Shakespeare and creative education

Posted on 11-03-2017

This essay was first published in the Spring 2016 edition of Use of English.

I can remember reading Othello for the first time when I was studying A-level, and feeling slightly disappointed and cheated when I read the notes about Shakespeare’s sources for the play. What particularly offended me was how the main female character in the source version of the story, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, was called Disdemona. Not only had Shakespeare not bothered to come up with a plot of his own, but he had made only the most token attempt to disguise the fact by changing Disdemona to Desdemona.  And Cinthio’s novella seemed, from the sections in the Arden notes at least, to be the worst kind of melodrama, full of stock heroes and villains. What would the modern equivalent of this be? Ian McEwan writing the story of Dirdre Barley, resident of Coronel Street, and her unjust imprisonment by the British state? He’d obviously be laughed out of town.

Nor was this use of sources a one-off. I was to go on to learn that most of the Roman and Greek plays borrowed from Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch, and that most of the English history plays borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles. Still others borrowed from contemporary playwrights. To give a couple of examples of such borrowing from just one play, look at Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare has Enobarbus describe Cleopatra’s procession along the river Cydnus as follows:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

(Act 2, Scene 2, 195-214)

North’s translation of Plutarch is remarkably similar.

She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.[1]

Other parts of the same play are borrowed from more recent sources. Antony and Cleopatra was probably written in about 1606, and is clearly influenced by Samuel Daniel’s play The Tragedy of Cleopatra,  written in 1594: ‘there are a number of details common to both plays which are not to be found in Plutarch.’[2] Daniel’s Cleopatra speaks of her determination to die in the following terms: ‘I have both hands, and will, and I can die’ and ‘For who can stay a mind resolve’d to die’.[3] Shakespeare’s Cleopatra speaks of ‘My resolution and my hands I’ll trust’ (4.15.49).

To the modern eye, this may all look a bit like cheating. However, it is interesting to consider such practices in the light of Shakespeare’s education, where such reliance on source materials was actively encouraged. Shakespeare probably attended the King’s New School in Stratford from about 1571. At this time, there were approximately 360 grammar schools in England, and we have a fairly good idea of the curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and the prevailing pedagogical style.[4] These grammar schools were based to a very large degree on the memorisation and repetition of classic Latin texts. The curriculum was deep rather than broad. New material was introduced relatively rarely, and when it was, it was studied to exhaustion. In Brian Vickers’s words:

The curriculum was not large, but the teaching was incredibly thoroughly. New facts were released sparely (new words at a rate of three a day) and after the master’s explanation the pupil would repeat it, memorize it, be asked to recite it; be tested again, repeat it, and be made to use it over and over until there was no chance of forgetting it. The amount of repetition required is frightening. School hours were from 6 am till 9, then breakfast; 9.15 till 11., then lunch; 1 till 5, then supper; 6 till 7, for pure repetition; for thirty-six weeks a year, and for four to six years. First thing in the morning pupils were tested on the facts they had been given to learn the previous day. Then some new work was introduced to be studied until lunchtime; that afternoon it would be repeated, and a little bit more added. All would be rehearsed in the evening, tested next day, and so on. Fridays and Saturdays the whole week’s work was reviewed and repeated.[5]

Pupils would memorise definitions and examples of over a hundred rhetorical figures, and be encouraged to spot them when reading literature. They were also encouraged to use such literary texts as models and templates in their own writing. Cardinal Wolsey advised grammar school teachers as follows:

You are to mark every orthography, every figure, every graceful ornament of style, every rhetorical flourish, whatever is proverbial, all passages that ought to be imitated and all that ought not.[6]

In short, Shakespeare was encouraged at school to memorise, to imitate and to repeat, and in his plays, we can see Shakespeare took this advice to heart. We have already seen how he used and manipulated his sources in a very similar way to that recommended by Wolsey. We can also see that the rhetorical figures he memorised at school formed a vital part of his craft.  In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode traces the evolution of Shakespeare’s language across his career. His earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, may well be his ‘most learned’, full of the rhetorical techniques he would have learned at school. Marcus’s speech at the end of the play features Senecan tags, Homeric epithets, and references to the myths of Philomel and Orpheus. Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, employs such figures in a different manner – but it still employs them. There is imagery involving an osprey and a fish, ‘a conventional bestiary illustration’ which Kermode describes as being ‘tersely adequate’; then ‘the oxymoron “noble servant” illustrates with precision the dilemma of Coriolanus’ and finally there is synecdoche, with a casque standing in for the battlefield, and a cushion for the senate house. Coriolanus was written in the early 17th century, but Shakespeare would have learnt those figures and examples of them at school in the 1570s.[7] We can also see the direct impact of particular textbooks on Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most popular textbooks of rhetorical techniques was George Susenbrotus’s Epitome Troporum Ac Schematum, and TW Baldwin has shown how Shakespeare used very many of these stock figures in his work. For example, Susenbrotus used lead and stone to represent dullness or stupidity, and air and fire to represent speed and swiftness, and these symbols recur frequently in Shakespeare’s work. Similarly, in Susenbrotus, asyndeton is illustrated by Caesar’s famous line: I came, I saw, I conquered, and this exact line pops up again and again in Shakespeare. A line from an ode from Horace about the ‘wicked Adriatic sea’ is exemplified in Susenbrotus as an example of synecdoche, and reused in The Taming of the Shrew. There are countless examples of Shakespeare’s reuse of such stock phrases, both those from Susenbrotus and other popular rhetorical textbooks of the time.[8]

What does Shakespeare’s obvious reliance on memorisation and imitation mean for his reputation as one of humanity’s most creative minds? Have we been getting it wrong for all these years? Is he actually, to borrow a phrase from one of his contemporaries, Robert Greene, an ‘upstart crow’ whose best work is copied from others? Probably not. Far from reconsidering Shakespeare’s reputation, we need to reconsider modern notions of creativity and originality. Our modern ideas of these concepts are influenced by the Romantics, by the idea of the lone and solitary individual summoning up great thoughts in a spontaneous ecstasy. In Shakespeare’s day, Greene notwithstanding, creativity was seen as relying more on tradition, and poetry ’was a craft to be studied.’[9] Shakespeare was not the only creative genius to emerge from this milieu.

Credit for the ability of so many Renaissance writers to use the full expressive resources of language must be given to the humanist school-system and to the masters who so energetically enforced it…we can see from their later compositions, the schools exerted a lasting impression on the writers who attended them.[10]

Another famous product of a similar education wrote the phrase which best sums up this model of creativity: ‘if I have seen further, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.’[11]

Which conception is right? Is creativity best developed in the somewhat paradoxical way encouraged by the Renaissance grammar school, by engaging with tradition? Or is the more spontaneous and free-flowing method preferred by the Romantics and most modern educationalists to be preferred? Interestingly enough, there is a body of recent academic research which seeks to answer this question – and the evidence so far is all on the side of the Elizabethan grammar schools. In a range of different disciplines, researchers have shown that mastery and creativity are the result of thousands of hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which popularised the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory, he charted the development of original thinkers as varied as the The Beatles and Steve Jobs, and showed that all of them depended, as Shakespeare did, on hours of often quite gruelling practice.[12] The academic research underpinning Gladwell’s book is perhaps even more interesting than this. The ‘10,000 hours’ idea derives from the work of the Swedish cognitive scientist K Anders Ericsson. Ericsson showed that what mattered was not just practice. Mere experience, or hours logged, does not help develop mastery of a discipline. Instead, what matters is what Ericsson termed ‘deliberate practice’.[13] Deliberate practice involves breaking down a skill into its constituent parts, and practising those. This is better at developing skill than simply practising the skill itself. Musicians, for instance, don’t practice by playing a piece again and again, but by playing scales and practising particularly tricky parts of the piece. Footballers don’t practise by playing full-sided games, but by doing passing drills and playing small-sided games. Practice does make perfect, but it’s a particular kind of practice. Paradoxically, it’s more useful to practise activities that don’t look like the final end goal. Cognitive science also emphasises the importance of ‘overlearning’: it isn’t enough to understand something in the moment, or to perform it successfully once or twice. Performance isn’t learning. To truly understand and master something requires repetition, often beyond the point we may think necessary.

We can see how both deliberate practice and overlearning were present in Shakespeare’s education. The analysis of rhetorical figures involved breaking down literary texts into their constituent parts and memorising those parts. And we’ve also seen that relatively little new content was introduced: pupils had to ‘overlearn’ content before they were allowed new material. The apparently oppressive repetition of grammatical and rhetorical drills may not seem on the surface to be particularly helpful for developing creativity. But actually, they were. The insight from Shakespeare’s education and modern research is that far from stifling creativity, memorisation and repetition enable it.  As Rex Gibson said,

Everything Shakespeare learned in school he used in some ways in his plays. At first, he applied his knowledge of the rules of language as he had acquired it at school. Some of his early plays seem to have a very obvious pattern and regular rhythm, almost mechanical and like clockwork. But having mastered the rules, he was able to break and transform them; to move from Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hamlet and The Tempest. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of learning by rote, of constant practice, of strict rule-following. Or, to put it another way, ‘discovery favours the well-prepared mind’. Even the early plays show the same quality of writing that characterises his greatest plays. Shakespeare turned his school knowledge into striking dramatic action and vividly realised characters. His dramatic imagination was fuelled by what would now be seen as sterile exercises in memorisation and constant practice. What was mechanical became fluid, dramatic language that produced thrilling theatre.[14]

One very good example of how this process worked can be seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have seen how Shakespeare borrowed from Susenbrotus the stock figure that lead was dull and slow. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth the schoolboy says to his master, Armado, that a horse is moving ‘as swift as lead’. Armado reprimands him: ‘Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?’ It seems obvious to Armado (and presumably to the grammar school alumni in the audience), that Moth has misunderstood this chapter in the textbook. However, Moth responds that ‘You are too swift, sir, to say so: / Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?’ In this scene, both Shakespeare and Moth’s creativity are on display, and both reveal exactly what Gibson and the cognitive scientists would say about the development of creativity. Moth’s witty subversion can only happen if he knows what the stock meaning of ‘lead’ is, and Shakespeare’s scene also depends on his knowledge of the rhetorical figures and their role in the typical schoolroom. Far from being stifled by school, the originality and wit of both Moth and Shakespeare grows out of such ‘school knowledge’. Baldwin offers us a plausible explication of how Shakespeare’s thought processes might have worked here.

The development of this sequence in Shakespeare’s mind is significant. He begins by reversing the conventional idea of lead as the symbol for slowness. Then he jumps to its conventional antithesis, the idea of thought as the symbol of swiftness, correlated with air and fire, as lead and stones are with earth. Finally, both lead as bullets, and thought are connected as symbols of swiftness. Clearly, Shakespeare had in his mind to begin with both the hyperbole plumbo stupidior and the symbolism of lead to represent the slower elements, as mind represented the swifter elements of air and fire. So when his mind started on lead, it inevitably worked through these previously prepared grooves.[15]

Shakespearean scholars and cognitive scientists approach the development of creativity in very different ways, but they have both come to similar conclusions. If we accept the conclusions of these academics, what are the implications for modern education? It is at this point that many readers will become uneasy. It is all very well to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s education from a distance, but suggesting they might provide a model for modern schooling is a different matter. Even Vickers, who praises the impact of the Elizabethan grammar schools, calls the amount of repetition ‘frightening’ and ‘remorseless’ and says ‘one is glad not to have been a boy at such a school – or, perhaps more, not to have been a master.’[16] This is certainly a powerful argument. It may well be that Shakespeare’s education was peculiarly suited to developing creativity – but it may also be that we are not prepared to sacrifice that much in order to develop it. Other things are more important.

Still others might argue that the world has moved on since Shakespeare’s time, and that such methods are impossible to bring back, even if we wanted to. Perhaps the best counter-argument to this comes from Dorothy L. Sayers, in an article about education which features a Shakespearean analogy.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back–or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot”– does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if “the Middle Ages” is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it–with modifications–as we have already “gone back” with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the “modernized” versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.[17]

The analogy with Shakespearean performance is an intriguing one. Just as we have ‘gone back’ to performing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and indeed often using stages and costumes as similar to his as we can find, what might it look like if we were to ‘go back’ to a more Shakespearean mode of education? Obviously, as Sayers says, there would be modifications. Just as we do not now perform Shakespeare with only male actors, so too no-one would propose excluding girls from education, or indeed reintroducing corporal punishment. Similarly, one would not want to bring back the punishingly long hours, or the exclusive focus on Latin literature.

But there are clearly some places where our departures have been in error. Another modern scientist, Herbert Simon, has reflected on the accuracy of a great deal of what might be termed ‘traditional education’, even as he suggests how we could improve on its principles. In his words,

Human beings have been learning, and have been teaching their offspring, since the dawn of our species. We have a reasonably powerful “folk medicine,” based on lecturing and reading and apprenticeship and tutoring, aided by such technology as paper and the blackboard –  a folk medicine that does not demand much knowledge about what goes on in the human head during learning and that has not changed radically since schools first emerged. To go beyond these traditional techniques, we must follow the example of medicine and build (as we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years) a theory of the information processes that underlie skilled performance and skill acquisition: that is to say, we must have a theory of the ways in which knowledge is represented internally, and the ways in which such internal representations are acquired. In fact, cognitive psychology has now progressed a long way toward such a theory, and, as we have seen, a great deal is already known that can be applied, and is beginning to be applied, to improve learning processes.[18]

Much of the powerful ‘folk medicine’ that Simon refers to has in fact been abandoned in the past fifty years as being out of date. Before we can improve learning processes in the way Simon suggests, we first of all have to reverse some of those abandonments. If we were to combine the best of a traditional Shakespearean education with what we know from modern science about how we think and learn, what might it look like? We might see a focus on memorisation and mastery, and of depth before breadth. We would perhaps see new technology used to help memorisation, not to try and replace it. More attention would be given to how drill is scheduled and organised, with modern theories about the best way to time and space repetition being used to structure the school day. We would probably also see more of a focus on a core, shared body of knowledge, but in a range of different subjects, not the exclusive focus on Latin authors that we saw in Shakespeare’s day.

The task for current educationalists is in itself a creative one, somewhat akin to that of Shakespeare’s own process of creation: to absorb and master the best practice from the past, and the latest research from the present, and to synthesise it in such a way as to create something new. Or, in the words of a Shakespearean contemporary, when we innovate, we must ‘make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.’[19]

[1] Qtd in Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s plays. Routledge, 1977, p.221.

[2] Muir, p.229.

[3] Qtd in Muir, p.229.

[4] Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. Vol. 1. University of Illinois Press, 1944.

[5] Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989, p.257.

[6] Qtd in Mack, Peter. Elizabethan Rhetoric: theory and practice.  Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.15.

[7] Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Macmillan, 2001, p.17-26.

[8] Baldwin, Vol. 2, pp.138-175

[9] Kermode, p.32.

[10] Vickers, p. 264.

[11] Newton I. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 574.

[12] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette UK, 2008.

[13] Ericsson K.A., Krampe R.T. and Tesch-Römer C. T’he role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ Psychological Review 1993; 100: 363–406; Ericsson K.A., Charness N., Hoffman R.R., et al. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[14] Gibson R. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 46–47.

[15] Baldwin, Vol.2, p.150-1.

[16] Vickers, pp.257-8

[17] Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ (1948). Accessed December 1, 2015.

[18] Anderson J. R., Reder L.M. and Simon H.A. ‘Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education.’ Texas Education Review, 2000; 1: 29–49.

[19] Bacon, Francis. ‘Of innovations’.  The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 1996, p.387.

Sign up for email updates Sign up to the mailing list and get free spaced repetition resources