True story. It’s 23 December 1993, a Thursday. One of those grey midwinter days that never really seem to get light, when the world is shushed back to sleep almost as soon as it’s started to wake up. You’re 21, and kicking your heels. You’ve taken a year out of your degree course, for various non-specific, angsty, finding-yourself kind of reasons, and you’re doing voluntary work at a community centre in Liverpool, helping out on adult cookery courses and after-school clubs while you work out what you’re going to do next. Except today, you’re not at work, because it’s nearly Christmas. Your friend Dermot has suggested you meet up and go into Manchester, so that’s what you do. There’s a rail replacement bus from Eccles, and it threads its way through drizzly streets until it gets to Piccadilly, all Christmas lights and last-minute shoppers. The bus driver has his radio on, and the news is all about the death of Stefan Kiszko, wrongly convicted in 1976 of the murder of 11-year old Lesley Molseed. You think, in the abstract, of how awful it would be for something like that to happen so close to Christmas, but it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not to you.
The two of you want to avoid the crowds, so you head to Waterstones, which in 1993 is still just a bookshop, with none of the toys and gifts and jigsaws it becomes crammed with later. You spend a lot of your time in bookshops, in 1993, waiting in between trains or just killing time: News from Nowhere on Bold Street in Liverpool, the radical bookshop run by a workers’ co-operative; Bookland in Warrington, where you spent most of your pocket money as a sixth-former; Sherratt and Hughes on St Ann’s Square. You’re trying to keep up with your reading for university, and so today you buy Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Political Writings. You wander back to the station, and head for home.
Your dad is grumpy. Your boots (cherry-red Doc Martens, eight holes) are muddy and he complains. Most of the things you do seem to annoy your dad, from reading too many books to spending too much time in your room. Your sister will be arriving any minute, with your nephews – one six, one nearly four – and you know you’ll be pressed into entertaining them. Your mum’s cooking. You can’t remember, now, what it is that she’s making, and wish you could.
An hour later. Your sister’s arrived, and you’re watching television with your nephews, who want to see the final advent candle being lit on Blue Peter. Your dad’s not feeling well – flu, your mum reckons – so your brother-in-law is going to take him to the GP to see if he can get a last-minute appointment. He’s gone into the front room to find his shoes, but he’s been gone for a while, and so your sister goes to see if she can help. That’s when there’s a shout – Christ, get an ambulance – and your life rattles over the points onto a different track entirely.
It was a massive heart attack, the post-mortem said. Chances are he wouldn’t have known anything about it. Not the worst way to go, by any means, except that he was only 57, six years into retirement and with lots of things still to look forward to. You are all silent, stunned, not knowing what to do. You know, now, that bad things can happen to anyone, even to you, and not just to other people. You remember that the last thing that he said was that he hoped you’d wiped your feet.
You change. How could you not? For a while, you feel at a distance from the rest of your life, from your friends, none of whom have experienced anything like this. You develop a steeliness, a core, a low tolerance for self-indulgence and excuses. You go back to university and intimidate people with how disciplined and focused you are. You work and work and are always a little bit scared of what might come from nowhere to throw life off balance again. You are not the person you would have become if this hadn’t happened to you, at 21.
You’ve spent longer without a father now – twenty-eight years – than you ever did with, but you are his daughter in more ways than he ever knew you’d be. You wonder, often, what he’d think of you if he could see you now, if you could have just one day.
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?
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.
One thing that can often be difficult, if you’re studying a play as huge as King Lear, is to maintain a sense of the whole play in students’ minds. It can easily become atomised, chopped up: a scene here, a speech there, and the overall trajectory is lost. We reached the end of Act Two earlier this week, and I’ve been getting the students to revisit aspects of Lear’s tragic journey and looking at key overarching themes, so they don’t lose sight of the big picture.
Act Two Scene Four is a good place to pause and look back at the journey Lear is making, since it marks a number of significant changes since the beginning of the play. One of these is the final breakdown of his relationship with Goneril and Regan. In the love trial of Act One Scene One, both were very keen to profess their love for Lear, whose plan was to visit each of them for a month in turn, with his train of a hundred knights in tow. Later in Act One, Lear’s knights cause chaos in Goneril’s castle: when Goneril refuses to house more than fifty of his knights, Lear leaves in high dudgeon. By the end of Act Two, his daughters have questioned why he needs any knights to accompany him at all:
Goneril: What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five, To follow in a house where twice so many Have a command to tend you? Regan: What need one?
It’s a clear demonstration, in numerical form, of how far Lear has fallen since the beginning of the play, when he stated his determination to retain ‘The name and all th’ addition to a king’. The fact that his daughters are prepared to work so closely together to deprive him of his knights is a devastating moment for Lear. They told him that they loved him, and he believed them. And now, they won’t let him have what he wants. His ‘O reason not the need!’ speech shows very clearly that need, in Lear’s eyes, is irrelevant: he might not need any of his knights, but he certainly wants them, to convince himself that he is still as important as he once was. From here, there really is no way that his relationship with Goneril and Regan can be salvaged. (And let’s face it, if your father cursed you with sterility and called you a boil and an embossed carbuncle, I think you could be forgiven for crossing him off your Christmas card list).
There’s also a neat physical opposition between the start of the play and the end of Act Two. In Act One Scene One, Lear’s first entrance is a ceremonial one. His arrival is heralded by a sennet, and he is accompanied by Cornwall, Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and his attendants. On stage, this entrance is often used to heighten the king’s status, as in the 2016 RSC production when Anthony Sher’s Lear was borne aloft in a glass box in a quasi-religious ceremony, or the 2018 National Theatre production when Ian McKellen’s Lear was surrounded by deferential guards and took up his place in front of a giant portrait of himself. But by the end of Act Two Scene Four, he has been very unceremoniously shut out of Gloucester’s castle. He exits, in a rage as high as the winds, and his daughters and Cornwall decide that the gates should be barred, on a wild night with no shelter for miles around. So, another demonstration of Lear’s peripeteia: his fall from ‘high estate’ to ‘low degree’ could not be illustrated more clearly.
The third change that I want to talk about is a more subtle one. It concerns the breakdown of Lear’s speech and his increasing lack of fluency – ‘the ‘glib and oily art’ that Cordelia refers to in Act One Scene One when taking leave of her sisters. At the beginning of the play, Lear dominated not just in his physical and symbolic presence, but in his language. His first speech is long, measured, and gives the impression of having been carefully planned. He also directs the speech of others. Notice his use of imperative verbs: ‘know’, ‘tell’, ‘speak first’, ‘speak’, ‘speak’, ‘speak again’, ‘mend your speech a little’. But as Lear’s mental state begins to deteriorate, so too does his command of language. Sentences trail off, exclamations and self-contradictions become more frequent, and the King is sometimes reduced to an incoherent splutter, as when Gloucester informs him that Regan and Cornwall are refusing to speak to him:
“Fiery”? The “fiery” duke? Tell the hot duke that— No, but not yet. Maybe he is not well.
The addressees of Lear’s speech also change. Within just one speech, he can jump from addressing another character on stage to speaking to the gods, himself, a different character, and various abstract entities: it’s as if the contents of his mind are becoming increasingly and messily exposed to us. This is particularly apparent in his final speech in Act Two Scene Four. Look at how Lear’s argument about need breaks down as he reflects on his growing inability to regulate his emotions. He swerves from speaking to his daughters, to pleading with the heavens. He asks the gods to make him angry, rather than letting him cry. He goes back to speaking to his daughters – the ‘unnatural hags’ – and issues the most impotent of threats. I get my students to put these lines into their own words. I’m going to do something really awful to get my own back on you. I don’t know what it is that I’m going to do, but it’s going to be really, really bad. He pauses, mid-line. Is he out of breath, choking back tears, gathering himself? And then he tells the Fool, his trusted companion, that he shall go mad. (This in itself is a change from Act One Scene Five, when pleads with the heavens: ‘Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven, / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!’ At that point, he was desperate to retain his sanity: by now, he senses that madness is increasingly inevitable.)
O reason not the need: our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous: Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady; If only to go warm were gorgeous, Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, – You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age; wretched in both! If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts Against their father, fool me not so much To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger, And let not women’s weapons, water-drops, Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both, That all the world shall – I will do such things, – What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep No, I’ll not weep: I have full cause of weeping; but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws, Or ere I’ll weep. O fool! I shall go mad.
There are some further interesting discussions that you can have with students at this point. One is to use an analysis of Lear’s speech as a springboard to get students to think about each character’s relationship to language. Cordelia cannot ‘heave [her] heart into [her] mouth’; Goneril, Regan and Edmund use language to flatter, scheme and manipulate. Kent is known for his plainness of speech, and is put in the stocks for it. Edgar seems almost pitifully tongue-tied when he is on stage with Edmund. The Fool’s language is, of course, notoriously playful and slippery, but even he has to operate within certain limits, for fear of the whip. Another – at a point in the play where questions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are particularly acute – is to get them to consider which characters are insiders, which are outsiders, and which have changed their status, physically or metaphorically, since the beginning of the play. Lear was the most important insider at the beginning, but now he’s on the outside. Goneril and Regan are on the inside, as is Cornwall: Albany has expressed his doubts about what Goneril is doing, but hasn’t yet made his allegiances completely clear. Cordelia, Kent and Edgar were insiders, but now they’re on the outside. And Edmund, of course, was very definitely on the outside, but is now inside, as a result of his ability to dissemble.
A couple of years ago, one of my students pointed out that the insiders in the play are all those who can manipulate language to secure their own interests. The outsiders can’t. We paused, and another student said, ‘That’s like life, really, isn’t it?’ Never say that Shakespeare isn’t relevant, and that his plays don’t still have things to tell us.
It’s been quite a couple of weeks, here in the Flatlands, but here I am, and here’s my latest King Lear post.
Tragedy! When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on … You get the picture. TodayI’m writing about the T-word, everybody’s favourite big chunky genre, ripe for students to get their teeth into. Who doesn’t love teaching tragedy? I adore it. And King Lear is one of my favourite tragedies to teach, along with A View from the Bridge and The History Boys. (You thought The History Boys was a comedy? Try reading it again, using tragedy as a lens, and see what you make of it. But that’s another post entirely.)
It’s easy to see why tragedy, as a genre, has been given a place on A level specifications. It has enormous cultural and historical significance. It has its roots in classical Greece, but has been adapted, updated and played around with by writers ever since. The central concepts of tragedy give us a tool to explore all manner of narratives, from Sophocles to the present day. Is the history of humanity itself just another tragic drama? Are we suffering the consequences of the hubris of previous generations? That’s one for your Year Thirteens to ponder. So tragedy is massive, and complex, and serious. Because of this, it also challenges all those accusations that studying literature is simply a matter of personal opinion – mere ‘chatter about Shelley’, as E. A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at Oxford in the late nineteenth century, put it. Studying tragedy involves knowledge: knowledge about narrative arcs and character-types, literary history and key features. It involves terms and definitions. Just think of all those Greek words with their complicated spellings: the perfect material for a set of beautifully colour-coded flashcards, for any number of Do Now activities. What’s not to like?
There are complications, though, and it’s these complications that I want to examine here. The first of these is that it is easy to fall into the trap of designing a knowledge-based unit on tragedy that prioritises the learning of facts about literature over an understanding of literature. You could construct a fabulous knowledge organiser that summarises a range of information about the genre of tragedy, build in opportunities for spaced retrieval and low-stakes testing, and make sure students know their stuff inside out: the difference between peripeteia and anagnorisis, A. C. Bradley’s concept of the tragic flaw, the phases of classical tragedy, examples of tragedy through the ages and so on. In fact, you needn’t restrict this to A level: if your students are doing Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, you could include it at GCSE as well. Make sure they know about goat songs and antistrophes and you can really feel you’ve ticked the cultural capital box. The problem, of course, is that all this knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase students’ understanding of tragedy. It’s easy to teach: of course it is, it’s factual. And it’s easy to test students’ retention of this kind of factual knowledge. But as Robert Coe points out in his Impact article, one of the dangers of an emphasis on retrieval is that too much classroom time can be devoted solely to factual recall rather than application and understanding. I’d go further than this, and argue that too much of students’ learning time can be devoted to retrieval practice – often because this kind of learning involves nice neat notes, Leitner boxes, Quizlet activities and the like, rather than the messy complicated process of diving into a text, getting your hands dirty, and emerging with the sense that it’s all a whole lot more complex that you initially thought it was. There’s a safety in knowing that you’ve learned something off by heart, and if you’re a stressed A level student, that kind of safety has a definite appeal.
So we need to make sure that when we teach students about the genre of tragedy, we treat this knowledge carefully, as a means to an end – where that end is an understanding of the text – rather than an end in itself. And even when we set aside the distractions of retrieval practice, this knowledge can still, sometimes, get in the way. Students can often get bogged down in concepts such as hamartia and anagnorisis, treating them as what AQA describes in its 2017 Examiners’ Report as ‘generic absolutes or templates which writers are always trying to model’ rather than ‘a loose set of conventions which are modified or reinforced with every text produced’. (That this is clearly an ongoing problem is indicated by the fact that AQA repeats this point in its 2018 Examiners’ Report.) AQA also emphasises that ‘the stories have to come first. There is no point writing about … ‘aspects’ of genre if students haven’t got inside the stories that the narrators are telling’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). But students do need to know about the features of the genre, ‘how their texts connect with what might be regarded as traditional generic patterns’, and how they disconnect, ‘as seen when writers consciously play with and subvert genre’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). How, then, do we ensure that this knowledge is handled sensitively, and that it illuminates students’ understanding of the play rather than obscuring it?
Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of introducing knowledge about the genre of tragedy. I used to front-load it, but that approach is almost guaranteed to encourage students to treat the idea of tragedy as a rigid framework. It might be possible to do a quick read of the whole play, then introduce the idea of tragedy, then go back and study the play in more detail, but that seems incredibly time-consuming, and given that the unit we’re studying is called ‘Aspects of Tragedy’, I think the concepts need to be introduced relatively early. But not too early. What I’ve started to do is to explore Act 1 Scene 1 – a scene where there’s a lot going on, in terms of establishing character and setting the plot in motion – and then to introduce the genre and its central concepts. I sketch it lightly, looking at the notion of tragedy as a fall from a position not just of high status but also of potential greatness. We talk about what might provoke that fall. This has been interpreted, variously, as an error of judgement (Aristotle’s hamartia) or as a fatal character flaw (A. C. Bradley’s concept, although many study guides on the internet conflate the two). I emphasise that despite these differences of opinion, the key thing students need to know is that the protagonist’s fall is prompted by something that he or she does – and that once this process has been set in motion, it cannot be halted. I also talk about the idea that the protagonist will, at some point, experience moments of insight into the consequences of their actions. I touch on the idea of catharsis, but don’t dwell on it too much at this point, largely because I think it’s more helpful to focus on catharsis once we get closer to the end of the play: it’s a difficult concept for students to grasp, bound up as it is with audience reaction, and I feel it’s something they need to experience from within rather than dealing with it as a purely abstract concept. (Several years ago, I took my A level group to see Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, an intense, harrowing production with Don Warrington as Willy Loman, and one of them remarked afterwards, ‘I never really understood what catharsis was all about before, but I do now’.) All of this, at this stage, is verbal. I talk through the concepts, and expect students to make notes, but I find that giving them a set of notes seems to encourage rigid thinking, as if everything they need to know about tragedy can be summarised on one sheet of paper. Getting them to make notes seems to help keep things provisional and tentative, and that’s how I want it to be at this stage.
We then talk about Macbeth. All of the students have done Macbeth at GCSE, and getting them to apply their new-found knowledge about tragedy to a play they know well helps them to see the conventions of the genre as tools to help them explore aspects of the text, rather than a rigid framework. We think about Macbeth as a tragic protagonist, and the image we get in Act 1 Scene 2 of a brave, loyal warrior. We think about what Macbeth’s tragic error might be, and examine several possible answers. And we identify potential moments of anagnorisis that occur in the play, those points when characters recognise the nature of their circumstances. I ask them, then, to try applying the conventions to other narratives they know, including examples from film and television. Playing around with the concepts in this way helps to increase the students’ familiarity with them, but it also enables them to see the conventions as malleable.
It’s at this point that they can start to use the conventions to explore King Lear. They can see that the love trial of Act 1 Scene 1 is a perfect example of hubris (and when you show them different stage interpretations, like the ones I refer to in this post, they can see how this can be emphasised by setting and direction). They’ve got several examples of Lear’s irascibility and rash decision-making, and they can also see how the foundations are laid for Lear’s downfall, in that conversation between Goneril and Regan at the end of the scene. It’s all starting to make sense, but it’s also set within the context of the play itself, rather than overpowering it.
There’s a lot more work that I’ll do to develop students’ understanding of tragedy, including modelling how to write about it in ways that maintain a sense of tentativeness, of weighing different interpretations, rather than simply cramming in terms. We’ll continue to make links with Macbeth, and later, we’ll look at different interpretations of the genre itself, using Emma Smith’s excellent lecture on King Lear for the University of Oxford’s Approaching Shakespeare series. But no quizzing, and no flashcards, because ultimately, they don’t help students to work productively with this fascinatingly complex genre.
It’s funny how certain stretches of road bring things back. Twenty years ago, I was doing a PhD, part-time, at the University of Nottingham, and every six weeks or so I’d leave school at the end of the day and set off in the opposite direction to home, up the A1 and then along the A52, negotiating roundabouts and lane changes and early evening city traffic. I’d park near the Trent Building with its shiny white Portland-stone surfaces, heave my lever arch folders out of the car, and make my way to my supervisor’s room with its bright posters and scratched wooden table. We’d talk for an hour, and then I’d go home with a head full of ideas, singing along to mixtapes made for me by my friend Dermot, all Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt and REM, back in the day when mixtapes were still a thing. It was a good time.
It seems a bit mad, now, to sign up for a part-time PhD alongside full-time teaching, but back then it made total sense. I’d always intended to do postgraduate work, but didn’t apply straight after graduating, partly because I was scared I wouldn’t get the funding and partly because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I did a PGCE instead, and told myself I’d teach for a couple of years and then go back to university. Then my mum died, very suddenly, at the beginning of my second year of teaching, and my immediate need was not to uproot myself and give up my job but to put a deposit down on a house. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself through part-time postgraduate work as long as I carried on teaching as well, so that’s what I decided to do.
I wanted to look at the history of English Literature as an academic discipline, and was very lucky in being able to find lots of archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when universities in England were establishing their first degree courses in English Literature. I could talk about this for ages, but to simplify massively, there were lots of people in the late nineteenth century who didn’t think that English Literature should be studied at degree level. One group felt that it wasn’t difficult enough to be studied at university: reading imaginative literature and having opinions about it was what you did in your spare time, rather than something that could be examined with any kind of academic rigour. Another group, on the other hand, felt that literature was too special to be the object of academic study. One’s relationship with literature was personal, ineffable, and any attempt to turn it into an academic discipline would inevitably crush it.
If you’re spotting parallels here with current debates about the teaching of English, that’s interesting, because the other main element of my research centred on the discussions that were taking place about Curriculum 2000 and the teaching of English Literature at A level. What I was interested in – and what I would never have known about if I hadn’t spent a couple of years in the classroom – was the fact that the arguments that had circulated about the academic study of English Literature in the late nineteenth century had never really gone away. The early supporters of disciplinary English had to define the body of knowledge that was being taught and the way in which this knowledge would be assessed. Their initial attempts to do this often involved testing remembered facts, such as recalling the details of particular locations in Shakespeare’s history plays, or listing important national events that might have made an impression on Geoffrey Chaucer. Students had to define technical terms and offer plot summaries. My favourite question, set at King’s College London in 1882, was ‘Quote any passage from “Christabel”’.
Over the years, in a piecemeal manner, the universities started to develop ways of teaching English Literature that depended on interpretation and understanding, rather than the simple retrieval of knowledge. But the problem of English never really went away. In the early 2000s, just as I was grappling with my PhD thesis, teachers of English were navigating their way through the first few iterations of Curriculum 2000. A level English Literature now placed a greater emphasis on critical and contextual knowledge: some commentators argued that this was a way of making the subject easier to examine, and others contended that it jeopardised the delicate nature of the relationships that students were building with the study of English. A lot of work went into trying to steer a course through the new specifications, ensuring that the study of English was rigorous and challenging yet also maintaining a space for personal engagement (and protecting students, as much as we could, from the excesses of an exam-heavy curriculum). Knowledge, understanding, personal growth, the development of skills: the elements that we’re still wrestling with now, as we try to work out how best to foster our students’ relationships with this fabulous – and fabulously complex – subject.
There’s more that I could say about the study of English, but that’s for another post, because really this post is about places and times and why some phases of our lives matter so much. My PhD took me to a number of dusty university archives, and also other places, among them Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford, where I read the minutes of English faculty meetings in JRR Tolkien’s spiky handwriting. It led me to speak at conferences and meet lovely people and also write a book, Defining Literary Criticism, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it also took me along the A52, more times than I can remember. In the second year of my doctorate, one of my colleagues started an MA, and we travelled up to Nottingham together and stopped off on the way home at the Little Chef near Holme Pierrepoint, loading up on coffee and carbs – chips and a burger for him, a toasted teacake for me – before facing the rest of the journey. Those hours on the road, thinking and talking and letting ideas percolate, were immensely important. It was a time of my life between one lot of difficult experiences and another, and it stands out as a block of time that was wholly joyful and unproblematic.
We drove along the A52 this morning, on our way back from a wedding in Derby, and it brought all those memories back. The Little Chef isn’t there any more, and there are some additional tricky junctions, which is the way life goes, I guess. But I still remember those journeys, and the feeling of having a head full of ideas, buzzing and eager, and remember it as one of the most important times of my life.
National Adoption Week begins in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday 18 October. In the past, this week has largely taken the form of a recruitment drive for prospective adopters, and while this year’s event is giving more space to the voices of adopted adults and birth parents, the event’s web address – https://www.youcanadopt.co.uk/NAW/ – still places the emphasis on persuading people to make that initial contact and take the first steps on the road to becoming an adoptive parent. Photos of angelic-looking children, soft-focus film footage of happy families on the beach, the occasional celebrity wheeled on to talk about their experiences: it’s the starting-point for countless rescue fantasies, a sugar-coated vision of a beautiful, unproblematic future.
I did wonder, a few days ago, whether I should write about National Adoption Week at all. I am an adoptive parent, but National Adoption Week shouldn’t be about adoptive parents. How To Be Adopted has written very powerfully about what it’s like to experience National Adoption Week as an adopted person, and to realise that National Adoption Week isn’t actually about you at all. I am very aware of the feelings that many adopted people have about adoptive parents taking up more room than is really theirs in public discussions about adoption. Shut up, Atherton! Equally, though, I think it’s important to point out that we don’t all support the view that adoption is a beautiful way of providing children with loving families and seeing them all live happily ever after. There’s a stereotype of adoptive parents as starry-eyed and naïve, all in favour of closed adoption and perpetually threatened by the thought of our children’s birth families. I have no doubt whatsoever that many adopters fit this stereotype. But lots of us don’t, and I think it’s important that we stand up and shout about it, as an act of consciousness-raising for adopters who buy into the myth and to show our solidarity for adopted people. Is there an equivalent of ‘fogged’ and ‘unfogged’ for adoptive parents? There should be. Blimey, this is complicated.
In fact, complication is going to be the theme of this post. I’ve been involved in adoption for over seventeen years now, most of them as an adoptive parent but also, latterly, as a writer and researcher looking at the history of adoption in the UK and at the way adoption is portrayed in fiction and popular culture. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that adoption is not one simple thing. I’ve started dividing it into three broad areas. There’s the general concept of adoption, the placing of children into alternative families to whom they are not directly related, which has happened since time immemorial, often on an informal basis unregulated by any kind of legal framework. There are the individual adoption systems, often very different from each other, that exist and have existed in different countries around the world. Finally, there are the millions of adoptions that have taken place as a result of these systems, and the people affected by them: birth parents and extended families, adoptive parents, and most importantly, the children whose lives are changed irrevocably by what they experience.
Adoption is a murky business. I think all prospective adopters should know something about this, because it highlights our responsibility to be aware of the traumas that lie at the heart of adoption (and, depending on where we are in the world and what kind of system we’re adopting through, our complicity in perpetuating some of these traumas). Many of the adoption systems that have existed around the world have been grounded in practices that are corrupt and coercive, guilty of perpetrating widespread generational trauma and abuse. The thousands of Native American children placed with white adopters in the name of ‘assimilation’; the unmarried mothers pressurised into giving up their children in the so-called ‘baby scoop’ era; the babies who are trafficked, placed in orphanages and adopted by people in distant countries who think that they are giving them an unproblematic chance of a better life. In some countries, apologies have been issued to recognise the wrongs of the past. In February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage removed from their families, although this came after a decade of resistance by the previous Australian government. The Irish Taoiseach Mícheál Martin apologised in January 2021 for the appalling treatment of unmarried women and their children in the country’s mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. These injustices haven’t gone away. Many adopted people around the world are still denied access to the most basic of information about themselves: their original birth certificates and medical records, details of their life stories and birth families. And in some adoption systems, an awful lot of money changes hands. Researching this post, I googled ‘US Adoption Agency’ to see what came up. The first hit, for the private adoption agency American Adoptions, told me that a typical domestic adoption would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. (One agency offers ‘credit repair services’ for prospective adopters whose credit rating might be ‘below standard’, and invites people to get a ‘no-obligation quote’, as if they’re thinking about getting their double glazing replaced. Another offers helpful ideas for funding your adoption, like holding a bake sale or car wash, or starting a crowdfunder.)
The stigma and coercion that caused so many women to lose their babies to adoption is now, thankfully, a thing of the past in the UK, although I know that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. We are told, though, that forced adoptions still exist in this country, in the form of those children who are removed from their birth parents by order of the courts, because – under Section 31 of the 1989 Children Act – the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, as a result of the parents’ lack of care. ‘Significant’, in this case, is defined as ‘ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’.
I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘forced adoption’ to describe this situation. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it involves the removal of a child against the birth parents’ wishes, and the permanent severing of the legal tie between parent and child. But there’s a world of difference between coercing a scared young woman into giving up her baby on the pretext that it’s the best solution for everyone, with the threat of family estrangement and ostracism in the background, and removing a child from a situation of neglect or abuse. If you go on BAILII, the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and browse the Family Court Decisions, you can see the records of cases where children have been removed, and where judges have decided that adoption is the most appropriate way forward. Sometimes, this is a straightforward decision. Think of the child protection cases we hear about in the news, when sadly, it’s too late. At other times, it’s much more complex. Judges have to balance the capacity of a parent to make necessary changes with the needs of a child for stability and security. Many cases involve birth parents whose own lives have been desperately difficult. The message we received when we did our prep course, almost seventeen years ago now, was that birth parents are, overwhelmingly, ‘sad, not bad’. But there will always be situations where it is not safe for children to remain with their families of origin. How do we give these children the nurturing and support and love they need, in order for them to grow and flourish? How do we, as a society, help them to heal?
There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether adoption is a proportionate response to situations like this. Of course the primary aim of any kind of intervention should be to preserve and support the family. This should go without saying. If this can’t happen, then of course social services should try to place the child within the extended family, or if not, with foster carers who will facilitate contact with birth parents until the child can return home. But what comes next? Some people point to long-term foster care as an option. That way, they argue, the legal bond between parent and child is still there, and there’s always the possibility that the child might be able to return if – in a few years’ time – the birth parents have been able to make the necessary changes to their lives. And that all sounds brilliant. But foster care is not permanent. Some children in foster care are able to stay in one long-term placement until they reach adulthood. But they’re in the minority. Placements break down, and children are moved elsewhere. Imagine being eight, and having to move on from your school and your friends, not just once in a year but potentially several times. Imagine it being October, and not being sure where you’ll be spending Christmas. Imagine not having any say in how your bedroom’s decorated, because you know that really it’s not your bedroom: living in a house where there are pets that you want to love but know you shouldn’t get too fond of, because you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Think of a child you know well: your own child, maybe, or your niece or nephew. Is this the kind of life you’d want for them? Thought not. If they’re particularly unfortunate, they might be placed, at the age of 16, into an unregulated setting, dressed up under the guise of ‘a stepping stone to independence’. And then, once they turn 18, that’s it.
Adoption, then, is not a beautiful way of creating a new family, not unicorns and rainbows, but something that is needed in those cases where all other options have been explored and where children cannot remain within their birth family. It involves trauma and sadness and a whole lot of anger and grief. And none of these feelings go away. They might get buried, they might be hidden behind a mask of being ‘grateful’ or being told that you’re ‘lucky’, but they’re still there.
So. At the risk, now, of being accused of making this ‘all about the adoptive parents’, I’m going to list four things that I’d want to be a part of all adoptive parents’ preparation and support. Because if we want to support adopted people for the long term, we need to make sure that the people who adopt them as children are fully aware of the ramifications that adoption will have throughout their lives.
An understanding of the ethical complexities involved in adoption, and of those times and places where adoption has involved appalling injustices. There are countless books, documentaries and websites that could help with this. My Name is Bridget by Alison O’Reilly, about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, is an absolute must-read.
Training in and ongoing support with therapeutic parenting. Formal support stops, at the moment, when an adoption order is granted. Post-adoption support is patchily available and hard to access. But we need help. I am currently reading Dr Amber Elliott’s brilliant book Superparenting, which absolutely nails the difficulty of parenting a child who has experienced developmental trauma: ‘The stress of looking after a traumatized child who is defending against shame and suffering from the effects of toxic stress creates one of the most challenging environments for rational thinking there is’. Saying that we need help isn’t putting adoptive parents first: it’s recognising that if we want to help adopted people in the long term, we need to help adoptive parents.
An understanding that adoption isn’t just about childhood. This should be obvious but I think there is a feeling amongst some adopters that their children will eventually forget that they’re adopted. It won’t dissolve into the mist. Organisations such as Adoptee Futures are doing a vitally important job in raising awareness of the lifelong consequences of being adopted and this is a drum that needs lots of banging.
An understanding of the importance of heritage, keeping in touch with birth family, and the feelings involved in reunion. How To Be Adopted has written brilliantly about the fetishization of blood ties and genealogical links. There’s a lot of work to be done on maintaining links with wider birth family, and on supporting adopted young adults to negotiate the feelings involved in tracing and being reunited with birth relatives. As adopters, we need to recognise that our adopted children can maintain their relationship with us whilst also exploring and forming relationships with their birth family. It’s not an either/or.
I didn’t mean to write this much. I’ll shut up now. Deep breath, and let’s hope this week passes without too much stress.
‘I’ll tell you what, though: I wish asking women about babies was forbidden. I long for the day when strangers and acquaintances don’t feel entitled to ask me about my reproductive choices.’Katie Edwards, The Independent, 11 October 2021
Sigh. Just when you thought that the 21st century had finally – maybe – arrived, the new president of Murray Edwards College, the University of Cambridge’s one remaining all-female college, jerks you right back into the 1950s by complaining that it seems to be ‘almost forbidden’ to ask young women about their plans to start a family. (Nothing about asking young men about their plans to start a family, you’ll note: it’s only women who need a bit of a nudge.) There are, of course, many reasons why people’s reproductive choices are none of anyone else’s business, and I’m not going to rehearse them here. What I am going to do is to write about what it’s like to be asked those questions when you don’t actually have any reproductive choices at all. It’s estimated that one in seven couples in the UK experience problems conceiving: chances are that even if you’re not affected, there’ll be somebody in your workplace, in your family or your circle of friends, who is. That means there’s an awful lot of us who face those questions, and we need people to know why it’s not okay to put us on the spot.
I’m in my late forties now, so it’s a long time since I’ve been on the receiving end of questions like this, but there was a period of a few years when they seemed to crop up everywhere. When The Husband and I got married, it was the obvious thing to ask. Are you feeling broody yet? Are we going to be getting some exciting news soon? I got used the kind of voice people used when they asked. You know the one: that bright perky meaningful voice, reeking of entitlement and nosing its way in where it isn’t wanted. It wasn’t just the questions, it was the hints as well. When I bought a new car, one friend pointed out that its boot was just the right size for a pushchair. When I decided to grow my hair, my then hairdresser mused that many of her customers decided to grow their hair when they got pregnant. I didn’t go back.
I spent a lot of time pretending not to be interested in babies. Every week, there seemed to be another pregnancy announcement: another collection for another colleague going off on maternity leave, another round of pass-the-baby when they came in to introduce us to the new arrival. When’s it going to be your turn? I kept my head down and feigned indifference like a boss.
The reality was that The Husband and I were trying to have a baby but failing. It had all started so well. We were twenty-nine, and we’d decided that it was the perfect time to start a family. We had a mortgage. We were old enough to be responsible parents. Neither of us smoked, neither of us had any worries about our health, and we assumed that I’d get pregnant as soon as we started trying. The worst-case scenario was that it would take a few months. It would happen, naturally enough, at the time we’d decided was most convenient, fitted in between holidays and work commitments and carefully timed so that the baby would be born at the right point in the school year, preferably September or October, to have all the benefits that came from being one of the oldest in the class. But we had to be careful. We couldn’t start trying too early because then we’d risk having a baby in August, and that would be terrible. Imagine!
People give you all manner of rubbish advice when they know you’re trying to conceive. Try yoga. Or Reiki. Eat lots of pineapple. Enjoy the lack of responsibility. Just relax! It’ll happen when you least expect it. Take a holiday. We went to Norfolk for the weekend. It didn’t work. I gave up expecting people to understand, and turned to the internet, where I found a wealth of support groups for women who were trying to get pregnant. There was a whole new language to get my head round, from the technical vocabulary of reproductive medicine to the cutesy slang that people used as a means of keeping the awfulness of the whole thing at arm’s length. Having sex was ‘doing the deed’, or, more toe-curlingly, ‘babydancing.’ Posters wished each other ‘babydust’ when they were waiting to see if their latest attempts to conceive had been successful, and sent ‘sticky vibes’ to people who’d recently had a BFP (big fat positive) on a pregnancy test. Dedicated A level English Language teacher that I was, I could see why people communicated in this way: it was a shared social code, a way of signalling membership of a group that nobody wanted to be a member of for long. But it wasn’t me.
Fortunately, I found an ally. Kate – who I’m still in touch with, nearly eighteen years later – had messaged me when I’d voiced my frustration about people asking intrusive questions (see, nothing’s changed) and we’d swapped email addresses. We exchanged emails – long ones, sometimes several times a day – sharing what we’d been through and the sense of isolation we’d felt. We became fellow refuseniks, scarred and toughened. It was the first time I’d found anyone who really understood.
Kate and I had a hot date every Wednesday night. It was a very particular kind of date, for two reasons. The first was because it took place over the phone, a necessity given that we lived on opposite sides of the country. The second was that it revolved around watching the BBC TV series Bodies. Written by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor, Bodies was set on the obstetrics and gynaecology ward of a fictional NHS hospital. Its plot focused on two characters: an ambitious but bumbling consultant, Roger Hurley, who wreaked havoc on the nether regions of countless pregnant women, and a junior doctor, Rob Lake, who agonised over whether to risk his career by blowing the whistle. There was plenty of NHS politics – cheeseparing managers, league tables and people watching their backs – plus a maverick senior consultant, played by Keith Allen, whose personalised number plate read VAG 1. But it wasn’t the politics that interested us. It was the gory scenes of childbirth and its aftermath: uterine prolapses, forceps and Ventouses, fourth-degree tears and cascades of blood. Separated by the best part of two hundred miles, curled up on our respective sofas, we’d sit and talk, breaking off occasionally to watch in horrified fascination when something particularly gruesome happened. Because really, what lay beneath our obsession with Bodies was the knowledge that we had escaped all this. We may have been infertile, we may have endured all those months of symptom-spotting and been left feeling like failures, but at least we’d be spared the horrors of the delivery room and the emergency C-section. For an hour every Wednesday evening, we could console ourselves. We could run for the bus and not worry about leaky pelvic floors; we could drink wine and stuff ourselves with pâté and soft cheese. We were heady with the intoxication of having found a gang to join, even if it was only a gang of two.
Deciding to adopt put an immediate stop to all the questions about when we were going to start a family, and probably gave some people food for thought about what had been going on in the background during all that time when I’d been practising my evasive tactics and pretending not to be interested. To my immense regret, I never confronted anyone back then about how insensitive their questions were. Kate was braver than me. She’d taken colleagues to task for tactless remarks, pointing out that fertility is a privilege that not everyone shares. Many of our conversations revolved around the importance of openness. Kate told me that she’d gained huge comfort from her friendships with older, childless women, several of whom had shared their own stories of being unable to conceive at a time when infertility was a subject that people just didn’t talk about. Her experiences had prompted them to reveal griefs that had been hidden for decades, and to show her that it was possible to envisage a future without children. She’d also told some younger friends what she’d been through. ‘If nobody talks about infertility, Carol,’ she’d explained to me during one of our Wednesday night phone calls, ‘then everyone who goes through it thinks they’re the only one, they’re completely alone. And younger couples just carry on thinking that when they decide it’s time to start a family it’ll all be okay, it’ll happen just when they want it to, just like we did. Somebody needs to tell them it doesn’t always work out like that.’ We were going to be the wise women, we decided: the people who knew how it really was. We’d been fired in a crucible, burnished and hardened, but with knowledge to pass on that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There might seem to be a contradiction between wanting to be open but not wanting to be asked intrusive questions. The key difference, though, is obvious. I’m open about infertility on my terms. It’s a conversation that I get to start, when I feel comfortable about it. It’s not a corner that I should feel backed into. It’s driven by my desire for honesty, not your thirst for gossip. It’s a horrible experience – crushing and isolating – and it’s one that people should know more about. But only when I’m ready to tell.
Raising awareness is very much on my radar at the moment. Next week, it’s National Adoption Week, and you can bet your life I’ll have lots to say about that, but that’s for another post. This week, it’s Baby Loss Awareness Week, which aims to break the silence that can exist around the loss of a baby. Every year, the week culminates in a global Wave of Light on 15 October, when bereaved families around the world light candles, at 7pm local time, to commemorate the lives of babies who died during pregnancy or soon after birth.
It’s a necessary event. In the past, stories abounded of parents whose babies were taken away before they had the chance to say goodbye, let alone to grieve. Doris, the narrator of Alan Bennett’s monologue ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, gives birth to a stillborn son who is wrapped in newspaper, ‘as if he was dirty’. Nowadays, bereaved parents are supported: specialist workers help them to create memory boxes with handprints and locks of hair, and there is time – however brief – for them to hold and cherish their baby, to ease this heartbreaking loss. So many couples go through this. Every October, on social media, I’m struck by how many of my friends and acquaintances light candles. I knew about some of their experiences, but had no idea about others. Then, a pink candle, a blue candle, sometimes alone, sometimes in multiples, and I rethink my perceptions of particular lives and the sorrows they must have contained.
So, in a week when the president of Murray Edwards has lamented the fact that she no longer feels able to ask young women about their plans to have children, let’s think about all the possible answers that people might give, and the experiences that lie behind them. Let’s remember those who have suffered those gut-wrenching losses, and those who, like me, never got to see a positive line on a pregnancy test, and never had anything tangible to grieve. This is a club that none of us ever wanted to join. But let’s try to share our experiences, if we can, in the hope that it might make things easier for those who don’t yet know what life has in store for them.
We’re nearly at the end of Act One of King Lear! There are lots of things I could blog about – Goneril and riotous knights and the concept of tragedy among them – but today I’m going to focus on Edmund.
Where do we start? Edmund is there right at the beginning of the play, in the conversation that takes place before the entrance of Lear and the spectacle of the love trial. His father, Gloucester, introduces him to Kent, and makes a crass remark about what ‘good sport’ there was ‘at his making’. He also informs Kent that Edmond is illegitimate, referring to him as a ‘whoreson’. Edmund, in response, says very little. It’s easy to skim over this brief conversation on the way to the main part of the action, but I’d argue that students need to go back to it, once they’ve studied Act 1 Scene 2, and imagine what Edmund is thinking while his father is engaging in tactless banter about his conception. How does he react? Is there an eye-roll, a grimace? Does he play along? Has he heard it all before?
If Edmund’s behaviour in Act 1 Scene 1 is somewhat inscrutable, Act 1 Scene 2 leaves us under no illusions whatsoever as to how he actually feels about his situation. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2 reveals him as charismatic, persuasive, and deeply resentful. Note that it’s the first soliloquy spoken in the whole play. I draw students’ attention to this, as it’s a good point to make about Shakespeare’s methods, and encourages them to think about dramatic method on a much broader level than the picky micro analysis that GCSE often seems to encourage. (I get them to think of Shakespeare as the puppeteer, pulling the strings: why does he make this character, whichever character it might be, do this at this particular point in the play?)
Soliloquies are a funny thing. They can be played simply as the revelation of a character’s thoughts, allowing the audience access to feelings and motivations that do not – for whatever reason – emerge in conversation. In this type of soliloquy, it’s as though we, as the audience, are not actually there: we’re simply witnessing the private unfolding of the workings of a character’s mind. A good example of this kind of soliloquy is Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ in Act 2 Scene 1, immediately before the murder of Duncan. But some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies can equally be played as monologues, spoken directly to the audience. Edmund’s soliloquies fall into this category. Yes, he could be speaking just to himself, voicing the grudges that have been burning within him ever since he learned of his inferior status. However, I’d argue that his solo speeches are much more effective when used as a way of building a relationship with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and inviting us to share in the injustice of his situation. One excellent example of this is Paapa Essiedu’s performance for the 2016 RSC production, available on Digital Theatre: Essiedu’s facial expressions beckon the audience to join in with his disdain and present Edmund – after the mannered speeches of Gonerill and Regan – as perfectly plausible and sympathetic. Two very good short film examples are Daniel Schroeder’s and Riz Ahmed’s for the Guardian’s Shakespeare Solos series, both of which are delivered straight to camera. After all, to a 21st century audience, Edmund’s objections to his treatment are perfectly reasonable. Why should he be branded with baseness, purely because of his illegitimacy?
There’s also the language that Edmund uses. I get students to count the number of questions in his first soliloquy. There are nine in the first fifteen lines: not only questioning, but almost hectoring. Who is he addressing? There’s Nature, first of all, who he addresses as ‘my goddess’, although note that he uses the familiar ‘thou’. There’s Edgar, who we have not yet seen, and who looms in Edmund’s mind as an object of hatred. And there are the gods, the object of Edmund’s final command: ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ (An interesting exercise you can get students to do is to look at how many times characters in King Lear try to command the gods, as opposed to making requests of them: they’ve not yet learned to ask politely.) Students can also examine the way Edmund plays around with the words that taunt him, spitting out the plosives in ‘bastardy’ and ‘base’ and holding the syllables of ‘legitimate’ up for inspection. Get them to experiment with different ways of emphasising these words, or demonstrate yourself.
I wanted to find out how many soliloquies Edmund actually speaks, so I consulted Open Source Shakespeare and did some counting. (Open Source Shakespeare is brilliant: I found out that the word ‘nothing’ appears more times in King Lear than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, which is a useful thing for your students to know.) Edmund has more soliloquies than any other character in King Lear – six in total – and his soliloquies make up almost a quarter of his lines. After him, the character given the most opportunities of speaking to the audience is Edgar. An interesting point to note is that Lear – alone of the four great tragic protagonists – has no soliloquies at all, although there are some well-known study websites that claim he has a number of soliloquies, including his ‘O reason not the need!’ speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (spoken in front of both his daughters, Cornwall, Kent, the Fool, and various servants) and his apostrophising of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 (spoken in front of the Fool). A useful point to make to your students: don’t trust everything you read online.
Year 11 are working on the Original Writing task for GCSE Paper 1 at the moment, and we spent today’s lesson looking at how to explore an image. There are dozens of ways you can approach this task, and I’m sure people have their favourite methods, but I thought I’d write about this lesson because it’s a lovely way of getting students to generate ideas.
A couple of days ago, I read codexterous’s blog post on creative writing icebergs, and thought that this was a brilliant way of getting students to think about an image that I’ve used for years as a creative writing prompt, Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat. So the Do Now task for today’s lesson was the following slide:
The students very quickly came up with the idea of isolation, and the idea that both images conveyed a sense of cold, whether physical or metaphorical. I prompted them to think of what they knew about icebergs, and from then it was an easy jump to the idea of surfaces and what lies beneath: the fact that you can look at Hopper’s image and have no idea what’s going on in the woman’s mind, or in her life, to bring her to this lonely café.
We then started to look at the painting in more depth. I asked the students to spend a couple of minutes simply writing down what they could see. It was fascinating to see how closely they read the image. They began with obvious points: a woman wearing a green coat and a yellow hat, sitting alone at a table in a café, with a window behind her in which two rows of lights are reflected in the darkness. Then they started to focus on particular details. One of them pointed out that the warmth of the colours: the reds, oranges and yellows. Another picked up on the empty chair opposite the woman. There was a lot of discussion of her clothes. Her coat looks expensive, with a fur collar and cuffs. Her dress is short and low-cut: she looks as if she’s dressed for a night out. She doesn’t have a bag with her. She’s wearing only one glove. She’s looking into her cup of coffee with a downcast expression on her face, emphasised by downward curve of the brim of her hat. I get students to think even further, about the things they can’t see: how much coffee is left in her cup, what time it might be, whether the table is clean or a little bit sticky.
From this point, questions abound. Why is she there? Is she on her way to somewhere, or is she going home? If she’s on her way somewhere, does she know where she’s going? How long has she been there? Was there someone sitting opposite her earlier? Has there ever been someone sitting opposite her? Is she running away from something? Why is she so dressed up? Has the person behind the counter noticed she’s there? Are they keeping an eye on her, concerned, wondering whether they should ask if everything’s okay?
We’re going to spend more time developing this piece of writing next week, but today we finished by focusing on that cup of coffee. I asked the students to imagine that they were looking at it, from the woman’s point of view, and to describe it. We shared our ideas, and one student came up with the brilliant idea that it had originally had a heart drawn in the foam on top, but that now the heart had disintegrated, leaving the woman with nothing but the dregs. We talked about what kinds of sentence structures might help us to create a sense of bleakness and despair, and decided that some single-words sentences, and short simple sentences, might be useful. Then we had five minutes to write a description, and I wrote alongside the students. Here’s what I came up with:
There wasn’t time for us to share our work, but that will be the starting point for next lesson. We’ll then think about how to structure a longer piece of writing, using drop-zoom-flash-end as a scaffold. Lots of thinking, lots of rich discussion and hard imaginative work, but the kind of lesson that passed by very quickly.
We’re now three weeks into term, and my Year Twelves are up to Act 1 Scene 4 of King Lear. We haven’t met the Fool yet – he’s waiting until next lesson – but we’re thoroughly immersed, and I’m remembering what a fantastic play this is to teach.
Over the years I’ve witnessed lots of discussions about the teaching of Shakespeare: whether you approach a play through a cold read or a warm read, when to introduce contextual and critical reading, whether to watch a production of the whole play first and so on. My approach varies a little depending on the nature of the group I have in front of me, but I begin by scaffolding students’ reading very heavily. In a typical lesson, I’ll give them a brief overview of whichever scene we’re focusing on – not a plot summary, but a sense of its significance within the play and any major characters we meet. We’ll then read the scene out loud, sometimes splitting it into sections. At the start of the course I ask for volunteers to read, as the start of an A level course can be intimidating not just academically but also interpersonally, especially if you’ve come from a different school or if you’ve spent much of your school career in middle sets and have suddenly found yourself in a group with people who are much more able and confident than you. I don’t want to expose anyone. Once the students are more comfortable with each other, and once I’ve got to know them, I’ll start to allocate parts.
I know some people are sceptical about getting students to read Shakespeare out loud, with memories of stumbling over words and taking ages to get through the play. I think the stumbling is an important part of the learning process and use it as a way of exploring unfamiliar vocabulary. Lots of reassurance also helps to build a sense of your classroom as a safe space where struggling is accepted. I will intervene at points when we’re reading aloud to question and check understanding, drawing in especially those students who aren’t reading and anyone who I suspect might be struggling but not want to admit it. Yes, I could show a professional production of the play, but the exploratory talk is really valuable and part of helping the group to coalesce and learn to trust each other (and me) at this early stage.
Once we’ve finished a particular part of the scene, I’ll display a set of questions designed to make sure students’ understanding is secure and get them to make some observations about aspects of language, character and theme. At this stage, these are fairly simple: I emphasise that our study of the play will be an iterative process and that we’ll add layers of detail and complexity as we go along. Students discuss these questions in pairs or small groups and make notes. We then discuss as a whole class, and I’ll build in further layers of questioning to probe, secure, extend – whatever’s needed at this stage.
We encourage students to use the Cornell method of notemaking, but for our read-through of the play I’ve introduced a slightly modified version in which students split the main part of their page into two equal columns rather than having a narrower left-hand column. Their initial responses to questions go on the left, and then they use the right-hand column to add detail during our discussion. The section at the bottom of the page is used to summarise key points when they revisit their notes.
What about introducing productions? I do this in a number of ways: showing clips of different versions to highlight different interpretations, showing the play act by act so students can consolidate their understanding, and showing the whole play so they get a sense of the overall arc of the tragedy. We’ll go and see a production if one is accessible, but there are a number of fantastic films of stage productions available and these are really useful for focusing on particular scenes. I introduce these once we’ve read the love trial in Act 1 Scene 1. I want students to be able to grasp a number of things about this scene. One is its ceremonial nature. The lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays means that students often skim over the stage directions that are there, but I think it’s really important that they look at the transition from the conversation between Kent, Gloucester and Edmond and the formal, orchestrated quality of the love trial. So we pick up on the sennet that heralds Lear’s entrance, the procession onto the stage of Lear, his daughters, Albany and Cornwall, and the attendants. Those attendants are another thing: we don’t know how many, or what they do, but I want students to think about how they could be used to draw attention to the formality of the scene. Another is the difference between Goneril and Regan: it’s easy to lump them in together, but I want students to be able to pick up on the subtle differences between them. And then there’s the way everything starts to disintegrate, once Cordelia refuses to play the part that Lear has given her. (Because we do Macbeth at GCSE, we draw parallels with the banquet, another scene that starts with a formal entrance and disintegrates into chaos.)
In order to explore these ideas further, I show them clips of two different productions. The first is the 2014 National Theatre production, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Simon Russell Beale as a pugnacious, dictatorial Lear. In this, Lear’s daughters sit at a long table, with Albany and Cornwall, in sombre business suits, beside their wives. Lear sits at a distance on a plain wooden throne, and gets up to pace around as his daughters deliver their speeches. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril is hesitant and careful with her words: Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is a flirtatious daddy’s girl who gets up to sit on her father’s knee. The tension is heightened by Lear’s close scrutiny of his daughters, and his air of teetering already on the edge of irrationality: Michael Billington, in the Guardian, commented that ‘he has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him’. There’s also the presence of those attendants, several rows of them in dark military uniforms, who encircle the group on stage. When Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) refuses to play along with her father’s wishes, the enraged Lear upturns the tables and sends his daughters shrinking in fear.
The second clip we watch is from Greg Doran’s 2016 RSC production with Anthony Sher as a very different Lear, dressed in furs and borne onstage by his attendants on a throne enclosed in a transparent case. Again, there’s a sense of distance, created this time by the fact that Lear sits on high, a huge gold disc in the background reflecting the play’s astrological theme. The performative nature of the love trial is emphasised by the fact that Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, as Goneril and Regan, speak to the assembled company, their backs to Lear, when delivering their speeches. Sher’s Lear is more godlike than Russell Beale’s, and raises his hand as if channelling some higher power when he banishes Mimi Ndiweni’s Cordelia. Those on stage bow or cower, terrified of what he might unleash.
What’s clear from both these productions is that the trial, of course, isn’t a trial at all. Lear has already decided how he will divide his kingdom, and who will get which portion. Students can see the tension on stage, the power imbalances at play, and recognise the coercive nature of this situation. It’s the perfect example of hubris, and from this point, they’re ready to see Lear’s tenuous grasp on sanity weaken further.
Busy times at work at the moment, but my next King Lear post will focus on the character of Edmond. The clip of Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is here; further clips and interviews are available here. An extract from Anthony Sher’s performance is here; the whole production is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the RSC and can also be streamed from Digital Theatre if you’ve got a subscription.