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Here's the thing...

Hilary Moriarty looks at how approaches to teaching English literature have changed over the years

Posted by Hannah Oakman | March 31, 2016 | Teaching

Are you old enough to remember context questions? Popular in RS or Eng lit exams, they gave you a pesky little quotation and asked you detailed questions about it, what did it mean, who said it and why – how minimalist was that? Candidates even had to translate key phrases/sentences into good modern English, as if the original were written in a foreign language. And of course it sometimes felt as if it was, which was one reason why reading a Shakespeare play aloud around the class was a recipe for total incomprehension and complete allergy to Shakespeare evermore. How many of us eventually discovered Shakespeare in a theatre, open-mouthed at how crystal clear was the meaning of every line – “OMG! So that’s what it meant! And that’s what actors are for!”

Teachers – OK, my teachers, but there were two of them – were manacled to the need to make sure we could tackle those compulsory context questions. Classes, hours, terms disappeared into line by line explication, word by blessed word. Chopping at the wood and missing the trees comes to mind. Looking back – and I begin to think I should stop doing this – there was very little overviewing of the whole text, themes, ideas, style. No time. Too busy going line by line. Maybe the teacher with whom I toiled through ‘Ant and Cleo’ thought if we only knew the meaning of every word, we could work out the rest for ourselves. Simples.

What we could not have worked out – bless us – was the social and historical context of the whole play, not without suddenly becoming historians as well as infant students of Eng lit. University was not much better: whatever was said about ‘Ant and Cleo’ was probably said in a single lecture, and I swear nobody mentioned the fact that the play was written a year after the Gunpowder Plot. Not a word. Who knew?

I was still in the classroom but the other side of the desk when the exam world moved on and suddenly historical context seemed to be more important than the text itself. Never mind the greatness of Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’, now exam boards summoned teachers – and I was one of them – to be trained for the new style papers and in particular a new focus on the historical context of our texts. So, if the Duchess had two horrible brothers, the Cardinal would of course be more sinister and vicious than the Duke because this was a play written half a dozen years after the Gunpowder Plot, so for an English audience, the really bad guys were the Catholics. Of course. We were told that candidates who managed to work this detail into their responses would earn ticks, and ticks meant marks, and that was lovely, because for once Eng lit was heading in the direction of identifiable (and therefore teachable) things to be said which would earn marks, instead of the old vague territory of some candidates writing as if they really knew what they were talking about – earning As – and others just not sounding so convincing. Somehow. So probably getting Cs. Or less. All of which used to be the problem with opinion-type subjects like Eng lit and history. And not a problem in maths, where answers were wonderfully real and true and verifiable and not a matter of opinion at all.

Classes, hours, terms disappeared into line by line explication, word by blessed word

While it was nice that candidates now had some anchors to hold on to – “I said X, and I know that gets a mark!” – it felt at the time as if Eng lit was actually being reduced, if not completely ad absurdum, then very close. A fellow trainee that afternoon wailed: “I am a well-qualified teacher of English literature and you are asking me to be a Ladybird history teacher!” That was exactly how it felt. My class that year included an American student who believed Bonfire Night was invented in early-twentieth-century USA, like Hallowe’en, and not remotely concerned with blowing up parliament. Getting the context right seemed to be many-layered and risky: historical rabbit holes everywhere, diving down for the use of – “But why was everyone so scared of Roman Catholics?” “Where shall I start?” – while the Duchess herself sort of languished on the table. 

But if I did not like the changes in the A level syllabus, I began to realise quite how thin the diet of my own degree course had been. A four-year course, with three years of Anglo Saxon – mostly translation, not evaluation – and three of Middle English – more translations. No wonder A level Latin was an essential for entry to the honours English course. The whole course was much about the words and the work, and virtually zero about the world crucible in which the works were forged.

Our Shakespeare course lasted a year, one lecture a week, and covered the tragedies, comedies and histories in a galloping term each. At least it was a whole year for one author; the whole of American Literature was done in one year also – a term each on drama, poetry and prose. And that was fairly mainstream stuff – not until a master’s course in modern English and American lit did I discover the joys of ‘Trout Fishing in America’. Friends doing science subjects lamented their long days in laboratories – we arts students spent the same hours in the library, but in all fairness, much of the time was ill-directed if not completely random. You could be a real swot, but still doing the wrong things.

And, probably, much of what we now find interesting had not even been written. It was a consolation, as I turned the pages of ‘1599’ and ‘1606’, the two texts in which James Shapiro gives us the real low-down on the years in which Shakespeare wrote ‘Henry V’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Hamlet’, then ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ respectively, to find his bibliographies are packed with texts written since I left university. I had turned the pages thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that?” Then I thought, “Why didn’t I go and find that out for myself?”

Today’s students have access to all the libraries of the world – so to speak – via the device in their hands and without having to leave the room. You might ask do they need teachers at all or could they make do with TED talks? My teachers tried to ensure I could understand the words on the page; I in my turn tried to bring to my students the scholarship of others to broaden their responses to their texts. Surely no one, now, would go into a classroom to teach ‘King Lear’ without bringing James Shapiro’s research to the party – never mind the father/daughter business, look at the division of the kingdom, look at James I fighting for Scotland/England union, look at the Gunpowder Plot, look at the context!!

Then go back to the text and take it line by glorious line. Nudged by Shapiro, I have just re-read both ‘King Lear’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. And you know what? In the end, honestly, the play is the thing. 

Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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