Happy Birthday Shakespeare!
With Shakespeare’s birthday coming up, I got to wondering if Shakespeare and other Elizabethans celebrated birthdays, and if so, did they use birthday cakes covered with lit candles?
Shakespeare’s plays make it clear that they did at least mark birthdays- Cassius in Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra do mention birthdays and several other plays mention cake.
One passage from Troilus and Cressida, (a comedy set in Ancient Greece) is practically a recipe for an Elizabethan cake:
Pandarus. Well, I have told you enough of this: for my part, I'll not meddle nor make no further. He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding. Troilus: Have I not tarried? Pandarus. Ay, the grinding; but you must tarry the bolting. Troilus. Have I not tarried? Pandarus. Ay, the bolting, but you must tarry the leavening. Troilus. Still have I tarried. Pandarus. Ay, to the leavening; but here's yet in the word 'hereafter' the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips.
You might think Shakespeare is being anachronistic, but according to Food and Wine Magazine, the Ancient Greeks invented the practice of putting candles on cake, because Greek cakes were offerings to the Moon goddess Artemis, and the pious worshippers wanted their cakes to shine like the Moon!
There are also stories from Greco-Roman myths about a special honey cake that was so good, it even appeased Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld!
It was the Romans who had the first birthday parties with cake, though their parties were strictly for the aristocracy, not common people. The first children’s birthday cakes with candles came to be in Germany in the 18th century.
So we know birthday cakes were a thing in Shakespeare’s Day, and that he was aware of them. The question is whether Christian Elizabethans chose to continue the practice of birthday cakes, and if common men like Shakespeare partook in them.
Sadly, the research I’ve gathered suggests that common men like Shakespeare probably didn’t eat cakes to celebrate their birthdays, (though, as I have discussed in other posts, Shakespeare might have eaten cakes at Halloween, Christmas, and Twelfth Night).
Although the concept of a birthday cake with frosting and candles wasn’t really a thing in Shakespeare’s Day and not available to people of his social class, we can still celebrate his birthday in plenty of fun and delicious ways! Below is a video from the Utah Shakespeare festival that features a young girl making an Elizabethan cake from The Complete Cook in Shakespeare’s honor, in front of a special guest!
You’ll notice that the recipe doesn’t have leavening agents like baking powder except for yeast, so like Pandarus warns Troilus, an Elizabethan cake requires kneading, more time, and will produce a smaller and less fluffy result, (much like Troilus’ relationship with Cressida, but I will get into that later). I encourage you to try this and other Shakespearean recipes and stay tuned to my blog, YouTube page, etc, for lots of fun posts in honor of Shakespeare’s Birthday!