In Search of Shakespeare’s Mind

By Daniel BlankJuly 28, 2020

In Search of Shakespeare’s Mind

How to Think Like Shakespeare by Scott Newstok

IN ONE OF Borges’s final short stories, a Shakespearean scholar named Hermann Sörgel is offered an unusual possession at a conference in London. The object, which also gives the story its title, is Shakespeare’s memory, a collection of the playwright’s own remembrances “from his youngest boyhood days to early April, 1616.” Sörgel hesitates before accepting, but after brief reflection deems it the ultimate end of his scholarly endeavors: “Had I not spent a lifetime […] in pursuit of Shakespeare? Was it not fair that at the end of my labors I find him?”

“Shakespeare’s Memory” captures the essence of a longstanding desire — to know what the writer was thinking as he wrote Hamlet, King Lear, and the Sonnets. Like centuries of readers and theatergoers, Sörgel wishes to “possess Shakespeare […] as no one had ever possessed anyone before.” By entering Shakespeare’s mind, Sörgel imagines, the mysteries of Shakespeare’s stories will be revealed. As the Shakespearean devotee Henry N. Paul wrote in 1950, craving precisely the kind of talisman Borges conjures: “The internal forces [of Shakespeare’s writing] can only be known by peering into the laboratory of the dramatist’s mind as he did his work.”

Enter Scott Newstok, whose clever new book, How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, arises out of a similar desire. To think like Shakespeare, he declares early on, “we need to reconsider the habits that shaped his mind.” To some extent, this methodology follows in the path of recent scholarship seeking to reconstruct Shakespeare’s education in order to understand his patterns of thought. In the past decade or so, a number of valuable studies have elucidated the complex connection between Shakespeare’s poems and plays and the kinds of pedagogy that he would have encountered in the early modern grammar school. Their goal is not to reduce the playwright’s output to his past experiences, but to develop a powerful lens that allows us to see more clearly its origins and its inspirations.

Newstok takes an original approach: his purpose is not so much to enhance our understanding of Shakespeare’s works as to develop our own mental processes with Elizabethan schooling as our guide. Looking at how Shakespeare’s mind was trained will make us better thinkers, Newstok argues: “[O]ur own power of understanding can expand and become conscious of itself as we watch it at work in Shakespeare.” (Mimicking early modern prose writers, Newstok opts to reproduce quotations in italics rather than inverted commas — one of a number of ways, not limited to typography, in which the book seeks to embody the era whose principles it espouses.) The idea that we can “watch” the turning cogs of Shakespeare’s mind stems from the Bard’s own conception of thought: “Shakespeare earned his place in our pantheon of minds by staging thought in action,” writes Newstok; “[h]e raises ideas into a quasi-physical reality, vivifying their dynamic power as a palpable force.” The same material quality that has elevated Shakespeare’s mind, then, enables our pursuit of it. It is no easy chase — citing King John and Sonnet 44, Newstok writes that “[w]e must be ready to fly like thought to catch it in the act, for nimble thought can jump both sea and land” — but it is apparently rendered possible through a return to the Elizabethan classroom.


How to Think Like Shakespeare presents the early modern grammar school as a pedagogical environment characterized by active, rather than passive, learning. Newstok invokes one of the period’s key instructional texts, Richard Rainolde’s The Foundacion of Rhetorike (1563), which derived from the ancient Greek rhetorician Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata. The etymology of this word — from the Greek for “preparatory exercises” — gives the sense of its instructional method, what Newstok calls “a regimen of mental gymnastics.” In his account, an early modern education based on these sorts of manuals gave students “practice in curiosity, intellectual agility, the determination to analyze, commitment to resourceful communication, historically and culturally situated reflectiveness, the confidence to embrace complexity.” To some degree, Newstok paints a picture of a culture that allowed learning for learning’s sake; yet the goal of these kinds of exercises was the development of linguistic skill that would, ultimately, be useful in any future vocation. “This was verbal training for careers,” Newstok tells us, “whether in the church, the court, or the market.”

Newstok sees The Foundacion of Rhetorike as indicative of the early modern educational program’s priorities. “Rhetoric wasn’t just part of the curriculum,” he writes early in the book, “it was the curriculum.” Rhetoric was certainly a crucial mechanism for the structuring of early modern thought, and Newstok’s claim has less to do with the specific texts that Shakespeare would have encountered than the methods, and the overall philosophy, they would have promoted. But there is little mention of the other elements of the curriculum: students had to master the fundamentals of Latin grammar before proceeding to rhetorical training; and dialectic (or logic), the third component of the liberal arts program known as the “trivium,” was so closely related to rhetoric that some even considered crafting an oration to fall partially under its purview. It may be that these elements of the humanist educational program are too mechanical for Newstok’s purpose — which, as we will see, is to recover early modern pedagogy to stage a critique of recent trends in American education — but for a book about how Shakespeare learned to think, their omission is surprising.

Rainolde’s textbook was used alongside classical manuals like Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, Cicero’s De Inventione, and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, giving a sense of the early modern classroom’s reliance upon ancient models. This reliance, however, presents an interesting tension: on the one hand, classical thinkers felt that rhetorical prowess was bound up with moral character, embodied in the figure of the vir bonus, or “good man”; on the other hand, rhetorical education was sometimes seen in the early modern period as providing budding orators with the dangerous tools to disguise truth through linguistic flourish and ornamentation. The 16th-century theologian John Jewel’s scathing remark that rhetoric “teaches treachery, fraud, and lying” is representative of those who opposed its role in the humanist program. Was rhetorical training intended to make students more skillful in arguing before a jury or a religious congregation? Or was it intended to make them good people? Newstok doesn’t exactly answer this question, but he seems more inclined toward the latter view — or at least to suggest that they were not mutually exclusive. He quotes from a letter that Cato the Elder wrote to his son, in which he writes that the objective of education is to cultivate “good” people who are also “skilled in speaking”; Aristotle goes a step further in declaring that its ultimate goal is to train students who will “flourish in a democracy.”

Aristotle’s pedagogical concern, Newstok tells us, was “long-term utility.” By contrast, he argues, our own educational agenda prioritizes “quick and direct returns” — quantifiable metrics of student success. The American school system, he writes, has an “obsession with shallow forms of evaluation” that has allowed testing to become “the end of education itself.” Newstok homes in on the disastrous 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which gave rise to a “testing-obsessed regime” that was more concerned with having students memorize content for examinations than anything else. It led to a kind of pedagogy that Newstok describes as “soulless,” an especially apt descriptor, as individualized instruction gave way to standardized measurements intended to prove in the aggregate that this new method was living up to its nominal purpose. Predictably, it did not achieve its stated aim.

Newstok’s book first took shape in 2016 as the address to the incoming class at Rhodes College, which he developed into an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education the same year. In How to Think Like Shakespeare, he recalls coming to the realization that the students he was addressing, who would have been about seven years old in 2001, were “the first to have been marched through their entire primary and secondary schooling” under No Child Left Behind — and so the book’s focus on that policy is closely tied to the genesis of the project. Yet even as we continue to feel the repercussions of the Bush administration’s “draconian reforms,” Newstok’s focus on No Child Left Behind, which was all but completely dismantled a half-decade ago, comes across as a little out of date. The Obama administration’s more recent Race to the Top initiative, for instance, likewise promoted assessments, but garners only a brief mention. And in a book concerned with the current failings of the American educational system, one would expect Betsy DeVos’s name to make an appearance.

There is another aspect of these more recent governmental initiatives relevant to Newstok’s project. Under the Race to the Top program, applications for grant money were awarded additional points (even the selection process was a form of numerical assessment!) for prioritizing and implementing STEM-based education. Newstok is deeply skeptical of the obsession with this form of learning. “Why are we wasting precious classroom hours on fleeting technical skills,” he asks, “skills that will become obsolete before graduates enter the workforce?” Newstok speaks here, as elsewhere, in broad terms: he is not so much averse to scientific learning as to the fixation on “short-term utility,” on the kinds of skills that will be immediately marketable and lead to those aforementioned “returns” on the educational investment.

Newstok’s conviction is that “education must be about thinking” rather than “a specific set of skills” and the assessment that accompanies them. He turns to Shakespeare’s classroom because, in his view, it embodies this philosophy; he recognizes from the outset that “building a bridge to the sixteenth century must seem a perverse prescription for today’s ills,” but does so because it allows him to conjure an educational environment that privileged writing, speaking, and critical thinking. These are valuable skills too, Newstok argues, skills that need to be pursued with just as much rigor as those taught in STEM fields.

Consider the act of double translation, a core activity of the early modern curriculum. Students would translate a Latin text into English, then translate their English version back into Latin, and compare it with the original. The 17th-century schoolmaster John Brinsley described it as an act of de-construction followed by an act of re-construction: “[R]esolving and unmaking the Latine of the Author, and then making it againe just after the same manner, as it was unmade.” In an age deeply concerned about plagiarism — and to a large extent rightfully so, though perhaps not without some sacrifice — Newstok counts it a loss that most of us imply to our students that imitation may be grounds for disciplinary action. The word imitation, he writes, “sounds pejorative to us: a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy; at best, derivative drudge work.”

Yet at its best, imitation forms the basis for literary history: “Gwendolyn Brooks imitated Eliot, who imitated Pope, who imitated Milton, who imitated Spenser, who imitated Chaucer, who imitated Dante, who imitated Virgil, who imitated Homer, who consolidated centuries of oral transmission.” Shakespeare imitated his predecessors, as did Bob Dylan, as did anyone who has ever been an apprentice; coders are even taught to undertake a kind of double translation — take notes on a program, then rebuild the program from your notes — as part of their training. For Newstok, imitation is a deeply valuable exercise, something that should be harnessed in the classroom rather than punished: “The effort makes you attend to the texture of the texts; appreciate nuance; and close the distance across cultures and time.” To overlook its value is to neglect an early modern truism: you develop your own skill by learning from, and actively engaging with, those who came before you.


These sorts of mental exercises provide ready examples for the educational philosophy Newstok envisions. The problem, however, is that How to Think Like Shakespeare idealizes the Elizabethan classroom and the Latin drills that underpinned it. At one point, Newstok implicitly compares these drills to the kind of “fooling around in the laboratory” that led to the discovery of a cure for syphilis: just as the scientist Paul Ehrlich was not sure exactly how his work would be useful, Newstok argues, so too did “Latin drills [prepare Shakespeare] for a job that didn’t yet exist” (the professional theater in London wasn’t fully established at this point). But these Latin drills were not meant to promote intellectual exploration, much less experimentation; presumably Shakespeare’s educators would have been appalled by the notion that their students were fooling around. These were very serious modes of assessment involving copious amounts of rote memorization. To overlook this fact weakens the argument about what our own assessment-driven educational model can learn from theirs.

Newstok’s is not a historicist book, nor does it aim to be. Yet more attention to the historical particulars might have strengthened the project; as it stands, his view of early modern pedagogy is somewhat rosy-eyed. After all, one of the distinctive features of the Elizabethan grammar school was corporal punishment: offenses that earned a flogging ranged from lateness to misbehavior to (for older students) speaking in English rather than Latin. Over the objections of some humanist reformers and educators, this sort of brutality long persisted. Newstok does acknowledge this practice, over the course of about half a page in his prologue; but when drawing comparisons between the early modern educational system and our own, we should be careful not to romanticize Shakespeare’s classroom even as we look admiringly to its methods.

This rosy-eyed outlook extends to Newstok’s view of the effects of the Elizabethan classroom. He discusses an exercise from the Progymnasmata known as “êthopoeia,” literally meaning “formation of character” (from the ancient Greek words “ethos,” which gives us the same word in English, and “poiein,” meaning “to make,” from which the word “poet” derives), in which students were asked to deliver a speech in the voice of another person, perhaps someone from the mythological past. “Exercises in êthopoeia,” Newstok argues, “encouraged a rural English schoolboy to envisage what it might be like to occupy a different gender, in a different nation, observing a different religion, within a different era, under duress of different events.” Newstok draws a straight line to the striking versatility that defines Shakespeare’s body of work, and to the sense of empathy that many have rightfully detected within it. He quotes Zadie Smith:

Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing .… In his plays he is woman, man, black, white, believer, heretic, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim .… He understood what fierce, singular certainty creates, and what it destroys. In response, he made himself … speak truth plurally.

Before we attribute the phenomenon Smith so brilliantly describes to Shakespeare’s education, the historical realities of the Elizabethan classroom should give us pause. If we were to bring exercises in êthopoeia into the modern classroom, they might well serve the laudable goal of making students more empathetic; but that was hardly the goal in the early modern period. To think that êthopoeia was an exercise in mutual understanding is to cast a 21st-century view onto a 16th-century activity. The same could be said of Newstok’s treatment of rhetoric as a whole. Exercises like êthopoeia were designed to teach students to better suit their speech to the demands of a particular situation and a particular audience. But this did not necessarily align with virtue: one need look no further than Richard III to see someone using rhetoric to malevolent ends. Shakespeare may indeed have had a well-developed sense of empathy, and an uncanny ability to understand experiences beyond his own. This is one of the best arguments for why we should continue to teach the works — works in which, as Smith recognizes, these qualities are on full display. But whether Shakespeare’s schoolmasters intended to teach him these qualities is far from certain.

In some sense, then, Newstok’s study obscures what is so interesting about Shakespeare, and about much of the literature of the early modern period: a rigid, and oftentimes oppressive, educational regime shaped students who would go on to write poems and plays that still resonate with us today. To a certain degree, Newstok acknowledges this in his prologue: the early modern period’s “apparently inflexible program of study,” he observes, “induced liberated thinking.” But by determining this to be cause and effect, Newstok neglects how strangely paradoxical this phenomenon was.


None of this prevents Newstok from presenting an incisive commentary on the pitfalls of contemporary American education. In the book’s seventh chapter, “Of Technology” (Newstok’s chapter titles, too, channel the essayistic opining of the early modern period), he quotes a blunt, and frankly somewhat astonishing, statement from a Republican senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson: “We’ve got the internet […] Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper?” (I would guess that Senator Johnson cares less about educational accessibility than he does about financial savings; in March he was one of only eight senators who voted against a bill designed to provide Americans with some relief from the economic fallout of coronavirus.) Johnson has mistaken the means for the ends: cheapness is key in his remarks, as is the sense that new technology has rendered the classroom redundant. But technology is not the “end itself,” Newstok argues. It is merely a tool which, “in the guiding hands of the learned teacher,” can help us achieve it.

Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic, it was difficult not to feel the weight of this sentiment. Senator Johnson expressed his thoughts on cheapening education (so to speak) in 2016, and he was certainly not the first to voice just such an opinion. In the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, these calls have gotten even louder as universities have been forced to move their classrooms online. In a widely circulated New York Times op-ed from late May, the business school professor Hans Taparia claimed that “[t]he pandemic provides universities an opportunity to reimagine education around the pillars of access and affordability with the myriad tools and techniques now at their disposal.” To be sure, online courses can be important tools in breaking down the all-too-high barrier that has traditionally separated the academy from the world beyond it; plenty of successful models have already shown their potential value. But while access and affordability are noble motivations, the truer motivations behind the position espoused by Taparia are often to cut universities’ costs while bringing in more tuition dollars — usually at the expense of faculties and the exchange of ideas they are hired to promote.

If it feels as though we’ve strayed a bit far from Shakespeare himself, that’s because How to Think Like Shakespeare often does: to a large degree, Newstok is more interested in the culturally pervasive habits that may have shaped Shakespeare’s mind than he is in what Shakespeare’s mind did with those habits. In this sense, Newstok’s book is more a manifesto than a piece of literary criticism. Readers looking for new observations about Shakespeare’s poems and plays may be somewhat disappointed; the main focus here is how to improve primary and secondary school education (with clear implications for higher education) through the kinds of thought processes that the early modern classroom encouraged.

As we consider these pedagogical strategies, it is just as important to avoid idealizing the modern classroom as the early modern classroom. The reforms that Newstok advocates might prove useful for fine-tuning an already functional educational system, but sadly, as he acknowledges at a few moments throughout the book, we’re not there yet. Before we can ensure that everyone is educated in the best possible way, we have to make sure that everyone has access to education. The inequalities plaguing American education are deplorably varied and widespread, as schools in low-income areas suffer from overcrowded classrooms and poorly maintained facilities; teachers are underpaid and overworked, and often have to act as social workers as well as educators while paying for school supplies out of their own pockets. As numerous studies have confirmed, these problems in American education disproportionately affect students of color. How can teachers possibly think about double translation when they have to worry about whether students can afford to eat lunch? Until we rectify these issues properly — through adequate funding and true educational reform — Newstok’s argument will only prove useful for a small, and mostly privileged, set of classrooms.


Reconstructing Shakespeare’s education promises insight into his plays and poems, as well as his life and times; it gives texture to already familiar narratives and adds new dimensions to less familiar ones. But in the end, of course, no amount of historical digging will locate the precise blend of experiences that led Shakespeare to write what he did, when he did, how he did. Trying too hard to recover this may even prove counterproductive, in that it might lead to the nonsensical fallacy that Shakespeare could only write about things he experienced. (“How could he write a play about Italy if he never traveled there?” is the kind of misguided question that the so-called anti-Stratfordians love to pose.) Literary critics seek to illuminate the poems and plays, to place them in their proper context, to add to their complexity through interpretation and informed conjecture; they do not seek to solve the mystery. As Hermann Sörgel puts it: “What purpose would it serve to unravel that wondrous fabric, besiege and mine the tower, reduce to the modest proportions of a documentary biography or a realistic novel the sound and fury of Macbeth?”

To step inside the playwright’s mind, then, might be a bridge too far. As Helen Vendler writes in the preface to her magisterial The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “Perhaps total immersion in the Sonnets — that is to say, in Shakespeare’s mind — is a mildly deranging experience to anyone.” Scott Newstok’s smart and valuable new book, luckily, teaches us only to think like Shakespeare: it’s as close as we can get to the real thing, and perhaps as close as we might want to.


Daniel Blank writes about Shakespeare and early modern drama. He received his PhD in English from Princeton University and his master’s degree from the University of Oxford. He is currently a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Blank is an assistant professor at Durham University. His articles on Shakespeare and early modern drama have been published in journals including Renaissance QuarterlyThe Review of English Studies, and Renaissance Studies. His first book, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Before coming to Durham, he received his PhD from Princeton University and spent three years in the Harvard Society of Fellows.


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