Shakespeare’s Schooling

Dr Colin Burrow, senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge, writes about what Shakespeare studied at school, and how he was taught.

How would you like it if school began at 6 am? And how would you feel if when you got there you had to speak Latin all day, even to your friends, and even at break time?

We don’t know for certain where Shakespeare went to school, and we don’t know exactly what he studied there. He probably went to Stratford Grammar School, but its records don’t survive. We do know quite a lot about other Tudor grammar schools, though, and what went on in them. We also know too that these schools were so uniform in what they taught that there was virtually a ‘national curriculum’ in sixteenth-century England.

As a result we can be reasonably sure what Shakespeare did at his school. It’s almost certain that he learnt to read English at what was called a ‘petty’ [little] school, and that then he went on to join in the very small group of boys aged seven to seventeen or so who sat, all ages together, in a single room upstairs in the Guildhall at Stratford-upon-Avon. Girls were not allowed.

…Latin, Latin, and more Latin… What would Shakespeare have done at school? The short answer is ‘Latin, Latin, and more Latin’. The first stage of his education would have been unimaginably dull: he would have had to learn William Lyly’s Latin grammar by heart (that’s why they were called grammar schools). He would also have read some easy works, such as the fables of Aesop in Latin.

When he got older he would have read more difficult Latin texts, including some of the letters of the Roman politician Cicero, and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, which retell most of the classical myths in a witty way. He would have had to write letters to suit imaginary occasions, too.

In the higher forms he had to compose ‘themes’, which were mini-essays on a particular topic such as ‘Why it is good to be virtuous’ or ‘The beauty of night’. He would also have composed Latin poetry. At the very top end of the school he was probably required to compose speeches in the character of mythological figures. One such exercise was to imagine what Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, might have said when she saw her children and grandchildren massacred by the Greeks.

He also might have been asked to make a speech arguing on one side of a particular argument, such as whether it is better to marry or to remain single, or whether day was better than night, or whether it was better to live a long and miserable life or to die soon. The next week he might have had to argue on the opposite side of the same question.

Shakespeare’s education mattered a great deal to him Shakespeare’s education mattered a great deal to him. He wasn’t just forced to do a whole load of rote-learning. He was required to read really great books, and he was also required to use his imagination. He also learnt how to write speeches from a particular point of view, rather than simply expressing his own opinions. In Hamlet there is a long episode when a group of players come in and recite a play on the fall of Troy. In this play Shakespeare imagines the grief of Hecuba, just as he may well have done at school.

Arguing both sides of a question

The skill he learnt in arguing on both sides of a complex question also feeds into some of the most famous moments in his plays. There’s a famous moment in Hamlet when Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be’, and then argues whether it is better to live or die. But what not everyone knows is that if Shakespeare had not had the kind of education which he received at Stratford Grammar School he would never have written this speech, which is a classic example of an argument on either side of a question (Which is better? To live a long and painful life, or to die at once?).

…making theatrical use of the skills he learnt at school… There are lots of other moments when Shakespeare’s early training provides the fabric of his drama: when Antony and Brutus produce contrasting speeches after the death of Julius Caesar, or when Troilus and Hector argue whether the Trojans should keep Helen of Troy or return her to the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare is making theatrical use of the skills in arguing he learnt at school.

Shakespeare’s school was probably not a great deal of fun, and later in life he may well have enjoyed getting his own back on his teachers.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost there is a character called Holofernes, who is described as a ‘pedant’, or school-teacher. He is a comical windbag, who spouts long words, and argues endlessly over fine distinctions.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor there is a scene between a schoolboy called William (perhaps something of a self-portrait) and Sir Hugh Evans, who is testing him on Latin grammar. William is doing the most basic exercise, which is to learn about Latin pronouns (words like ‘he,’ ‘she’, and ‘it’). Evans is Welsh, and since one of the masters at Shakespeare’s school was Welsh people have sometimes thought that Shakespeare was poking fun here at his old teacher. The lesson is overheard by two woman, William’s mother and Mistress Quickly. Neither of the two women know Latin, since grammar schools were always for boys only. Their presence onstage means that you don’t have to know Latin either to get Shakespeare’s jokes, which depend on hearing Latin words as though they are English (though it helps to know that the ‘genitive case’ is the possessive form, and that William gets the answer right):

Evans: What is your genitive case plural, William?
William: Genitive case?
Evans: Aye.
William: Genitive: ‘horum, harum, horum’.
Mistress Quickly: Vengeance of Ginny’s Case; fie on her; never name her, child, if she be a whore

The vital thing to remember in this scene is that for some of Shakespeare’s audience (those who had been to grammar school and had learnt Latin) William’s lesson would be laughably easy, whereas for the uneducated apprentices in the audience the Latin would be gobbledegook in which they would recognise a syllable or two. Mistress Quickly hears what she thinks are naughty words: ‘horum’ sounds like ‘whore’, and ‘case’ was slang for ‘vagina’. She hears the grammar lesson in English, and turns it into a story about a woman called Ginny, who is a whore.

This is a brilliant way of enabling all the members of Shakespeare’s audience to get some fun out his education. The people who know Latin could laugh at Mistress Quickly, and those who know no Latin at all can be delighted by the way she bawdily mistakes what she hears. And the whole joke about ‘whore’ and ‘horum’ is deliciously schoolboyish: it might make you wonder whether Shakespeare spent quite a lot of his time at school swapping jokes and playing language games in the back row.

He was an ordinary Elizabethan schoolboy, and his drama repeatedly drew on what he learnt at school; but he was able to transform what he learnt with a verbal energy that was all his own.

Go to Shakespeare’s School!

Try some of the following exercises. I can’t guarantee they will turn you into Shakespeare overnight, but they will give you some idea of how he learnt to be a dramatist. You don’t have to do them in Latin!

  • Pick a famous person on a famous day (e.g. Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo, or Churchill on the day that Germany surrendered), and write a speech in his character.
  • Find out about a classical myth (perhaps the story of Hecuba), choose one moment in that myth and write a speech for its central character.
  • Write a speech saying that night is better than day. Then write a speech saying that day is better than night. Each speech should be no more than one side of A4.
  • Write a speech saying it is better to marry than to remain single (you can find some arguments for this in the first twelve of Shakespeare’s sonnets). Then write a speech saying that it is better to remain single than to marry.

Dr Colin Burrow gives an insight into the process of researching and writing academic essays.

My essay on ‘Shakespeare’s Schooling’ took me about two and a half hours to write. It did not take long to research since I am writing a longer article on the same subject for a book, so I already knew all the facts in it.

Gathering Your Sources Piecing together what happened in Elizabethan schools is actually very difficult and took me a lot of time (weeks rather than days): you have to combine the few timetables that have come down to us with evidence from the statutes of schools (which usually say something about what pupils should read). There are also some treatises by working schoolmasters which survive from the seventeenth century. These often describe an ideal education, but then the teachers say that actually they are so tired and underpaid that they can can’t manage to give their pupils more than part of the ideal they’re describing. Sometimes I think very little has changed in five hundred years. Because these sources are all so different I had to be careful in reading them: some of them are telling you what people wanted to happen in an ideal world, and some are more likely to give you a sense of what actually happened.

(In case you’re worried, books by schoolmasters from the period make it perfectly obvious that students didn’t talk Latin all the time, although they were supposed to: whenever the master’s back was turned they would speak in English).

Deciding on a Structure I quickly decided on a structure. The opening questions are designed to engage the reader’s attention. The next two paragraphs set out the facts about Shakespeare’s education. The main problem I had here was with the style. I had to describe a lot of things which Shakespeare probably did; but of course we can’t be certain about this. I tried to use different ways of saying that ‘he might have’ or he ‘would have’ done x or y without misleading my readers into thinking that we know he did. I wanted to vary the ways I said this to stop it all being too repetitious.

The Most Interesting Points

The other problem I had was to make sure that all these facts weren’t just boring. That’s why the third paragraph also begins with a question. It’s a good way of waking your readers up.

In these early paragraphs I tried to give examples of features of Shakespeare’s schooling which I knew fed into the plays, such as the exercise of writing a speech in the persona of Hecuba. This would enable me to build on them later on in the essay (although I didn’t say I was going to do this at the time, since I wanted my readers to have a surprise) and to show that Shakespeare’s schooling stayed with him. I always try to hold the most interesting things I have to say until the end of an essay, but I always try to prepare the way for them earlier.

A basic fact about Shakespeare’s schooling is that a lot of people had a very similar education but only one of those people became Shakespeare. That means that although what Shakespeare learnt at school was very important to him, it was not enough on its own to have turned him from the son of a provincial glover into Shakespeare the playwright.

That’s why I ended up with the example from The Merry Wives of Windsor: this passage shows that he did not just passively receive his education. He transformed it in ways which could be both creative and mischievous, and showed that he could learn from it and make fun of it at the same time.

Writing about this particular passage was not easy, because I knew that most people reading what I said about it would not know it and would not know Latin. I had to explain enough to enable them to get the jokes, while not sounding patronising. I think Shakespeare had a similar problem in writing the scene: he uses Mistress Quickly partly to reassure his audience that a Latin lesson need not be incomprehensible if you don’t know Latin. She also shows that words, whether in English or Latin, can be endlessly fertile and entertaining.

…the fun and the fertility of Shakespeare’s words…

And it was this sense of the fun and the fertility of Shakespeare’s words that I wanted to leave my readers with, as well as a sense that he was not just an orthodox schoolboy. So that’s why I stopped when I did.