URL: http://www.likesnail.org.uk/educating.htm

Educating Shakespeare - school life in Elizabethan England


The King’s New School

" The school occupied a spacious room which is still used today ... "
In 1571, having successfully completed his petty school education, it is likely the seven year old William would have entered the King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon. This school, although newly re-endowed in 1553, had a long and distinguished past, like so many of the schools owing their name to King Edward VI. The curriculum could be traced back many years and concentrated on the classical languages of Latin and Greek – seen as the gateway to the body of accumulated knowledge. The school occupied a spacious room – still used today – which had formerly been the feasthall of the medieval town guild. The most impressive piece of furniture was the master’s desk, probably raised a step or two above the floor. The boys had wooden benches or forms. John Bretchgirdle, the Stratford vicar who had baptised William, left a variety of books to the school in his will, including a Latin-English dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot. The earliest recorded use of a blackboard in a school is in 1612.


Petty School Both boys and girls, from the age of five, were usually taught the reading and writing of English at a petty school. The teacher also ensured that by the time they were seven pupils would know the catechism. Stratford seems to have been well provided for in the matter of educating its very young children, several benefactors having given gifts of land or money to ensure that they had at least this elementary schooling.

King Edward VI One of the consequencies of the dissolution of the monastries in the mid-1550s, and the confiscation of religious guilds' property, was the effect on the teaching and schools which these bodies had formerly provided - often for many centuries previously. In the wake of this religious upheaval many of these schools were subsequently refounded by Henry VIII, or his children Edward VI, Mary or Elizabeth I.

At the time of the Stratford guild's suppression in 1547, the king's commissioners noted that the school, alone of the guild's activities, was allowed to continue. In June, 1553 the school was refounded, to be run by the newly formed town council and funded from the property once owned by the abolished guild. It was the last school refounded during Edward's reign, for eight days later he was dead from tuberculosis.

Sir Thomas Elyot The first Latin-English dictionary for use in schools was published by Sir Thomas Elyot in 1538.

His earlier work The Governour advises on arrangements for education in gentlemen's households, and sections X & XI of Book One provide an insight on the classical works he believed worthwhile studying.

Boys' property

The school provided little beyond a few classical texts and reference books. Pencils were not in regular use so the boys had to have quills, and acquire the art of making a pen; this also meant every boy would have a penknife. Writing paper was relatively expensive, much being imported, but the senior boys were expected to keep notebooks, or commonplace books, in which to record phrases, proverbs, quotations and such like which might prove useful in future written work. The boys could also note here vocabulary to supplement the school's printed dictionary. At Stratford, in 1596, Richard Quiney wrote to his father I pray and beseech you that you would provide for my brother and me two paper books, which we very much want at this present time, for if we had them we should truly have much use for them. School textbooks were also expensive and, being paper-covered, they did not last long.

Latin Grammar

Simon Hunt was master in 1572 but William was probably never taught by him, since an usher – a junior master or senior pupil – conducted the youngest boys through the rudiments of Latin grammar. In this task the usher would have been assisted by the recently published Short introduction of grammar - compiled by William Lily - which had been authorized by Henry VIII as the sole Latin grammar textbook to be used in schools. The first year
" ... any boy caught speaking English at school was punished ... "
was spent learning the eight parts of speech and the nouns and verbs. The following year, boys were introduced to the rules of construction and the actual forming of Latin sentences. The final year with the usher meant Latin-English and English-Latin translations. Princess Elizabeth's tutor, Roger Ascham, suggested the re-translation into Latin of a passage which had already been turned into English - after a reasonable interval of time and without access to the book, of course. In order to improve spoken fluency in the language, any boy caught speaking English at school was punished.

By the time Thomas Jenkins, an MA of St John’s College, Oxford, took up the mastership in 1575, William would have been studying such classical authors as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. Ovid seems to have made the greatest impression on William. The story of his early poem Venus and Adonis comes from the Metamorphosis, whilst his references to Ovid show an understanding of the original Latin. The histories of Caesar, Sallust and Livy were studied too, for their moral example was believed relevant to life in Tudor England. And then at the end of each term the senior boys might perform some classical drama, such as a comedy of Plautus or Terence - the confusion of twins identity in William's Comedy of Errors draws much from Plautus' the Menaechmi. Elizabethan education, with its constant repetition and examinations, would also have trained William’s memory, and the study of rhetoric and practice of disputes between older boys would have introduced him to the wide-ranging possibilities of language.


A Short introduction of grammar The chief improvement of this Latin textbook over those which had preceeded it was that the explanations of the rules of grammar were set out in English, three different font styles were used, and the various forms of nouns and verbs were set out in full rather than in abbreviated form. Thus, the verb amo - to love - appeared as Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamamus, Amatis, Amant, rather than Amo / as / at, Amamus / atis / ant.

The Elizabethan publication, commonly known as Lily's Latin Grammar, was a small paper-covered pamphlet of about 200 pages. The basic work, which went through over 300 editions, persisted in use in English schools until the middle of the nineteenth-century.

English As long as translation of Latin texts into English was not literal or exact but of a creative kind boys would have had the experience of creative writing in their own language and an opportunity to experiment with new forms. In this way, concentration on the classical languages and literature in the Elizabethan school might not have hindered but could have helped in the enrichment and study of English.

Livy Shakespeare was familiar with the greatest work of Titus Livius (59 BC - AD 17) which recounted the history of Rome from the landing of Aeneas in Italy and the founding of the city to the death of Drusus in 9 BC. The story of Lucrece is originally from Livy, as also the fable of the belly and the members, retold by Shakespeare's character Menenius in Coriolanus.

The Comedy of Errors The Roman dramatist Plautus (c. 254 - 184 BC) used the device of long-lost twin brothers, whose identities are confused, in his play the Menaechmi. One of the twins arranges to have dinner with a courtezan but his brother enjoys the meal instead. Shakespeare's development of a double set of twins, the Dromio servants and the Antipholus masters, allows additional confusion to occur and thereby enriches his entertainment.

Another play by Plautus, the Amphitruo, provides the double master-servant theme and the idea of the husband locked out of his own house, mirrored by Shakespeare when Antipholus of Ephesus is kept out of the house while his twin brother is inside.

Other Subjects

The latter years at school may well have included the study of Greek, but textbooks were scarce (due to printers having insufficient Greek type) and masters did not always have sufficent experience to teach the language. The master of grammar often refused to be bothered with the teaching of handwriting too and so, in rural schools, a travelling scrivener might spend a month to six weeks of the year instructing the youngest boys. In the same way, little time was given to arithmetic, it being crowded in at the end of an afternoon or on the weekly half-holiday.

The school provided no organised games but the boys might amuse themselves with activites such as stool-ball. This was a form of cricket in which a stool served as the wicket and the ball was struck with the hand. Hand-ball - resembling fives - might also be played outside against the schoolroom walls. Football had been banned in Edward III's time because it interfered with archery and by the sixteenth-century the game had become a disorderly rable. Any school concerned about its public image would forbid its pupils to play in the streets.


Ashby-de-la-Zouche Grammar School From the school statutes, 1575: In their play they shall use honest Games, they shall keep themselves togeather, they that Exercise shooting shall be in a place meet for that purpose, they shall not play in the streets. Nor goe to alehouses Nor any unlawful Games or breake into Orchards or Rob Gardens.


The school day began with prayers at six o’clock in the morning, continued until eleven, started again at one, and continued until five. The inadequacy of lighting in the building – boys were supposed to bring their own candles – resulted in a seasonal reduction of the day to a seven o’clock start and a four o’clock finish in winter.
" The school day began with prayers at six o'clock in the morning ..."
A five and a half-day week, for 40 to 44 weeks of the year, meant that during the year boys spent at least 2,000 hours in school – more than double the time spent nowadays at school in England./p>

Some relief from the otherwise monotonous routine might be afforded by occasional interruptions during the week. On Mondays, the first business was an examination on the previous Sunday’s sermon. Thursday afternoons were the weekly half-holiday or remedie, whilst Fridays were mainly devoted to revision of the week’s work, repetitions and examinations. On Saturdays, boys learnt their catechisms, or perhaps practised arithmetic. Much less eagerly awaited would be the enlivenment on Friday when proper punishment was meted out to offenders.


Arithmetic The lack of instruction in arithmetic is shown by the experience of the fifteen year-old John Walters who admitted that it was during the Christmas holidays that he picked up from his younger brother my first insight into mathematics, and all the teaching I had.

In the early 1600s, the schoolmaster John Brinsley based his belief in the importance of boys having a understanding of arithmetic on the knowledge that it was common for boys entering university not to know how to tell the number of pages, sections and chapters in their books.


The most serious schoolboy misdemeanour seems to have been swearing. At Oundle School in Rutland the master was instructed to give the boy "three stripes" for every oath spoken. Also treated seriously was fighting but, not nearly so common, was lying, stealing or playing unlawful games such as cards or dice. Boys were also warned against robbing gardens or breaking into orchards. At the beginning of 1573 in Stratford, there must have been a major disturbance as it is recorded the schoolroom's windows were broken and woodwork damaged.

The usual instruments of punishment were the birch and ferula. The latter was a flat piece of wood like a ruler, widened at the inflicting end into a circular shape, which was sometimes pierced for raising blisters. Whipping posts were provided at some schools for particularly unruly boys! That William never wrote of schoolmasters in a kindly light may suggest he received more than his fair share of punishment.


MLA style citation for this article: "Educating Shakespeare - school life in Elizabethan England." Shakespeare's School. October 2002. The Guild School Association, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. [ date accessed on internet ] < http://www.likesnail.org.uk/educating.htm >

MLA style recommends parenthetical references to internet sources in the text should be treated as printed works would be.


Shakespeare's School (http://www.stratford-upon-avon.co.uk/soawshst.htm#kes)

Mount Joy Schoole of Boys (http://library.thinkquest.org/3588/Renaissance/Town/Education.html)

The Life of a child in Elizabethan England (http://library.thinkquest.org/3588/Renaissance/Town/Children.html)

The Edwardian grammar schools (http://www.bartleby.com/217/1406.html)

The Boke named The Governour (http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/gov/gov1.htm)

The Rules of Latin (http://classics.holycross.edu/Courses/ReadingsLatin/UNITI.htm)

The Scholemaster (http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/ascham1.htm)

Shakespeare's sources (http://shakespeare.about.com/arts/shakespeare/cs/sources)

Lute scribes and handwriting (http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/julia/ch4/ch4.htm)

"A Double spirit of teaching": What Shakespeare's teachers teach us (http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-01/si-01winson.html)


Further reading

Elizabethan schooldays, by J. Howard Brown (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1933)
A comprehensive account of sixteenth-century grammar school education in England; including sections on masters and boys, curriculum, teaching, and the day's work.

The Early history of King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Levi Fox. Dugdale Society Occasional Papers No.29 (Oxford: Dugdale Society, 1984)
Covers the period of the school's history from its establishment by a medieval guild and its refoundation in 1553, to the mid eighteenth-century.

Shakespeare in Warwickshire, by Mark Eccles (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961)
Includes a chapter on the schoolmasters and pupils at Stratford in the second half of the sixteenth-century.

The Sources of Shakespeare's plays, by Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1977)
Discusses the classical sources, encountered by William either at school or afterwards, for each of the plays in turn.

Elizabethan handwriting, 1500-1650: a guide to the reading of documents and manuscripts, by Giles E. Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton (Phillimore: Chichester, 1981)

A Country grammar school: a history of Ashby-de-la-Zouch Grammar School through four centuries 1567 to 1967, by Levi Fox (Ashby-de-la-Zouch: the school governors, 1967)


copyright © 1999 - 2003 the Guild School Association – Jun-2003