Shakespeare’s Education By Sarah Powers

In 1575 or 1576, when he was at the height of his wealth and prestige, Shakespeare’s father applied for a coat of arms, hoping to rise from a yeoman to the status of gentleman. The application languished and was eventually forgotten, but in 1596 the process was renewed, most likely by William Shakespeare, and this time his father’s claim was approved.

Babies were usually baptized at three days old, so Shakespeare was probably born on April 23—and died on the very same day, fifty-two years later.

While there is little record of Shakespeare’s early life, it is almost certain that he attended the Stratford grammar school, beginning at the age of seven. Any male child who had learned the rudiments of reading and writing could attend free of charge, and probably forty to fifty students attended the school. This school, as with most other grammar schools of the time, was centered on a classical education, particularly instruction in Latin. In fact, the curriculum consisted almost entirely of Latin language and literature, with a little arithmetic, and basic instruction in the Christian faith.

An average school day began at 6:00 a.m. in the summer or 7:00 a.m. in the winter and continued until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., with a recess around 11:00 a.m. School was held six days a week, year-round. Younger children might learn their ABCs from a hornbook: a wooden tablet with letters and sometimes a prayer or Bible verse printed on a piece of parchment and covered with a thin, transparent sheet of horn. Older children would study Latin through rote memorization and relentless drills, rhetorical exercises, and analysis of texts.

Shakespeare may have had some of his first experiences with drama while attending this school. Almost all schoolmasters had their students read and perform ancient plays, particularly the comedies of Terence and Plautus, in order to instill the Latin language. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies reflect his familiarity with these plays — he may have drawn from his schoolboy experiences many years later.

The town of Stratford had several scholarships available to help students go on to a university, but, unlike some of the other young men of his social and economic class, Shakespeare was not able to continue on to Oxford. In the late 1570s, Shakespeare’s family suffered financial troubles, and he withdrew from school to help out at home. Nevertheless, he had gained a background in Latin, and possibly a taste for theater, in his years at the Stratford grammar school.

(Reprinted from McCarter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Audience Resource Guide)