Seated at the organ in the Stratford church, a man performs Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 4 in A minor. His back to the audience, he cannot see the procession leaving the pews to place wreaths on the grave. The only man who remains seated scribbles a note that reads, “having the air of being between a yeast factory and a steam laundry,” then adds in the description “ecclesiastical meander- ing” and underlines it twice.
Before the organist moves to the Choral Song and Fugue, he turns around and squints at the de- parting patrons. Today they remember birth and death, and he as the organist celebrates through music.
The reporter writes down another note: The second piece is “the dullest ever composed.”
Next year the player will return, and he will play something less bright. He will not play something less dull, because he does not believe his performance was dull at all.
Bonfires rage in the center of each village and public displays of celebration explode to honor Elizabeth I’s ascension. Everywhere the royal carriage rides, bells follow. Inside, James I listens to cheers for his predecessor. For the 44th year in a row, the people of England celebrate their previ- ous monarch with a secular jubilee.
The first 12 anniversaries of the Queen’s reign passed without national fanfare. Royal pageantry limped through the streets on occasion, but the invitations to annual parties arrived only with a papal stamp of approval. Even with the Reforma- tion, British holidays derived themselves from the Church’s holy days, at least until the 12th anniversary of Elizabeth I’s ascension, when the guest list was cut down to the Commonwealth. Once church bells rang for a national monarch, revelry in recent history replaced ancient holidays on the British calendar.
On November 5, two weeks before the coun- try celebrates its queen, bonfires and bells also harmonize. Parades pass though the centers of villages, with each patron rolling his or her own beer keg. The people cheer as loud as they will for Elizabeth I in two weeks’ time, if not with the same clarity.
Gunpowder Treason Day arrives in the town square with the official sanction of Parliament, and the social approval of the clergy. Soldiers march the streets with unloaded muskets, cele- brating nine years of separation from Guy Fawkes and his 36 barrels of gunpowder. The plot to shatter society failed, and to celebrate, the House of Lords feasts to the sound of ceremonial cannons.
A bishop preaches the endurance of the Anglican Church against the Catholic menace, and the pews listen to his words. He praises the state, the lords, even the commoners. The commoners cheer outside the church walls, pausing only to change kegs.
Inkpots empty as Latin becomes English and sunlight enters the classroom from the west. Each bench matches a wooden desk, and the desks come from the same tree as the crooked beam across the ceiling. Below the bend in the beam, Will looks at the sun through the grates in the window, and predicts no more than 15 min- utes before the light departs and candles arrive.
In the corner of the room, Headmaster Jenkins watches the sun and knows it will set in ten minutes. From six to five each day, he teaches boys fromtheagesof7to14howtogivelifetoadead language. This process repeats every day, except on weekends and Church holidays. Today is no different, except that it is St. George’s Day. It is also Will’s birthday, but no one minds either way.
While Will copies the motions of his fellow students, each translation revives a society known for power, prestige, and birthday celebrations. In that era of Roman domination, sons received to- gas from fathers, sisters and brothers exchanged jewelry, and even slaves honored their masters with shards of amber. Well-wishes arrived during the birthday feast in verbal exaltations from those in attendance, as well as tender letters from those out of town.
Exotic dancers poured wine throughout the night while a pig roasted on a spit and another bled in the temple. Other partiers placed wine and flowers at sacred altars, and some birthday boys performed dances not to the gods, but to the genius. Viewed as a guiding spirit through a man’s life as well as a medium between the gods and men, Romans treated the genius as integral to a man’s identity, and used birthdays as an oc- casion to honor and worship this being.
Will’s genius may be watching over him in En- gland, but he shows no signs of worshipping his guardian. On his tenth birthday, his arms write without the clang of jewelry, covered by a coarse tunic rather than a silken toga. As the sun sets on Britain, Headmaster Jenkins sets a candle in front of Will to illuminate the past, not for wishes. As this light shines on Will’s translation, more candlesticks join in brightening the classroom against nightfall.
When the evening bells chime to usher the students home, the thought of a birthday does not cross Will’s mind. He walks home over the cobbled roads with a Greek mentality, uncon- cerned with celebrating ten years on Earth. The
only celebration of birth in the ancient Greek culture occurred after death, when relatives and loved ones mourned their lost companions through joy rather than sorrow. But this view is unknown to this Latin-educated Elizabethan. The lack of excitement from the day carries into sleep, from which he will wake up tomorrow to repeat the same routine. In his dreams, he might imagine presents piled high around roast chick- en bathing in mists of wine. More likely, he will dream of nothing.
Groundlings wait for the start of the new play, one penny poorer, the smiles across their faces concealing the rotten tomatoes in their hands. Above, the middle class sits in boxes, having paid twice as much for the right to sit and throw toma- toes rather than stand with the filth below. Some sit on cushions, for three pennies.
Around the playhouse servants serve food and drink to every guest. From the top gallery, Thom- as Platter and his group of Swedish cohorts look down on the platform. Offstage hide the only fac- es without smiles, each crouched in character for the first scene.
The play begins and five actors walk onstage in togas underneath Elizabethan jackets. A spot in the crowd only guarantees sight of the jack- ets, relics of powerful lords bequeathed to greedy serving men; they pawned these beautiful gar- ments to actors for a few pennies.
Tonight’s premiere of Julius Caesar seizes the contemporary fascination with Rome, throwing Latin lingo at the audience ten times before this tragedy of history ends. Halfway through his play, Caesar dies, and Brutus fills his void with speculation and indecision, crying out to no one but the audience over the tension between “the genius and the mortal instruments.” His manic counterpart, Cassius, does not blame his genius for anything, but does forget to thank it when he remembers, “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.”
In lieu of pageantry, Cassius celebrates his birthday on the battlefield. He commands his subordinate to stab him; he’d rather die than face defeat. Fewer than five lines after his death, news of victory reaches Cassius’ body, but he does not hear the turn of fortune. Instead, his blood runs over the blade, a respectful sacrifice and cele-bration to remember his birth and death. Brutus meets death in a similar fashion, shaking hands with the afterlife through the blade of his own sword. He runs on the sword, but again, the hilt is held by another man.
Once the performance ends, the Lord Cham- berlain’s Men walk on stage. Fifteen actors wide, they break out into dance: One wears a jacket, two wear gowns, and all celebrate. In the audi- ence, Thomas Platter and his compatriots ap- plaud their choice of spectacle for the afternoon. With two other plays across the Thames, they are content to have viewed what Platter wrote was an “excellent performance.”
Men gather to celebrate Will’s birthday in a building named after him. A reporter arrives and believes them to be distinguished, but their drinking habits quickly corrode their landed ti- tles. Scribbling down their names, he notices that around their pomp and circumstance, the town of Stratford is as empty as usual.
Inside the building toasts commence before dinner, and continue as men wash down the roast with the wine. One man jumps from his chair at the first opportunity of silence, raises his goblet, and cries, “To the health of the immortal Poet.” Others follow his example and down their liquor to the spirit of poetry and her poets.
Once the lesser dignitaries finish opining, his Lordship, MP, rises from his seat and clears his throat.
“I am glad of the opportunity of appearing here as your representative, and I do declare, you are most ready to pay homage to the foremost genius of our country.”
The crowd cheers and he continues:
“The writings of Shakespeare have contributed in no inconsiderable degree to augment the con- sideration and influence of England.”
They cheer again.
“Even in America they cheer for Shakespeare. In France, they discarded the heresies of Voltaire and admitted his eminence. And do not forget Ireland, for which he joins with the poets of En- gland and Ireland to bring justice to the West.”
The cheers shake the smooth timbered ceiling.
“Remember, the poet Moore still lives among us, and long might his myrtle be gilded with the mild and genial radiance of a protracted sunset.”
Spirits splash over the lips of the drinkers, and the living celebrate their current poet laureate at an event for the great playwright of the past.
At a nearby hotel, a lesser crowd performs the same celebration, with the same display of feel- ing.
“The entertainment is addressed to both phys- ical and mental nature, and begins with the first course: the intellectual salad.”
A plate sits before each woman, filled with lettuce leaves made of tissue paper. One shade of light green reads, “There’s a special shade of providence in the fall of a sparrow.” A blade of imitation grass whispers, “Truth needs no colour—Beauty no pencil.” The bottom of the salad molds to a crumpled, yellowed scrap, with the words “Nature hath formed strange fellows in her time” faded into a crease. One particu- larly loud guest guesses Macbeth for each quote and receives nothing but a frown. For most of the guests, the scraps of paper mix without effort into their knowledge of folios and quartos.
One book rests above each plate on the im- maculate tablecloth. The hardcover is too big for the palm of your hand, but just the right size to slip into a pocketbook, or a back pocket. Gilded pages slip underneath the fingertips of a reader, and golden leaves wrap around the spine to gar- nish The Shakespeare Birthday Book. There is no dedication or inscription in the front cover, other than one that begins midway through a line:
My blessing with thee, And these few precepts in thy memory.
After alternating between title page and blank page, Will watches his own words in profile. His head, bald up to the crown, faces right. A tex- tured tunic wrinkles around his shoulders, and the rest of the picture is unfinished. The next page brings the reader to The New Year, and the start of the birthdays. With each new day, two to three quotations prompt the reader to celebrate. As years pass, the book will fill with names, and each name will be linked in ink to Shakespeare.
While the ladies of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club finish their celebration of Will’s 324th, 366 days await to be filled by birthdays living across the page from quotations.
Will rests in his coffin. His arms are crossed, but his eyes are not closed. His eyes are nowhere, in fact. His flesh has decayed, completely, leav- ing only a skeleton under concrete.
The epitaph reads:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.
At the foot of the grave rocks a crooked wood- en sign: “Here Lies William Shakespeare 1564– 1616.” Wreaths offlowers cover this ephemeral inscription; both will disappear within one year.
A wooden edifice obscures the source of bells chiming at noon. The streets snake around the structure, empty, but a brisk wind hints at the in- coming wave of visitors intent on overwhelming the town. Tacked to the front of the temporary structure, a bulletin announces the festivities for the coming week.
A banquet is the only event on April 23, and will be presided over by Lord Carlisle. The cost to attend is 21 shillings, which entitles one to en- trance and food. In the evening a grand display of fireworks will shoot over town. This is the only free event of the weekend.
On Sunday there are no events.
On Monday 500 singers, 120 instruments, and one conductor will perform Handel’s Messiah. In the evening more music will be performed, accompanied by words from Shakespeare.
Twelfth Night opens on Tuesday for one per-
formance and 5 shillings. Immediately afterward a staging of a new comedy written by Lord Dun- dreary will appear in a new farce. Tickets are, again, 5 shillings.
Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, and Hamlet all squeeze into Wednesday, and music returns on Thursday for a collection of music from the plays of Shakespeare.
The festival will close on Friday, six days after it opens, with a Grand Fancy Dress Ball. Those who cannot afford the 21-shilling surcharge are encouraged to attend the exhibition in the town hall, where portraits of Shakespeare will stare at 19th-century faces.
One week after the festival the wooden theatre will be destroyed, and all productions will return to the permanent Stratford Theatre.
Websites announce local celebrations for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday party. Stratford hopes to attract tourists to balloon its population of 25,505. Each year 4,300,000 people visit, but this year the local government hopes the streets will overflow with pageantry. France celebrates a tercentenary-and-a-half with public forums and discussions. Elsewhere in the world, those with- out an invite to the official party can celebrate by continuing to attend plays.
In a library, The Shakespeare Birthday Book rests filled with names in quill, surrounded in all directions by books printed in presses. Out- side pubs, Saint George’s flag flies, sometimes, but most establishments remain the same. The buildings in Stratford stand, and they are still wood. No one performs the Fugue on this day, because it is dull. Latin is dead, and so is every- one in this piece.
Will does not care how you celebrate. By this time he’s a flower, or maybe even just grass.