Throughout 23 April 2014, the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, I imagined his actual birth, picturing in my mind’s eye the room where the event occurred. There would have been a midwife there and perhaps some of Mary Arden Shakespeare’s lady friends who might witness the appearance of his bald dome, the final push, the slap and scream – perhaps punctuated in crescendoing iambs. He would have been immediately swaddled.
Not-necessarily-accurate internet sources claim that an Elizabethan birth room would have been decorated with the finest “hangings” the family possessed, and I don’t doubt this superstitious possibility given I know 21st Century football fans who wear the same totemistic socks every Saturday during a win streak. After all, the chances of an infant surviving until puberty weren’t promising.
For example, here’s a list of John and Mary Arden Shakespeare’s children:
Joan b. 1558 d. 1558.
Margaret b. 1562 d. 1563
William b. 1564 d.1616
Gilbert b. 1566 d. 1612
Joan Shakespeare Hart b. 1569 d. 1646
Richard b. 1564 d. 1613
Edmund b. 1580 d. 1607
William himself (often away from Stratford in London) only fathered three children (two of them twins) and lost his only son at the age of 11.
No wonder they farmed infants off-site to (I would lie to imagine) buxom nursemaids. Don’t want too get too attached to something with the life expectancy of a gerbil.
But Will did make it, made it real big, as Eric Burdon said of Bo Diddley, so in celebration of Sweet William’s nativity (as the ladies supposedly called him). I thought I’d share with you a few rather non-famous but killer quotes from the plays.
- “Chanting faint hymns to a cold, distant moon.” Theseus to Hermia in 1.1 of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, answering her question of what would become of her if she refused the hand of Demetrius, whom her father demands she marries. Updated Urban Dictionary paraphrase: your ass gonna end up in a nunnery.
- “I’ll lug the guts in the neighbor room. Mother, have a good night.” Hamlet to Gertrude in her closet as he disposes of the corpse of Polonious, whom he has slain and who has been lying in a pool of blood for about twenty minutes while the Prince has been royally reaming the Queen. That “have-a-good-night” ranks right up there with “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” A couple of scenes later Hamlet answers King Claudius’s demand to know where the body has been hidden with this: “But indeed, if you find him not within/this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.”
- “Here’s Agamemnon, an honest fellow enough and one /that loves quails; but he has not so much brain as/earwax.” Thersites in a soliloquy commenting on Agamemnon’s lack of intelligence in 5.1 of Troilus and Cressida.. This scene has some utterly delicious insults. Earlier Thersites had informed Patrroclus that word on the street was that he was Achilles’ “masculine whore” and lays this curse on Patroclus:
Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!
Patroculus counters with “[. . . ] you ruinous butt, you whoreson/indistinguishable cur, no.”
But is bested by Thersites with this venomous tirade:
No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s
purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
with such waterflies, diminutives of nature!
O my stars!
So let us praise that mid-wife, that plump wet nurse, Will’s immune system/good luck and/or God for the Bard’s survival, for what a gift to all us that birthday boy was!
Oh, yeah, he also died on the 23rd of April.