Back in the 90’s, my ex-husband and I were in a position to build our dream home. The kind you build to live in forever (we made it five years). Since this was my dream house I had a library built next to the living room. I did not know it at the time, but the room was more of a salon, less than a private library. It included two walls of built in bookshelves, a sitting for six comfortably and a piano for entertainment. I spent many a long afternoon talking to friends about history, religion and current issues in the library/salon.
At the time I was in my early thirties and “uneducated”. I had a long held dream of finishing college but motherhood and lack of self esteem kept from trying. This did not mean I was not well read or ignorant of good literature. My library was filled with nonfiction books as well as the classics. I read anything and everything that I felt would broaden my understanding of the world around me. I could hold a conversation with even the most educated of our community. I was lucky enough to call the late Dr. Mark Lappe my friend.
Along with the heart break of divorce I had to decide what to do with the hundreds of books I had collected and shelved in my library. I was moving out of state and the cost of moving all my treasured books was more than I could afford. What was a bibliophile to do? I decided to have a moving sale. The books were a big draw; we lived in small coastal town without a book store.
I will never forget the look on a retired professor’s face when she walked into my library to see if I had a book or two that might interest her. She turned and looked at me in utter bewilderment. “You’ve read all of these? If I had known, we could have been friends“. Yes, this is what she said to me! She assumed, because I did not have a degree behind my name I was not worthy. She assumed I was not worth talking to or that we would have nothing in common because I did not have a college degree. What a thing to assume!
I thought of this story the other night as I read D,L. Johanyak’s Shakespeare’s World. In it he says the major reason why the critics of Shakespeare do not believe he is the author of the plays that bear his name is because he was uneducated; that he did have a college education. How could someone, who did not attend higher education, come up with all the words, terms and ideas that we attribute to William Shakespeare?
What kind of world did Shakespeare live in that would allow an uneducated man to write what and how he did?
Like me, William Shakespeare was probably well read and was friends with those who were educated and well traveled. Johanyak tells us that by 1500 there were over 35,000 printed books in circulation. There were books on Western and Classical history, science, biographies and travel books. The list of history books at Shakespeare’s disposal alone could be enough to have had an impact onhis history plays.
The Elizabethan English holidays included many pagan rituals, including Midsummer Eve. This holiday is the backdrop to A Midsummer’s night dream. Even Christian holidays had in their core, pagan practices. It would not take much of an imagination or college education to use social rituals and traditions in play writing.
Renaissance music was becoming more and more complicated; this was the beginning of the Baroque period. The music Shakespeare heard could have been a catalyst for his of rhyming style. Or perhaps the many poets who still traveled as entertainers inspired him.
There were advancements in science and medicine. William Harvey had discovered blood circulation. He wrote Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals. In 1543 Copernicus wrote On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere. Shakespeare grew up knowing the earth was not the center of the universe. Mental illness, which shows up a lot in Shakespeare’s plays was starting to be taken serious as a disease, even if this disease was thought to originate in the liver.
Just because Shakespeare did not attend college does not mean he was to ignorant to write about the world around him. I resent the idea that a country bred man would have been to ill informed to invent new words and turn the world of theater upside down.
The world of Shakespeare, like our world today was a one in which anyone who wanted to, who had the time, could become self educated. The Renaissance was the beginning of the modern world, with new thoughts and ideas spreading as fast as trade and disease. The dreaded plague, or Black Death hit London early in Shakespeare’s career. It shut the theaters down for a while which could have given him the time to read and learn about his world. We will never know just where Shakespeare got his ideas or what his muse was. What we do know is, that, thanks to the invention of the printing press he had the world at his feet. We cannot assume a lot about Shakespeare, but we can assume he was smart and well read. For all we know, he too had a library in his small London home.
Next up, the various mediums I have used to learn more about the Bard.