What would Shakespeare’s classroom have been like? Your biggest disappointment might have been that most of this master of all English’s lessons would not have been in English at all. However much Shakespeare’s characters might beg to hear or speak “no Latin[, as] a strange tongue makes [a] cause more strange, suspicious” to the hearer (1), in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan reality the Church, State, and Universities judged your education and intellectual worth by your ability to read, write, and quote from Latin. Rome was, after all, the “most high and palmy state” (2) on which English society based its ideals of honor and virtue; English monarchs including the Tudors (and thus Elizabeth) traced their ancestors – by way of King Arthur – to Brutus, a direct descendant of Aeneas, “one of the flowers of Troy” (3), who founded Rome after that city’s fall.
Whatever the language, however, Shakespeare would have been able to teach most any subject – as the times demanded. Elizabethan schools had an intense curriculum, “the sweets of sweet philosophy” (4) at the time including studies of Scripture and religion, rhetoric, mathematics, music, composition, elocution, and the histories of Britain, Europe and the ancient world. As if that wasn’t enough, school was taught six and a half days a week, with less than two months off each year, going from six or seven in the morning until right before dusk – no wonder that, in Shakespeare’s description of when “a school breaks up,” each student “hurries toward his home and sporting-place” (5) for the only free time he has in his day. I say ‘he’ because almost all such students were boys, of course – women were, at the time, preferably kept as a “poor unlearned virgin […] embowell’d of [schools’] doctrine” (6) or “an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised” in the ways of the world but “not bred so dull but she can learn” (7) what she needs to entertain and please a husband.
To teach, Shakespeare would have had to constantly read and study, to become, “neglecting all worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of [his] mind” (8). To effectively guide his pupils, his learning and love of knowledge would have, together, to “beget a generation of still-breeding thoughts, and these same thoughts people this little world” within the schoolhouse (9). Shakespeare was well aware that a conscientious “schoolmaster made [students] more profit than other princesses can that have more time for vainer hours and tutors not so careful” (10). No wasting time for him, but activity and energy towards the learning that had elevated him from glovemaker’s son to renowned playwright – or, in this thought experiment, teacher. Shakespeare would hate when “poor fools believe false teachers” (11) and love to observe that a “gentleman is learn’d, and a most rare speaker[:] his training such, that he may furnish and instruct great teachers, and never seek for aid out of himself” (12). All Shakespeare’s plays reward self-reliance and the personal pursuit of excellence, and his students would have benefited from that attention.
Still, if the little people in his classroom misbehaved, they would have to watch out, as Shakespeare thought that “to teach a teacher ill beseemeth” (13). Problem students would have learned that they were dealing with no “rare parrot-teacher” (14) trying only to have them squawk out passages after him. William would never have been one to spare the rod, even if a pupil “had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master” (15). Shakespeare, in his plays, staunchly supported just punishment, and thought that keeping discipline required one to “show great mercy […] after the
taste of much correction” (16).
Perhaps some foolhardy students would have tried to declare themselves “no breeching scholar in the schools,” that they’d “not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times, but learn [their] lessons as [they] please [themselves]” (17). Shakespeare would merely reflect on the price paid in his day by he without education: “he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book; he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts” (18). He would raise his pupils as best he could towards “Study[, which] is like the heaven’s glorious
sun that will not be deep-searched with saucy looks” (19) and so improve their lot in life by giving them real goals to strive for without easy shortcuts.
This hard work would not, however, have made Shakespeare arrogant or proud; he would acknowledge that in the general estimation, teachers were “so poor a pinion off [power’s] wing” (20) as to be non-entities outside the classroom. Furthermore, despite his own encyclopedic knowledge, Shakespeare was never entirely comfortable with purely intellectual academics; you can sense that for him, they “jes[t] at scars that never felt a wound” (21). Never one to go against the will of the natural order, he would have acknowledged that “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends” (22) without any teacher’s help. He would have further realized that reading and writing without any practical purpose was “but an adjunct to oneself” (23), needing direction or motivation from some other part of one’s life that had more to do with the broader world outside – politics, say, or employment. Or perhaps even (as in many of his plays featuring young scholars) love.
Shakespeare would have acknowledged that education could in some cases even harm students by boring or overindulging them – any student could become “a blunt fellow”, even one that was “quick mettle when he went to school” (24) before being bored stiff by unsuitable lessons. Furthermore, in almost all of Shakespeare’s works, inherent, instinctive knowledge is both valuable and beyond teaching. His plays revolve around the idea that speech and consideration must, at times, give way to activity and daring, and that for “wilful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters” (25) in facing life’s challenges. He believed that the youths of his time, in particular, often held “a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled” (26) and a personality “never school’d and yet learned” (27). In Shakespeare’s view, these qualities – which existed before one had “corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school” (28) – allowed the aggressive and, admittedly, often foolhardy juveniles to use their energy and impetuosity to overcome older adversaries’ advantages of age and experience and power. There would have been no fears that Shakespeare would refuse to countenance the beautiful world outside; his pupils would have needed to stay grounded, which he would have known, aware that the broader human context made up “the glass, the school, the book, where subjects’ eyes do learn, do read, do look” (29) for the answers no textbook can entirely provide.
Ultimately, Shakespeare the teacher might have summed up his project as does the benevolent Archbishop Cranmer in Shakespeare the playwright’s Henry VI, Part II:
My good lords, hitherto, in all the progress
Both of my life and office, I have labour’d,
And with no little study, that my teaching
And the strong course of my authority
Might go one way, and safely; and the end
Was ever, to do well. (30)
No teacher, in Shakespeare’s day or afterwards, through all the advances that bring us to appreciating his work from so far after his death, could reasonably ask for more.
(1) Queen Katherine, Henry VIII
(2) Horatio, Hamlet
(3) Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida
(4) Tranio, The Taming Of The Shrew
(5) Lord Hastings, Henry IV, Part II
(6) Countess, All’s Well That Ends Well
(7) Portia, The Merchant of Venice
(8) Prospero, The Tempest
(9) Richard II, Richard II
(10) Prospero, The Tempest
(11) Imogen, Cymbeline
(12) Henry VIII, Henry VIII
(13) Princess of France, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(14) Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing
(15) Volumnia, Coriolanus
(16) Sir Thomas Grey, Henry V
(17) Bianca, The Taming of the Shrew
(18) Sir Nathaniel, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(19) Biron, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(20) Dolabella, Antony and Cleopatra
(21) Romeo, Romeo and Juliet
(22) Sicinius Velutus, Coriolanus
(23) Biron, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(24) Brutus, Julius Caesar
(25) Regan, King Lear
(26) Claudius, Hamlet
(27) Oliver, As You Like It
(28) Dick Cade, Henry VI, Part I
(29) Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece
(30) Archbishop Cranmer, Henry VI, Part II