The age of Shakespeare was not addicted to education. It had little Latin and less Greek, more of Italian and French. It read books avidly but rapidly, rushing to test them with experience. It went to school to life, and talked back to its teacher with unheard-of insolence.
The language that it used was not that of schools. It was the whole spoken heritage of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norman England; it was swollen with the linguistic spoils of France and Italy; it snatched up slang from the London streets,I and dialects from the provinces; and, not content, it made words breed words and let exuberant imagination riot in originative speech. Was there ever a language so vivid, powerful, flexible, and rich? It could not stop to spell consistently; there were, before 1570, no dictionaries to guide orthography, and Shakespeare never decided how to spell his name. Shorthand was used, but did not cool the impatience of bustling business or precipitate poetry.
All organized education of girls had been ended by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the nunneries; but primary education was offered gratis to any boy in reach of a town. Elizabeth opened 100 free grammar schools; James I and Charles I would found 288 more. For lads of pedigree there were already established “public” schools at Winchester, Eton, St. Paul’s, and Shrewsbury; now were added Rugby (1567), Harrow (1571), and the Merchant Taylors’ School (1561), where Richard Mulcaster left a great pedagogical name. The curriculum was classical plus flogging, and the Anglican religion was compulsory in all schools. At Westminster School classes began at seven and ended at six, with humane interludes for breakfast at eight and a cat nap and short recess in the afternoon. Parents were resolved that the school should fill to the full one of its main functions—to relieve them of their children.
Oxford and Cambridge still monopolized university education. They had fallen, during the turmoil of the Reformation, from their medieval authority and myriad registrations, but they were recovering, and each had some 1,500 students in 1586. At Cambridge Sir Walter Mildmay endowed Emmanuel College (1584), and Frances, Countess of Sussex and aunt of Philip Sidney, founded Sidney Sussex College (1588). At Oxford, Jesus College was set up by governmental and other funds (1571), and Wadham (1610) and Pembroke (1624) were added under James I. Cambridge was thrilled in 1564 by a visit from the Queen. She listened with modest demurrers to a Latin oration in her praise; at Trinity College she replied in Greek to a Greek address; on the streets she bandied Latin with the students; finally she herself made a Latin speech expressing the hope that she might do something for learning. Two years later she visited Oxford, gloried in the lovely halls and fields, and, departing, cried out fervently, “Farewell, my good subjects! farewell, my dear scholars! and may God prosper your studies!”19 She knew how to be a queen.
Other Englishwomen rivaled her in erudition. The daughters of Sir Anthony Coke were famous for their learning, and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, made her mansion at Wilton a salon of poets, statesmen, and artists, who found in her a mind capable of appreciating their best. Such women received most of their education from tutors at home. Grammar schools were open to both sexes, but public schools and universities were for men only.
It was a sign of the times when Elizabeth’s ablest financier set up in London (1579) Gresham College for law, medicine, geometry, rhetoric, and other studies useful to the business class; he specified that the lectures were to be given in English as well as in Latin, since “merchants and other citizens” would attend.20 Finally, for the moneyed or titled class, education was completed by travel. Students went to Italy to finish their medical and sexual training or make acquaintance with Italian literature and art, and many learned to like France on the way. Language was then no barrier, for every educated man in Western and Central Europe understood Latin. Nevertheless, when the travelers returned, they brought home some rubbing of Italian and French, and a special fondness for the easy morals of Renaissance Italy.