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William Shakespeare: Childhood

William Shakespeare was born 23 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, an small English market town located about 100 miles northwest of London along the banks of the River Avon. William's father, John Shakespeare, was a prominent local citizen who served as an alderman and bailiff (important roles in local government). His mother was Mary Arden Shakespeare, after whom Shakespeare named the Forest of Arden in the play As You Like It. William was the fourth of the Shakespeares' eight children, only five of whom survived to adulthood.

Though some ill-informed biographers have depicted Shakespeare as poor and uneducated (more on that later), that wasn't really the case. By the age of four or five, young William Shakespeare was enrolled at the King's New School in Stratford, a grammar school run for the benefit of the sons (tough luck, daughters) of civil servants like John Shakespeare. By today's standards, the education that boys like Will Shakespeare received at these grammar schools was incredibly rigorous. Classes started at dawn and were held six days a week. Boys studied the alphabet, moved on to the Book of Common Prayer, and by the ripe old age of seven began instruction in Latin. "They began with what was considered the relatively easy Latin of Aesop's Fables (translated from Greek), then Caesar, and then moved on to Cicero, Virgil, Ovid (the author that seems to have been Shakespeare's favorite), Horace, Suetonius, Livy, and, notably for a dramatist, Seneca, Terence and (perhaps) Plautus,"3 wrote Shakespeare expert Terry A. Gray. Are you smarter than a Renaissance fifth-grader? Maybe, but it's certainly possible that you're not nearly as well-read!

It's impossible to overstate how important this classical education was to Shakespeare's development as an author—and indeed, how important literature in general was to the development of Renaissance England. In continental Europe (particularly Italy), the Renaissance was a triumph of the visual arts—think of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo or Raphael or Donatello. (Yes, that was just a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles joke.) England's Renaissance, however, was one of words. The advent of the printing press meant that more people had access to books than ever before. Classical texts were being translated and distributed at an unprecedented rate. Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, were both big fans and patrons of literature. Under their rule, writers like Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton were able to thrive. All of those men read the same books Shakespeare did while they were growing up. These classical texts, with their allegories and archetypal characters, formed the collective knowledge of a Renaissance audience. Today, we can refer off-handedly to Darth Vader or Harry Potter (or Ninja Turtles) in conversation and know that we probably won't have to explain what we're talking about. Renaissance writers like Shakespeare could take comfort in knowing that their audience would just as easily understand a reference to Ovid or Homer.

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