The real catalyst for this project was not so much to disprove the theory that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but that they were written by either Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford, but to consider, how were the plays themselves written? By putting forth my own positions and opinions, I do not hope to change minds. I believe Shakespeare wrote and cowrote the plays ascribed to him, but along the way the study of his work opened up to me many rich worlds I had not known before, including that of the Elizabethan Renaissance in England, the works of Greek and Roman playwrights, the literature and universities that the Middle Ages gave birth to, and the literature and culture of Europe during the Italian Renaissance.
The idea that Shakespeare could not have written what he wrote because of his lowly birth is easily dismissed. William's father was a glover, and Marlowe's father was a shoemaker. Somehow Marlowe, a shoemaker's son was able to write classic and influential plays during his short lifetime. If Marlowe, the shoemaker's sone could do it, Shakespeare the glover's son, and son of the town mayor, could also do it, especially as Shakespeare learned from and was influenced by Marlowe along with other playwrights pf his time like Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy of 1592 influenced Shakespeare's generation of playwrights.
If the argument is put forth that Marlowe was university education, a counterargument can be put forth that Shakespeare recieved a first-class education in the Classics from his English Grammar School Education, where he spend 5 years studying the Latin language, the classics of Greece and Rome, and watching the class performances by senior students in Latin of Rome's reknown playwrights Plautus and Terrance.
The world of Elizabethan England was one steeped in the Classics of Greece and Rome. At the public Grammar schools, the equivilents of today's public schools, students spent the five years of a Grammar School Education studying to read and write Latin. The Latin textbooks of the time utilized quatations and sayings from the Greeces and Roman classics. The older students of the Grammar Schools performed comedies by Plautus and Terrance, two fo Rome's greatest playwrights.
Even after Grammar School, 16th century England had a rich reading culture. There were translators, printers, and writers, and a reading public thirsty for books. There were editions of Le Morte D'Artur by Sir Thomas Malory, the most famous version of the Aurthurian legend, printed by William Caxton. There were collections of poetry by English poets. There were the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. The 1500s saw the birth of novels as well as Chronicles of English history, the famous Chronicles of Holinshed being the work Shakespeare consulted for this historical plays about the Kings of England. There was a compelte edition of the tragedies of Seneca, whose influence can be seen in Shakespeare's early Tragedy Titus Andronicus.
Also there was the community of actors and playwrites who often colaborated plays, were influences upon one another, while also being fierce competitors working for competing theater companies. Marlowe was lucky to have attended Grammar School and then go on to study at Corpus Cristi College at Cambridge. There he would have studied the many classics of Greece and Rome, as well as seen student performances of Roman classics. His output in the late 1580s influenced all English playwrights.
Outside the universities was the thriving city life of London, as well as the flourishing of the English Renaissance. Shakespeare benefited from the Renaissance going on all around him. As an actor, director, playwright, and theater owner, Shakespeare was an active member of London's professional theater community in the 1590s and early 1600s.
A discussion of his style and sources could point to what he studied as a young man: the Colloquies of Erasmus, a large collection of Latin dialogues, that he studied at Grammar School, or the tragedies of Seneca, or the comedies of Terence and Plautus (whom his own comedies would take plots and characters from). He took from Plutarch's Parallel Lives the stories and characters for his plays about famous Romans, including Julius Ceaser, Anthony, and Coriolanus.
Shakespeare took stories from Italian novellas contained within popular collections such as William Painter's Palace of Pleasure. And yet to look at his sources alone would be insufficient. All of his sources were widely available to Londoners, Nobles and commoners alike. It is worthwhile to see that just about anybody, especially a playwright such as Shakespeare, had access to the classics from which his plays take their inspiration. The works he takes inspiration from are not the sum total of literature available to Elizabethans, which would easily fill libraries as there were translations of the classics, translations of European authors from the middle ages to the French and Italian Reneassances.
There were novellas by Italians and novels by English writers. There were collections of poetry from everyone from Plutarch to Dante to Chaucer and Sidney. There were religeous and political pamphlets. And while people filled bookshelves with books, the sources for Shakespeare's own works do not take up alot of shelf space.
We of course have to take into consideration that books of the 15th century were different from today's books, but they too were printed in editions for a popular audience. It is true Holinshed's Chronicles was a behemoth of a book, but in that regard it was unique and unlike other books of the time.
So ultimately, the question isn't just about Shakespeare's education in Latin and the classics at Grammar School. Or that the sources for his plays were widely avilabale and easy to come by. Or that he was influenced by other playwrights and even collaborated with them on plays. It also has to be asked how he developed his own style of playwriting, and how being an actor, director and theater-owner may have influenced his choices. It also has to be remembered that he had children himself, children who very well might have attended Grammar Schools as he had done so when he was a teenager. What kind of family life Shakespeare had I cannot say I know, but I imagine him interacting with his children as any other father would. This merits further study.
Without a doubt, Shakespeare grew up in an England undergoing a Renaissance of it's own, where young people got torough educations in reading and writing Latin by studying the Latin classics. There was a flourishing culture of reading and book publishing. Shakespeare was born at the perfect time were there was a flourishing and the beginnings of a classically-inspired theater tradition in England that also catered to and was available to both Queens and Kings, nobility and commoners alike.
London in 1543
Library at Penhurst Place
Oxford University's Magdalen Library
Calke Abbey country house Drawing Room Library
A selection of books Shakespeare read as they would appear on a bookshelf today.