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His Education and His Gift

William Shakespeare's plays and poems continue to make hungry where most they satisfy. Despite 400 years of scholarship and countless productions, age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite variety — which explains why they are so widely quoted and shamelessly plagiarized.

What is more difficult to explain is how a man who lacked a university education created works of such vaulting genius in a language that was only beginning to gain literary respect among scholars at Oxford and Cambridge. The early modern English of the sixteenth century — in the absence of dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammar books — was still largely unanchored by rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation. In the universities of Renaissance England, Latin and Greek were the languages of poetry, drama and history.

What Shakespeare brought to his education were remarkable innate powers of observation, an acute ear for nuances of language and, of course, a particular and rare genius.

But Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.”  What he had, he learned as a child and adolescent at his Stratford grammar school. Scholars can deduce, based on his father's financial and civic status in Stratford and on our knowledge of school curricula in towns like Stratford, that William, at the age of four or so, entered petty school where he learned the alphabet and the rudiments of reading in English. Then at about six or seven years old he entered grammar school and was taught by Oxford graduates, Simon Hunt, Thomas Jenkins and John Cottom. Through these teachers Shakespeare learned Latin and studied, in Latin, the poetry and plays of Plautus, Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and Horace — all standard curriculum in the small town schools of his time.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Through that study, Shakespeare learned the music of language through the use of metrical patterns, rhyme, alliteration and other rhetorical schematic devices. He would also have learned the power of rhetorical tropes and acquired the tools of figurative language — metaphor, simili, synecdoche and scores more. That education and some exposure to the traveling acting companies touring through his village comprised the early rudiments of his future vocation.

What Shakespeare brought to his education were remarkable innate powers of observation, an acute ear for nuances of language and, of course, a particular and rare genius. All that as well as a diligent work ethic (“For a good Poet's made as well as born”) and a strong motivation to make a lot of money, which he did, resulted in a body of work unmatched by any author before or since. Using the gifts he was given, he gifted us with plays and poetry that will live in perpetuity.