King Lear, The Prince, and Elizabethan Literacy
In 1598, Rev. Ben Jonson, facing murder charges after killing a man in a duel, defended himself by taking advantage of legal exemptions afforded men of the cloth. “Protection of Clergy” laws demanded that the Elizabethan playwright prove his godly profession by reading a few sentences of Latin text. Such presented little challenge to Jonson. The problem was it would have presented little challenge to many people of his time. These exemptions were written centuries earlier when literacy, especially in Latin, was almost exclusively the province of the clergy for the purpose of performing mass and translating the Vulgate Bible. The Sixteenth Century, however, embraced a new ethos of humanistic and post-Reformation ideals dependent upon a growing literate class that extended beyond the church. This feeling reflected the beliefs of such Renaissance scholars as Pompanazzi, who reasoned that everyone possessed some degree of intellect.
Queen Elizabeth I of England had received a humanistic education and demonstrated facility with Latin texts at a very early age . While it might appear that she did so in preparation of her role as head of the Anglican Church, some insist that she became infused with the Renaissance fervor of learning for its own sake, a sentiment that her father, King Henry VIII picked up from none other than Erasmus, who envisioned that the royal court would some day become a university. Not surprisingly, Jonson’s plays, full of Latin phrases, English imitations of classical syntax, and translations of obscure ancient texts, found a receptive audience familiar with the allusions (Campbell vii). One of Jonson’s players, William Shakespeare, would ultimately gain recognition as the standard bearer of this literary tradition.