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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: February ::
Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0323  Thursday, 17 February 2005

[1]     From:   Louis W. Thompson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 14:10:13 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

[2]     From:   David Basch <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 14:22:08 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

[3]     From:   Norman Hinton <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 13:46:15 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

[4]     From:   Bob Grumman <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 18:51:54 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis W. Thompson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 14:10:13 EST
Subject: 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

Geez...

This was a student's question: "Was Shakespeare's wife literate?"  It
was asked last week.

We are going to have try to talk to the student in his own language.

The dictionary definition of "literate" is "able to read and
write"....but the word, the concept, and the definition seem sloppy at
best. Would a writer who suddenly goes blind - thus is unable to read
and write - be considered illiterate?

It seems to me that the whole question of Anne's "literacy" is
misleading. Shakespeare wrote the bulk of his work for the theatre. The
writing was one backstage step toward the production. The script was not
meant to be read.

The play was to be encountered on stage, not on paper. Anne would have
been able to comprehend her husband's work whether or not she could read
or write.

To me, the more intriguing question is: How much of his work was she
able to see? Did Will keep her tucked away in Stratford, or was she able
to join him in London to share his life and see what he was doing?

Louis W. Thompson

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 14:22:08 -0500
Subject: 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

When you see how simple it is to learn to read since even young children
cope with it, why would anyone think that Anne Shakespeare could not
read? She obviously lived in the supreme literate home and could have
been taught to read easily enough. No doubt there were families living
in the area of Stratford whose status was so meagre that laboring was
what they were all about and books were expensive and not a high
priority. But it would be hard to believe that this condition fit the
position of the Shakespeares.

Is it because Anne signed her name with Xs (and so did one of her
daughters) that the issue of her literacy comes up? Here again, an
explanation that could account for it is that this was a secret Jewish
family. The family would not want to draw attention to itself as
literate since this might distinguish the family from others and raise
questions that could threaten their existence.  After all, it was a
crime to be Jewish during Shakespeare's time and being such could have
led to the expulsion of the entire family from the country.

Anne's signing with Xs and seeming illiterate would have enabled the
family to fit right into the neighborhood with no questions asked. As I
understand it, there were many at the time in Stratford that didn't even
know William was a writer. The original sculpture for the poet's grave
showed William with a sack of grain and not a pad for writing, as shown
in a drawing made a few decades after the monument was erected. Later
on, this sculpture was replaced with the one that exists today.

I have no doubt that Shakespeare and family were literate.

David Basch

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Norman Hinton <
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Date:           Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 13:46:15 -0600
Subject: 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, "literate" meant 'able to
read (not write) Latin' --  see the Middle English Dictionary under
"lettered".

The dictionaries of the Early Modern English Database

www.chass.utoronto.ca/english/emed/emedd/html

give a range of meanings most of which mean "able to read".

The term 'literacy' is a modern Americanism, found first (by the OED,
for whatever that is worth) in the New England Journal of Education in
1883.  Ten years later it appears in writing in England.

We have to know what is being asked, and what can reasonably be
answered.  "Reading and writing together" is not relevant to the English
Renaissance situation, no matter what contemporary understanding might
be....

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Grumman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005 18:51:54 -0500
Subject: 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0313 Was Shakespeare's Wife Literate?

Norman Hinton <
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 >>Literate means able to read AND write (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
 >>Dictionary, CD edition)..so if she could read and not write she wouldn't
 >>be "literate."
 >
 >Finding this definition in a contemporary dictionary has nothing at all
 >to do with the situations of literacy in the Renaissance or the Middle
 >Ages.  One might as well find the word "car" in Shakespeare and conclude
 >that it is a Volkswagen.

I missed Norman Hinton's comment when first posted.  I'd like to know
what a person who can read but not write is if not literate?
"Semi-literate" seems more to mean literate but not using one's literacy
well.

--Bob G.

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