out and thank them!
- Pick a play you’ve always wanted to understand better and Youtube “Understanding (that play)”. Dig around for unexpected treasures--Crash Course and Thug Notes are fresh takes on the old tales.
So, get out there and--no, wait, don't, unless you can socially distance! Just stay home, get inspired, and watch what light through yonder window breaks.
Erica Cantley is a writer and former high school Shakespeare teacher. Her memoir, Teaching Hamlet as My Father Died, will be published in Spring 2020 by Lisa Hagan Books. For more about her work, visit ericawcantley.com.