April 23 marks the birthday of William Shakespeare. We don’t know if that is the correct date, but it is the most likely possibility.
There is, in fact, much we don’t know about the bard, but there are many amusing things that we can learn about the time in which he lived as found in the library’s database Daily Life through History.
For instance, we know that some of the insults that Englishmen hurled at each other during Shakespeare’s time were “gorbellied [fat-bellied] knave” and “fat chuff” [miser] as well as the more familiar wretch, villain, simpleton and blockhead. The database does not shy away from even cruder insults.
We also know that Shakespeare’s plays would have been staged in theatres or great halls in schools, and mansions or in open-air quadrangles in large inns. A ranting style of acting was prevalent at the time (but not for Shakespeare’s plays) and sometimes actors would laugh at their own jokes.
We learn that the English observed holidays in ways very different from the way that we do. On Black Monday the queen, Elizabeth I, would wash the feet of a pre-selected group of paupers and give them a purse with a penny in it for every year that she had reigned. Hocktide, another interesting holiday, was celebrated on Black Monday and the Tuesday that followed it. On Black Monday men would seize any women that they found on the street, tie them up and release them only after they had paid a ransom to the church. On Tuesday women did the same thing to men.
We know a bit about English Poetry of the period. Sonnets were the preferred mode of love poems. Poetic meter was termed “numbers” by Shakespeare. Some of the more venerated poems were composed of complex meter structure.
Headgear was a very popular form of personal expression in England in the 16th century. Anyone over the age of seven was required by law to wear a hat. A hat called a biggin was worn to bed.
The women of Shakespeare’s time liked to wear bodkins which were clusters of gems or pearls placed in the hair on long pins. The most popular sort of jewelry was rings worn by both men and women. Usually the rings had an inscription carved inside. A fashionable type of ring was the gimmal, that is, a ring that was actually two interlocking rings worn as one. Another fashion for women and some men of the time was to use white lead or borax powder to lighten the skin on their face. They would then redden their cheeks with ochre or mercury sulfide. However, Shakespeare disdained the practice of wearing cosmetics in at least one of his plays calling it “painting” and citing it as evidence of deceit.
So drink a toast to one of the most admired authors of all time and consider the fact that although the way of life was much different than our own the people that he wrote about and the feelings that they expressed are not very different at all.