The Future of History

Monday, 23 April 2012

Happy Birthday, Will!

It's William Shakespeare's birthday.  Happy Birthday, Will!

Of course, there is an argument that we don't really know precisely when Will Shakespeare was born.  The register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, reveals that Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere was baptised on 26 April 1564.  William son of John Shakespeare could have been born anything up to a week before his baptism - although it was customary to baptise a newborn child within three days of the birth.  And so 23 April is essentially an educated guess.

At the same time, we know that Will Shakespeare died on 23 April.  This information is given on his funerary monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.  He was buried on 25 April, his gravestone giving no name or dates, only the infamous four-line "curse".  But the funerary monument - which was installed within a few years of his death - is specific.  He died on 23 April 1616 at the age of 53.

This still doesn't answer the question of when, exactly, was he born.  He might have died on his fifty-third birthday - or perhaps he was born on 22 April 1564, in which case we invariably celebrate his birthday on the wrong day.  Okay, so 23 April is also the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England, and it therefore makes a certain sense to celebrate the birth of England's national poet on the 23rd.  But still, there is no hard evidence that Will was actually born on 23 April 1564.

Or is there?  If Shakespeare died on his birthday - 23 April 1616 - and in the town where he was born (Stratford-upon-Avon), then he successfully replicated the fate of one of his characters.

The 'lean and hungry' Cassius is the driving force behind the assassination of Caesar in Will's Tragedy of Julius Caesar, the play which opened the new Globe Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames in the summer of 1599.  After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cassius and his fellow conspirators are forced to flee the city of Rome.  Chased by an army led by the followers of Julius Caesar, the conspirators escape to Philippi in Macedonia, where the two sides prepare for battle.

Cassius was born in Philippi.  The climactic battle of the play takes place on his birthday, 'as this very day / Was Cassius born'.  He therefore prepares to die on his birthday, and in the place of his birth:

'This day I breathed first.  Time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end.
My life is run his compass.'

Being chronically short-sighted, Cassius has difficulty keeping track of the battle.  When he believes, wrongly, that his friend has been taken captive, he turns to his slave Pindarus:

'Come hither, sirrah.  In Parthia did I take thee prisoner,
And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,
That whatsoever I did bid thee do
Thou shouldst attempt it.  Come now, keep thine oath.
Now be a freeman, and with his good sword
That ran through Caesar's bowels, search this bosom.
Stand not to answer.  Here, take thou the hilts,
And when my face is covered, as 'tis now,
Guide thou the sword.'

Cassius covers his face, and his slave Pindarus runs him through: 'So I am free, yet would not so have been / Durst I have done my will.'

Like Cassius, then, Will Shakespeare died on his birthday, and in the place where he was born.

Coincidence?  I think not.  And in the book I'm working on - Who Killed William Shakespeare? - I seek to prove that Shakespeare had his own 'slave', Pindarus, who did the dirty deed.  On Shakespeare's birthday.  And in the town where he was born.

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