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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: August 2012

2 - Playing and education

Summary

Is't not a fine sight, to see all our children made interluders? Do we pay our money for this? We send them to learn their grammar, and their Terence, and they learn their play-books?

Ben Jonson, The Staple of News, Third Intermean, lines 42–4

Before the days of universal compulsory education, a fairly recent phenomenon in Western societies, a minority among European national populations was literate, and in England in Shakespeare's and Jonson's time only a small proportion of those male children who were taught first to recognize letters, then more complex reading and to write, went on to the rigorous process of ‘learning their grammar’, in Latin, beginning at around the age of eight, and continuing for about eight years. Following the completion of grammar school an even smaller percentage of adolescent young men might then attend one of the two universities for several years, many of them leaving without taking a degree, the last path followed by Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, and perhaps also Ben Jonson. Other dramatists – Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, and John Fletcher, to take fairly eminent names – held Oxford and Cambridge degrees, while Francis Beaumont studied at Gray's Inn, one of the inns of court, collegiate communities of lawyers and law students in London which collectively have been called England's third university of the period, and which, incidentally, provided a significant source of patronage for the commercial theatre of the city.

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