Educating Shakespeare


Petty school

From the age of five, both boys and girls 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.

The King’s New School

In 1571, having successfully completed his petty school education, 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. Past pupils had become bishops and king’s ministers, as too had past schoolmasters. The curriculum, which had concentrated on the classical languages, could be traced back many years. 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, a vicar of Stratford, left a variety of books to the School in his will, including a Latin-English dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot. Blackboards were rare, and the earliest recorded dates from 1612.

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. 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 – would have 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 to be used in schools. The first year would have been 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 in his treatise on education 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 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 Sallust, Horace, Virgil, Cicero 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. At the end of each term the senior boys might perform some classical drama, such as the comedies of Plautus or Terence - the confusion of twins identity in William’s Comedy of Errors draws much from Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo. But 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.

Other Subjects

The last year at school may well have included the study of Greek, but the scarcity of textbooks and the dearth of masters competent to teach it meant it was not widespread. The master of grammar often refused to be bothered with the teaching of handwriting and so, in rural areas, a travelling scrivener would spend a month to six weeks of the year instructing the youngest boys. Likewise, arithmetic was 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.


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. 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. 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.


The most serious schoolboy misdemeanour seems to have been swearing. At Oundle School 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 that he received more than his fair share of punishment.

Boys usually left the grammar school at the age of fourteen, although William may have been withdrawn by his father, who was in financial trouble, a year early. Boys from Stratford did go on to Oxford and Cambridge, but it is known that William had no university education. This was perhaps fortunate for, whilst further education would have prepared him for a profession, he may not have become a player in London.

More information on the Elizabethan schoolroom and half-timbered buildings of King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon can be found here.

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.

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: suivi recommandé, 1967)
Includes sections on sixteenth-century procedures at this typical Midlands school, and the seventeenth-century master, John Brinsley, a leading educational theorist of his day. Appendix has the 1575 rules for running the school.

Shakespeare: man and artist, by Edgar I. Fripp
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938)
Includes a chapter with much on the detail of Shakespeare’s likely education at Stratford.

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 sources, which William may have encountered either at school or afterwards, for each of the plays in turn.


A listing of other web sites related to education in Shakespeare’s time.
Lettre recommandée
Courrier recommandé Please report any broken links.


Mount Joy Schoole of Boys
This site uses the device of an imaginary sixteenth-century petty school to give details of Elizabethan spelling, vocabulary and pronunciation. From the Virtual Renaissance site for high school students.

Shakespeare at school
An article dealing mainly with the curriculum of the Tudor school, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

Shakespeare’s School - Stratford-upon-Avon
Further information on the history of King Edward VI School in this illustrated site from the Guild School Association.

Shakespeare’s life and times
A link to the Shakespeare’s Schooling section of Dr Michael Best’s interactive website on the Bard.


Did Shakespeare owe anything to Seneca?:
The debate outlined
In the course of outlining Seneca’s influence M Frank (University of the Witwatersrand) considers Shakespeare’s proficiency in Latin. From the journal Akroterion.

“A Double spirit of teaching”:
What Shakespeare’s teachers teach us
Patricia Winson (University of Toronto) suggests how Shakespeare’s depiction of schoolmasters in the plays may show something of his views on education, in this article from the online journal Early Modern Literary Studies.

The Edwardian grammar schools
A slightly dated commentary on the motivation underlying the foundation of grammar schools during Edward VI’s reign. From volume 7 of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, originally published 1907-21.

Lute scribes and handwriting
This chapter from Julia Craig-McFeely’s thesis English Lute Manuscripts and Scribes 1530-1630 describes the instruction of handwriting during the period.

The Rules of Latin
Many of the comments about education in colonial America, described in this course unit from Prof Bill Ziobro (College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts), could also be applied to Elizabethan England. The eighteenth-century Latin textbook Cheever’s Accidence, on which the article focuses, was based closely on the format of Lily’s Short introduction of grammar. A reproduction of a page from Lily is included.

The Scholemaster
Online text of Roger Ascham’s treatise on education, originally published in 1570.

Sources for the history of education
This Historical Manuscripts Commission information sheet describes briefly the unpublished sources for the subject noted in the UK National Register of Archives, the principal relevant repositories, and the most useful general works of reference.

The Stratford grammar school
Reviews the evidence for Shakespeare receiving his schooling at Stratford’s grammar school. Includes brief biographies of four of his contemporaries.

A Study of attitudes towards corporal punishment as an educational procedure from the earliest times to the present
Robert McCole Wilson’s MA thesis on the subject of corporal punishment includes this section considering attitudes in English schools between 1500 and 1800.