Learning by Living
In Love’s Labors Lost, Armado’s exclamation about the boy’s “Sweet smoke of rhetoric” complements the boy’s previous remark about his “penny of observation.” These two metaphors capture Shakespeare’s genius, both to observe and to poetically express human nature. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, the country boy, not the nobility, possesses these qualities. In this sense, Shakespeare answers those objectors who, centuries later, argue that his particular genius could not have flowered in a less formally educated youth from a small town like Stratford.
Cerimon in Pericles, Prince of Tyre also speaks to this issue:
I hold it ever
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches. Careless heirs
May the two latter darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god.
During the latter part of the eighteenth century when Shakespeare was becoming deified in the public mind, his authorship was called into question.
Scholars now know that the grammar school education Shakespeare would have received in a town like Stratford included, among other subjects, the study of rhetoric through the reading and memorization of Roman plays and poetry in Latin. That schooling lasted long hours, six days a week, for over a decade. Then in London, his life-long learning would have continued through the voracious reading of books he could have acquired at stalls and shops around St. Paul’s Cathedral. Shakespeare, like many in the audiences who loved his plays, may not have attended a university but, considering the popularity of his plays, they did not lack for learning. At any rate, Shakespeare’s works were popular not for their scholarship, which was sometimes flawed, but for their poetic language (which is acknowledged a few lines later with “Sweet smoke of rhetoric”) and his characterizations of human nature. In this exchange the boy makes the case for the study of people, not books, as a source of his insights. What Shakespeare possessed, in addition to his learning, his powers of observation and his facility for poetic expression, a fertile genius that flowered for more than two decades. The source of that genius is still a mystery.
The boy’s line about his, “penny of observation,” seems an apt response to Robert Green’s A Groatsworth of Wit, (a groat being a small coin, and wit in this context meaning learning and knowledge). In 1592, Green, an Oxford and Cambridge educated writer, drafted his screed in which he belittled the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers.” Green seemed annoyed that a grammar school-educated country boy was getting notice for writing erudite works for theatre that were rich in allusions to Greek myths, Roman plays, and English history. In Groatsworth of Wit, Green alluded to a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of York refers to Queen Margaret as having “a tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” Green wrote of Shakespeare as having “a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.” So the boy’s “penny of observation” seems a deliberate turn-around on Green’s “groatsworth of wit.”
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