William Shakespeare was one of the greatest playwrights in the English language. But what was life for him as a young boy and student in Stratford-Upon-Avon? Historians have pieced together his education based on available records and what similar boys who grew up then would have learned. Let’s jump back to Shakespeare’s childhood!
Shakespeare could have attended the local grammar school for free because his father was on the town council. We don’t have the registration records from the time, but Shakespeare’s writings show that he would have been familiar with textbooks used at the time. Just like Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare would have gotten a Humanist education. Much of the information would have been learned by rote memorization. Remember those hornbooks? Shakespeare would have learned his letters, then how to combine them, and then finally learning to read using the Lord’s prayer. Eventually he would also learn Latin and Greek. He also would have learned rhetoric, which one can imagine would have helped him craft his character’s monologues.
The exterior of Shakespeare's school
The interior of Shakespeare's school
Another aspect of his education that would have been useful for his play-writing career was ethopoeia, or impersonation. According to Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, was “... remembering texts and being able to recombine phrases from them in compositions of your own... 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.” Imagine watching a young Shakespeare in class as he reimagined these classic works!
Activity: This is something you can do at home with your family. Pick a historical figure or a character from literature, and think about part of their life or a scene they are in. Then create your own dramatic interpretation of that scene. You can do this as a quick improv based on what you know already, or you can do some in depth research to create your scene!
Uses In Plays
One thing Shakespeare wouldn’t have needed to write plays was a university education. But Shakespeare did reference his grammar school education extensively. Some playwrights at the time, like Christopher Marlowe, did attend university, but other contemporaries like Ben Jonson did not. Shakespeare must have been a voracious reader, because he based his plays on a variety of popular writings from the time. For example, Romeo and Juliet was based on an epic poem, and Hamlet was based on a history of a character called Amleth written around 1200.
Sometimes Shakespeare would pick topics that he thought would appeal to those in political power. Macbeth was based on a history of Scotland, and was written when King James I (James VI of Scotland) was on the throne. There is even a suggestion that King James traced his ancestry back to Banquo. What happens in the play that makes this important?
If you want to do a more in-depth project, you can pick one of Shakespeare’s plays and look up the source material. Most of the sources are freely available online on sites like Project Gutenberg, so they are easy to find from home!
Shakespeare’s education would have begun at home. His mother likely would have told him fairy tales and legends, many of which would show up later in his plays. One example of a fairy tale, albeit one that might scare a small child, is Mr. Fox, an English version of the Bluebeard story. Bluebeard is the story of a young woman who realizes she is married to a murderer, and uses her cleverness to expose her husband. In “Much Ado About Nothing”, Benedict quotes the tale when he says “It is not so nor ‘twas it so but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.” (Warning- as you might guess, Mr. Fox or Bluebeard are stories that deal with violence and mature themes. Use caution when searching for this story).
Can you think of any other legends or fairy tales that show up in Shakespeare's works? Hint: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good place to start.
Shakespeare's grasp of geography, or his lack of it, has been the subject of jokes even by his contemporaries during his lifetime. We have no records that Shakespeare traveled outside of England, so we assume that the descriptions of foreign countries and cities had to have come from his education and his imagination. Can you think of an example of geography that Shakespeare described well? How about one he was way off about?
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust- 60 minutes with Shakespeare podcasts
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