September 13, 2010
School Days

September means back to school for most students, and more than a few will be required to analyze the iconic works of William Shakespeare. So what did Shakespeare study?

In Elizabethan England, children usually began attending 'petty school' at age five. The petty school was typically an adjunct of the local grammar school, and as the son of a prominent citizen of Stratford, young Will was entitled to a free education. A teacher known as an abecedarius instructed the children in reading. Students employed a hornbook, the must-have handheld learning device of the time, consisting of a leaf of paper displaying the letters of the alphabet, occasionally numerals, and the Lord's Prayer, mounted on a wooden paddle and protected by a thin translucent sheet made of cow's horn. From the hornbook, children graduated to 'ABC' books--alphabetic readers--and the Q&A dialogue format of the Catechism.

After two years students moved on to the grammar school, where they'd remain until age fourteen. The curriculum was centered entirely on the teaching of Latin. Instructional texts had to be learned by heart; students were expected to converse in Latin, and not English; Roman authors were studied in depth; and in some schools students honed their language skills by performing scenes from Old Latin comic dramas. It's conceivable that the bard-to-be was introduced to the five-act play format at King's New School on Church Street, and his comedies draw heavily upon the classic works of playwrights like Plautus that he would have encountered there.

But Elizabethan education wasn't the party scene that concentrated study of a dead language and knee-slapping ancient soap operas would suggest. The days were long, starting at six in the morning and running straight through until five in the afternoon, with breaks for mealtime and recreation. Sunday was the only day off, and there was no summer vacation, no spring break, not even study hall. That's a lotta Latin.

Which may explain a passage from one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches. In As You Like It, the melancholy Jaques presents his version of the Seven Ages of Man in his ''All the world's a stage'' monologue, defining youth as:

. . . the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

Discuss amongst thyselves. ( : { >








(please write "YES" above so we know you're not a spam robot)

© 2010-12 by Michael Rogalski. All rights reserved.