“Education made Shakespeare what he was”
Soul of the Age: Life, Mind and World: Jonathan Bate
‘with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide … Shakes-scene’
Robert Greene, Shakespeare’s contemporary
“Shakespeare’s schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays. Having mastered the rules of language, he was able to break and transform them. Shakespeare’s education is an argument for the value of memorising and of constant practice.”
Teaching Shakespeare: Rex Gibson
William Shakespeare, whose father was probably illiterate (signing his name with a cross) and broke, became one of the most creative, prolific and successful playwrights of all time, writing over 40 plays and 150 sonnets, with some of the most gripping plots, memorable characters (from protagonists Caesar, Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Juliet, Viola and Rosalind to villains: murderous Richard III, usurer Shylock, the bastard Edmund, attempted rapist Caliban, the Puritan Angelo and the Machiavellian master-manipulator, Iago), a dizzying variety of settings (England, Rome, Egypt, Athens, Troy, Verona, Vienna, Venice, Cyprus, Scotland, Denmark, Naples, Sicily), and the most moving and mellifluous language that audiences had ever heard, perhaps ever since. Four centuries after his death, his words and plays sustain a multi-million pound global industry spanning from California professors and Hollywood films to Indian textbook authors and the Japanese Globe Theatre in Tokyo.
What can we teachers learn from Shakespeare’s schooling in England some five hundred years ago?
Shakespeare went to King’s New School in Stratford. It was a free school established by royal charter of King Edward VI in 1553, just 11 years before Shakespeare was born. It established free lodging and a salary of £20 a year for a schoolmaster, a substantial sum that signaled how much education was valued. The aim of Tudor schooling was that ‘good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our Kingdom’: literacy and moral education were seen as the foundation of the commonwealth. Children would learn about wisdom, virtue and civic action from books, classic texts and studies.
Seven-year olds started school at six in the morning in summer and seven in winter, and studied from dawn til dusk all year round, six days a week, twelve months a year. They spent 2,000 hours in school, more than double current school hours. William spent 7 years at this school from 1571 to age 14 1578, equivalent of 14 years’ worth of school hours today, and had been to primary school from age 5 to 7 to learn lessons in behaviour, literacy, scripture and manners, ‘until they can read perfectly, pronounce and sound their words plainly and distinctly’. In his teachers young William first met professionals educated at University: all seven masters who taught there between 1554 and 1582 were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. One, Thomas Jenkins, was so dedicated to teaching that he asked Oxford for two years’ sabbatical so ‘that he may give himself to teach children’.
Pupils at the school studied few subjects in great depth to high rigour, with total immersion in classical language and literature. The Renaissance was the driving force behind the syllabus: Religious Education, Latin, Literature, Arithmetic, English Grammar, Philosophy and Theatre, learning entire textbooks by heart, including one called ‘An Introduction of the Eight Parts of Speech.’ Set texts were the Geneva Bible, Aesop’s fables, Virgil’s epic Aeneid, Cicero’s philosophy On Duties, (a handbook of civic humanism), Plutarch’s Lives (paired biographies from antiquity), Livy and Pliny’s Histories, Ovid’s poetic Metamorphoses, Palingenius’ Zodiacus Vitae (the Zodiac of Life, philosophy where the world’s a stage and humans are actors), Caesar’s War Commentaries, Erasmus’ Adagia (3,000 proverbs) and De Copia, (On Rhetoric), Juvenal’s Satires, Terence’s comedies and Seneca’s tragedies. The young Will read prodigiously. His originality stemmed from his deep knowledge of the origins of deep thinking: the best that had been thought and said.
Children were trained by strict discipline into respect and obedience, but not fear or subservience. The school day was strictly controlled and supervised. The school statutes expect: ‘strict order and quiet to apply their learning’. A good teacher was by definition a strict teacher. The humanist educationalist Erasmus, whose handbooks Elizabethan teachers used, wrote: ‘Fear is of no avail in education. Love must be the first influence, followed and completed by a trustful and affectionate respect, which compels obedience far more surely than dread can ever do. Masters conscious of their own incompetence are generally the worst floggers. They cannot teach, so they beat.’ In Measure for Measure, the Duke mentions the birch rod is ‘more mock’d than feared’. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare stages a school lesson with a Welsh schoolmaster Hugh Evans (he was taught by Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins), who says the words, ‘Remember, William’ at least three times in the scene, uses praise – ‘that’s a good William’ – and where flogging is threatened but not carried out: ‘Go your ways and play, go.’
Shakespeare learned through a rigorous regime of sermons, rote memorisation, relentless drills, endless repetition, copying and imitation, textbooks, daily analysis of texts, extended practice exercises, dictation, composition, declamation and twice-weekly examinations. Forty hours a week were spent reading, memorising and writing. Children sat in rows facing the schoolmaster at the front of the room. There was continual instruction in the art of remembrance, in systems of memory or ‘mnemonics’. Catechism – combining written summaries with oral chants – was used as a mode of instruction and memorisation. The culture prized eloquence: many hours were spent by pupils compiling long lists of synonyms. Debate, dialogue and drama were foundations of Elizabethan teaching and staples of learning. At school, pupils read and performed ancient plays: the young Will acted in his first play while still at school.
The central educational principle was immersion. The essence of the system of foreign language learning was translation, translation, translation: double translation, backwards and forwards between English and Latin, day in, day out. The result was a command of Latin in leaving school at 15 that was better than a University graduate in classics today: fluency, even in conversation.
Collections, memorisation, imitation exercises and composition drills are four of the ways that Elizabethan grammar schools taught writing. Amplification was so drilled into the young master William that it became second nature in his writing. Commonplace books were copied into in order to have a ready record of examples of general truths about life and behaviour. Sententiae, collections of memorable aphorisms, provided a series of building blocks for composition. ‘Assiduous practice makes everything possible.’ ‘A liar needs a good memory.’ Pupils would be required to play around with such phrases: change the tense and mood to interrogative: ‘What will your practice make possible?’ Make it plural, William: ‘Liars need good memories.’ If you are making a story, writing a play, or plotting a rival’s downfall, like Iago, you need a good memory so your plot withstands scrutiny. They were invited to write anecdotes, confirmations and refutations of maxims and adages.
Out of imitation came invention. Pupils were required to imagine they were a character from classical mythology, literature or history: persuade Caesar to cross the Rubicon; convince Cleopatra to choose suicide over slavery; sway the senate to ostracise Antony for monarchical-dictatorial intent. Write that, Master William, and you are well on the way to inventing dramatic characters of Caesar and Cicero some 20 years on in 1599 in the opening of the Globe Theatre.
There is much to be learned from the education in England some 500 years ago that enabled our greatest ever writer to create the greatest plays ever written.
Based on research from these texts:
Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
Soul of the Age: Shakespeare’s Life, Mind and World by Jonathan Bate
Shakespeare’s England by R.E. Pritchard
Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode
Shakespeare’s Genius by Jonathan Bate
Shakespeare: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd
Revealing Shakespeare by Rene Weiss
Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice by Peter Mack