the illustrated shakespeare

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.