Rage, howl: knowledge, emotion, and teaching King Lear

Storms, eh? There’s been enough of them around recently, what with Arwen and Barra. We’ve reached the storm scenes in King Lear, and have spent a lot of time unpicking what the storm represents. And this storm certainly does a lot of symbolic work. It’s an external manifestation of Lear’s inner turmoil. It represents the divisions within the kingdom, both political – in terms of the growing division between Albany and Cornwall – and social, in the plight of the ‘poor naked wretches’ whose situation Lear has done far too little to alleviate. It’s also a huge, drenching, violent force, a ‘dreadful pudder’, a sign of how powerful the natural world can be. In Shakespeare’s plays, storms – like the one that blows down the chimneys on the night of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth – function as signs of a heavenly displeasure with events on earth, an indication that the balance of things has been disturbed and needs to be restored. Lear wants the storm to make the wretches tremble, for those whose crimes have so far gone unwhipped to be found out and punished. Hmm. Thoughts, anyone?

The storm scenes should be incredibly powerful to teach, but their force depends so much on the careful groundwork you’ll have been doing in your work on the play so far. Students need to understand what is going on in Lear’s mind, the combination of rage and guilt and pain and self-pity. They need to grasp the symbolic contrast between Lear at the beginning of the play, in his position of power and luxury, and Lear on the heath, the gates of Gloucester’s castle barred against him. As I said in my previous post, this contrast helps to mark out Lear’s peripeteia, the downward spiral that was set in motion at the beginning of the play. Crucially, they also need a sense of why it is that Lear addresses the storm in the way he does. At the beginning of Act 3 Scene 2, Lear dares the storm to do its worst, to shake the earth to its foundations and ‘strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world.’ Students benefit from a visual representation of the violence of these words: I get them to imagine a ball of Play-Doh being squashed flat. Lear wants the storm to ‘crack Nature’s moulds’, break the patterns from which things are cast so they can be made anew. Depending on their own life experiences, some sixth formers will know what it is like to feel so desperate, at such a pitch, that you want to rage and howl and destroy. Others won’t. How can we help them to understand the overwhelming nature of Lear’s emotions, to inhabit them from inside?

King Lear and the Fool, by Felix O.C. Darley (1822-1888)

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about knowledge in English, and the complex forms that this knowledge takes. Perhaps uniquely among subjects, learning in English depends on a complicated set of interactions between the teacher, the students, the text being taught, and the wider context within which this teaching takes place. Anyone who has taught English for more than a few years will recognise that you never teach the same text twice: students will bring different experiences to the text, come up with different interpretations, and interact with it in different ways. English is a profoundly generative subject in which learners construct meaning actively, drawing on their existing knowledge, understanding and experiences in order to make sense of what they read. These debates about knowledge in English have been reignited recently in response to discussions about the role of direct instruction, scripted lessons and mastery learning, but really they are nothing new. Paulo Freire’s 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed outlined the difference between the ‘banking model’ of education, which treats learners as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge that other people have deemed important and appropriate, and a dialogical approach that encourages the development of a critical consciousness. And while the 1989 National Curriculum probably does not loom large in people’s minds as a force for student empowerment, its main author Brian Cox – not the actor, nor the particle physicist, but the literary critic – argued that the curriculum should aim to make students ‘active makers of meaning’ rather than passive receivers.

These constructivist approaches to English – in which meanings are generated anew every time the text is taught, and in which new interpretations sometimes emerge between different encounters with the text – underpin good English teaching. They are, however, immensely demanding. We’ve probably all taught students who’d prefer to be told what to think, who’d be quite happy to be given a set of notes that they can learn off by heart and reproduce faithfully. And we’ve probably also taught students who do not yet have the emotional maturity to cope with certain aspects of the texts they are studying. Some texts require a lot from their readers. They want them to understand what it is to experience particular emotions. They need them to have a sense of what’s going on in the world, of different kinds of injustice and inequality. Such things can be taught about, but this kind of knowledge will remain awkward, like a pair of shoes worn on the wrong feet. You need to live inside it, to take hold of it, in order to make use of it.

King Lear, on the heath, is experiencing huge and violent emotions, and understanding these emotions – and how Shakespeare conveys them – takes careful handling. Let’s think about the situation Lear is in. He has lost just about everything – his daughters, his status, his knights, his dignity. He is in the process of losing his wits. He is starting to realise that he is not the king he thought he was. These feelings are huge and horrible and strike at the very core of his being. They are so painful that the storm, in comparison, is nothing. He wants it to do its worst, to pound and destroy and rinse everything clean. Students need to unpick all of this, and we need to know how to help them to do it.

One concept that helps to articulate what teachers of English Literature do in the classroom is that of pedagogic literary narration, a term coined by John Gordon. This refers, essentially, to the way teachers present and frame texts and shape their students’ encounters with them. In an article in Teaching English, Gordon describes the different forms that pedagogic literary narration can take, including checking comprehension during a reading of a text, choosing when to elicit students’ comments, making connections with prior reading, encouraging reflection and asking ‘big picture’ questions that point beyond individual texts and prompt wider thinking. Knowing how and when to make these interventions is an important part of an English teacher’s work, and as Gordon states, ‘It is important to acknowledge this dimension of subject expertise, to identify it and describe it. Doing so allows us to recognise expert practice, and can inform mentoring to guide new teachers of English rapidly towards these high-level skills’. I’d argue that there is also a strong emotional dimension to this process. Marcello Giovanelli and Megan Mansworth have written recently of the importance of emotion in the teaching of English, and nowhere is this more apparent than at those points in texts when characters are confronting experiences that students might find hard to understand.

These are big issues, not least because they might also touch on feelings that students might recognise all too well. We should never lose sight of our safeguarding role, and there are times when the texts we teach tread very close to experiences that might be extremely difficult. Anguish, rage, the nagging voice of conscience: all big feelings for Lesson 2 on a wet Tuesday morning in December. But this makes it all the more important that we understand what we do when we teach English Literature, and why it can never be reduced to the simple transmission of facts.

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