The word ‘school’ comes from the ancient Greek scholē, meaning leisure. In the Renaissance, anything more than a basic education was usually the privilege of the wealthy and leisured classes. Learning involved play, as schoolboys were trained in the arts of rhetoric through theatrical speeches and Latin word-games. But the stakes were high: the schoolroom was also a place of pain, where discipline was enforced through corporeal punishment, and errors were harshly punished.

In sixteenth-century England, access to education was greatly improved by the rapid expansion of grammar schools. Boys attended grammar school between the ages of around 7 and 14. As the name indicates, the primary focus was on grammar – mostly Latin, but also Greek for the most advanced boys in some schools. They gained a knowledge of classical literature including the works of Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, Horace, Livy, and Virgil. In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1593/4, possibly co-written with George Peele), Chiron and Demetrious can easily decipher Latin verses because these proto-comic Gothic villains are thinly disguised Elizabethan school-boys. As Chiron says, ‘O, 'tis a verse in Horace, I know it well. / I read it in the grammar long ago’ (4.2.22-23).