What Grammar School Taught Shakespeare About Being a Theater Icon (Guest Post)

Quest post by Cassidy Cash

William Shakespeare attended school at King Edward VI’s Grammar School in Stratford Upon Avon from the age of 7 until the age of 14.

The typical rendition of Shakespeare’s time in Stratford focuses on the fact that Shakespeare studied Latin and Greek. What they fail to mention is that many of the Latin and Greek authors he was known to have studied were not just philosophers, statesmen, and even mathematicians.

King Edward Grammar School

All of these writers were also established and successful dramatists.

Powerhouse Latin authors like Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, the Psalms, Cato, and even Aesop’s Fables, were teaching students history, culture, art, and mathematics along with language and translation. For William Shakespeare, these authors introduced the man who would become the greatest playwright in history to the greatest theater minds then known to the world.

William Shakespeare studied bastions of Roman and Greek theater learning not only their works but also their conventions and staging techniques. Through massive amounts of recitation, translation, and investigative education which was standard curriculum format for elementary students of his day, William Shakespeare was more than prepared to waltz into London to establish himself professionally having received a professional level of training and education specifically in theater that we see him apply in his own plays.

Major conventions from Roman theater include the use of a chorus, adding music to enhance the stage performance, and enrolling the use of a minor character to eavesdrop on a conversation to the benefit of the audience.

Dramatists like Plautus developed these specific stage conventions when he adapted Greek plays for Roman audiences. This same Plautus is the one whose works would have been read, memorized, and translated by a young William Shakespeare at his grammar school years before.

In fact, one of Shakespeare’s most notable conventions–using the prologue to prepare the audience for the coming production, was something employed by another Roman playwright studied as standard curriculum in the 16th century: Terence.

Terence’s use of the prologue broke from tradition in Roman theater. Traditionally, the prologue was used to preface the performance, but Terence took it a step further and used the prologue to plead with the audience and make a case for how they should receive the work at hand. Sound familiar? Shakespeare used the prologue to plead with the audience in plays like Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida.
“Seneca cannot be too heavy, no Plautus too light.”

For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.”

Polonius, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

There are 57 references in Shakespeare’s collected works to the Greeks, and 45 to Latin.  Shakespeare writes 13 times about the Greek mythological queen Hecuba, the story which was the foundation for Euripides, a popular ancient Grecian playwright’s work of the same name. Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, is eerily similar to Euripides’s work called Madea.

As icing on this particular cake, the grammar school would culminate the end of the school each year by having the students perform a play, presumably demonstrative of what they had learned during their studies.

Modern day experts tell us it only takes 10,000 hours to be an expert in something. By studying at his grammar school for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week (as students did routinely). By that estimation, Shakespeare would be an expert almost 3 times over in theater, staging, and indeed playwriting, by the time he arrived in London.

Kind of makes you want to read more books, doesn’t it?

About the Author 

Cassidy Cash is That Shakespeare Girl. Cassidy believes that if you want to successfully master Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the history of William Shakespeare the man is essential. She writes for a vibrant community of Shakespeareans at her blog and produces weekly episodes for her YouTube channel, Did Shakespeare. Connect with Cassidy at her website www.cassidycash.com or on Twitter @ThatShakespeare



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