Samuel Lewkenor’s Discourse … of forraine Citties (1600) is a handbook for armchair travellers who wish to know distant places ‘without travelling to see them’. It contains a useful guide to the most ‘priviledged Universities’ of Shakespeare’s day – including the German city of Wittenberg (pp. 15v–16r), where Hamlet and Doctor Faustus study, and the Italian city of Padua (pp. 31r–33r) where Lucentio pursues his ambitious ‘course of learning’ in The Taming of the Shrew (1.1.9).
As Lewkenor makes clear, the city was notorious in the 16th century for its connection with ‘controversies and disputations of religion’ (p. 15v). In 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546), a professor of theology at Wittenberg, nailed his famous 'Ninety-Five Theses' on the door of the University church. He was protesting against the Catholic sale of indulgences (licences that were said to grant sinners freedom from God’s punishment in exchange for money). Instead, Luther argued that faith alone could justify people in God’s eyes. Luther’s actions marked the start of the Protestant movement for reform of the Catholic Church that became known as the Reformation.
There are four striking references to Wittenberg in Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet and Horatio are all ‘fellow-students’ there, but Claudius and Gertrude ask the Prince to ‘stay’ in Elsinore rather than ‘going back to school in Wittenberg’ (1.2.113).
Critics have debated ways in which Hamlet reflects the religious controversies of the Reformation, combining the Catholic idea of a ghost in Purgatory with Protestant references to Wittenberg.
Padua is the ‘nursery of arts’ where Lucentio goes to study and ‘suck the sweets of sweet philosophy’ in The Taming of the Shrew (1.1.2; 28). As shown by Samuel Lewkenor, the city was world famous for the ‘amazing glory of her farre renowned Academie’ with its ‘most illustrious … Emporie of good letters & ingenious artes’ (p. 31v).
Education and self-improvement are wider and more complex themes in Shakespeare’s Paduan play. Those who set out to teach others often seem to have most to learn, and they find the hardest lessons in the school of life, not academic training. Lucentio and Hortensio become figures of fun when they pose as schoolmasters just to win Bianca’s love. Katherine is re-educated at Petruchio’s harsh ‘taming-school’ (4.2.54), but we might hope, at the end of the play, that marriage will teach him a thing or two.