William Shakespeare of Stratford's life is almost undocumented before 1592. Somewhere in his early education and his "lost years," from roughly 1582 to 1592, must be the explanation for how the son of a glover from a smallish Midlands town became the poet Shakespeare--if William Shakespeare of Stratford is the poet Shakespeare.
What was Shakespeare doing in his early years?
Somewhere he should have been learning the following subjects, which appear in his writing:
- Modern languages, since he quotes untranslated sources in French, German, and Italian
- Modern history
- The workings of the court
- Humanistic learning
- Medicine and the treatment of madness (Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear)
- Geography and customs of France and Italy
- English and classical history
- Hunting and sports, especially hawking
- The law
- Military life
- Astronomy and astrology (Hamlet)
- David Kathman explains his knowledge of modern languages by saying that he read books provided him by Richard Field. These books would have also provided him with his knowledge of modern history and humanistic learning. (See "Shakespeare's library.")
- John Aubrey (Brief Lives, 1681) says that Shakespeare "had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey," citing William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston, an actor and theatrical man who in his earlier life had belonged to the Lord Chamberlain's men and had acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour (1598). This is as likely a scenario as any, and has better provenance than most. E.A.J. Honigmann (Shakespeare, The Lost Years) further argues that Shakespeare might have been in Lancashire, in the household of the Catholic Hoghton family, as a schoolmaster, player, and musician; the Hoghtons had an extensive library.
- He might have learned the workings of the court by being there as an actor, and studied rhetoric as an actor.
- He might have talked to French and Italian people who were living in London. (See "Shakespeare's travels.")
- He might have got his knowledge of sports and hunting through poaching. The Gloucestershire clergyman Richard Davies, around 1616, wrote that "Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir ----- [Thomas] Lucy who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement."
- In 1790, Edmund Malone speculated Shakespeare might have been "employed while he yet remained at Stratford, in the office of some country attorney..."
- Shakespeare might have served in the Low Countries.
- He might have learned much of what he knew in the household of some nobleman. (I have suggested in Chasing Shakespeares that he served in Oxford's household.) He might even have traveled abroad with a nobleman, or, as Anthony Munday did, might have got the money to go to Rome by pretending he wished to become a priest.
Being a schoolmaster wasn't necessarily a guarantee of great learning. My Nebraska grandmother was a schoolteacher at the age of 19, going from school to school to deliver a week's worth of education in a day, driving herself through the snow with a shotgun in the passenger seat. But, if it's true, it means that Shakespeare was at least capable of teaching small children to read.
The difficulty is that, with the exception perhaps of serving with a nobleman, no story explains all of Shakespeare's various wide areas of knowledge. And that story itself has holes; even if Shakespeare were a servant in a noble household, he would not necessarily have access to the nobleman's library or those of his friends, or leisure to read, or experience of hunting and hawking (as opposed to being a beater or standing holding the game bag).
Unlike most other aspiring poets/playwrights, such as Jonson and Marlowe, Shakespeare could not have gone to university; University men were required to be unmarried, and Shakespeare's marriage at 18 had closed higher education to him.
The most likely scenario for Shakespeare's missing years is that he was doing the same things that he did later:
- Shakespeare might have been in Stratford, engaged in business with his father, a glovemaker and a dealer in leather, grain, and wool. In later years Shakespeare is known to have done significant business in Stratford, including moneylending, buying land, and dealing in grain.
- He might have been working for someone else locally. Most Stratfordians dealt in wool, grain, or leather, all businesses on the downturn in Shakespeare's time.
- He might also have been doing some acting, enough that he could have been hired away by one of the theatrical troupes that visited Stratford.
In other words, what we know about his experience does not map closely to what we know about the experience of Shakespeare the poet.
That doesn't make him stupid, or uneducated, or in any way unworthy to be Shakespeare the poet. It only makes him different.
Oxford's experience maps better.
- He is known to have studied modern languages and spent extensive time in Europe
- He studied modern history, which included the history of his own prominent family. In some respects Shakespeare the poet treats history as Oxford might have; for example, the homosexual affair between an earl of Oxford and King Richard II does not appear in Shakespeare's play
- As a courtier, he knew the workings of the court intimately
- He had access to some of the largest private libraries in England (see "Shakespeare's Library") and had his own large library, 600 books by the time he was 16
- He studied law at Gray's Inn
- For eight years he lived opposite Bedlam Hospital, London's insane asylum. As a nobleman, he would have had access to it (at this time, only noblemen could tour Bedlam)
- He favored Paracelsian medicine, as does Shakespeare (SBAN 73-74)
- He traveled in France and Italy, and he or his friends were present at many of the events and places described in Shakespeare (see "Shakespeare's Travels")
- His father was an avid sportsman; Edward de Vere was a champion tourney jouster, rode to hawks, and had a bowling alley at Fisher's Folly (another metaphor that shows up in Shakespeare)
- He was on active service in a number of military campaigns
- He was studying astronomy and astrology with Dr. John Dee at the time of the Nova of 1572. This nova, which essentially blew apart pre-Copernican astronomy, fits with the mixture of pre-Copernican and Copernican astronomical metaphor in Hamlet.
- He is known to have written substantial poetic works
- He contributed material or introductions to a number of books, including Hamlet's favoriteCardanus Comfort, and paid for the printing of others
- He was known to be an amateur actor. A record survives of his acting in front of Queen Elizabeth in 1579
- He maintained several troupes of actors
- He was a trained musician