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Illustration of Mr William Shakespeare monument from the title cover of "Shakespeare without a Life" by Margreta de Grazia, published by Oxford University Press

On Shakespeare’s “illiteracy”

No greater honor could have been conferred upon Shakespeare than the one he received in 1623: the publication of his plays in the monumental folio format associated with the great works of the ancient past. The volume’s very durability assumed the lasting value of its content. Like the classics, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies was meant to live on. And yet one small phrase in the most lavishly praising of the verse eulogies throws the project into doubt. In “To the Memory of . . . Mr. William Shakespeare,” Ben Jonson mentions, as if in passing, that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.” The detail seems amiss. Why drop a language barrier between Shakespeare and the ancients, especially in the very sentence invoking the ancient tragedians who wrote in those languages: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca? With only minimal knowledge of Greek and Latin, how could Shakespeare have studied the ancient models that were at the heart of any vernacular attempt to rival them?  

There could be no doubt about the classical status of the 1623 Folio’s precedent: Jonson’s own 1616 folio, The Works of Benjamin Jonson. His mastery of the tongues was unquestionable, as was his imitation of the works in those tongues. The affiliation of his opera to the classical tradition was emblazoned on his folio’s title page: a triumphal arch with allegorical figures, classical architectural elements, and Latin mottos. The content was organized into several genres, each with a classical counterpart. To Jonson, the conferral of the dignity of the folio on Shakespeare’s plays must have seemed a travesty. His plays might have merited the fleeting applause of the popular stage or circulation in ephemeral quarto pamphlets; but not the everlasting fame of publication in folio.

Yet Jonson was not the only contemporary to target Shakespeare’s scant learning. In what is assumed to be the earliest reference to Shakespeare, Robert Greene warns three fellow scholars of “an upstart Crow” (a raucous countryside bird, the bane of farmers) who beautifies his wings by plucking the pennings (penne, quills or feathers) of others. Greene here may be objecting not to Shakespeare’s practice of lifting from the writing of his betters but to his lack of the credentials that would entitle him to do so. (Greene, of humble rearing, might have been similarly stigmatized, if not for his Cambridge degrees.)

Among playwrights, Shakespeare was an anomaly: all of his contemporaries had either matriculated at Cambridge or Oxford or, like Kyd and Jonson himself, had the private education that was a close equivalent. In a verse letter addressed to Jonson, Francis Beaumont, an Oxford matriculant as well as Jonson’s pupil, feigning untutored modesty, likens his style first to that of a Devon cheese-maker and then to Shakespeare’s: 

heere, I would lett slip
(If I had any in me) schollershipp,
And from all learninge leave these lines as cleare
 As Shakespeares best are. 

In this jibe, even Shakespeare’s best lines lack scholarship.

Shakespeare may himself have made a joke of his unlearning. Both As You Like It and Merry Wives of Windsor feature an academically challenged character who is repeatedly called William. In the formerthe stock country bumpkin is mocked by the court fool: to Touchstone’s question “Is thy name William?” he replies “William, sir”; and to Touchstone’s rhetorical follow-up, “Art thou learned?” he answers an earnest, “No, sir.” In Merry Wives of Windsor, an entire scene focuses on an underperforming schoolboy who bungles through his Latin declensions as his exasperated school master calls him to attention 10 times by name.

If Shakespeare was widely identified as undereducated, might the designers of his funeral monument have been faced with the same challenge as the compilers of his bibliographic monument? Perhaps they, too, felt the need to cover up his low-level education. John Aubrey, who saw the Stratford monument as early as 1640, noted that Shakespeare’s statue, quill and paper in hand, wore the academic robes of his own alma mater of Oxford University. 

In every biographical notice of the next century, Shakespeare’s limited education is his salient feature. Thomas Fuller comments, “Indeed his Learning was very little”; Edward Phillips echoes his assessment, “probably [Shakespeare’s] Learning was not extraordinary.” Aubrey is slightly more positive: Shakespeare “understood Latine pretty well,” at least well enough, Aubrey speculates, to have taught it, albeit in the provinces, as “a Schoolmaster in the Countrey.” But in an anecdote circulating around the same time, his learning hits rock bottom. Shakespeare, the story goes, on the occasion of the christening of his godchild, Ben Jonson’s son, presents him with the christening gift of a dozen spoons inscribed with Latin mottos; he tasks Jonson with their translation, though the inscriptions must have been simple, at the level of a child’s first words in Latin: Fides or Deo Gratias.

In the eighteenth century, the folio volume in which Shakespeare’s plays were published in 1623, 1632, 1664, and 1685 breaks into serial volumes. Yet the aim is still to promote Shakespeare as an English classic. In the first of the multi-volumed editions, Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, the same classicizing engraving reproduced on the frontispiece of all six volumes makes its purpose clear: Shakespeare is being laureated by togaed figures of Comedy and Tragedy, with trumpeting Fame aloft, and shady Ignorance underfoot. 

Frontispiece to all six volumes of The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, 6 vols., ed. Nicholas Rowe (1709)

Yet in the edition’s prefatory Life, Rowe returns to Jonson’s meager appraisal, inventing an incident to account for it: his father withdrew him from the local grammar school and could thereafter give him no “better education” that of his own wool-dealing trade. Rowe later finds a match for his “small Latin” in Titus Andronicus: “about that of one of the Gothick princes,” the loutish youth who recognizes a Latin quote from Horace familiar to any Elizabethan schoolboy. But Rowe finds abundant evidence of the same lack in the dramatic writing itself: its routine neglect of the dramatic unities, its preference of character over plot, its unregulated or undisciplined style. In a supplementary seventh volume to Rowe’s edition, the critic and dramatist Charles Gildon measures each of Shakespeare’s plays and poems against ancient works of the same genre, believing Shakespeare’s learning had been underestimated, while allowing that had it been greater, so, too, would his works have been.

In the preface to his 1765 edition of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson looks back on Shakespeare’s reception: “There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages.” But that tradition was nearing its end. Two years later, Richard Farmer published An Essay on Shakespeare’s Learning demonstrating that Shakespeare had not needed Greek or Latin: he acquired learning of the ancients through translation. Yet would Jonson have thought it possible to imitate the ancients in English or in any of the continental vernaculars? Would translations retain the form, rhetoric, and style of the originals? But by 1800, the question was moot. The imitation of the ancients was no longer essential to literary composition as genius, originality, and experience came to rule the day.

Recent Comments

  1. Eba Solare

    “The imitation of the ancients was no longer essential to literary composition as genius, originality, and experience came to rule the day.”

    So there!

  2. Robert Shwab

    Insert Edward DeVere as the proven author and the Stratford man as the beard, the enigmas disappear, and you see how comical and confused is this article.

  3. Sicinius

    The Klingon theory of Shakespearean Authorship rates higher than the case for Edward De Vere these days.

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