Northern

I knew it would happen. There’s Boris Johnson, presiding over a culture in 10 Downing Street where people were clearly allowed to believe that the rules didn’t apply to them. And there was Angela Rayner, being interviewed for Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, discussing Johnson’s bluffing and obfuscation. ‘The Prime Minister could quite simply have answered the question: Was you there, was you not?’ British culture being what it is, it was inevitable that for some people, Rayner’s non-standard verb forms would be far more appalling than anything Johnson did or didn’t do. Twist the rules, lie to the public, spaff taxpayers’ money up the wall: just make sure you do it in RP.

A level English Language students are always fascinated by different perceptions of accents and dialects. One of the pieces of research we look at in Year 12 is Dixon, Mahoney and Cox’s 2002 matched guise study, which examined the effect of regional accent on perceptions of guilt. Participants were asked to listen to recordings of scripted interviews between a police inspector and a suspect, the latter played by a student who used a Birmingham accent in one set of interviews and an RP accent in another. The suspect was far more likely to be judged to be guilty when he spoke with a Birmingham accent – even though the words he spoke were exactly the same.

Students are frequently – and quite rightly – outraged by this, seeing it as an example of the ways in which people with strong regional accents are discriminated against. But there is, of course, another side to the experiment. You’re more likely to be considered guilty if you speak with a regional accent, but equally, you’re more likely to be considered not guilty if you speak RP. And this is one academic study, but how many people, over the decades, have managed to hide behind the smooth veneer of an accent so inextricably linked to wealth, power and the Establishment?

‘We apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for you.’ Susie Blake, as Victoria Wood’s continuity announcer

There are a number of poems that play around with issues of accent and prejudice. One of my favourites is Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’, a pair of caudal sonnets based on the poet’s experience of being a pupil from a working-class background at the decidedly middle-class Leeds Grammar School. It uses phonemic symbols to distinguish between the younger Harrison’s accent – with its rounded [uz] – and that of his ‘nicely spoken’ teacher, with his RP [Ʌs]. In the first of the sonnets, Harrison is castigated for his accent and made to feel inferior, a ‘barbarian’. The poem is full of images of awkwardness – ‘gob full of pebbles’, ‘great lumps to hawk up and spit out’ – and ultimately, the teacher reduces Harrison to silence:

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

The second sonnet shows Harrison fighting back. Gaining a defiant energy from somewhere, he vows ‘So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry.’ He takes charge, drops ‘the initials I’d been harried as’ and uses ‘my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz].’ It’s an immense two fingers to the authority of RP. The icing on the cake is Harrison’s decision to make the sonnet form his own, adapting it for his own purposes by adding those extra two lines. It’s audacious, disobedient, a refusal to conform. I love it.

I first encountered ‘Them & [uz]’ when I was a sixth former, at my comprehensive school in Newton-le-Willows, the same school that Andy Burnham attended, in the middle of the northern no-man’s-land between Manchester and Liverpool. I was preparing for my Oxford entrance exam and desperately self-conscious about sounding Northern. I next encountered it in my second year at university, in a tutorial for a unit called ‘The History, Use and Theory of the English Language’, a compulsory part of the course that nobody really wanted to do. We’d been farmed out to another college and our new tutor had given us the poem as a way of opening up a discussion about accents and prejudice. As the only Northerner in the group, I was asked to demonstrate a Northern [uz]. It didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem. But I was the only one in the group who’d seen the poem before, and could therefore explain exactly what it was that Harrison was saying.

So even though I could predict what one set of reactions to Angela Rayner’s interview would be, I was also cheering her on, a Northern-accented woman holding an RP-speaking man to account. And let’s hope that this is the beginning of the end for the accent of privilege.

We need to talk about The Woman in Black

She’s scary, that woman. Look at her, standing there at the back of the church without a prayer book, or in the abandoned graveyard. Or, rather – don’t look at her. You never know what you might unleash. Keep your head down, keep walking, and carry on as if you never saw her in the first place.

If you’ve ever taught Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, ever seen the stage play or the Daniel Radcliffe film or the 1989 ITV adaptation, you’ll know just how frightening Jennet Humfrye, the Woman in Black, actually is. Jennet, with her wasted face and malevolent gaze, haunts the lonely churchyard and marshes of the isolated town of Crythin Gifford, and casts an eerie spell over Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor who has been sent from London to sort out the papers of the mysterious Mrs Drablow after her death. Her fleeting appearances in the stage play have audience members shrieking in their seats.  In the television adaptation, scripted by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame, she swoops down like a grinning harpy over Kipps as he lies in his bed, and screeches in his face.

Me, confronted with another set of adoption stereotypes

The Woman in Black is incredibly popular in schools. It’s a set text for OCR and Eduqas at GCSE, and it’s also used widely in Key Stage 3, partly because it’s a brilliant introduction to the Gothic, but also because it’s a cracking novel in its own right. We do it at the beginning of Year Nine, and students enjoy it: they rise to the challenge of what is a relatively ‘adult’ novel, and are intrigued by the way Hill controls tension and builds atmosphere. Living as we do on the edge of the Fens, they also find Hill’s descriptions of misty, marshy landscapes extremely evocative. We spend time looking at the way she conveys the delicacy of the light, the weak winter sun and the calls of distant birds. Last year, one of my students showed me a photograph he’d taken during his journey to school one foggy morning. ‘Look, Miss’, he said, ‘it’s just like that bit we read where he’s on his way to Eel Marsh House.’ And it was.

But The Woman in Black is also problematic. Like Blood Brothers, which I wrote about last year, it’s a text whose plot turns on an adoption, and therefore, it has the potential to unleash some extremely complex feelings in students who are adopted or in care. It’s also a text whose representation of adoption – in particular, of the birth mother Jennet Humfrye – needs careful handling.

When she first appears, at the funeral of the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Jennet Humfrye is a mysterious, brooding presence, dressed in black and bearing the traces of ‘some terrible wasting disease’. Arthur’s first impulse is to feel sorry for her. He wonders whether there’s anything he can do to help. As the novel unfolds, we discover that Jennet and Alice were sisters. We learn that Jennet had a relationship with a young man, became pregnant, and was coerced by her family into giving up her son Nathaniel so that he could be adopted by her sister and brought up in a ‘respectable’ household.

As such, Jennet can be read as an example of the Victorian ‘fallen woman’, and as a representative of the many thousands of women who have been coerced into relinquishing their children because of the stigma of illegitimacy. Arthur suspects that part of her fate is due to the fact that she is a ‘daughter of genteel parentage’: if she had been a servant, she ‘might perhaps have fared better’. As it is, she has been ‘coldly rejected’, her feelings ‘totally left out of the count’, in order to preserve her family’s reputation. Hill makes the agony of Jennet’s situation abundantly clear:

I felt sorry for J, as I read her short, emotional letters over again. Her passionate love for her child and her isolation with it, her anger and the way she at first fought bitterly against and, finally, gave despairingly in to the course proposed to her, filled me with sadness and sympathy.

The Woman in Black, p. 176

In class, Jennet’s plight can be used to open up multiple conversations about the treatment of women and children and the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of ‘morality’ and ‘respectability’. Students are often horrified that Jennet’s relatives were allowed to do what they did, and even more horrified when they find that even nowadays, women are being coerced into giving up their babies so that they can be given a life that is supposedly better than the one they might have had otherwise. These experiences have been highlighted by the ongoing campaign for an official apology to the thousands of British women forced to hand over their newborn babies for adoption. It might be instructive to read The Woman in Black alongside some of their testimonies: accounts of being slapped, refused pain relief, forbidden to say goodbye. Jennet’s story belongs to living memory, not the distant past.

But. Here’s the difficult thing. Jennet, as everyone who has read or watched The Woman in Black will know, is not allowed to remain as the recipient of sympathy. She’s an avenging spirit who terrifies those who see her. Her loss has fuelled not just sadness, but a destructive rage, a ‘pent-up hatred and desire for revenge’ that leads her to ‘take away other women’s children because she had lost her own’. After the death of her son in a tragic accident, she goes ‘mad with grief and mad with anger’, roaming the streets of the small town of Crythin Gifford ‘like a walking skeleton – a living spectre’. In death, she haunts the isolated Eel Marsh House and the landscape around it. The sight of her reduces Mr Jerome to a state of abject terror. We learn that soon after she appears, a child will inevitably die, in ‘some violent or dreadful circumstance’. She’s an abomination, a monstrous Other, a bogeywoman. And that’s the problem.

It’s a problem for two significant reasons. The first is because if you have any adopted children in your class, their feelings about their birth parents will – inevitably – be incredibly complex ones. Some might have vivid and possibly traumatic memories of living with their birth parents. Some might have ongoing contact. Others will have had to rely on their adoptive parents for information about their birth families, and while all adoptive parents are taught, in their preparation, about how important it is for children to know their life stories, it’s clear that not all adoptive parents are assiduous in having these conversations. (‘Why do you talk to him about that stuff?’ one acquaintance asked me, about the Dude. ‘Does he really need to know?’ Yes, he does. Shut up.) There’ll be a tangle of emotions that – depending on circumstances – might include anger and fear and guilt but will also include grief and love. And having the figure of a birth mother presented as an object of terror could be extremely damaging.

And what about if you don’t have any adopted children in your class? The other reason why Jennet Humfrye is such a troubling figure is because she feeds into the general hoard of myths and stereotypes that exist around adoption. If you don’t have any experience of adoption in real life – and let’s face it, many people don’t – you will rely on fiction and the media to build your mental model. There are hundreds of examples of adopted and care-experienced people in fiction, and therefore also hundreds of examples of fictional birth parents, adoptive parents and foster carers. And many of these examples are hugely problematic.

What might be useful, then, if you’re teaching The Woman in Black, is to consider why it is that the figure of a birth mother – the victim of a terrible injustice – has been treated in this way. Whose interests does it serve, to demonise a woman who has already suffered? In what ways could we see Jennet Humfrye as part of the culture that would still prefer to forget that birth parents exist, to write them out of adopted children’s stories and see them as objects of a profound, atavistic fear?

Last year, I talked to Al Coates of The Adoption and Fostering Podcast about the ways in which adoption is represented in fiction and popular culture. One thing Al said was that what adoption needs is its own version of Cathy Come Home, a story that presents the reality: not the unicorns-and-rainbows fairytale of adoption recruitment campaigns, not the superhero wonder children and not the demons. Too many stories rely on adoption as an easy source of tropes and plot twists. The Woman in Black can open up some conversations about adoption, and can help to shed light on some of the injustices that have taken place. But the way it treats Jennet Humfrye should also make us feel profoundly uncomfortable, and if we’re teaching this novel, then we need to be aware of its flaws.  

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.

Teaching King Lear: changes, connections, and lessons in life

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).

Howl of anguish: Head VI, after Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X, by Francis Bacon (1949)

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.

Tragedy: knowledge, understanding and handling genre

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. Today I’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.)

Greek tragedy mask from the 4th century BCE, in the Archaeological Museum, Piraeus. Photo by
George E. Koronaios. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

On the road

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.

Rainbow over Nottinghamshire. Taken from the A52, 30 October 2021

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.

Teaching King Lear: Introducing Edmund

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?

Thou, Nature, art my goddess: Daniel Schroeder as Edmund (Source: YouTube)

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.

For a very different Edmund – Robert Lindsay, dripping with hatred – see the 1983 Granada TV production, about 20 minutes in. And see also my article for the British Library’s Discovering Literature series on Edmund, Goneril and Regan, which explores Edmund as an example of Machiavellian duplicity.  

Original writing: Edward Hopper’s Automat

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.

Edward Hopper, ‘Automat’, 1927

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.

This post is featured by Twinkl in their ‘Teaching Writing’ blog

Teaching King Lear: practices and processes

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.

That didn’t go to plan. Cordelia’s Portion, by Ford Madox Brown

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.

On setting out to teach King Lear once again

So. It’s the start of term, I’m back in my own classroom after a year of carting my stuff around six different teaching zones, and I have an A level English Literature group after two years of focusing on English Language. Teaching A level English Literature is – as you might expect – one of my favourite things about my job, and I’ll be starting the year with King Lear, which is just about my favourite text to teach. Wahey! So, as a new-school-year resolution, I’m going to try to blog my way through teaching King Lear, partly as a record of the whole unfolding teaching process, and partly to help anyone who’s teaching it for the first time and could do with a hand.

A word first about the start of the A level course. I know A level English Literature isn’t simply a list of set texts, and that the course should involve a wider exploration of what the study of literature actually involves. In the past, I’ve begun the course by getting students to think about what literature is, why we read the kinds of books we do, how our interpretations are shaped by our own particular contexts, and so on. But I was never convinced that the students were ready for that kind of philosophical reflection at that point in their A level experience. Students are often too nervous to open up in front of peers who they might have only just met, and they can get hung up on not wanting to say the wrong thing. A few years ago, I decided to go straight into the first set text, and start to feed in wider critical concepts once students had found their feet and relaxed a bit. It worked much more effectively, and I’ve never been tempted to go back.

Michael Perry’s King Lear poster design. Source: Pinterest

We do the AQA B specification, and study Aspects of Tragedy and Elements of Political and Social Protest Writing, two big chunky genres that students enjoy. Most of our students have done Macbeth at GCSE, so should know something about tragedy already, and in many ways Macbeth is the perfect preparation for King Lear, raising similar questions about tragic protagonists and the errors that set their downfalls in motion, as well as the nature of kingship. But before we even start to think about tragedy, I put the students into groups, and give them a series of images to explore. I also give them a number of prompts:

  • What clues do these images give you as to the play’s central characters and themes?
  • What kinds of locations are featured?
  • What kinds of emotions are conveyed?
  • What do you notice about eyes?
  • What do you notice about crowns?
  • What do you notice about the number three?

The images I chose are all examples of art inspired by King Lear: theatrical posters, cover designs and illustrations. Pinterest is a great source of suitable images, and students can then, as a follow-up, be asked to find their own images and save them to a shared class Pinterest board. My King Lear Pinterest board is here, and you’ll also find some examples on Michele Walfred’s ‘King Lear Theatrical Posters’ website, which provides a fascinating commentary on some of these images. I chose these images to highlight particular aspects of the play and give students a context for their reading, but it’s important to note that the discussion generated also helps the students to get to know each other and establishes a culture in which they are allowed to be tentative and exploratory, sharing ideas and building on each other’s contributions.

Students then summarise the outcomes of their discussion. It’s interesting to see how much of the play’s plot and themes they can piece together. There are obvious points about tensions and rivalries within families, about the precariousness of the crown and the idea of division. Stefano Imbert’s poster for the Boomerang Theatre Company’s 2006 production depicts a man literally split into three, alone on a hilltop in a bleak landscape. Wieslaw Walkulski’s poster for the 1992 production of Król Lear at the Teatr Nowy in Poznan shows the king’s crown disintegrating and obscuring his vision. Istvan Orosz’s striking poster for the 1999 production of Lear Király at the Petrofi Theatre in Hungary, meanwhile, shows the crown entangled in the bare branches of the king’s mind. Other images – including Clare Van Vliet’s woodcut illustration for The Tragedie of King Lear and the stark poster produced for the Wharton Center’s 2011 production of the play – focus on the threat posed by the elements, while chess pieces and grasping hands also feature.

I then introduce some quotations from the play:

  • Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
  • Come not between the dragon and his wrath!
  • He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
  • Now gods, stand up for bastards!
  • The king falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child.
  • Who is it that can tell me who I am?
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
  • Thou would’st make a good fool.
  • I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
  • I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
  • You heavens, give me patience, patience I need!
  • I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
  • The younger rises as the old doth fall.
  • Then let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.
  • The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.
  • As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; they kill us for their sport.
  • ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
  • Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: robes and furred gowns hide all.
  • You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me.
  • I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
  • O fool! I shall go mad.
  • I am a very foolish, fond old man.
  • The gods are just.
  • The wheel has come full circle.
  • Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?

Students are asked to look for further examples of the themes they’ve identified, and to make connections between quotations. Again, it’s surprising how far students can get in these initial explorations. This week, for instance, my new Year Twelves observed that a number of the quotations make requests of the gods – from Edmond’s ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ to Gloucester’s ‘You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me’. However, they also spotted that the gods do not necessarily assent to these requests: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport’. They linked this quotation to the recurring images of chess pieces, and the idea that while characters might think they can command the gods, they learn eventually that they are little more than pawns in an indifferent universe.

That was a long way to go in just our first two lessons, accompanied by incredibly rich discussions. Students drew on their knowledge of other plays, and working in groups meant that they were able to build relationships with their new classmates, as well as giving me the chance to observe how they interacted and gauge how confident they were in handling Shakespeare’s language. Their homework for the next lesson was to research the features of tragedy, which is the kind of flipped learning we’ve been doing in English for years without making a fuss about it 🙂