The Stratford Grammar School

Part 11 of "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims"

Oxfordians correctly point out that there is no documentary evidence of Shakespeare's schooling, thought they often neglect to add that there are no records of any student at the Stratford school before 1700. They also neglect to mention that this lack of documentation does not make Shakespeare at all unusual among his peers: as I pointed out in another of these essays, the list of Elizabethan playwrights for whom there is no contemporary record of schooling is a long and very distinguished one, including Ben Jonson (considered the greatest classical scholar in England) [note], George Chapman (famous translator of Homer, and another great classical scholar), Michael Drayton (one of England's most famous poets, mentioned by Meres in Palladis Tamia more often than Shakespeare), John Webster, Thomas Dekker, Cyril Tourneur, etc. etc. Oxfordians also make much of the fact that Shakespeare's father and many of his contemporaries signed with a mark and were probably illiterate, but they neglect to mention that Shakespeare's generation was demonstrably much better educated than his father's, due to extensive improvements in the schooling system (see David Cressy's Education in Tudor and Stuart England and Literacy and the Social Order for more information).

Oxfordians often insist that a child had to be able to read to enter a grammar school such as Stratford's, and if Shakespeare's parents were illiterate, who would have taught him to read? As in so many other matters, the Oxfordians are confused here: the normal practice, especially in a country town such as Stratford, was to have a "petty school" attached to the grammar school proper, in which an "abcedarius" taught the youngest students to read. We know that Stratford had such a petty school, and we know the name of at least one abcedarius, from 1600 (Thomas Parker). Furthermore, T.W. Baldwin, in William Shakspere's Petty School, says that "Shakspere makes it abundantly clear that he learned to read from The ABC with the Cathechism, the conventional text of his day," which Baldwin then proceeds to demonstrate in detail with many echoes of this work found in the plays.

As for the grammar school proper, the curriculum of the Stratford Free School (incorporated in 1553) does not survive, but since the educational system was nationalized under Elizabeth, we can safely extrapolate from curricula which do survive from elsewhere. We know that the boys would have gotten a thorough grounding in Latin and the classics, and Baldwin, in his massive two-volume work William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, shows in great detail how the typical grammar school curriculum of the day is reflected in Shakespeare's plays. In addition, quite a bit of circumstantial evidence indicates that the Stratford grammar school was an excellent one, better than most. All the headmasters while Shakespeare was growing up were university graduates with good reputations; one of them, John Brownsword, was sufficiently well-known as a Latin poet to be mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia thirty years later --- on the same page as Shakespeare. Furthermore, several of Shakespeare's Stratford contemporaries went on to achieve things that indicate they received a very good education, and the natural inference is that they received it at the Stratford grammar school. These boys all came from the same middle-class background as Shakespeare, whose father John was a glovemaker and longtime alderman in the town. For example:

These contemporaries of Shakespeare were all born in Stratford within a few years of him, to fathers of very similar social standing and educational background. They all got a good education somehow, and surely we are justified in assuming that they got it at the Stratford grammar school -- somebody was being educated there, or else the schoolmaster's salary was going to waste. If these boys got such a good education, why wouldn't Shakespeare, whose father was one of the most prominent citizens of the town? Even if we ignore the plays later published under his name, and the local tradition (first recorded over a century later by Nicholas Rowe) that Shakespeare had been "bred at a free school," there is every reason in the world to believe that he attended the Stratford grammar school and got a good education there.


Ben Jonson supposedly went to Westminster school, though he is nowhere to be found in the student lists which survive; our only reason for thinking he went there is an oblique reference to "his master Camden" in his conversations with William Drummond in 1619, combined with the fact that William Camden was headmaster at Westminster at the time Jonson would have been there. But even these conversations with Drummond should be highly suspicious according to the standards Oxfordians apply to Shakespeare, since the original manuscript has mysteriously disappeared (except for a cover sheet) from among Drummond's papers, and all we have is a transcript made around 1700, some 60+ years after Jonson's death. Around the same time (1709) appears the first written indication that Shakespeare went to grammar school in Stratford. Readers familiar with Oxfordian double standards will perhaps be prepared to learn that Charlton Ogburn unhesitatingly accepts the fact that Jonson attended Westminster and even tries to use it in his arguments, even while insisting that Shakespeare could not have possibly attended the Stratford grammar school.

To other essays in "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims":
Back to Shakespeare Authorship Home Page