Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Birth of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was probably born around this day in 1564. As we only have records of baptisms from that time, not birth certificates, we cannot pinpoint the exact day of his birth.

Since baby Will was baptised in the small Warwickshire town of Stratford upon Avon on April 26th 1564, it's fair to assume he would have been born a few days earlier. Most babies were baptised as soon as possible after birth, long before the mother was allowed to leave her room following her 'confinement'. This traditional 'lying in' period may first have been observed to lessen the chance of infections, but by then was shrouded with religious mystery. If the mother bore a boy, she had to remain in her birthing room, untouched by her husband, for thirty days. If a girl, that was extended to forty. (One could cynically speculate why there was a difference between the sexes.) She would then be 'churched' in a special ceremony, and after that normal life could resume.

Infant mortality rates were very high, so parents preferred not to delay baptism. This was in case the child died before it could be baptised - in which case, the child's soul could not enter heaven unshriven, according to the law of original sin. At a time when belief in God and the afterlife was absolute, such a terrible fate was not to be treated lightly. No mother wished to think of their dead child's soul howling in the wilderness or being condemned forever to Purgatory. On All Souls' Day, November 2nd, prayers were said to free all 'trapped souls', including those who had died before baptism.

So little William would have been wrapped in his swaddling clothes, which were more like a straitjacket combined with a cocoon than today's easy-stretch baby-gro, and carried to the parish church for his baptism. This was Stratford's Holy Trinity Church, where his baptism appears in the register in Latin: Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare.

It was likely to be the midwife who took him there, his father John Shakespeare possibly accompanying her, along with a white linen 'chrisom', a garment used solely for the christening service, and in which the baby would be laid following the anointing of his body and the prayers of his godparents.

April 23rd is also St George's Day, of course. So it makes sense to have combined the special day dedicated to England's patron saint with a day commemorating England's greatest writer. Perhaps the world's greatest writer of all time. Homer aside, that is.

My new novel His Dark Lady is a Tudor novel set in London and at the court of Elizabeth I. Part of the narrative follows Shakespeare as a young actor in London, shortly after the birth of his own first child, Susannah.

2 comments:

  1. 'Churching' was done up to almost the present day. My mum is 72 and she remembers being 'churched' on me, although she couldn't understand why it was abolished after that. If you read the book of Leviticus in the Bible, there's a form of that practise in there too. The idea behind it was to avoid ritual impurity if you were religious minded. If of course you were Christian and truly believed in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ you would understand that such rituals are obsolete in New Testament times as the Saviour's sacrifice would have done away with the need for all that. Babies were often baptized on the same day as their birth in the past. Interesting post Victoria. We owe Shakespeare a lot. My children study Shakespeare at school here in India and I've enjoyed explaining them through 'Macbeth' and 'As You Like It'.

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  2. Fascinating, Maria, thank you so much. I believe in Tudor times it was customary to allow about three days between birth and baptism, which is why we cannot be 100% sure when Shakespeare was born. Though at other times that gap might well have been different, or perhaps non-existent. I imagine, however, that if a child was born poorly and not expected to live, the local priest might well have been summoned to baptise the infant in case death occurred before they could arrange the baptism. Indeed if the unfortunate mother died, and the priest was called to administer last rites, he might have baptised the baby, if living, while there. Interesting to consider how these things worked; where actual ritual was not at work, often it was just common sense.

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Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.