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Week 2 summary

Summary video bringing together some of the themes and ideas from Week 2 of Shakespeare and His World
Hello, Learners. Welcome to the week two summary. I’m Jonathan Bate. And I am Jennifer Reid. And this week, we’ve been looking at Merry Wives of Windsor. You recommended at the end of last week’s video that we look at the scene where boy William goes to school. So big theme this week is Shakespeare’s education, what do we know about it? Well, we don’t know as much as we would like, because the actual records of admissions and enrollment at the Stratford grammar school are lost. But we do know that, because Shakespeare’s father was on the town council, he was entitled to educate his sons for free at the grammar school. We don’t have the exact syllabus of the Stratford grammar school.
Again, that’s not survived. However, the syllabuses were very similar across the grammar schools. And we have syllabuses of very comparable grammar schools. And from that, we can work out what Shakespeare would have studied in school, which, as we said in the films, was predominantly Latin, Latin grammar, Latin rhetoric, and then Latin poetry, Latin literature.
And the really interesting thing is the way that the kind of knowledge, the use of language, the knowledge of the classics that we see across the plays, corresponds very closely to what was studied in the grammar schools. So what about outside of school, what would he have learned in the home were his parents educated. And would they have read to him and taught him at home? It’s a really good question. There are wonderful moments in some of the plays of children being read to. In The Winter’s Tale, one of the late plays, there’s a lovely scene of the little boy, Mamillius, wanting a story. There’s no doubt, storytelling, folktales, were very much part of family life.
But again, we have to work this out from, as it were, general patterns of children’s upbringing in the period, rather than specific evidence that we have about Shakespeare. Although, there are a number of references in several of the plays to particular stories that were well-known around Warwickshire, as it were, local traditions. And would girls have gone to school? So girls went to what was called, the petty school, which was like the early years. But they didn’t go to the grammar schools. Went with the boys to petty school? To petty school, yeah. Yeah.
But the grammar school education, which was very much growing at the time, as we said in the films, as the government, both local government and national government, were really sort of taking off in Tudor England. They needed a bureaucracy. They needed more educated young men to serve the nation, to serve the aristocracy, to serve in local government, to serve the legal system. So lots and lots of middle class boys were going to grammar school. Girls, different story. Obviously, aristocratic and very well-off young women would have had private tutors in their homes. And how do we know that Shakespeare didn’t go to university?
We know he didn’t go to university because, when he arrives in London and starts writing plays, he’s mocked by the dramatists who did go to university. This idea of the ‘upstart crow,’ the idea that a mere actor, person from the provinces, coming, probably with his kind of rural Warwickshire accent and setting himself up as a playwright, the university-educated dramatists, who were very successful at the time– people like Christopher Marlow, George Peele, Tom Nashe, Robert Greene– they really thought he was trespassing on their territory.
And of course, in the character of Justice Shallow, who we, of course, see in the King Henry IV, Part 2 as well as in Merry Wives of Windsor, there’s actually a reference there to going to Oxford, not going to Oxford. And so there are these little kind of hints around the world of Shakespeare’s plays, that he perhaps had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder about not having had a university education. You mentioned there him going to London. What do you think his motivations would have been for going to London?
Well, there’s been a lot of speculation about this, because there is this period of Shakespeare’s life between the birth of his twins in 1583 and his firm appearance in the London theatre world in the early 1590s. A lot of speculation about where he was. Did he travel? Was he a schoolmaster in the country? Was he a lawyer’s clerk? Who knows. I think the most interesting document from within that period is one that shows that, around 1587, 1588, there’s a legal case that’s to do with a dispute about a mortgage involving Shakespeare’s father. And by this time, Shakespeare’s father’s fallen on hard times. He’s hiding from his creditors.
But the case goes to a lawyer in London and a court in London. And it must be that William was the man who went to London to see the lawyer there. And if you check, William, son of John Shakespeare, is actually mentioned in that legal case. So my hunch is that he first went to London on legal business on behalf of his family. I’m actually a little bit sceptical about the old story that he was a schoolmaster in the country. I think it’s not impossible that he stayed, essentially, working in the family business, but then found himself going to London on family business.
Conceivably, did actually consider becoming a lawyer’s clerk, which you could do without actually having a law degree, and then got sucked into the theatre world. And what about the journey to London? How would you have made that from Stratford? Yeah. I mean, that, you walk, or horse, or horse and cart. And you’re talking about a three, four-day journey. There were recognised stopping off points. They stopped off at Oxford on the way.
And of course there’s a story that goes back to William Davenant, who was a dramatist the generation after Shakespeare, who was the son of a woman called, Jane Davenant, who kept a tavern in Oxford where Shakespeare used to stop off on the journey to London, and Davenant sometimes liked to claim that William maybe had a little affair with Jane. [LAUGHS] So this week, the big focus has been the regional parts of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Some of the jokes, like you mentioned last week, are quite hard to get. How do you think they would have gone down in front of the audience in London?
I think the key thing there to remember is it’s not the audience, is multiple audiences. Shakespeare’s always writing with an awareness that he’s got a very mixed audience. So for instance, there does seem to be this particular joke at the expense of the Lucy family, the aristocratic family from Charlecote near Stratford, a joke about the coat of arms. And often, that’s been linked into the idea that Shakespeare maybe had to leave Stratford, because he was poaching. That is really aimed at a very, very tiny part of the audience. But some of the other things in the play– I mean, just the idea of a kind of comedy Welshman mispronouncing certain Latin words, so they sound a little bit rude.
That’s kind of available to pretty well everybody. But this is the case, I think, throughout our study of Shakespeare’s plays. We just need to remember it’s kind of multiple levels of meaning for multiple audiences, in jokes, quite sophisticated jokes, for the better educated, for those smart young lawyers, maybe some commentary on particular known affairs in court circles, but then also more kind of knock about comedy and so on for the wide audience, for the so-called groundlings. Next week, we’re looking at Midsummer Night’s Dream, a bit more of a popular one. Most people have heard of it. Do you have any advice for reading that one?
I always think, in thinking about Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s really useful just to think a little bit about the different groups of characters in the play. So you’ve got Theseus and Hippolyta, the Duke at the court. Then you’ve got the gentry scenes, the young lovers, and the idea of the father wanting his daughter to marry one boy, not another. But then, you’ve got the magical world of the forest with Oberon and Titania and the mischievous Puck, the fairies, and so on. And then you also have the artisans, the more working class characters, Bottom, the weaver, and his friends putting on their play.
So it’s a really interesting play to look at in terms of the different sorts of language you get with the different groups of characters, the different strata of society, and the movement between the court and the magic of the forest, and the movement, of course, also, between day and night. It’s also a play that has been filmed several times over. I’m not sure if there’s every been a really successful film of it. It was one of the first Shakespeare talkie films back in the 1930s. The great director, Max Reinhardt, did a version with James Cagney in it.
The film version I like best, if learners are able to track it down, is actually a filmed version of a wonderful, magical New York stage production– Brooklyn, actually, It was put on by the great director, Julie Taymor. And it was specially filmed, but based on a stage production. So if you’re able to get hold of the Julie Taymor Midsummer Night’s Dream, that’s a real treat. Great. It’s a good tip. Well, thank you Jonathan. And thank you, Learners. See you next week.
In this summary video, we bring together some of the themes and ideas from Week 2 of Shakespeare and His World.
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