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Happy Birthday, Shakespeare

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

This week we celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday – the exact date is not recorded but is generally believed to be 23 April. Shakespeare also died on 23 April so, either way, it’s a good date to celebrate his life and work.

John Milton, renowned author of Paradise Lost, was just seven years old when Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of 52. Milton’s first published poem was entitled On Shakespeare, and it appeared in the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1632 with the title An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare. (The Cathedral Library has a copy of the Second Folio featuring Milton’s poem.)

The young poet evidently believed Shakespeare to be the greatest of poets – the “great heir of Fame” – and yet also “my Shakespeare”. Milton begins his sonnet with a thought of how we might best honour and remember Shakespeare. A monument of “piled stones” he believes would be a “weak witness” to the greatness of Shakespeare. Instead, Shakespeare’s work is its own “live-long monument” while Shakespeare himself is the “son of memory” – immortalised in our collective memory and passed from generation to generation. Shakespeare’s legacy continues in the hearts of those who read his plays – who encounter him in the “leaves of thy unvalu’d book”.