There is great conjecture about Shakespeare's
childhood years, especially regarding his education. It is surmised
by scholars that Shakespeare, from around the age of six, attended the
free grammar school in Stratford, which is still standing a short distance
from his fathers house on Henley Street, and is currently in the care
of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. John Shakespeare, as a Stratford
official, would have been granted a waiver of tuition for his son, and
while there are no records extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare's
knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend to support this theory.
The Stratford grammar school had been built
some two hundred years before Shakespeare was born and in that time the
lessons taught there were, dictated primarily by the beliefs of the reigning
monarch. In 1553, due to a charter by King Edward VI, the school became
known as the King's New School of Stratford-upon-Avon. During the years
that Shakespeare attended the school, at least one and possibly uo to
three headmasters stepped down because of their devotion to the catholic
religion proscribed by Queen Elizabeth. One of these masters was Simon
Hunt (b. 1551), who, in 1578, according to tradition, left Stratford to
pursue his more spiritual goal of becoming a Jesuit, relocating to the
seminary at Rheims. When he died in Rome seven years later he had risen
to the position of Grand Penitentiary.
Students spent about nine hours a day in
school. They attended classes the year around, except for three holiday
periods. William would probably have been exposed to a standard Elizabethan
curriculum strong on Greek and Latin literature (including the playwrights
Plautus and Seneca, and the amorous poet Ovid), rhetoric (including that
of the ancient Roman orator Cicero), and Christian ethics (including a
working knowledge of the Holy Bible). These influences are pervasive in
Shakespeare's works, and it is also apparent that Shakespeare cultivated
a knowledge of English history through chronicles written shortly before
and during his adolescence.
Like a good number of England's great poets
and dramatists, Shakespeare learned his reading and writing skills from
an ABC, or horn-book. Robert Speaight in his book, Shakespeare: The Man
and His Achievement, describes this book as a primer framed in wood and
covered with a thin plate of transparent horn. It included the alphabet
in small letters and in capitals, with combinations of the five vowels
with b, c, and d, and the Lord's Prayer in English. The first of these
alphabets, which ended with the abbreviation for 'and', began with the
mark of the cross. Hence the alphabet was known as 'Christ cross row'
-- the cross-row of Richard III, I, i, 55. A short catechism was often
included in the ABC book (the 'absey book' of King John, I, i, 196). (10)
The famous quote by Nicholas Rowe in 1709,
in which he states that Shakespeare "acquir'd that little Latin he
was Master of" and tells us that Shakespeare was prevented by his
father's poor fortune from "further proficiency in that Language"
should be read with an extremely critical eye. As we all know, Shakespeare
was a young man when he began to write magnificent plays that had plots
based entirely on Latin stories, such as the Menaechmi of Plautus, and
striking imagery that was drawn from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and the
Lives of Plutarch.
Shakespeare later wrote a small scene in
the play "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in which a student, Master
William Page, is called on in class to recite for his mother's benefit.
This is undoubtedly a reflection of Shakespeare himself as a student,
as it is known that his school teacher was Welsh, as in the play.
It is a lively scene, and has become known as "The Latin Lesson."
As the records do not exist, we do not know
how long William attended the school, but certainly the literary quality
of his works suggest a solid education. It is believed that Shakespeare
left school in 1579 at the age of 13 - fifteen, possibly as the result
of a family financial problem. What is certain is that William Shakespeare
never proceeded to university schooling.