William Shakespeare was born and died on the same day, April 23.

William Shakespeare was born and died on the same day, April 23.

Well, his death date is pretty conclusively documented. The church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford records his death date as April 23rd, 1616. His burial occured 2 days later, on the 25th. This is the easy part.

The birthdate is a little more cloudy. There is no surviving record of Shakespeare’s birth, or for that matter of the birth of virtually everybody else in the era. We rarely know the exact day of birth of anyone in the middle ages and renaissance. There are a few exceptions, mostly of royals. Of the major playwrights and poets, we know of none of their birthdays for certain. The birthdays of Ben Johnson, Thomas Kydd, & Christopher Marlowe alike can only be surmised as around the date of their baptisms, exactly like Shakespeare. This is the important point. Births were not recorded, as the Church was not involved in the delivery. Baptisms were.

Due to the very high rate of infant mortality, the almost universal practice of the day was to christen the child as soon as possible after his or her birth. So, we can only say for certain that they were born not on the date of their baptism, but shortly before it.

So why did the tradition begin that his birthday is April 23? Why not the 22nd or 24th? Here, we enter into realms of speculation. It seems to me that the most likely explanations are the following:

  • April 23 is also the date on which he died. Perhaps the symmetry was irresistible.
  • April 23 is also the feast day of St George, England’s patron saint. Maybe the idea of England’s national poet being born on the festival of England’s national saint was satisfying.
  • Or maybe he really was born on April 23 and anybody who could remember (his wife, daughters, friends, and neighbors) always said it was, so by the time anybody wrote down a biography (almost a century later), the date was remembered, but the authority for that date was not.