William Shakespeare’s Education

William Shakespeare's Education Page Link Image
Shakespeare Grammar School Classroom Edmund Hort New (1871-1931), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following William Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson observed that the Bard more than excelled as a poet. This despite his having “but small Latin and less Greek.” This brief line appears in Jonson’s introduction to the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. The quote confirms for many that William Shakespeare lacked the formal education expected for a writer of his stature. He did not attend a University, and it is doubtful that he even completed grammar school. Still, this lack of formal learning may actually be what helped to create the writer he was to become.

Latin And The Classics

There is an irony in dismissing Shakespeare’s modest grammar school education. The “small Latin” he learned likely exceeded what many graduate students in classical studies are capable of today. Even without finishing, William Shakespeare’s education was quite sophisticated and deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

William Shakespeare’s Education And The Trivium

At the heart of Shakespeare’s education was the trivium, a system of learning inherited from the ancient Greeks. As such, it formed the foundation of the seven liberal arts studied in the medieval universities. As a grammar school student, young Will’s studies would be focused almost entirely on Latin grammar, classical literature, and rhetoric or public speaking. By contrast, today’s grammar school students often struggle with basic English literacy. Classical literature is devalued and real critical thinking is discouraged.

Image of King Edward VI Grammar School - Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon
King Edward VI Grammar School – Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon Elliott Brown, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Long Days And Strict Discipline

The days were long for children attending the local grammar schools of Shakespeare’s youth. Classes met Mondays through Saturdays and lasted from six in the morning to six at night. There was no summer break. Schools remained open for twelve months of the year. Memorization and strict discipline were the orders of the day. What’s more, beatings for less engaged students were also routine.

Shakespeare’s Teachers

Education in the grammar schools varied greatly depending on the the teachers. Fortunately, the head-masters at the Stratford school of Shakespeare’s day were all successful university men. The salary paid to the head-master at the King’s New School in Stratford was larger than that paid to the head-master at Eaton. Significantly, at least two, and possibly all three of Shakepeare’s instructors were also Catholic.

William Shakespeare’s Education: What Young Will Learned

Aside from the Catholic leanings of his instructors, young Will’s education in general was much better than we might expect. He likely learned to read at a local Petty school through the use of a “horn book.” These devices were small wooden paddles containing the alphabet, vowels, and a copy of the Lord’s prayer.

Image of English Hornbook. London, 1625?
Aabc (English hornbook). London, 1625? Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Grammar School

At about six or seven years of age, the young Shakespeare’s grammar school education began. Immediately in his first year, he would begin his work in Lilly’s Latin Grammar, commonly known as The Accidence. This text and other Latin phrase books like the Sententia Pueriles, and the Confabulationes Pueriles were memorized in their entirety.

Classical readings used to reinforce one’s Latin learning included Æsop’s Fables, the Gesta Romanorum, and the histories of Florus, Cᴂsar, and Livy. Other works included the writings of Ovid, Virgil, the Eclogues of Baptista Mantuanus, Horace, Terence, Seneca, and Cicero.

Image of Stratford grammar school in the 1570's
The Grammar School, Stratford on Avon in the 1570’s Francis S Walker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lessons Left Unfinished

Had Shakespeare been able to complete his schooling, his last two years would have included Greek studies as well as Latin. These would have involved the reading of Greek classics in their original language. Translation of the New Testament into English and Latin was also stressed. Unfortunately, his father’s sudden financial downturn marked the end of William Shakespeare’s education. At thirteen years of age, young Will went to work.

A Glover’s Son

No one knows what Shakespeare did for certain after leaving school, but it seems likely he would have followed a trade related to his father’s work. Since we know John Shakespeare was a glover, young William may have simply worked with him. Other related occupations that may have provided better opportunities given the father’s financial hardships could have included apprenticeships as a tanner or butcher.

What About The Theatre?

Although the theatre companies of Shakespeare’s day did apprentice young boys to play female roles in the all male acting troupes, I think it unlikely in Shakespeare’s case. The hub of theatre activity at the time was 100 miles away in London. Since Shakespeare remained largely in the Stratford area until after his “marriage to Ann Hathaway,” he most probably first tried his hand at something more local. Still, whatever the turn from glover’s son to professional dramatist, we know he eventually found his way to the London stage. For more on Shakespeare’s family and childhood, see William Shakespeare’s Early Yearsor return the William Shakespeare Biographypage.

REFERENCES:

Rolfe, W. J. (William J. (1897). Shakespeare the boy; with sketches of the home and school life, the games and sports, the manners, customs and folk-lore of the time. London : Chatto & Windus. http://archive.org/details/shakespeareboy00rolf
Calmour, A. C. (1894). Fact and Fiction About Shakespeare With Some Account of the Playhouses, Players, and Playwrights of His Period (Stratford-Upon-Avon). George Boyden.
Shakespeare’s School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read in Grade School? (2021, April 11). http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/whatdidshkread.html
Was Shakespeare Catholic? (2021, April 10). https://www.shakespearestudyguide.com/Catholic.html
Shakespeare’s School & Teenage Years. (2011, July 6). No Sweat Shakespeare. https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/life/school-teenage-years/
Jonson, B. (2020, November 16). Ben Jonson: To... William Shakespeare. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/benshake.htm

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