Shakespeare’s Schooling

Shakespeare’s Trivium, ‘The whining schoolboy …creeping like snail unwillingly to school’

It is not too hard to see Shakespeare in the schoolboy creeping snail-like to school – but thank goodness he didn’t play truant. The education he received at Stratford Grammar School is reflected in his plays. The aim of the school would have been to teach Latin and provide a solid grounding in classic Roman, Greek, and biblical texts, as well as teaching ethics and religion. Classes would begin at six o’clock in the morning, with breakfast at nine. This would be followed by more study from quarter past nine to eleven. There would then be school dinner and a break from study until one o’clock, after which there would be further study until five. Finally, this extended school would serve supper, and six or seven pupils would formally present what they had learnt that day – or, on Fridays and Saturdays, review the week’s learning. One week every school year would be devoted to the pupils reciting their learning for the year.

The method of learning was through the trivium. Grammar would generally be studied first, in order to learn the precepts. As Shakespeare got older, he would have moved on to logic as a tool of analysis and rhetoric as a method of composition. Texts would be studied to look for evidence of how they used the three arts of the trivium (grammar, argument, and style), and then little William would have practised using the arts through copying, writing, and speech making. It is likely that his schoolmasters also taught contemporary literature and debate rather than just logic.

Such exercises in exploring rather than solving arguments are just the sort of thing that might have inspired a young dramatist in his playwriting. Clearly, Shakespeare uses this exploratory art in his most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’, in which Hamlet goes through self-reasoning, or anthypophora, a rhetorical device he may well have learnt at school. In her superb book, Shakespeare’s Uses of the Arts of Language (2005[1947]), Sister Miriam Joseph explores how Shakespeare’s education – and, in particular, the trivium – is reflected in his plays…

Could the underlying method of Shakespeare’s education, the trivium, offer a blueprint upon which to build a contemporary approach to teaching and learning?

I answer this question in the book: Trivium 21c (spoiler: the answer is yes)…

And further explore in the forthcoming book: Trivium in Practice due to be published at the end of May 2016.

The above extract about Shakespeare’s schooling is taken from Trivium 21c, I reproduce it here on the event of the 400th anniversary of his death. 

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Schooling

  1. Cavemen used to draw pictures on the walls of caves using a mixture of saliva, faeces, blood and any other colour they could find in nature and mix together.

    It was, at the time, one of the most effective and efficient methods of communication and indeed in 2016 we can look at 40,00 year old cave paintings and still get a feel for what the cavemen intended to convey.

    I will not however start to write with faeces on the whiteboard any time soon and indeed pictures in caves have been largely superceded as the main method of communication down the ages. The whiteboard and pen have some advantages in this respect.

    I like the trivium as a top level model but I think it needs to be implemented 21st century style.

    I would also like to say, as seemingly the only person who does not rave over shakespeare, that there are in my view much more interesting and relevant ways to pass on wisdom. william never had to deal with facebook, twitter or modern life. Lessons from the past are always best tempered by current realities.

    I always found shakespeare boring and irrelevant when I was youger so I decided recently to revisit. I can report that I found shakespeare even more boring and more irrelevant than I did when I was younger. we have technophobia and claustaphobia, maybe we also need progophobia.


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