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William starts school

interior of King Edward VI School Stratford-upon-Avon
Edward VI School, Stratford Upon Avon
Boys normally began attending grammar school at the age of seven, and William would have been entitled to attend Stratford's local corporation-funded school as the son of a bailiff.

William may well have begun his tuition at home or in a petty school, but he would have been expected to be able to read and write in basic English by the time that he attended grammar school. It is believed from surviving correspondence that his mother Mary, of whom very little is known, may have been able to read and write and may have been his first teacher.

In the sixteenth-century, when books were not yet commonplace items for everyday folk to own, a strong oral culture survived. Stories, history, and other packages of knowledge were simply passed down from parents to their children as a foundation for all future learning.

exterior of King Edward VI School Stratford-upon-Avon
Edward VI School, Stratford Upon Avon
In 1571, however, William, like other boys of his class, moved up to grammar schoo,l or Big School, in Church Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon. Benefiting from a long period of growth, Tudor England may well have been the most literate society on the planet at this time with basic literacy thought to have been in the region of 60 per cent. Some 160 grammar schools would open during Elizabeth's reign alone.

In keeping with the Renaissance sweeping the cultural capitals of Europe and at last spreading into England, the classics, chiefly written in Greek and Latin, dominated the curriculum. A boy was expected to be proficient in both Greek and Latin, learning by rote or repetition. What didn't go into the boys' heads naturally by this method was beaten into them with the birch.

A boy's day would begin at 5am and after morning prayers he would be expected to be at school by 6am in summer or 7am in winter. A typical schoolroom would accommodate two classes, perhaps separated by a screen. There was no air conditioning in summer, and in winter heat was provided by a simple brazier. Parents would be expected to provide all writing materials - ink, paper, quills and also wax candles to see by.

Like the Keanu Reeves character in Johnny Mnemonic, schoolboys were required to memorize vast chunks of literature by heart. But they also learned the art of debate and the social niceties like politeness, civic responsibility and duty.

Participating in drama was also a key part of the curriculum, with boys acting in gossamer veiled Protestant propaganda plays like Ralph Roister Doister, which included patriotic songs and prayers for the Queen. These must have drawn considerable disdain from William's Catholic-leaning schoolmasters.

Shakespeare would have also studied and performed plays in Latin and Greek drama in Latin versions – influences he would carry into his later works. Of undoubted influence upon him was the work of the Roman poet Ovid.

Outside school, Shakespeare's education would continue in his observation of country life and in the detail of his father's business interests. He would also absorb folk law and fable through the Coventry Mysteries – Christian dramas translated for a mass audience and performed every year in what was then England's third largest city.

So Shakespeare was already learning to think between the dominant religions at that time, to find his own ground between the Catholicism of his family background, and the Protestantism of the new Church of England, while also absorbing the art and morality of pagan writers like Virgil and Ovid.

Shakespeare would be forced to quit school early, and would never go to university, but he never stopped learning, never stopped reading, never stopped gently plundering the ideas and beliefs of others to create his own unique art.

Some of young William's reading matter:

Metamorphoses by Ovid
John Gower
The Bible
Historie of England by Holinshed
Hundred Stories by Cinthio
Lives by Plutarch


Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-AvonStratford upon Avon, Warwickshire

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