The Baird William Shakespeare is often seen as the greatest playwright in English literature. But what was life like in Shakespeare’s time in the town he was from – Stratford-upon-Avon, England? Here, Dean Hill tells us about life in 16th century Stratford.
If you have the opportunity to visit Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon in England to experience the wonders of theatre, try to visualize the river Avon ‘sweeping away bridges’1 as you advance to the market town. Next, observe goods being exchanged and look to your south: ‘a parish church rose to the south at Old Stratford, and from here one walked north into good streets, partly paved, to see Pedagogue’s House accommodating a grammar school, a range of almshouses, and the Gild hall and Gild chapel.’2 You might also decide to find a place to rest, and houses were often constructed of timber of two or three-storeys in height.
Stratford during the time of Shakespeare offers a captivating historical insight. To begin, his father, John, ‘had probably moved to the town as a young man to learn the trade of … a tanner of white leather and glover.’3 The house that was occupied by Shakespeare’s parents is much larger than homes built today as they were required to accommodate greater numbers of children in the 1500s. According to Wells, Stratford would have had a population of around 2,000 inhabitants, many of whom ‘would have bought and sold their wares in the market place on the appointed days.’4
Disasters in Stratford
However, the town had more than its fair share of disasters, as per the following claim: ‘less than three months after Shakespeare was born, plague struck … close on 240 townspeople died, including four children of a single family close to the Shakespeares’ house, in Henley Street.’5 In fact, such constructions were a serious fire hazard: ‘the buildings were made of wood, many of them thatched with stray, and the town suffered several major conflagrations during Shakespeare’s lifetime.’6
Fortunately, Shakespeare’s home still remains. It was here that his father had his workshop; ‘some of the family urine would have been put to practical use here, for softening the skins. The smells … would have been pungent, the less pleasant ones from the workshop mingling with those made by the baking of bread and by roasting on a spit.’7 Families would escape such uncomfortable experiences by attending their local church on Sunday and holy days.
But what about education during the 1500s?
‘Elizabethans had a great respect for education … between the ages of around five to seven, both girls and boys might attend a petty school where they would learn to recognize and pronounce their letters from a hornbook – a sheet of paper inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, a short prayer, and … combinations of vowels and consonants.’8 We know that Shakespeare received an education in Greek and Latin as traces of this schooling can be found in his most famous and celebrated plays.
In terms of Latin, ‘the fluency in Latin acquired by Elizabethan schoolboys, even in small towns like Stratford, meant that they could not only use the language for practical purposes, but could also both read and enjoy the great literature of the past to which they were exposed in the schoolroom.’9 If you were to find Shakespeare out of the schoolroom, he would have been ‘enjoying childish pursuits such as playing with whip and top … he may well have learnt to swim in the Avon, to practise archery.’10 This provides us with an insight into the world of education and leisure in Stratford.
To conclude, let’s finish our tour through Shakespeare’s Stratford. You notice most men are around five feet tall, some with grey teeth, and exclaim to your friends: ‘I must see this street with the same slight curve but without shop windows, the road surface rough and marked with dung of horses and cattle, all the houses or almost all timber-framed, malodorous.’12 At the town’s northern end it is ‘an old, built-up street, traversed by horsemen riding through on the way up to Henley-in-Arden.’13 You find wagons drawn by oxen bumped over a cross-gutter in front of Gilbert Bradley’s house and, according to Honan, ‘wagons and pack-horses were less likely to use the parallel way known as the Gild Pits, or royal highway, since it was rutty.’14
We know that Shakespeare disappeared from Stratford, perhaps to spend time with a travelling theatre company, which is termed ‘the lost years’ – but certainly not due to his dislike of the rutty parallel way or road surfaces marked with dung. Whilst the 1500s might have offered rather poor standards of living, it did offer a man with a literary tongue who would change the world hundreds of years later. William.
What do you think of Shakespeare’s Stratford? Let us know below.
1. Honan, P (1999) Shakespeare: A Life. New York, USA: OUP, p. 3.
2. Honan, P (1999) Shakespeare: A Life. New York, USA: OUP, pp. 3-4.
3. Wells, S (2015) William Shakespeare. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 1.
4. Wells, S (2015) William Shakespeare. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 4.
5. Wells, S (2015) William Shakespeare. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 4.
6. Wells, S (2015) William Shakespeare. Oxford, UK: OUP, pp. 4-5.
7. Wells, S (2003) Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 5.
8. Wells, S (2003) Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 9.
9. Wells, S (2003) Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 14.
10. Wells, S (2003) Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 15.
11. Wells, S (2003) Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford, UK: OUP, p. 293.
12. Nuttall, AD (2003) Shakespeare the Thinker. Yale, USA: YUP, p. 2.
13. Honan, P (1999) Shakespeare: A Life. New York, USA: OUP, p. 11.
14. Honan, P (1999) Shakespeare: A Life. New York, USA: OUP, p 11