On Shakespeare’s Education

with Dennis Abrams

For your holiday reading, I thought you’d enjoy this look at Shakespeare’s education from Jonathan Bate’s book Soul of the Age:  A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare:

“The hour at which he crept, willingly or unwillingly, would have been a few minutes before six o’clock in winter darkness.  Turning left out of the family home and glove-making workshop on Henley Street, right at the market cross, past the pillory at the top of Sheep Street, along Chapel Street and in behind the half-timbered almshouses that still stand on Church Street.  Educated for free in the King’s New School, by courtesy of his father’s position on the town council.  Up a stone staircase behind the Gild chapel, where the images have been washed over with lime.  Into the big schoolroom.  The carved bosses on its chamfered oak beams show painted roses and hearts — the red rose of Lancaster with a white heart of York, symbolizing the Tudor reconciliation of the ancient grudge of two royal households.

Grammar meant Latin grammar.  From dawn to dusk, six days a week, all the year round (though Thursdays and Saturdays were half days).  Shakespeare’s masters were Simon Hunt and then Thomas Jenkins — the latter perhaps a Welshman, like Hugh Evans the schoolmaster in The Merry Wives of Windsor, who gives a Latin lesson to a clever but cheeky boy named William.  Latin was a language for boys only (unless you were a princess or a very well-born lady), so the presence of Mistress Quickly leads to some glorious linguistic misapprehensions:

EVANS:  William, how many numbers is in nouns?


MISTRESS QUICKLY:  Truly, I thought there had been one number more, because they say, ‘Od’s nouns.’

EVANS:  Peace your tattlings!  What is ‘fair,’ William?

WILLIAM:      ‘Pulcher’

MISTRESS QUICKLY:  Polecats?  There are fairer things than polecats, sure.

EVANS:          You are a very simplicity ‘oman.  I pray you peace.  What is ‘lapis,’ William?

WILLIAM:      A stone.

EVANS:  And what is ‘a stone,’ William?

WILLIAM:      A pebble.

EVANS:  No, it is ‘lapis.’  I pray you, remember in your prain.

WILLIAM:  ‘Lapis.’

EVANS:  That is a good William.  What is he, William, that does lend articles?

WILLIAM:      Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and he thus declined:  ‘Singularities, nominative, hic, haec, hoc.’

EVANS:  ‘Nominativo, hig, hag, hog,’ pray your mark; ‘gentivo, huius.’  What is your accusative case?

WILLIAM:  ‘Accusativo, hinc’ – [Faltering]

EVANS:  I pray you, have your remembrance, child, accusative, ‘hing, hang, hog.’

MISTRESS QUICKLY:  ‘Hang-hog’ is Latin for bacon, I warrant  you.

EVANS:  Leave your prabbles, ‘oman.  What is the focative case, William?

WILLIAM:      O, ——‘vocativo,’ O.

EVANS:  Remember, William, focative is ‘caret.’

EVANS:          ‘Oman, forbear.

MISTRESS PAGE:      Peace!

EVANS:          What is your genitive case, plural, William?

WILLIAM:      Genitive case?

EVANS:          Ay.

WILLIAM:      Genitive:  ‘horum, harum, horum.’

MISTRESS QUICKLY:  Vengeance of Ginny’s case, fie on her!  Never name her, child, if she be a whore.

EVANS:          For shame, ‘oman.

MISTRESS QUICKLY:  You do ill to teach the child such words:  he teaches him to hick and to hack, which they’ll do fast enough of themselves, and to call ‘horum’ – fie upon you!

EVANS:  ‘Oman, are thou lunatics?  Hast thou no understandings for thy cases and the numbers of the genders?  Thou art as foolish Christian creatures as I would desires.

The cases, the numbers, the genders, the articles.  This is how Shakespeare learned his Latin.  Rote learning in the style of catechism.  What is lapis?  A stone. And what is ‘a stone?’  No, not a ‘pebble’ you are not required to think – ‘a stone’ is lapis.  Double translation, backward and forward between English and Latin, day in, day out.  A clever boy survives such a regime by sniggering:  hog for hoc, fuck-ative for vocative, whore for horum, root and case are not only technical terms in grammar but also slang for, respectively, the male and female parts.

Ben Jonson, who went to a more famous school (Westminster), sneered at Shakespeare’s ‘small Latin.’  Jonson had all the intellectual snobbery to be expected of one of the very few middle-ranking Englishmen of the age to have possessed a substantial library of Greek and Latin historical and philosophical texts.   For a bright boy like Will, a few years in an Elizabethan grammar school would have yielded enough Latin to last a lifetime.  He would have achieved a level of proficiency above that of many a modern undergraduate student of the classics.

During the brief reign of Edward the boy king in the mid-sixteenth century, some of the revenue from the suppressed chantries and monastic colleges had been for toward the foundation of the network of grammar schools that still bear the king’s name. The aim was that ‘good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our Kingdom, as wherein the best government and administration of affairs consists.’  Literacy and moral education were regarded as the very foundation of the state or ‘commonwealth.’  According to Desiderius Erasmus in the standard textbook on the art of verbal and written rhetoric, the study and imitation of the Latin classics was of inestimable value:

‘In this kind of thing it is best that youth be exercised variously and diligently, because besides the fruit of style, by this means they imbibe the old and memorable stories as if doing something else, and fix them deep in memory; they become accustomed to the names of men and places; moreover they learn especially the power of honesty and the nature of probity, the especial virtues of eloquence.’

There is, however, a tension here.  To be trained in ‘the power of honesty and the nature of probity’ is one thing; to learn style and the art of eloquence potentially quite another.  After all, many of the oldest and most memorable stories from the poems and histories of the ancients turned on duplicity rather than probity.

The enrollment registers of King Edward’s in Stratford-upon-Avon are lost, but there can be no doubt that Shakespeare attended, as he was entitled to.  Evidence enough for that is provided by the exact knowledge of Elizabethan grammar school methods of education revealed in the exchange between William and teacher Evans, together with the pattern of allusions to grammar school texts scattered across the plays.  These run from Holofernes’s reference to ‘old Mantuan’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost to Prospero’s quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in The Tempest… Aristocrats such as the earls of Oxford and Southampton had private tutors and did not attend grammar school.

The syllabus of the Stratford school does not survive, but all the English schools of the reformed Tudor age covered similar ground with similar methods, so the statutes of a comparable establishment open a window on the expectations that would have been placed upon Shakespeare the school boy:

‘And so to the intent the scholars of the said school may be placed in a seemly order whereby they may more quietly apply their learning; the said school shall be divided in four several forms.

And in the first shall be placed young beginners commonly called Petitts until they can read perfectly, pronounce also and sound their words plainly and distinctly…

In the second form, the master shall teach the scholars the Introduction of Grammar, commonly called the eight parts of speech as they be set forth and generally used in this realm…

In the third form, the master shall teach Terence, Aesop’s Fables, Virgil, Tully’s Epistles (or so many of them as he shall think fit for the capacity and profit of his scholars in the same), and, as he shall perceive them profit in Learning, so shall he place them in the fourth form – where every day he shall give them an English to be made in Latin and teach unto them there place Sallust, Ovid, Tully’s Offices, the Commentaries of Caesar, Copia Verborum et Rerum Erasmi, and also shall he teach the art and rules of versifying (if he himself be expert therein).

And the practice of the scholars in this fourth form must be daily to turn and translate sentences from English into Latin and so contrary from Latin into English and at certain times to write Epistles one of them to another and the Master to peruse the same over and amend the faults that he findeth therein.

The scholars of the third and fourth forms shall speak nothing in the schoolhouse but Latin, save in their teaching of the lower forms.’

Before being admitted to big school, there was ‘petit’ or ‘petty’ school, where boys learned to read and were drilled in the catechism of the established church.  Then they would proceed to Latin grammar, beginning by learning their entire textbook by heart.

The standard text was prescribed by law.  Early in the sixteenth century, William Lily of St. Paul’s School in London had produced both an Introduction of the Eight Parts of Speech, otherwise known as the ‘English accidence,’ and a Latin grammar that later came to be entitled Brevissima Institutio.  By a royal proclamation of Edward VI, these two works, printed jointly as the Short Introduction of Grammar became the set text for Latin teaching in grammar schools throughout England for generations to come.

Lily’s Latin Grammar (1675) title page.

Though the second form was synonymous with grammar, grammar, grammar, Shakespeare was exposed to both literary composition and rhetorical flourish from the start.  Livy’s language exercises were frequently worked on ‘sentences’ – pithy statements of proverbial wisdom or exhortations to moral virtue – taken from classical authors.  In the early tragedy Titus Andronicus, in which Shakespeare frequently showed off his literariness, a bundle of weapons wrapped in an inscribed scroll is brought to Chiron and Demetrius, sons of Tamora, queen of the Goths:

DEMETRIUS:  What’s here?  A scroll, and written round about?

                                    Let’s see:

                                    ‘Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,

Non eget Mauri Jaculis, nec arcu.’

CHIRON:                    O, ‘tis a verse I Horace, I know it well:

                                    I read it in the grammar long ago.

Shakespeare himself would also have read it in the grammar, for these lines from one of Horace’s odes were twice quoted by Lily in the Short Introduction.  The words are ironically apposite to the dramatic context:  ‘The man of upright life and free from crime does not need the javelins or bows of the Moor.’  Chiron and Demetrius, egged on by Aaron the Moor, have murdered, raped and mutilated.  Titus sends them javelins and bows precisely in order to indicate that he knows they are anything but men of upright life and free from crime.  He has method in his madness:  he knows that even if they recognize Horace’s lines, they will not see the application to themselves.  Chiron and Demetrius are good pupils when instructed by Aaron in the art of villainy, but they offer a salutary reminder that not all grammar-school boys will fulfill the Tudor educational ideal of a smooth path from reading about integrity of life in the classics to practicing it in civil society.

The way in which Shakespeare learned Latin shaped his subsequent life of writing as decisively as did the content of the books he went on to read in later years.  Lily proceeded from grounding in syntax to exercises in the art of elocution, eloquent composition.  As the boy William is reminded in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Latin has complicated rules of declensions, cases, and numbers, whereby different parts of speech have to agree with one another. [MY NOTE:  WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN EXAMINATION OF THE BASICS OF LATIN GRAMMAR WHICH I THINK I’LL SKIP OVER…]

Again, the Short Introduction of Grammar explains how the rule of agreement should operate when a single verb serves two or more nouns, a figure called zeugma, exemplified by a mighty example from Cicero:

Nihil te nocturnum praesidium palatii?  Nihil urbis vigiliae?  Nihil timor populi?  Nihil concursus bonorum omnium?  Nihil hic munitissimus habendi Senatus locus?  Nihil horum ora vultusque moverunt?

Imagine young William in the second form at Stratford grammar, Lily’s Brevissima on his desk and schoolmaster Simon Hunt standing at the front asking him to translate Cicero’s extended zeugma.  The single verb moverunt, held back to the end for effect, serves no fewer than six noun phrases, each introduced by nihil, ‘nothing.’  William’s English translation will need repetition at the start of each sentence, though it will not be grammatically possible to replicate Cicero’s powerfully prominent placing of nihil.  And English grammar will require the student to keep repeating the verb in order to make sense.  William is bound to pause for breath and thought at the end of each sentence, so his translation will be something like this:

‘Did the night-guarding of the palace nothing move thee?

Did the watching of the City nothing move thee?

Did the fear of the people nothing move thee?

Did the running together of all good men nothing move thee?

Did this most strong place of holding the Senate nothing move thee?

Did the face and countenance of these nothing move thee?’

[Obviously, while “nothing” is the ‘exact’ translation,’ here it is meant to mean something akin to a scornful ‘not.’]

He is less than ten years old, and yet already he is speaking like a poet, seeking to move an audience through the elaborately patterned manipulation of language.  Both the imagery and the structure are highly memorable.  The night guarding of the palace, the watching of the city.  The fear of the people, the good men running in the street.  The authority of the Roman Senate, the countenance that both reveals and conceals.  The sound of the words, the rhythm of the sentences – a whisper of the beat of blank verse?  The mesmerizing force of repetition at the beginning and end of each line.  All are impressed on his ardent young mind.

Around twenty years later, he will be hard at his own repetitions:

So many hours must I tend my flock,

So many hours must I take my rest,

So many hours must I contemplate,

So many hours must I sport myself.

[Henry VI, Part Three]

And another eight years or so after this, in Julius Caesar, he will bring Cicero’s Roman world alive onstage – complete with a cameo appearance from the man himself, memorably described as having ‘silver hair,’ ‘gravity,’ and ‘judgement,’ that will purchase ‘good opinion,’ but also a politician’s ‘ferret eyes.’  And in dramatizing the Ciceronian world, Shakespeare will also take to new heights that art of moving a public audience through the force of rhetorical patterning:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…

Here, under leave of Brutus, and the rest –

For Brutus is an honourable man:

So are they all, all honourable men…

But Brutus says, he was ambitious,

And Brutus is an honourable man…

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,

Which he did thrice refuse.  Was this ambition?

Yet Brutus says, he was ambitious,

And sure he is an honourable man.

Marc Antony is master not only of his rhetorical schemes – the arrangement of words in memorable patterns of repetition and variation – but also of his rhetorical tropes, the shifting of meanings from their surface sense.  He says that he is not coming to praise Caesar, but praise him he does.  He repeatedly emphasizes Brutus’s reputation as an honourable man in order to highlight the dishonor of the assassination of Caesar.  Brutus has described his action in one way:  ‘Romans, countrymen, and lovers, here me for my cause and be silent…If then that friend demand why Brutus rose up against Caesar, this is my answer:  not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.’  Antony redescribes the same actions with the opposite interpretation.  The art of rhetoric, whereby advanced students were taught to argue both sides of a case, is what makes the dramatic opposition possible.

The key to the process is that word of Cicero’s, moverunt.  The persuasive orator and his kinsman the convincing actor seek to ‘move’ their listeners in two sense of the word.  By shifting the sense of words and lines of thought, they make the audience change their position, come over to the speaker’s side of the argument.  And they do so by affecting the emotions:  the forcefulness, the evocative excess, of their verbal invention stirs the hearts and minds of the auditors.  It did not go unnoticed in either classical times or Shakespeare’s that persuasive rhetoric involved exaggeration or even downright contradiction of plain truth.  Antony’s claim that he has not come to praise Caesar is patently false.  As the much-cited roman theorist Quintilian put in his Institutio Oratoria, ‘this is an art which relies on moving the emotions by saying that which is false.’  And as the wise Shakespearean clown touchstone put it in As You Like It, ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning.’  That was one of the reasons why Puritans, committed to God’s unadulterated truth, distrusted the theater.”

I’ll post more from this at another time – and I’ll be posting again the day after Christmas on Acts Four and Five of Henry VI, Part Two.

Enjoy your week.  And have a very Merry Christmas one and all!

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3 Responses to On Shakespeare’s Education

  1. Your short essay explained more of Shakespeare’s powers to move an audience than any other explanation I have ever read.

  2. Ridg Gilmer says:

    I may be stealing your thunder, Dennis, but I finished all of Acts IV and V and have one irresistable quote and comment: IV.8 – King Henry – apparently musing to himself,
    “Was never a subject longed to be a king
    As I do long and wish to be a subject.”
    Is this not as true a statement as ever written and could have been uttered, word for word (if he were able) by King George in “The King’s Speech”?

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