“Plague, virtually always present somewhere in the city, flared murderously every ten years or so. Those who could afford to left the cities at every outbreak,” writes Bill Bryson in his highly readable book on Shakespeare. “Public performances of all types — in fact all public gatherings except for churchgoing — were also banned within seven miles of London each time the death toll in the city reached forty, and that happened a great deal.”
Four hundred years later, we can relate. Perhaps harder to grasp is that in Shakespeare’s time there were no birthday parties; such rituals were deemed pagan. If only Will’s wife Anne and his buddies had surprised the greatest writer in the English language on his 50th birthday, and a card or a thank-you note had survived, we might know what day Shakespeare was born.
Unfortunately, April 23, three days before he was christened in 1564, is just a good guess.
These trivial matters of authenticity and uncertainty have had no effect on the world’s determination to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. The coronavirus, however, has put a damper on things.
Here in Washington, D.C., the Folger Shakespeare Library, possessor of more copies of the First Folio — the deluxe edition of Shakespeare’s plays prepared by two of his fellow King’s Men seven years after his death — than in the whole of Great Britain, the annual birthday bash for the immortal Bard typically includes a magnificent cake, period music and dance, a Queen Elizabeth impersonator, sword-fighting, costumes and crafts.
Like every other museum, theater and library, the Folger is currently closed. But it closed earlier this year not to “flatten the curve,” but for a two-year renovation project. An off-site Shakespeare birthday celebration had been in the works, but now it has moved entirely online. In partnership with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this year the Folger is presenting Shakespeare’s Birthday at Home.
In the words of Director Michael Witmore: “The Folger Shakespeare Library is adapting to the current pandemic as so many others are doing: by finding community wherever we can and engaging in new ways.”
The schedule for today, Thursday, April 23, on Facebook and YouTube includes: “Why Do Fabulously Creative People Like Shakespeare?” at 11 a.m.; “Home-Schooling at Shakespeare’s Table” at 12:30 p.m.; “In the Collection: Staxpeditions” at 2 p.m.; “Stage Combat in Shakespeare” at 3 p.m.; “Whiteness: A Primer for Understanding Shakespeare” at 3:30 p.m.; and (on Facebook only) a “Macbeth” watch party at 5 p.m.
In addition, the public is invited to post their own scenes, monologues, sonnet readings, selfies, artwork and baked goods (there’s a loaf of bread in the shape of a Shakespeare bust and a birthday cake depicting poor Ophelia going under) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, tagging @folgerlibrary and using the hashtag #ShareYourShakespeare.
Georgetowner readers: Get your Bard on!
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
— Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1
Speaking of Saint George, the patron saint of England, today, April 23, is his feast day. This is one of the reasons that April 23 was picked as Shakespeare’s birthday (another is that he died on April 23, in 1616). So if you can work in some dragon-slaying, even better. And tag @ngadc — the National Gallery of Art owns “Saint George and the Dragon” by Raphael, and 2020 is the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance painter’s death.