Shakespeare Turns 447 at The Folger Library

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

William Shakespeare said that. Well, he wrote it. Maybe.

I think he did, no maybe about it. Otherwise why were we celebrating William Shakespeare’s 447th birthday instead of, say, Oxford’s?

He put “To be or not to be. That is the question” into Hamlet’s mouth, and he spoke them and took three hours answering the question before expiring from a poisoned sword tip. Every young girl from his time forward imagines herself as Juliet, helping Romeo up the balcony, because Romeo described her thusly: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

He wrote:

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

And he was right.

The evidence was on display at the Folger Library’s annual Free Family Party in celebration of William Shakespeare’s Birthday on Capitol Hill. Spring was there. The spirit of youth was in everything. And there were children, lots of them, who I am sure knew his poems.

To many Washingtonians—those who loved the Bard and bards, peonies and poems, madrigals and sword fights, and faint and fair maidens—this great celebration is the first official sign and stamp of spring.

No question, it was spring on Capitol Hill after all that harrumphing about closing down the government and the tea party that has neither tea nor does it party. At this gathering, a rhyme trumps a riot. and children and dogs are princes, princesses and canine royalty.

Hundreds turned out and did things they rarely do every other Sunday. Little boys picked up wooden swords and watched a demonstration of sword-and-broad-sword and other weapons fighting, with two or three members of the gentler sex bashing each other with fury that hell hath not, under the supervision of Brad Weller, who trains and designs medieval combat scenes from Shakespeare’s more warlike plays.

Children –and gleeful adults—stood in a small room and yelled Shakespearean insults at each other.

There was maypole dancing and actors on the Elizabethan stage doing excerpts from “Richard III,” doing their best to explain that he wasn’t such a bad guy. Rosalind appeared on stage from “As You Like It,” the most formidable female character ever put on stage. There was courtly dancing to be sure and much lording it over and bowing and beautiful feathered hats from folks who appear at Renaissance Fairs and look splendidly fair and handsome.

In the Elizabethan garden, open for the first time, you saw a sight to prove Shakespeare right: nearly a baker’s dozen of five or six year old girls, ensconced as if bewitched, watching and listening to the Larksong Renaissance Singers singer Renaissance music, medieval music, madrigals, in Italian, German, French and English, blessed by the presence of mothers and children as much as the music itself.

Everywhere, everyone wore bright garlands and danced. This is the occasion when the Folger airs out its venerable reading room with its century-old books and the scent and dandruff of scholars and the lights and youths come sparkling in to pose with Shakespeare.

I met a dog—a Maltese, miniature poodle mix—named Rosa Luxembourg, the 1920s revolutionary in Germany. Someone played, with dancing delight, an accordion.

Queen Elizabeth (the first) showed up to wave, her hair blazing. They handed out cakes, but not cupcakes, those not having been invented in Georgetown yet.

Spring reigned on Capitol Hill, where in a courtyard at a used bookstore down the street, a woman sang boogie-woogie music, a guy played rickety piano, someone strummed a guitar, and purple blossoms embraced a branch like benign boas.

“Now, every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire.”

Say happy 447 thbirthday, Master Shakespeare. It was a day in April when “the spirit of youth was in everything.”

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Mon, 1 Sep 2014 14:35:42 -0400

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