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HAPPY (SORT OF) BIRTHDAY, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

RECORDS INDICATE William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, precisely 450 years ago. Well, not precisely, because of England’s Gregorian Calendar change in the 1700s. In fact, his actual date of birth isn’t recorded, but let’s celebrate anyway.

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William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616. The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. National Portrait Gallery, London.

And why not celebrate calendar reform as well?

If it weren’t for calendar reform—something that took more than 340 years to accomplish, today would be April 13, 2014. Not “again,” as in Phil Connors’ Groundhog Day, but because the Gregorian calendar currently jumps forward 13 days compared to its Julian calendar predecessor.

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Left, Pope Gregory XIII, 1502 – 1585, papacy 1573 – 1585. Right, Gaius Julius Caesar, 100 BC – 44 BC, reigned 49 BC – 44 BC.

Back in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal bull, Inter gravissimas. Such documents, of course in Latin, get named by their first two words. In this case, “Among the serious ….”

The Julian calendar dated back to Julius Caesar. However, what with Easter coming at odd times of year, the pope decided it needed reform. To fix matters, the day after October 4, 1582, wouldn’t be October 5; it would be October 15. Gregory XIII also fooled with Leap Years.

This went down fine, but only in some Catholic places, Spain, Portugal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and much of what is now Italy. Other Catholic countries were—how to say this tactfully?—a little slow. France didn’t change its calendar until December 9, 1582, segued directly to December 20.

Protestants, being protestants, protested.

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Calendar reform is not for the faint of heart: Note the last day of this Swedish February.

General confusion reigned for years, especially in 1712 when Sweden added a unique February 30. Finland kept both Julian and Gregorian calendars in force until 1917. Russia went Gregorian in 1918; Greece in 1923.

Britain (and its portion of the world over which the sun never sets) waited until 1752 to drop the Julian calendar. By then, the Gregorian change kicked things forward 11 days, not 10.

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An Election Entertainment, by English artist William Hogarth, 1697 – 1764.

William Hogarth’s painting An Election Entertainment, c. 1755, shows a Tory campaign banner with the slogan, “Give us our Eleven Days.” (It’s under the right foot of the guy with the walking stick, center foreground.)

Indeed, matters got even worse. George Washington’s birthday is an example. We all know it’s February 22, right? Well, sort of. Officially, in Gregorian terms, it’s February 22, 1732. But calendars of the day recorded his birth as February 11, 1731.

“Give us our Eleven Days” is understandable, but what about the year?

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George Washington, 1732 – 1799. Or was it 1731? Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, Clark Art Institute.

The British Calendar Act of 1750, implemented in 1752, set New Year’s Day on January 1. It had been March 25 (along with spring’s rebirth). All Gregorian dates move forward by 11 days. And, for dates between January 1 and March 25, they advance by one year too.

Wikipedia identifies William Shakespeare being baptized on April 26, 1564. A footnote amplifies on this: “Dates follow the Julian calendar, used in England throughout Shakespeare’s lifespan, but with the start of year adjusted to 1 January.”

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The home of John and Mary Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon. Image from en-wikipedia, uploaded by Kev747.

Assignment for Extra Credit: What did the wall calendar read that day at John and Mary Shakespeare’s place in Stratford-upon-Avon?

As noted, Shakespeare’s actual date of birth is unknown (in either calendar style). Traditionally, it’s taken as Saint George’s Day, April 23, which proved appealing to biographers because Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616.

This may seem to tidy matters up, but life is never that simple.

Happy Day, Will; whatever. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

2 comments on “HAPPY (SORT OF) BIRTHDAY, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

  1. Bert Katz
    April 23, 2019

    So Shakespeare’s birthday corrected for the Gregorian calendar would be April 23, 1564 plus 10 days = May 3, 1564. Right?

    • simanaitissays
      April 23, 2019

      Hi, Bert,
      “And cursed be he that moves my bones….” I wonder if he meant chronologically too?

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