For the first episode of Let’s Talk Shakespeare, we asked “Was Shakespeare Educated?”
This is a really interesting question that we are asked regularly and one that requires pulling on lots of different sources to get an answer. In this episode we discuss how we know that Shakespeare went to school, where he went, what his school day would have been like, and what he learned. We also think about Shakespeare as a continued learner and the evidence of this in his work. Keep you ears open for a reference to Terry Pratchett!
Image: Grammar School and Guild Chapel by William Wells Quatremain 1884
This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Dr Anjna Chouhan, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT
- Dr Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern history at Birmingham University
- Madeleine Cox, Reading Room and Public Services Coordinator at the SBT
Narrator: Jennifer Reid
REID: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid and for the next ten weeks I’ll be posing questions about William Shakespeare and his life and talking to lots of different experts about the answer. So, for our first episode I’m starting right at the beginning of Shakespeare’s life, and I am asking, “Was Shakespeare Educated?”
First up we have Professor Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT, to give us a really good summary of where Shakespeare would have been educated as a child.
WELLS: Shakespeare's education would have started at home. No doubt his mother told him stories, they may have had books around the house, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have done. She probably told him some of the legends, the fairy stories and that sort of thing, some of which are actually mentioned or referred to in his plays. He would then probably have gone to what was known as a petty school, which is probably a domestic arrangement, by which somebody would take in young children to give them the rudiments of their education. These used a hornbook, which you could hold in your hand and it would have on it the alphabet, probably the Lord’s Prayer and numbers and that would form the beginning of an elementary education for a child. We do know that there were people in Stratford who took young, pre-school children into their own homes for a payment and gave them their elementary education.
Stratford had a great grammar school, it’s now the King Edward’s School and, until a couple of years ago it was still only a boys’ school, as it was in Shakespeare’s time. In Shakespeare’s time, of course, education was more or less confined to males except at the very highest levels of society. Young girls could get some education, but not at a grammar school level. Stratford Grammar School had some very good masters, Oxford graduates, we know that, we know the names of some of them. We also know the sort of things that would have been on the curriculum, it would have offered a humanist education, that is to say an education in Latin mostly, the boys would have had to speak Latin as well as to read it, even in the playground they were expected to speak Latin. Shakespeare has a rather charming picture in As You Like It, of the whining schoolboy with his satchel going to school and, no doubt, that’s based on his own experience.
REID: So Shakespeare would have attended the local grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon and although no records or registers from the school at the time survive, we know that young William would have been entitled to a free place at the grammar school because of his father, John Shakespeare’s, position on the town council at the time. But what would the school day have been like? Stanley mentioned a few things there, but next we have Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, who’s the Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT, who can tell us in more detail what a grammar school curriculum would have looked like.
DOLLIMORE: A grammar school education was by our standards both dull and comprehensive. A lot of it was about learning by rote, the boys would have first learnt the simple English letters from a hornbook, learning the vowel-consonant combinations and sounds and then, learning to read with the Lord’s Prayer. You might think that’s a phenomenally difficult thing to do for a first reader, your first reader was probably more along the lines of ‘Rodger Redhat’ than “forgive us our trespasses”, but for Shakespeare it was very familiar. It was only seeing the words represented as written language that he was already very familiar with from the spoken language that he would have heard around him and at church. Following that, Shakespeare would have been introduced to things like Latin, and eventually, later in his schooling, Greek, other things he would have learnt would have been rhetoric, nobody learns rhetoric in school now, but most of us know what it is from the phrase, “rhetorical question”, a question which requires no direct answer but is put into a speech or conversation in order to persuade someone, to make them pause and think. So you can see how his knowledge of say, traditional Roman and Greek stories plus rhetoric, the art of persuasion, primed him to be a pretty good playwright. He would’ve learnt some other stuff while he was at school as well, but that would have been the main bulk of the curriculum.
Another interesting fact actually, which not many people would think was true, I said that their school day was dull and, in many ways, it would’ve been by our standards. There was no sense that education was fun or participatory, you basically learnt things by rote and were tested by either an older boy or the master. However, some schools did do what we would consider now to be drama because that was part of learning Latin, so they would have put on productions of well-known Latin plays. So, it’s possible that Shakespeare did do some drama, as it were, as part of his schooling although I think the focus would’ve been more on speech and language skills than on what we would think of as being acting skills but an interesting idea that he might’ve done that at school.
REID: When I spoke to Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, also here in Stratford, he had an interesting point to make about how this sort of education would have benefitted an aspiring playwright.
DOBSON: The main emphasis in Elizabethan grammar schools is on remembering texts and being able to recombine phrases from them in compositions of your own, and indeed, being able to compose Latin orations in imaginary characters sometimes. I mean something that Elizabethan schoolboys were quite often asked to do would be to write a big speech in Latin imagining you were the dying Cleopatra or some other suffering heroine from Roman mythology. So it’s really ideal training for future playwrights and future boy actors being these eloquent women from the classics.
REID: Stanley mentioned at the beginning that, until just a few years ago, the grammar school in Stratford was not open to female students. So what about the girls? Where were they when all the boys were at school and how were they learning? Back to Elizabeth to tell us more about how girls would have received their education in Shakespeare’s time.
DOLLIMORE: Girls were educated in groups by other local women, so a sort of informal schooling system, but very different. Many girls wouldn’t have learnt penmanship, or writing, which doesn’t mean to say they necessarily couldn’t read. A lot more people could read than write, but because those two skills were taught separately, reading and penmanship (writing), it was quite common for people to be able to read but not write and, of course, being able to read doesn’t leave a historical trace because you can’t tell if somebody 400 years ago could read, but if they could write, then they could make their mark or leave a mark to tell the world. So, many girls could probably read even if not write. Other than that, girls would have been taught practical skills, home skills; embroidery, sewing, animal husbandry, to a degree, depending on their own background and, often, mathematics, it wasn’t uncommon actually for the women to be in charge of the household accounts.
It’s interesting that in that period of history, people began to be able to read because people were encouraged to read the Bible at home. Previously to that, in the Catholic time, people had pretty much thought that the only person who should interpret the Bible was the priest in Church. So, given that freedom to interpret and read the Bible at home, and the Bible becoming published in English instead of Latin meant that many more people were able to read and did read, and that skill became much more common within society.
REID: Liz mentioned there girls learning in the home, but, of course, boys would have learnt there to. We know that Shakespeare lived at home on Henley Street with his parents, Mary and John, and his siblings. So what sort of education would we expect him to have received from his parents there? Dr Tara Hamling is a senior lecturer in Early Modern history at the University of Birmingham and she’s interesting in education in the home at the time when Shakespeare was growing up.
HAMLING: So I think in thinking about Shakespeare’s education, most people have tended to focus on his schooling, that he almost certainly would have gone to Stratford Grammar School, but I’m interested in his education around school, so, for example, home education, the kind of education that Shakespeare, and people like Shakespeare, would have grown up with. There’s an awful lot of contemporary advice aimed at middling householders like John Shakespeare in this time, about how they should govern their families, and part of that involves, obviously, educating their children in good Biblical values, learning the Lord’s Prayer, learning the catechism. So, if John Shakespeare followed this advice, it would have been a very heavily Biblical-inspired education, probably Bible reading and this is something that, as I say, all middling householders were encouraged to do, whether or not people actually did it we don’t know. But John Shakespeare was a fine upstanding citizen of the Stratford community, he would have wanted to be seen to be observing these behaviours, we don’t know exactly his religious orientation. There’s some discussion about whether he remained faithful to the Roman Catholic faith, despite the Reformation and the move to the Protestant faith but, even if he did remain attached to the old religion, in was in his interests to appear as a good, upstanding Protestant member of the community and fine, upstanding members of the Protestant community were supposed to observe this kind of good Biblical governance for their families.
So we can imagine Shakespeare and his siblings sitting around, reading the Bible, then being quizzed on the Bible, particularly by John Shakespeare but also, by Mary Shakespeare as well. This is something that both parents had an investment in and that would have obviously kick-started his imagination, got him thinking about stories and the way that narrative works. The great popular stories from Genesis, for example, thinking of things like Abraham and Isaac and the story of Joseph and his brothers, these sorts of stories no doubt appealed because of their dramatic trajectory, the way they move through the narrative, they’re good plots. These sorts of stories were also depicted in decorative arts, so you would have been able to see them represented as well in the home, and the home of this sort of social level. So, there’s a kind of informal education that comes alongside the formal education of Bible reading of absorbing these stories from the environment and perhaps, thinking about the way that staging works and plot work because where these stories were represented, they would have been represented in individual scenes that would look very staged, sometimes even depicted with curtains at the side. It’s interesting to think about how Shakespeare might have started to imagine stories being played out that ultimately, come from the Bible and his childhood education rather than his formal education at grammar school.
REID: So if Shakespeare was learning in the home from his parents, does that mean they were educated people too? What do we know about their level of literacy and education?
HAMLING: So, when it comes to the education of Shakespeare’s parents there’s a big question mark. We know that Mary Arden must have been literate and fairly well educated because she was named as executor for her father’s will, so that involves a certain level of education. Mary Arden comes from reasonably high society in Stratford at that time, she has a connection with a very grand family, the Ardens so she almost certainly was educated to a point but, again, we tend to impose our ideas of education onto the past and in this period some people were able to read not write, or write not read, they don’t necessarily go together. There’s obviously a kind of informal education that allows people to make do and get through without necessarily conforming to expectations of classical education. So, Mary Arden probably could read, probably would have been able to do this kind of instruction that I’ve been talking about.
There’s been a big question mark over John Shakespeare and whether he was literate but, he served as Mayor or bailiff in Stratford-upon-Avon, he had a series of appointments within the civic authority, the corporation, so it’s hard to think that he couldn’t get by in the way that I’ve been talking about. Whether he had been to grammar school is another question, probably not but again, this kind of expectation that he would have read the Bible out to his family is the kind of thing that you would expect somebody of John Shakespeare’s status, as he became because he was obviously up-and-coming over the course of his life, to be able to do. So whether his wife helped him with that early on in their relationship who knows but, these people, Mary and John Shakespeare, they are of a certain level of society and there are expectations about certainly the ability to read that comes with that status. Of course, they also represent this transitional time in terms of their social status, they’re moving up in society and then for Mary perhaps, going back down again towards the end of their lives. But John Shakespeare’s situation mirrors an awful lot of middling level householders, in doing quite well for themselves and then being able to educate their children. It’s transitional, as well, in terms of expectations surrounding literacy and education so it’s very much a period of flux and John and Mary Shakespeare represent that I think in the uncertainty around precisely what their education was or their abilities were chimes with the shifting values and expectations at the time.
REID: So that’s Shakespeare’s school education covered, but what happened next? Well, we know he didn’t go to university but was that unusual for playwrights? Did he stand out from his peers because he didn’t go to uni? Dr Anjna Chouhan is a lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT and she told me a bit more detail about this.
CHOUHAN: Shakespeare did not attend a university, you needed to be of significant, or at least substantial, wealth to go to university and we know that Shakespeare when he reached the university age after he left grammar school, rather than going off to further his study, he stayed in Stratford and got married and started a family, after which he travelled off and went to London. Then, by the age of 28, he’s appearing in records in London as a writer of plays, as a playwright. So no, he did not attend university and it wasn’t expected of a playwright to have a higher education in that way.
We know that Shakespeare’s contemporary, his exact contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, did have a university education. Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in exactly the same year and it’s strange to think that they both ended up in the same place, in London, writing plays. Certainly, at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career, Marlowe was a sensation, he was very popular, but to think that he had that university education and Shakespeare didn’t is really extraordinary. Then there were other playwrights who at least attended, if not completed, a university education.
I think that Shakespeare would have been the kind of person who was excited by the possibility of learning more, learning about new places, about different voices, different cultures, different texts. He certainly borrowed lots and lots of plots, stories, characters, names, you name it and he borrowed it! He really appropriated almost anything that he could get his hands on so it’s tempting to think about him as somebody who would’ve liked, in his spare time, to study, to read, to explore and expand his mind, his knowledge, his world and then bring that into his art. It’s a lovely thought.
REID: So, as Anjna pointed out, when we look at Shakespeare’s writing, we can see evidence of both his education and his continued reading all over the place. Michael Dobson gave me a really good explanation and some examples of how we can see evidence of Shakespeare’s reading in his writing.
DOBSON: Yeah, I think Shakespeare made very, very good use of that education. He doesn’t go on to university, as his friends keep congratulating him on but, he does become an avid reader clearly, a magpie, as per humanist training. We can tell which books he read, at least from which ones he uses in the plays. We know his plays were on sale once they got into print in the book stalls of St Paul’s where a lot of his sources were also freely available like the old King Lear play that came out in 1605 and which he promptly rewrote the minute he got hold of it. [laughs] We can tell he’s got access to a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles, he’s particularly fond of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in Thomas North’s translation, which is itself a translation of a French translation, so, those are favourites. Also Ovid, he’s very, very fond of Publius Ovidius Naso, the great lyrical Roman poet whose great subject is Metamorphoses, things turning into people and visa versa, and change and transition and moving on from one stage to another are among Shakespeare’s great recurrent subjects. Most of his Latin mythology, his Greek mythology comes straight from Ovid, which, again, was something popular in grammar schools.
REID: Michael mentioned Ovid and his Metamorphoses there, and this is a book that’s referenced a great deal throughout Shakespeare’s writing throughout his whole career and, as Stanley Wells told me, it’s quite clearly one of Shakespeare’s favourite books.
WELLS: We know from his writings, we’ve got an idea of what were his favourites. He refers frequently, throughout his life, in his plays to Ovid, the great Roman poet, whose book Metamorphoses, that means change, is a book of legends of Ancient Rome that deals with change in magical transformations partly, forms the basis of Shakespeare’s first poem, ‘Venus and Adonis’ and it goes on popping up in Shakespeare’s writings. He even brings it on stage a couple of times, in Titus Andronicus, probably his first tragedy, and later in his career, in Cymbeline, the heroine there is reading Ovid at one point. He quotes almost directly from Ovid in his last solo authored play, The Tempest, where Prospero’s great speech, beginning “Ye elves of hills…”, is pretty well a translation of Ovid, it’s really a crib from Ovid.
REID: So this idea of Shakespeare lifting parts from other books and rewriting other people’s stories, it sounds a bit off to us today but, the idea of plagiarism wasn’t established when Shakespeare was writing and this sort of practice was completely standard amongst writers. So the last clip I want to play on this podcast is Madeleine Cox, Maddy runs the Reading Room and Public Service here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and when I had a chat with her she had a lovely way of describing how audiences at the time would have enjoyed references to other works within Shakespeare’s plays.
COX: I think that’s how working here has surprised me, I didn’t realise until I came to work here, quite how much he’d borrowed from other things. I think when we’re doing displays to groups that’s what I really like to share with people because some of the things, like the references in the plays, like with A Hundred Merry Tales and Much Ado About Nothing, it can make them quite hard to understand because you’re not understanding the references, whereas to a person then, they would have been thinking, “Yes he’s talking about that” or, “I recognise that bit” and that would’ve been actually quite a nice thing for them to do. I think that it would be more a sign of how he’s using his intelligence to kind of reshape things and make references knowing people would get. It’s always my big thing that I end up talking about Terry Pratchett, but I think it is like in Terry Pratchett where you can read it and you can have a laugh and enjoy the story whether you get all the references or not. There’s references to Shakespeare in there and many other writers, modern culture, everything, you could read it and just enjoy it as a story and I guess, particularly children reading them would probably have that experience, but then, reading them again, you kind of pick out all these references like, “Oh yeah, oh that’s a nod to that.” So it’s like an extra level of enjoyment for people who have that knowledge. So I guess that’s how people would’ve felt listening to the plays or reading them at that time, because things like Plutarch and Ovid would have been as familiar to them as Shakespeare is to us now. [laughs] And I think in a way that how he’s particularly clever because he’s taking these stories that, some of them in themselves may not be that exciting or popular, and sort of changing little elements of them to make them these amazing plays.
REID: Well, that’s time up for this week’s podcast. Thanks everyone who has been involved; Stanley, Michael, Liz, Anjna, Tara and Maddy and also, a huge thanks to the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for making this podcast possible in the first place.
Thanks for listening and do join me next week when I will be asking, “Did Shakespeare Love His Wife?”