If you haven’t noticed, it’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April and there are loads of celebrations going on all over the country.
If you find that school is hard work sometimes, just be grateful you weren’t a pupil in William Shakespeare’s time. Not much is really known about the playwright and poet’s school years but there is plenty of information about what life was like for a schoolboy during William Shakespeare’s time, in the a 14th and 15th centuries.
William Shakespeare started at the King Edward V1 Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon, when he was seven years old. There were grammar schools all around the country and most boys with the same background as William Shakespeare attended them. Girls didn’t go to school at that time although there were some radical people who employed tutors for their daughters – but that was rare amongst ordinary people. There was a national curriculum for the grammar schools, set by the monarch.
Schoolboys in Shakespeare’s time had a long, hard, unvaried day, from Monday to Saturday. They started at six or seven o’clock in the morning and finished at about six o’clock in the evening, with a two hour break for their dinner. There was no physical education or sport and no school holidays, apart from the odd saint’s day or one-day religious holiday. Church on Sunday was compulsory and the service went on for hours. Much later, Shakespeare recalled the feeling in his play, As You Like It,
“…the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.” ( Act 2, Scene 7)
The Latin language was at the heart of the curriculum and William Shakespeare would have learned to memorise long passages of Latin writing and poetry. Latin was the international language of Europe and it was used in the law, the medical profession and by the Church. If you wanted to enter any of the professions you had to be a fluent Latin speaker.
William Shakespeare would also have learned English grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic and astronomy. Music was also on the curriculum. There were rigorous tests every week and if you didn’t pass you were harshly punished physically.
When he was fourteen Shakespeare’s father somehow fell from favour and his sons had to leave school. We lose track of William Shakespeare at this point and don’t see him again until his wedding day but he probably didn’t just sit around doing nothing. He would have had to work, particularly as his dad was having difficulty earning enough money to support his family. We don’t know what he did, although his plays show a great deal of knowledge about jobs which would have been common in Elizabethan times. Cobbling (mending shoes), baking or farming, William could have been employed as any of them.
The teenage Will Shakespeare would have been dreaming about becoming an actor. One of the school’s customs may have been the most important influence on the boy who was to become the greatest man of the theatre in history – at the end of every term, the school would put on classical plays. How tempting it is to think that young Will Shakespeare caught the acting bug through performing in school plays!