William Shakespeare was born today in 1564... maybe. Here's the truth: we know he died on April 23, 1616 and we know he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Those facts are enough for most of Shakespeare's biographers, who have decided that his birth and death on the same day of the year is, as Han Solo once said of Luke's being born and dying (or about to die) on Tatooine, "convenient." So April 23rd is the day that bookends Shakespeare's life; he died on (or near) his 52nd birthday.
My love affair with William Shakespeare began in 1991. My brother was a senior in high school, reading Hamlet in his English class. I was a precocious eighth grader eager to emulate my brother, who was four years older but infinitely cooler than I was. On a trip to the Oregon coast, my family stopped at our favorite book store (a glorified flea market), where I bought my first volume of Shakespeare: a worn red copy of Hamlet that looked really, really old. It is from a Scottish publisher -- Blackie & Son, Ltd. in Glasgow -- with no copyright date.
I was, therefore, free to imagine it was printed in the 1800s in a far away land and had an adventurous past before washing up at a dingy used book shop near Lincoln City. Of course, I didn't know what any of the words meant, but that didn't stop me turning through the pages until (on page 53) I found and underlined every word of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
I would memorize the speech two years later, and to this day I can call it up and perform it on command. It's a good party trick.
And that's the thing about Shakespeare... to know his plays -- to read them, watch them performed, and grow familiar with them -- is like eating a fresh tomato. It's both really good for you and an incredible pleasure: your teeth burst through the skin, you taste the sweet inside, the juice dribbles down your chin.
When you know enough Shakespeare to understand the plays, get the jokes, even learn the vocabulary (fardels, seriously?), you feel sophisticated -- it's good for you, like the tomato -- but you also find a deep enjoyment in losing yourself in the language, humor and wit of a man whose stories are so familiar they resonate 449 years after his birth.
So happy birthday, Will, or close to it. "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."