Shakespeare's childhood and education

From plague in the family to young love, Simon Callow explores Shakespeare's early life as the son of a glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon.

We have to lay our cards on the table when we speak of Shakespeare’s life: in reality, apart from a scrap or two here or there, we have nothing remotely like precise and revealing documentation of the man himself. We have the bare facts (some of which are, admittedly, a little imprecise); we also know a great deal about the lives of Shakespeare’s contempo-raries and neighbours. Between these two, the particular and the general, a vivid if incomplete picture of Shakespeare’s life – if not of his personality – emerges. We know, for example, who his parents were. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we know what Shakespeare's parents were: John Shakespeare was the son of a tenant farmer from Snitterfield, a couple of miles outside of the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, to which he moved at the age of 20. He was a glove-maker and leather-worker, a specialist within the rag trade – an important business for the highly clothes-conscious Elizabethans, who lived under the exigent sumptuary laws that prescribed appropriate garments for each class. John Shakespeare seems to have prospered; before long he was working his way up through local government, starting as the town ale-taster (nice work if you can get it). When he was in his mid-twenties he married Mary Arden, whose father had been John’s landlord; the Ardens, a distinguished local family – famously Roman Catholic at a time when Catholic was not a good thing to be – were definitely a cut above the Shakespeares socially. But John was a coming man, the business thriving and his activities extending in various directions, not all of them strictly legal.

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

When John Shakespeare worked as glove-maker, Elizabethan sumptuary laws prescribed appropriate clothes for each class.

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Drawing of Shakespeare's house by George Vertue

Drawing of New Place by George Vertue

The second largest house in town: Returning to Stratford as an adult, William Shakespeare bought New Place in 1597.

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The first child, Joan, died almost immediately, killed by the plague, to which the second similarly succumbed. So William was the first child to survive – a son, at that, and an heir. Shortly after his birth there was yet another savage visitation of the plague, but it passed the Shakespeares by in their little house in Henley Street. We know nothing of how the Shakespeares felt about all of this, but it is hard to believe that little William did not hold a special place in their affections. Much, no doubt, was expected of him. And his relationship with his mother might have been particularly intense: the staggeringly high rate of in-fant mortality had in no way accustomed them to loss or made them immune to grieving. They prized their children all the higher as a result of it and deeply mourned the ones they lost. ‘Never, never, / Must I behold my pretty Arthur more’, laments Lady Constance, heartbreakingly, in King John (3.4.88–89).

Grief fills the room up of my absent child:
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. (3.4.93–97)

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

‘Almost always infected with the plage, and there dye many’: John Florio reveals the dangers of the plague in London and across England.

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It is reasonable to assume that during William’s early years Mary Shakespeare was grieving – quite a challenge for a child, who generally feels the need to bring his mother out of her sadness, sometimes, indeed, feels that he is the cause of it. Of course, with the arrival of the next child, Gilbert, and subsequent siblings – Joan, Anne, Richard and baby Edmund, who appeared when William was 16 – the pressure would have been off. But especially in those two years before Joan was born, the intimacy between mother and son would have been great: Elizabethan fathers barely saw their children until they were ready to go to grammar school at the age of seven. Before that, they lived in an entirely female world populated by neighbouring housewives, aunts and godmothers and grandmothers: there is an irresistible picture of this world (an aristocratic version of it, any-way) in The Winter’s Tale, just before the terrible eruption of Leontes, who, mad with jealousy, disrupts and disturbs the loving, playful world of childhood. ‘Take the boy to you; he so troubles me, / ’Tis past enduring’ (2.1.1–2), says Queen Hermione of Sicily, to her ladies-in-waiting, playfully pushing aside her boy, Mamillius. ‘Come, my gracious lord,’ says one of the ladies to the little Prince. The exchange continues:

LADY Shall I be your playfellow?
MAMILLIUS No, I’ll none of you.
FIRST LADY Why, my sweet lord?
MAMILLIUS You’ll kiss me hard and speak to me as if I were a baby still.– I love you
better. (2.1.3–6)

Shortly, the Queen changes her mind:

HERMIONE Come, sir, now
I am for you again. Pray you sit by us,
And tell’s a tale.
MAMILLIUS Merry or sad shall’t be?
HERMIONE As merry as you will.
MAMILLIUS A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins (2.1.21–25)

Infant boys even wore girls’ clothes. Wearing trousers was a formal rite of passage known as breeching: there was a party to celebrate it, but the little chap who crept to school like snail thereafter may not have felt that there was much to celebrate.

Grammar school was tough. (There is in fact no record of Shakespeare’s name on the register of the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, but his father’s position on the council – by now he was an alderman – brought free education for his sons with it, so it is inconceivable that he would not have been educated there.) These grammar schools were part of the Tudor educational revolution of which the chief beneficiaries were middle-class boys like Will Shakespeare, who were being groomed to be lawyers and clerks, Church of England ministers, secretaries to politicians or indeed politicians themselves, many of whom came from perfectly ordinary middle-class families. They were being trained up, in fact, to be the mainstays of the rapidly expanding Elizabethan state. They didn’t study history, they didn’t study mathematics, they didn’t study geography, they didn’t study science. They studied grammar, from dawn to dusk, six days a week, all the year round. Grammar – Latin grammar. They translated from Latin into English and from English into Latin. At school, ordinary conversation was in Latin; any boy caught speaking English was flogged. And they mastered the tropes of rhetoric, from antimetabole (where words are repeated in inverse order) to zeugma (where one verb looks after two nouns). This is the language of power and politics: of the law, of Parliament, of the court, and this is the world of which young Will and his fellow pupils would soon, it was hoped, be part.

The Arts of Logic and Rhetoric by Dudley Fenner

The Arts of Logic and Rhetoric by Dudley Fenner

One of many textbooks on rhetoric (1584), teaching English schoolboys like Shakespeare the art of speaking persuasively.

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As it happens, Will Shakespeare wasn’t one of those boys, because when he was 13 his father went bust. John Shakespeare was fined for dealing in wool and – far more gravely – for usury, for exacting interest on loans he had extended. For the latter, an ecclesiastical offence, he was obliged to stay away from church for fear of being arrested. So to financial embarrassment was added shame: not easy for an adolescent to deal with. Not easy either, perhaps, to leave school early, and go to work in your dad’s shop, which must surely be what happened. There William would have learned the skills of selling and book-keeping, but also of actually making gloves, belts and purses in the workshop – skinning the animals, drying the skins, cutting them to shape with a paring knife, dipping them in the deep vats of dye.

Sermons against usury

Sermon against usury

John Shakespeare was accused of usury – charging too much interest on loans – a practice condemned in Henry Smith’s sermon, 1594.

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So that by the time he got married at 18 – startlingly young by Elizabethan standards – he had experienced an enor-mously wide range of milieus: nursery, school, shop. He had been the proud son of a prosperous and respected fa-ther, who had attained the rank of High Bailiff, mayor in all but name, and had then known what it was like to lose face and respect along with his father. All very psych-forming. In addition, he had had access to the regular theatre performances given by travelling players, because for a while, on his way to the top job, his father was the town’s Chamberlain, with responsibility for arranging performances. And at school, he most probably acted in extracts from Latin plays. With marriage, of course, came another kind of experience, a different education: as husband and lover, and as father. When the time came to start writing plays he was well prepared. All that was needed was genius, which, happily for us, was present in nuclear quantities.

Travelling players in the friendship album of Franz Hartmann

Travelling players in the Friendship Album of Franz Hartmann

A watercolour painting (1597–1617) possibly depicting English players on their way to perform at the Frankfurt fair.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

  • Simon Callow
  • Simon Callow was born in London in 1949. He went to Queen's University in Belfast, but after a year he ran away to become an actor. He trained at the Drama Centre; his first job was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1973. In 1979, he created the part of Mozart in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, and later appeared in the movie, playing Emmanuel Schikaneder. He has since appeared in over forty films. He directed his first play in 1984, the year in which his first book, Being an Actor, appeared. His sixteenth book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, appeared in 2012. In 2017 his book Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will was published. 

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