William Shakespeare would have been 448 today if he hadn’t caught that awful spring cold and died. Every year I celebrate his birthday by ordering a cake from the bakery. Some years I have the baker write, “Happy xxx birthday, Master Shakespeare,” but as this year’s cake is only seven inches in diameter, the birthday greeting will have to be somewhat abbreviated. Here’s a photo of last year’s cake:
When I was gainfully employed, on April 23rd I would summon my coworkers to the conference room where the birthday cake would be displayed in front of a large poster of Shakespeare. Then I would quiz them to ascertain whether any of them had done something even remotely Shakespeare-related for as long as ten consecutive minutes during the past year.
One year a young lady won by saying she’d come in hot and tired from a bicycle ride, seized the nearest book to hand—a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets—and sat down to read her favorites. Another year someone said he’d watched a movie based on Romeo and Juliet, so I awarded the prize to him. The prize was usually a mug or a magnet with Shakespeare’s own mug on it. It need hardly be said that my coworkers looked on me as a lunatic.
But I didn’t care. My husband regards the annual celebration of this particular anniversary with equanimity, mostly because Shakespeare’s birthday cake—yellow with chocolate icing, decorated with roses of yellow frosting—happens to be his own favorite cake. (I should explain that cake is only allowed in our house when someone has a birthday.)
Why is Shakespeare’s birthday important not just to me, but to all of us?
Well, think how much we owe him! Many of the expressions we use in everyday speech come from him. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth/It is to have a thankless child” comes right from Shakespeare (King Lear). And “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” which some mistakenly attribute to Ben Franklin, comes from none other than the Bard. (See Hamlet.)
When one is in the right mood, it is possible to become completely intoxicated by reciting certain speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. Can’t you just imagine a passionate young Marcus Antonius standing in the Forum, toga half-slipping off his shoulders, as he cries,
Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…
Or John of Gaunt’s thrilling speech:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Or think of Prospero the wizard renouncing magic, his life’s work, which many think was a metaphor for Shakespeare’s taking leave of the London stage, his own life’s work:
……..But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
In the spring of 1965 I was a romantic young person, wandering through England all by myself. For as long as I could remember, England had beckoned to me across all of my enthusiasms—the William books by Richmal Crompton when I was a child, the novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte, the poetry of Keats, Shelley, and Rossetti, the lonely and ultimately tragic figure of T. E. Lawrence, and—more recently—the Beatles. So I saved my money and set off across the Atlantic to see “this scepter’d isle,” Perfidious Albion, this blessed plot.
We’d lived in Colonial Singapore in the early 1950s, so my mother wrote to friends who had returned to England and asked them to meet me at Heathrow. They did so, and bore me off to their house in Surrey. Of their children I remembered a tall, serious daughter who was always studying and a younger son, who’d been my playmate. All I could remember of him was very blue eyes in a sunburned face.
On meeting said son for the first time in ten years I took one look and fell like a stone. Of course this mad passion was both unrequited and unspoken, and of course the only person who understood, the only person who was any comfort at all, was William Shakespeare.
Wandering through England I came at last to Stratford-upon-Avon. I visited the Bard’s birthplace, saw a couple of plays, and bought a book of his sonnets at New Place, which had been turned into a museum. I fell upon the tiny book and began reading avidly.
Shakespeare knew exactly how it felt to live all day in the hope of seeing the loved one:
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Head reeling with the realization that Shakespeare knew all about unrequited love, I walked the mile from Stratford to Shottery, pausing at the little footbridge over the stream to wonder if he had stopped at that very spot on his way to visit Anne Hathaway.
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
All that divine, silvery English spring I burned with this infatuation. I even started writing sonnets about the object of it, discovering to my delight that the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet was a hell of a lot easier than that of the Petrarchan sonnet. Those sonnets have been lost in the mists of time, very likely: until I got married my family moved constantly, so quite a number of things were lost.
It’s great to live in a time when Shakespeare (along with Jane Austen) has become more accessible to the masses. A young man about town in the late 1980s told me that “absolutely everyone” was going to see Kenneth Branagh in the film, Henry V. I went to see it too and was enraptured. Growing up with my Anglophile father, who revered English literature as he revered nothing else, I had often watched as Edward bounded around the living room bellowing, “God for Harry, England, and St. Ge-o-rge!”
Another Branagh film, Much Ado About Nothing, was also very well done. I confess to being old-fashioned: I want to see Shakespeare’s plays enacted in the setting in which he wrote them. I don’t like seeing King Lear in modern dress, nor Richard III in Nazi uniforms.
So let’s lift a glass in honor of Will, the man who enriched both our language and our imaginations immeasurably, and think of him as he thought of his love:
Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone are you…