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Leicester Special Collections

Section 1: 'Small Latin and less Greek'

An English-Latin grammar

Page from a Latin grammar book - 'Medulla Grammaticae'. England, mid-15th century. Image courtesy: British Library.

Ben Jonson's comment on the preface to the First Folio is often read as contemporary evidence that Shakespeare had little knowledge of the classics. However, this is far from the truth. Perhaps his classical knowledge cannot be compared to Jonson's, but it was arguably superior to the one generally possessed by well-educated 21st century readers.

Early Modern grammar-school instruction put a strong emphasis on classical education. From a tender age, pupils were taught to read Latin and expected to memorize hundreds of lines from classic Roman writers as well as copy their rhetorical patterns and sentence structures.

High value was given to abundance, or copia, and students were also expected to literally copy extracts of classic texts into their ‘commonplace books’. These notes would them serve as a repository of references and allusions to be used when later composing their own arguments in writing and debates. Such habits of mind and reading behaviour persisted and shaped Shakespeare’s approach to reading and writing throughout his career as a poet and playwright.

Section 1: 'Small Latin and less Greek'