Posts Tagged ‘Romeo and Juliet’

On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.

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Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

Romeo & Juliet at the RSC

May 21, 2018

I was rather disappointed by this production, having expected rather better from the RSC

The two main issues were the two main characters who, whilst each convincing enough as individuals – Romeo especially – never managed to come across as a pair, a couple head-over-heels in love with each other. Added to this was a tendency to deliver their lines rather too quickly, slipping into a gabble occasionally, which is no substitute for making an audience feel the urgency of their passion, and you have quite marked flaws in a production. This, of course, raises a more general, and perhaps insuperable issue for this play: you need young actors in many of the roles for them to be credible, and young means (relatively) inexperienced, therefore unable to do what is required to make the role work…

It can be done, however: I went to this performance with two first-rate productions in mind that I had seen over the years, an excellent one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a good many years ago now, where the entire stage was centred on a gigantic double bed, and an equally good and more intimate production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The RSC didn’t come up to either.

There were interesting touches. Sometimes gender-role changes are gratuitous, but here the female Mercutio managed the difficult task of making the Queen Mab speech work well, although she wasn’t consistently good throughout. Benvolio and Capulet were good: for me the touchstone is how Capulet carries off the scene where he loses his temper after Juliet has declined to marry Paris, and here he was superb. For most of the group, though, it was the outstanding performance of the Nurse – a role that can be really tiresome if played wrong – that won the day.

The fight scenes, usually made much of, were here underplayed, and I could not see how the casting of Tybalt, who is supposed to be ‘the prince of cats’ was supposed to work. And the idea of bringing all the dead back to life to walk around the stage at various points contributed nothing, other than cluttering the stage. In the end, I think, the director had too many ideas to try and impose on the text and they got in the way rather than enhanced the performance. The set was brilliant, though…

Why I don’t like Macbeth

February 10, 2018

51-Skl7FXWL._AC_US218_I’m doing my homework, ready for this year’s week of Shakespeare, which will include Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and also a Restoration Comedy by a woman writer I’d never heard of, Mary Pix. And so I’ve made myself re-read Macbeth. I say made myself, because although I’ve taught the play in school more times than I can remember, I’ve never liked the play, and still don’t. I thought it was time to reflect properly on why…

For starters, I can’t take the fantastical seriously. I know Shakespeare’s audience could and did, but witches, fairies and magic really turn me off (no, I don’t like the Dream, either!) But, a minor detail, perhaps. I can see the tragic flaw – ambition – in Macbeth, but for me the witches’ prophecies remove any autonomy of character and turn him into a plaything of fate in a way which doesn’t happen with other tragic heroes. He’s in the toils of evil forces right from the beginning of the play, before I’ve really seen anything about him that I can actually like or admire. So, when I reach the end of the play and Macduff enters bearing the tyrant’s head, there’s no feeling of pity or terror, no sense of catharsis.

And yet this time around, after not picking the play up since I retired, I found myself very struck by one thing in particular: the language. For me this is the redeeming feature of a play that I don’t like – there is so much stunningly powerful, effective, even beautiful poetic language and phrasing; the play positively drips with it, in a way that I don’t recall from other tragedies, even Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m studying in detail at the moment as I’m in the middle of writing a guide to it. The language really is the power of the play, from Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and many other characters, too. And that’s before I even consider the soliloquies…

I was reading my copy, which is the old Arden Second Series – for many, the best edition ever, though now very dated – edited by Kenneth Muir, whose lectures I had the good fortune and amazing experience of attending in my first year at university. His annotations are most interesting, and I was struck again by something that had once occurred to me: why doesn’t Banquo, who was with Macbeth when they first encountered the weird sisters, mention the prophecies to anyone after the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth’s accession? He’s clearly suspicious. Obviously Shakespeare was dealing with very sensitive subject-matter, as James I was descended from Banquo, but even so…

When I taught Macbeth, mainly for the completely unlamented SATs tests, sadly, I had to endure several grim performances of the play, none of which in any way countered my dislike of it. I’m hoping that this May the RSC will perhaps make me feel differently.

Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

January 29, 2017

516lgrk3f0l-_ac_us200_Antony and Cleopatra is a later play than Julius Caesar; it’s also longer and more subtle, and it has real human interest: the characters and the characterisation draw us in and engage us. The infatuation of Antony with Cleopatra is convincing, as is their flirting and their quarrelling: the portrait of an ageing man torn between duty and pleasure, between resolve and weakness, is brilliantly drawn. Beautiful poetry, haunting images support and enhance the pair’s relationship, fleshing out character, and their entourages further develop the picture: Cleopatra’s women, and Antony’s close friend Enobarbus are an integral part of the play.

The other thing that’s hard to notice unless you are aware of it and deliberately look out for it – and it will be clearer in performance, I’d imagine – is how little the pair are actually together onstage. In Shakespeare’s time, Cleopatra’s role would have been played by a boy, of course (she refers to this in one of her final speeches when she imagines the horror of being part of Caesar’s triumph in Rome) and the last thing that Shakespeare would have wanted would be for his couple to look ridiculous. So, the passion is largely created by what the two say about each other when they are apart – it’s then that their feelings for each other are strongest, whereas when they are together the relationship is stormy, to say the least – and through what other characters say about them and their relationship, particularly Antony’s friend Enobarbus. When you look out for the way Shakespeare has managed it all, you have to agree the achievement is brilliant.

And it’s also perhaps through the storminess of their relationship that Shakespeare is most successful: it’s not puppy-love at first sight, as with the teenagers in Romeo and Juliet; this is mature love between two people who have, to put it mildly, been around a bit, and Cleopatra (who is 38) is clearly worried about being past her beautiful best, in comparison with Octavia…

In their political and military defeat, the ties between them, and their love, grow stronger in spite of their mutual recriminations; now they only have each other, and are inseparable, even by Caesar, for this is another twist Shakespeare adds to the power of their relationship: how calculating is Cleopatra? is she playing a double game? will she come to a deal with Octavius? As an audience, I suggest that we desperately hope not: we are involved, and we want this to be real love, and love to die for, which in the end it is. And Shakespeare produces some of his most sublime poetry to show it.

Students used to ask me which was my favourite Shakespeare play. They never got a straight answer, because I usually found that my favourite play was the one I was currently teaching. Now that I can take a step further back, as it were, I think I can be clearer: though Othello comes a close second, I really do think Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite. (For now.)

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

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Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

Shakespeare: Pericles

February 6, 2016

41CK9T+8zsL._AA160_This was the only Shakespeare play I’d never read before: I’ve no idea why. Someone urged me to read it, a few years back, and I’ve finally got around to it.

Firstly, it’s not all Shakespeare’s own work: it shows, both in the language and the construction, and also in the fact that there’s no really reliable text, only a single quarto apparently scribbled down during performance and immediately after by two different people. So there are plenty of parts that are unclear, or don’t make much or any sense at all.

Then, it feels like a throwback to a more primitive dramatic form: the action is shunted along by a chorus between the acts, aided by a dumb show sometimes, which prefigures the action. There are other times when Shakespeare uses devices like these – the sonnet at the start of Romeo and Juliet gives away the entire plot, for instance, and sixteen years time is magicked away between two acts of The Winter’s Tale – but not in this consistent fashion. Through the entire play, I had the impression of Shakespeare on an off day, capable of better than this.

The plot itself is very loose, and repetitive, full of sea journeys, shipwrecks and visits to various ancient Greek statelets. Aspects of it remind one of The Tempest and also The Winter’s Tale, and the play is part of that period of Shakespeare’s work labelled the late romances.

I suspect I’ve given the impression of a play that’s not really worth bothering with. It seems not to be performed very often, and there’s only one film version available, made as part of the BBC Shakespeare series because it had to be there… and yet, it is much more than this. As the play moved into its second half, it gripped me much more, and I got a sense of the scenes that Shakespeare must have authored: the astonishing brothel scenes, where the virginal Marina is supposed to be inducted into her new role, and the really powerful and moving scene where the aged and long-suffering Pericles is finally reunited with his long-lost daughter Marina. Here there are definite echoes of the Lear and Cordelia reunion scenes, though obviously Marina survives her ordeals. And Pericles is finally reunited with his wife, who he thought had died in childbirth…

I’m very glad I finally got  around to reading it, and clearly need to revisit it soon, to pick up on what I missed first time through.

Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

December 26, 2015

4106MBV4HRL._AA160_This is quite an early Shakespeare play, which I’ve enjoyed in the past, but found a little tiresome this time round, for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is tiresonely symmetrical: a king and three nobles woo a princess and three ladies; all are ultimately successful. And for each of the three courstships, the stages are alike: you would not find such a lack of variety later on in the dramatist’s career. The comic subplots using the clowns and other menial character I therefore found rather more humorous and diverting.

The language is correspondingly limited, too: the blank verse is very structured, and very frequently moves into rhymed couplets, or alternate line rhymes, which grows tiresome after a while. There’s a great deal of wit and wordplay, much prized at the time and still very clever today, if you can penetrate it. My preferred edition of the plays is the Arden (second series) which appeared over about forty years from the 1950s onwards; this being an early edition, it’s interesting to see the editor doing his best to avoid having to explain the vulgarities and obscenities that abound, or couching them in euphemistic terms. Later editors of other plays were nowhere near this circumspect. But often, to understand much of the humour, a twenty-first century reader does need glosses.

One gets a clear picture of Shakespeare as a developing craftsman from this play; familiarity with a range of his work clarifies all sorts of different stages and experiments, and from this early work it’s possible to see a number of tracks that he would eventually explore: a lot more disguise and cross-dressing, a lot more experimentation with the versatilities of prose and poetry, bolder comic heroes and heroines (I was aware of how far he had yet to go to create the Viola of Twelfth Night, for example), much more complicated plots and subplots…

I suppose my closest comparison for anyone not familiar with this play would be Romeo and Juliet, which was written maybe a year or so later. it’s a tragedy (obviously), but, if you look closely at the text, rather than watch one of the quite heavily edited film or stage versions, you will still see some of the rather tiresome overuse of rhyme, and leaden emotional over-exaggeration (the Nurse’s lament at discovering the apparent death of Juliet), over-long set-piece speeches (Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech) and other signs of a still-developing playwright. Just read it alongside Antony and Cleopatra and you will see what I mean.

However, I always find it useful to be reminded that our greatest dramatist had to practise and learn his craft, and make a few mistakes along the way.

Shakespeare: Measure For Measure

December 18, 2015

510ADQNZXKL._AA160_I’ve re-read Measure For Measure several times, and I still can’t completely fathom it; it’s a tragicomedy, seemingly, as dark as The Merchant of Venice, but much more unclear in terms of where blame or guilt may be apportioned for the sorry state of affairs which is ultimately, and perhaps rather unsatisfactorily, put to rights – of some kind.

There are so many questions. Why does the Duke disappear (or pretend to), leaving full powers to a man (Angelo) less experienced than another (Escalus)? There seems a weakness, a remissness in the Duke’s behaviour here, and remissness is a serious flaw in a ruler. And this weakness seems to have affected the way he has ruled, but contrasted with Angelo’s rigour, we become less sure about this; again we compare Angelo with Escalus, and we feel the subplots also call his approach into question.

Then there’s the main, Claudio and Juliet story: Claudio’s (apparent) crime isn’t fully a crime as they were promised to each other, and certainly does not seem to merit the death penalty. Justice and mercy are set face-to-face as in The Merchant of Venice; the issue is complicated by Claudio’s weakness (or his human-ness?) – he wants to live, and would therefore persuade his sister to give herself to Angelo. Is her outrage, and rectitude something we are meant to approve of? Or is she too harsh? Is our response a twenty-first century one, and at odds with the way a seventeenth century audience would have viewed things?

Then there’s Angelo himself: very sure in his sense of right and wrong, and meting out justice with great confidence, but then apparently tormented by his lust, revealing a (slightly) more complex aspect to his character in soliloquies, taken over by his evil side. Is it frailty and human weakness, or wickedness, or a sense of guilt at his previous treatment of Mariana?

The Duke’s behaviour meanwhile grows more and more questionable: pretending to be a friar and usurping the religious privileges and duties of one, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a web of deceit which will go nowhere – just a Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet steps outside the bounds of his religious order (except he really is a friar). In a situation where we are surely prepared to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the drama, the performances with the faked executions and letters and so on become less and less believable…

I realise that this post is basically a series of questions, and will come to a close with another: where is Shakespeare taking his audience with all this? And I should attempt an answer, which is about as far as I have got with this play: Shakespeare is constantly showing his audience that nothing, no case of right or wrong, no person, whether apparently good or wicked, is as simple as appears on the surface; he is forever turning a situation on its head to have his audience think further, or to make them uncomfortable with the upsetting of their simple responses… will that do?

 

 

On teaching literature (3)

March 23, 2014

It’s only natural to want to share one’s love of reading, but teaching it isn’t quite that simple: I came across many students who didn’t enjoy reading, and who had far more exciting and interesting things that they preferred to spend their time on. So, a certain reality check there: come on down out of that ivory tower…  But there were also students who hadn’t yet met the books that spoke to them, and it was wonderful to see this finally happen: “It’s not the sort of book I’d choose to read myself, but it was really good…I’m glad we read it.” That was enough, for starters.

Boys and girls, male and female students enjoy different things from books, not mutually exclusive, but definitely in need of consideration, as well as tackling gender stereotypes. I always found a great way in was via their own reading: getting them to present a book to the class, read from it, review it, respond to questions on it… it was often astonishing to see what they chose, what they found in a book I’d read and hadn’t noticed, what the interest and reaction of their peers was. I suppose it was all about establishing reading as a normal and enjoyable activity.

Shared enjoyment of texts and introducing students to the idea that you could explore and interpret a book was the key in the early secondary years, where I always felt it was also essential to embed the idea of different people having different opinions and our need to respect those, as well as the idea that in our subject, there were no ‘right’ answers, only your answer and how you justified it. Some loved this, others couldn’t really cope with the freedom…

As we moved towards examination courses, the texts became more adult, the issues they raised more complex and in need of plenty of time to explore: I always insisted on reading every word of a novel together. Every class was different, meaning that teaching the same books year after year never became boring. Of course, the choice of texts was crucial: there had to be some way of linking a text to their experience of life. To Kill A Mockingbird allowed discussion of the idea of justice, growing up, parents; Lord of the Flies meant you could explore the issues of society, rules, law and order, the dark side to the human psyche. And Romeo and Juliet: first love, parents limiting one’s life… where to stop?

At sixth form level, the depth and detail of a writer’s craft emerged even more fully, as well as the development and articulation of personal response to much more challenging texts; the real students emerged through their willingness to read more widely around the narrow syllabus framework, as well as to begin engaging with critics, and to see themselves as potential equals. The joy of teaching for me here was most profound: I had to work as hard as the students, in terms of explaining and justifying my interpretations, countering theirs, arguing and defending my ideas… it kept my brain alive and alert. The greatest revelation for me as a sixth form student was that I could know as much as my teachers, that my ideas were potentially as valid as theirs… I had grown up; I had arrived… magic!

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