In June 2019, Humanities Texas held a teacher institute in Houston in partnership with Rice University titled "Teaching Shakespeare." Catherine Loomis, professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, presented this lecture examining the teenage experience in early modern England and how events in Shakespeare's teenage years give us a better understanding of his works.
The Oxford English Dictionary, my favorite go-to source for definitions, defines "teen" as "something vexatious, a cause of annoyance, a trouble." I am sure most of you recognize that definition, which began in the year 971. "Affliction, trouble, suffering, grief, woe"—that's what the word "teen" meant to Shakespeare.
The first use of "teen" as in "age" wasn't until the year 1664, and the word "teenager" didn't come into use until 1941, so, in some ways, Shakespeare never was a teenager. In early modern times, the term for this age for young men was "youth" or "stripling." If you were insulting a teenager, you could call him "boy." Young women were called "maids" or "virgins." In The Passions of the Mind (1601), Thomas Wright said that young people "lack the use of reason and are guided by an internal imagination, following nothing else but that [which] pleases their senses, even after the same manner of brute beasts do."
Most of your students will be familiar with the Droeshout etching from Shakespeare's First Folio, where we see Shakespeare as a balding old man, but the most recently discovered portraits are making him younger and younger. We have a more recent one (the Cobbe portrait), finally identified as being Shakespeare, and the Sanders portrait—the most recently discovered; people are still working on the full attribution—where Shakespeare looks quite young, witty, engaging, and interesting.
What made Shakespeare into Shakespeare would have been things that happened to him in his childhood and as a young man. These are some of the things I'd like to talk about today.
When Shakespeare was very, very young, traveling actors visited Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where Shakespeare was born in 1564. Because Shakespeare's father was a town official at that time, Shakespeare would have seen these traveling players. One of the arguments about how "Shakespeare couldn't be Shakespeare," is how could he know so much about drama, having lived way out in the middle of the country? Well, it is because these traveling players stopped by.
In 1575, when Shakespeare was an impressionable eleven years old, Queen Elizabeth visited Kenilworth, which is not too far from Stratford, on her annual summer progress. There were plays, there were pageants, there were speeches. Elizabeth spent the night at Charlecote, which is the great house nearest to Stratford. Shakespeare's father, again, was a public official and would have been invited to at least be present, if not participate, in some of these events. Entertaining the queen was a big fancy business, so the pageantry at Kenilworth, if Shakespeare had witnessed that, would have been absolutely spectacular. It's certainly possible that Shakespeare got to see this pageantry, and he does seem to be referring to it in A Midsummers Night's Dream.
Also, in Coventry, which is another town near Stratford, in 1579, they were still performing mystery plays. There is some evidence that Shakespeare's family may still have been Catholic, despite the official English conversion to Anglicanism, so he may have seen those mystery plays as well. The point is that, as a young man, Shakespeare had lots of opportunities to see plays being performed by professional troupes, not only by amateur actors.
We have some great accounts of traveling players visiting villages, such as this one from Richard Norwood's Confessions (1640) after having seen a play: "From that time forwards, I went no more to school to any purpose, not meeting with an able schoolmaster and my father much decaying in his estate. When I was near fifteen years of age, being drawn in by other young men of the town, I acted a woman's part in a stage-play. I was so much affected with that practice that had not the Lord prevented it, I should've chosen it before any other course of life." We would like to think that Shakespeare may have caught the acting bug in the very same way as Norwood, who was the same age as Shakespeare.
Boy actors were a very important part, obviously, of the Elizabethan theatre. They were extremely competent, and acting and taking part in plays was part of the school curriculum. It was thought to help with public speaking and behaving like an adult. Boys who were very good at it could be basically kidnapped and brought to London to be part of acting troupes. It is possible that Shakespeare saw professional performances, did some acting in school, and may have seen other boy actors at work.
Shakespeare liked to make use of traveling players in his plays: a troupe of them visit Elsinore in Hamlet, and they also appear in the induction of The Taming of the Shrew. Just before the Queen's Men visited Stratford in 1587, John Towne, one of their actors, killed his fellow actor William Knell in Oxfordshire and was arrested and pulled out of the acting troupe. Samuel Schoenbaum, one of Shakespeare's biographers, writes that it is a "pleasing fancy" that Shakespeare may have been recruited into the troupe. So, the Queen's Men arrived in Stratford in 1587 and looked around the town, asking, "Is there anybody here who's good with words who can do a little acting?" And they say, "Hey, that Shakespeare kid, c'mon, come with us." That may be how Shakespeare was introduced to acting. This, unfortunately, is all speculation. If you ever uncover a diary that gives us some evidence of that, please contact the Folger Shakespeare Library immediately.
But we do know that Shakespeare was an actor, and one of the reasons I think he is a good playwright is that he probably wasn't a great actor. If he had been a great actor, he would've been acting in other people's plays. I think he could appreciate great acting but maybe not do it. One of the reasons we know he was an actor is the title page of one of Ben Jonson's comedies, Every Man in His Humour (1598). The principle comedians (the list of the actors) shows William Shakespeare, number one. So, we do have evidence that he acted as well. One of the things that happened to Shakespeare as a teenager is he saw some acting—and possibly did some acting—and that contributed to his adulthood.
A question that often comes up is: how much education did Shakespeare have? In Shakespeare's time, the dame school, or petty school, was for four- and five-year-olds, and that is where they learned to read and possibly to cipher. They may not have learned to write, though. Shakespeare's own father could not write his name, but, when he needed to sign a document, he would draw a geometry compass, which was a tool of his trade—that was his mark. So, that marked him as illiterate, but people often learned to read without learning to write. They needed to read so they could read the Bible, but they didn't need to write necessarily. We now believe previous literacy numbers are not correct and that, probably, many more people [in Shakespeare's time] could read than we used to think.
At the time Shakespeare would have started school, his father was a bailiff, a very important public figure. He was entitled, as the bailiff's son, to go to the King Edward VI Grammar School, which is still standing in Stratford. We know that Shakespeare quotes grammar school textbooks in his plays. Students memorized their textbooks in this period. That was how they did their lessons. They had to actually memorize a page of the book or more every day. We know that Shakespeare read Latin. Some of the Ovid that he quotes is not any English translation but from, apparently, his own translation of the Latin. And the plays feature many, often very sad, references to school boys, so he seems to have known what it was like to be one. It is highly likely that Shakespeare went to school. Most of the records for this period are lost, so we do not have his name on a class roll, but it is not unusual for records of that age to have been lost.
. . .
Boys would be breeched at around age seven. That meant they could put pants on. Until then, they wore gowns as girls did. Boys were sent out to service around age seven, apprenticed at fourteen, and married, on average, at age twenty-six. If educated, they went to a dame school when they were four or five, a grammar school from seven to thirteen, and then on to university. In 1583, Phillips Stubbs wrote, "Every scurvy boy of twelve, sixteen, or twenty years will make no conscience of it to have two or three or peradventure half a dozen several women with child at once." So, not fine reputations. Teenage boys enacted lude stratagems. They broke windows, they overthrew milkmaids' pails, they pulled down stalls, they crushed up the street lights. Terrible things those boys got up to. London had twenty thousand apprentices in a city of two hundred thousand people. They were very rowdy, and there were conduct books that attempted to regulate their behavior. Shakespeare was working with those apprentices in his audience, so his plays are designed to keep them quiet; that is why once every three lines there is a dirty joke.
Shakespeare probably went to the King Edward VI Grammar School and probably did not go to university. He left Stratford and did not seem to be apprenticed to his father. There is a very attractive story that he poached a deer, one or more, and got run out of town. There is also some growing evidence that he was a tutor in the household of the Hoghton family. In 1581, a William Shakeshaft, which is a version of the name that Shakespeare's grandfather used, was left some things in a will that indicated he was an actor. That family was linked to Lord Ferdinando Strange, who was the patron of a London acting company. The very attractive narrative is that Shakespeare went to work in that household as a tutor and, through that household, got to London to be part of an acting company.
Girls could go to the dame school, but then they would almost immediately be sent out as servants around age seven. We have a long list of their daily tasks, a long and terrible list. Girls had conduct books for guidance, and virginity was emphasized. Their average age at marriage was twenty-four, and about 25 percent of brides at that time were already pregnant. We have very few portraits of little girls. Most portraits of teenage girls are marriage portraits. They are made to emphasize their virginity with pearls and their fidelity with a little dog to make them look eligible for engagement. The little red bow, again, emphasizes her virginity and purity.
Thomas Underdown says in "A Rule for Women to Bring Up Their Daughters" in 1566:
Ye mothers that your daughters will
Bring up and nurture well,
These rules do keep, and them observe,
Which I shall here now tell.
If they will go or gad abroad,
Their legs let broken be;
Put out their eyes if they will look
Or gaze indecently.
Pretty strict stuff. This poem goes on and on. There were efforts to control women's behavior very strictly, but then there is this lovely song about a fourteen-year-old girl that is singing about how much she wants to get married. Suddenly, at the very end, one of the verses says, "My mother bids me go to school." So, there is some counter narrative there.
One of the reasons that Shakespeare may have left school was that he apprenticed to his father, which would have been the normal course of events for a family of their class. The normal pattern was not to go to school and then go to university—that was reserved for a very tiny number of boys. Most would either be made pages or servants of some kind or go on to be apprenticed. So, was Shakespeare apprentice to his father?
We do not know. John Aubrey, who, in the seventeenth century, talked to some people who knew people who knew Shakespeare (so not exactly first-hand information) said this: "His father was a butcher"—wrong— "and I had been told here-to-fore by some of the neighbors, that when he was a boy, he exercised his father's trade," he worked as a butcher's apprentice, "but when he killed a calf, he would do it in a high style and make a speech." If you're teaching Julius Caesar, this is a great anecdote because of all of the things that go on with the stabbing. Imagine Shakespeare killing a calf and giving some of those great speeches. But, sorry, his father was a glover and did not deal with butchering at all.
. . .
There were some other options, as Shakespeare explains in The Two Gentleman of Verona. Here is someone talking to a young man:
"He wondered that your lordship
Would suffer him to spend his youth at home,
While other men of slender reputation,
Put forth their sons to seek preferment out,
Some to the wars, to try their fortune there,
Some to discover islands far away,
Some to studious universities." (I.iii.5–11)
So, there were options other than being apprenticed to your father. But running off to London to become an actor was not high on the list.
Did Shakespeare get a university education? Scholarships were available. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's great fellow playwright, had one. He was a shoemaker's son, very much like Shakespeare in terms of social class, and he went to Cambridge on a full scholarship. There is no record that Shakespeare attended a university, and the university records are actually fairly good for this period, so we don't have any evidence that he did.
Shakespeare's father was a glover, so he made small leather goods like gloves and purses. He would have had a shop [in Stratford], and the family would have lived there. Shakespeare would have been born in that very house. Shakespeare's father started out as a farmer's son, moved to Stratford, and became a glover, or what was also called a "whyttawer." He was also a wool dealer, dealing with all kinds of sheep parts. He became the ale taster in 1556. His job was to make sure that when people were selling beer or ale that it was what it claimed to be.
He became the constable in 1558. For those of you who teach Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry and Verges may have been portraits of John Shakespeare or his contemporaries. He was the affeeror in 1559 and a burgess possibly in 1560, but we know that after that he was alderman, bailiff, then chief alderman. You can see he is moving on up. Bailiff was the equivalent of mayor, so a very high position. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped attending the council meetings in 1576. His fellow councilors were very careful to word this in a way that would not get him arrested. They obviously liked him; they felt sorry for him for some reason. He was having serious financial and legal troubles. We have some of the legal trouble documents from 1576 to 1583—all through Shakespeare's adolescence. John was no longer on the town council as of 1586. In 1591, he stopped attending church—which was against the law and resulted in huge fines—and he died in 1601. So, we know that Shakespeare and his family experienced this great disruption.
Just last year, at the Public Records Office in London, Glyn Perry [professor at the University of Roehampton] found twenty-one new documents. It's just amazing; there is still a lot of stuff to find out there. These new documents show that two informers caused John's financial and legal trouble until about 1583. You start to see the link between Shakespeare's life and the kind of spying and informing that goes on in the history plays. This is right out of Richard III. The trouble continued until 1583, when William was nineteen. They include multiple writs against John that recorded his debts to the crown, including one for 132£, which is the equivalent of 20,000£ today, about $35,000. His property remained at risk of seizure by the crown, hampering his credit as an entrepreneur. He was engaged in a business that depended on being able to establish credit, and this debt prevented him from doing that. This has given us a much more nuanced look at why those financial problems happened and also shows some of the links to Shakespeare's work.
When Shakespeare was fourteen, his seven-year-old sister Anne died. If you imagine Shakespeare as someone who is sensitive and aware of the world, that must have been a terrible trauma, as it would be for anyone. The Stratford-upon-Avon parish register records births and deaths. It lists the name and the date but nothing else. It doesn't tell you why someone died, so we don't know if Anne died of an illness or an accident or what happened to her. We also know from other public records that, between 1578 and 1582, Shakespeare lost two aunts and a young cousin. This is not an uncommon number of deaths—the mortality rates in this period are absolutely shocking when you study them—but this is something that he was going through regularly as a teenager.
. . .
When Shakespeare was fifteen, Katherine Hamlett drowned in a nearby village. The coroner in this case was Henry Rogers of Stratford, so Shakespeare, through his father, would have heard the details of this. This is what the coroner's report says, translated from the Latin:
"That the aforesaid Katherine Hamlett, on the seventeenth day of December in the twenty-second year of the reign of the aforesaid lady the Queen, going with a certain vessel, in English a pail, to draw water at the river called Avon in Tiddington aforesaid, it so happened that the aforesaid Katherine, standing on the bank of the same river, suddenly and by accident slipped and fell into the river aforesaid, and there, in the water of the same river on the said seventeenth day of December in the year aforesaid at Tiddington aforesaid in the County aforesaid by accident was drowned, and not otherwise nor in any other fashion came by her death."
What is this trying to say? That it was not suicide. It sounds like there was something very suspicious about the death, and so the coroner's report very carefully emphasizes she had a pail with her, that she must have been going to draw water, so it couldn't possibly be suicide. You can again see the links between things that happened in Shakespeare's lifetime— this woman named Katherine Hamlett—and the death of Ophelia in Hamlet, which is not in any of Shakespeare's source texts. In the source texts, Ophelia lives happily ever after. But here, again, in Gertrude's account of Ophelia's death in Hamlet, is this effort to claim this is not a suicide. Gertrude says Ophelia was climbing up a tree to hang up a wreath she had woven, and she fell, and her clothes got wet, and that pulled her down into the water. "Her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death." Whether or not Shakespeare knew Katherine Hamlett personally—it's likely that he did because it was a very small world in and around Stratford—he makes this same effort in his play to prove that this was not a suicide.
In the year that Shakespeare turned sixteen, his brother Edmund was born. John and Mary Shakespeare had eight children. They had two daughters, who died in infancy, in 1558 and 1562. We know the first one died, even though there is not a record of her death in the parish register, because they reused the name in 1569. William was the first child who survived. It is kind of unusual that he did because he was born in April. Then, in July, in the parish register, is the most terrifying phrase you can find in a parish register: hic incipit pestis. "Here begins the plague." There is an outbreak of bubonic plague in July 1564 that killed two hundred people, which was one-third of Stratford's population. William did not die, and that tells us something, I think, about Mary Arden. He had a brother, Gilbert, who was born in 1566, who died before William did, in 1612. He had a sister, Joan, who survived him, and her descendants are the living link to Shakespeare. His sister Anne died in 1579, and his brother Richard died in 1613. His brother Edmund, who became an actor and also a character in King Lear, died in December 1607, and Shakespeare paid for a very lavish funeral for him.
When Shakespeare was eighteen, he got married to Anne Hathaway. Sonnet 145 is a very oddball sonnet, not quite as sophisticated as the rest. This is a sonnet that we think Shakespeare wrote to Anne Hathaway because the couplet at the end says, "'I hate,' from hate away she threw." That is her name, "Hate-away, Hathaway," pronounced the same way. "And saved my life, saying 'not you.'" Instead of saying I love you, "I hate not you." Teenagers really like this sonnet.
Please take the hand of someone near you, just like you are shaking hands, and repeat after me: "I plight thee my troth." You are now legally married to the person whose hand you are holding. That was all you needed for a legal marriage: you have looked at each other, you have spoken the present tense, and there was a witness. The fact that Anne Hathaway was pregnant when they had their church wedding does not mean that they were not married; they may have had this handfast marriage. But there were some complications. Shakespeare was a minor. He was eighteen, not twenty-one. The bride was pregnant. It was Advent. So they had to have a special license with the big financial guarantee that the child that would result from this pregnancy would not become a burden to the parish. The clerk wrote the bride's name as Anne Whateley, and this has lead to centuries of speculation about a conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was in love with another Anne and forced to marry Anne Hathaway. But the most likely explanation is a careless clerk. There are tons of mistakes that he made that scholars have tracked; he seems to have had a lot of trouble with names.
Thomas Deloney writes in Jack of Newbury (1597), "It is not wisdom for a young man that can scantily keep himself to take a wife; therefore I hold it the best way is to lead a single life; for I have heard say that many sorrows follow marriage, especially where want remains." The advice for William and Anne would have been, "No, don't do that until you can support her." Then Shakespeare himself writes in Twelfth Night: "Let still the woman take / An elder than herself: so wears she to him, / So sways she level in her husband's heart." Anne was twenty-six; Shakespeare was eighteen. Then we have Anthony Copley in Wits, Fits, and Fancies (1614): "One used to say: who so hath a daughter but twenty years old, well may he bestow her upon her better; if twenty-five, upon her equal; if above twenty-five, then upon whosoever list to have her." Finally, we have, from The Tempest:
"If thou dost break her virgin knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow, but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both." (IV.i.15–22)
In other words: "Don't sleep with her before marriage, that will make for a very unhappy marriage." This is thought to be Shakespeare's own commentary on his marriage, but it actually fits in within the story of the play. Why are Romeo and Juliet so young? Aristocrats often arranged marriages at a much younger age, and also the boy actor playing Juliet would have been thirteen or fourteen, so needed to be young.
When Shakespeare was nineteen, his daughter was born. His daughter, Susanna, married a physician, John Hall. She had a daughter, Elizabeth. Susanna was known to be witty above her sex. Her daughter Elizabeth died without issue, so there are no direct descendants from that line. Then Anne Hathaway had twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Hamnet died in August 1596 at age eleven. Again, no cause was given. Judith married the town rogue in 1616, causing Shakespeare to change his will. William Davenant, a playwright born in 1606, claims that he is Shakespeare's illegitimate son. When Susanna turned thirteen in 1596, Shakespeare was writing, or had written, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummers Night's Dream, so that is a good thing to keep in mind: he had a daughter that age. By 1598, he was the father of two teenage girls.
This is what we have as a result of those teenage years. Something happened to turn Shakespeare into the person about whom we say, "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee."
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (IV.vii.162–179)