Alas, poor Shakespeare! 402 years ago, on April 23, 1616, the famous English playwright died at the age of 52. But we also celebrate the birth of William Shakespeare on April 23, 1564. Did Shakespeare really die on the exact same calendar date that he was born? Maybe. Here’s why April 23 is the Bard’s birth and death day simultaneously.
Despite Shakespeare popping up in popular science fiction (he fought some aliens on Doctor Who and the Klingons claim he’s one of them in Star Trek), the reason Shakespeare’s death and birthday are conflated sadly has nothing to do with time travel or spaceships. Instead, it’s all about the fact that there just weren’t great records kept back in 1564. In his book Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson writes about the confusing birthday situation like this: “We don’t quite know when he was born…by tradition, it is agreed to be April 23, Saint George’s Day. This is the national day of England, and coincidentally also the date on which Shakespeare died fifty-two years later, giving it a certain irresistible symmetry, but the only fact we have concerning the period of his birth is that he was baptized on April 26.”
Bryson goes on to point out why working backward from April 26 makes a lot of sense. Back in 1564, there was a high mortality rate for births, owing to all sorts of gross plagues and illnesses. Meaning, Christian children were often baptized a lot quicker than they were in later centuries. Still, for the most part, claiming April 23 as Shakespeare’s birthday is mostly a fact of historical convenience. Just because there’s no exact record of his birth (only his baptism) doesn’t mean he wasn’t born on April 23; but without the use of the TARDIS, we can’t be sure he was, either. (April 23 is also the date of “The Impossible Astronaut” in Doctor Who, so, maybe Shakespeare was in that spacesuit?)
Shakespeare’s death is a little easier to pin down, only because, by that time, better records were kept, and there is a lot more documentation as to what happened to his will. Eerily, Shakespeare made a few changes to his will, in late March of 1616. Presumably, this was connected with the fact that his daughter’s husband had been involved in a huge scandal and Shakespeare wanted to cut him out of any inheritance. Six days before Shakespeare died, his brother-in-law also passed away. The causes of old Will’s death are not known, but maybe it was all the stress?
The fact that Shakespeare’s death and birth are celebrated on the same day makes a lot of sense if you’re a hardcore fan of his writing. Endless conspiracy theories exist about how much of the famous plays were written by Shakespeare. In fact, in 2016, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlow, was retroactively given partial writing credit for three plays. The point is, a lot of revisions and anachronisms is just part of loving Shakespeare.
The fact that Shakespeare cribbed a ton of his ideas from other writers and history books is widely accepted in most all good Shakespeare scholarship. But the reason why he’s still celebrated today is probably that the plays hit what we now call a perfect “high/low” combination. As Isaac Asimov wrote in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, “…He wrote for all time, but he also wrote for a specific audience that of Elizabethan men and women. He gave its less educated individuals the horseplay and slapstick they enjoyed, and he gave its more educated individuals a wealth of allusion.” No wonder we still love him today. Shakespeare is dead! Long live Shakespeare!