Learning about education in Shakespeare’s town and the universities

Duncan Salkeld’s new book Shakespeare among the Courtesans is based on close study of documentary evidence, a technique which he notes sometimes takes a battering. Facts, he notes, are “subject to interpretation, and so refracted through a variety of political, semantic, and rhetorical…conditions.” And nowhere are facts more open to a variety of interpretation than in the murky world of prostitution. I’m going to be coming back to this book in a future post, but anyone who’s tried to get a clear view of Shakespeare studies by looking at contemporary documents will agree when Salkeld notes “one of the most rewarding aspects of this kind of research is its unpredictability”.

When I opened the book I was surprised to find an account of a court hearing at London’s Bridewell Hospital in 1598 in which a young woman, Elizabeth Evans, was accused of prostitution. Salkeld highlights it because it was clear that the notorious Evans had evaded arrest for some time. The case was well-documented and called on a number of witnesses to give evidence against her. But it wasn’t the records of the case as such that caught my eye. In her statement to the court she stated that she was fromStratford-upon-Avon. To give herself some social status she had used the aliases Elizabeth Dudley and Elizabeth Carew, names of two noble families from the Stratford area.

Two of the witnesses in the case also named themselves as being fromStratford, Joice Cowden and George Pinder. And Joice Cowden declared that “she was borne on Stratford-uppon-haven and further she saith that she this examinate went to school with the same Elizabeth Evans”. George Pinder confirmed Cowden’s facts, including that he had been asked to call her by the name “Carew”. She clearly wanted to be seen as more than a common prostitute, and perhaps her education, along with the fact that she could sign her name elegantly, helped her to make the point. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what happened to her between her childhood in Stratford and the time of her court case?

Trying to find these people in the Stratford registers is more difficult. George Pinder’s baptism is recorded in 1566, making him just two years younger than Shakespeare, but what of the girls? In 1574 there is Anne, daughter to William Evans,  and in 1572 Elizabeth, daughter to William Cutler. William Evans’ profession was a cutler: might this have been a mistake on the part of the clerk? As for Joice Cowden, there are no Cowdens in the register, though Richard Cowell had two daughters born in the 1570s, Rose and Jone. Just as with Shakespeare’s family, the official records don’t supply all the answers.

The Schoolroom in Stratford-upon-Avon

On this document, found, unpredictably, in the records of a London court, we find the only evidence so far for the existence of a school for girls in Stratford-upon-Avon, in fact I think it may be the only statement by anybody who went to school in Stratford during this period, though the Grammar School definitely existed. Evidence for life in Shakespeare’s Stratfordis found in the most unexpected places. Historian Mairi Macdonald suggests that this Dame school was probably taught by a woman, maybe in the same building as the main Grammar School, but not necessarily. Both girls and boys could attend this kind of school which for boys led on to the Grammar School: girls weren’t so lucky.

On the theme of information about education turning up where you might not expect it, this week’s radio programme The Long View took a look at the problem of graduate unemployment both now and in the sixteenth century. In the student play The Return from Parnassus, staged 1601-2, Cambridge University graduates voiced their disillusion on finding their degree was no guarantee of a job.  The Elizabethan period saw an expansion in education, the Grammar Schools like Stratford’s responding to the increasing numbers of places being made available at university. Thomas Nashe commented in his 1589 book The Anatomie of Absurdity, that men of obscurity from the lower end of the social scale were able to become the equal of princes because of the opportunities given them by education.

The ends of the sixteenth and the twentieth century were both periods of massive social change, when the expansion of education, especially at university level, was government policy. Shakespeare, like many bright young people today, found that the lack of a degree was no barrier to success, while expectations for graduates have been  raised that the job market could not fulfil. If you’d like to listen to The Long View, it’s still available to listen again.


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3 Responses to Learning about education in Shakespeare’s town and the universities

  1. Mairi Macdonald says:

    Don’t know whether or not I’ve mentioned this, but Ashgate will be publishing ‘The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford’, by various contributors, hopefully by the end of the year, which will examine not only the origins of the Guild complex but also the history of their use during the sixteenth century including detailed studies of the architectural development of the site and Elizabethan education.
    This is the link to Ashgate’s Theatre Studies catalogue in which it features http://www.ashgatepublishing.com/default.aspx?page=2238#Theatre

  2. Chris Morris says:

    Hello Sylvia,

    That looks like a good local history project to occupy Richard’s spare time!!

    This is probably a bit off-topic but the first paragraph lit a (very slow) fuse…
    Of course, Salkeld is arguing for Reason, in a way not very different from good old Leopold von Ranke, against the Humpty Dumpties of Postmodernism as he describes them elsewhere, but when historians start casually throwing around the word “facts” as though they were scientists it can be misleading (which is what makes history debates so long and interesting, naturally).
    Salkeld himself comes dangerously close to HumptyDumptyism when, in discussing Shakespeare and Intentionality, he says: “Central here is the strength we demand of the verb ‘to know’. Once the requirement of infallibility is dropped, a compelling dialogue about evidence can begin.”
    If facts are also fallible they can hardly be regarded as facts and so, while the aspiration towards scientific rigour is highly commendable, it can (and often does) lead to debates that go on for ever and never seem to get anywhere.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thank you for this great comment. You’re well ahead of me as I’m afraid I’ve not heard of Leopold von Ranke! I completely take your point about “facts” and “evidence” which tend to get used by people in the humanities as if they were studying science. For me it’s the idea that historical “facts” are open to a number of interpretations that makes the subject so interesting. It’s the same with any work of art, especially I think live performance.

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