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Leicester Special Collections

Section 4: 'Give me the leave to speak my mind'

Erasmus' manuscript - English translation

A contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani or Handbook of the Christian soldier’, 1523. Image courtesy: British Library.

Classics and religious writings were central to Shakespeare’s works but so were the ideas of continental Renaissance humanists. Humanist education fostered the cultivation of memorial reconstruction of classical texts but also creative imitation. It was the humanist education Shakespeare likely received at the grammar school in Stratford-upon Avon that nurtured his ability to juxtapose conflicting positions, argue on both sides of a given question, and quote from memory.

Erasmus's method of 'commonplace books' with headings and quotations would provide pupils with a source of references for future compositions. Erasmus also recommended a reading method that required pupils to reread texts four times: for general meaning, for vocabulary and sentence construction, for rhetorical figures and patterns, and finally for ethical and moral teachings. Such exercise in reading would then help in composition and left a clearly identifiable mark in Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare's initial classical education was then complemented by a lifelong habit of ecletic reading that enabled him to creatively imitate and expand on his sources. Among the texts Shakespeare must have read were those written by some of the most influential Humanist thinkers of the Renaissance, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and the Italian politician, diplomat, and man of letters, Niccolo Machiavelli.

(As You Like It, 2.7)

Section 4: 'Give me the leave to speak my mind'