Evidence to Essence

With so many quotations to consider learning for GCSE English Literature, we have to find ways to prioritise and the best quotations to focus on in our study are those which are high-utility – they can be used in a wide range of essay questions and they offer lots of exploration for analysis and links across the text.

One example of high-utility quotations are images which help us move from evidence to essence, the quotations that take us right to the heart of a theme or a character. We can say lots about them on their own or in the scene they appear, but they also allow us a lens, a viewpoint, to deal with the character or theme across the text.  I’m going to illustrate this with examples from Romeo and Juliet.

Tybalt is a storm

In Act 1 Scene 5, Capulet asks Tybalt, “Why, how now, kinsman! wherefore storm you so?” when he is enraged by Romeo’s presence at the ball. Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘storm’ is so apposite because not only does it describe how he is feeling and acting at this moment in the play, but it encapsulates the character so perfectly. And by using this lens, we can then explore the storm and how it is seen elsewhere in the text. If we think of the way a storm builds, the way we can see the sky darkening and the air changing, so we can feel Tybalt’s dark presence on the rest of the play. He’s only in three scenes (if we exclude his corpse in Act 5 Scene 3) and speaks 17 lines and a total of 205 words, yet we know he is lurking, ready to enact revenge. The storm brewing is a symbolic reminder too of fate and the presence of death introduced in the prologue.

Now for some further interesting ideas. The only other use of ‘storm’ in the play is in Act 3 Scene 2. Juliet asks “What storm is this that blows so contrary?” as she takes in news of Tybalt’s death. Then Capulet, seeing Juliet’s tears in Act 3 Scene 5, states “But for the sunset of my brother’s son/ It rains downright.” The storm has ‘passed’ but the rain has started!

Romeo has a soul of lead

In Act 1 Scene 4, Romeo states “I have a soul of lead.” There are lots of things we can say about this quotation and how it shows how Romeo is feeling, we can analyse the connotations of lead, what it means to have a heavy soul etc. But moving from evidence to essence, this image encapsulates Romeo as someone who cannot escape a burden. Take this, and we can explore the various ‘burdens’ that Romeo carries, the things that weigh heavy on him:

  • Love for Rosaline: “bound more than a mad-man is”; “Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.”
  • Fate: “death-marked love”; “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars”; “fortune’s fool”
  • His family name: “Is she a Capulet? /O dear account! my life is my foe’s debt.”
  • The law: “Ha, banishment! be merciful, say ‘death;’ /For exile hath more terror in his look”
  • Love for Juliet: “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/ And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!”
  • His temper: “fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!”
  • Loyalty to Mercutio: “Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him.”

You can see how useful this image is a wonderful springboard for exploring a wide range of ideas across the text. In Act 5 Scene 3, Romeo speaks of a “lightning before death” and it is only with his death that he relinquishes the burdens. There is also the huge ‘burden’ of the genre and the fact that Romeo, as a tragic hero, is bound and beholden to the rules of the tragic hero. His burden is his hamartia, his fatal flaw: impetuousness.

Love and Death

Romeo’s final soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 3 is up there with “To be or not to be…” and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” in the realm of Shakespeare’s greatest explorations of life and death. In here, death is many things: a conquering army; a monster; a lover; a monstrous lover; a pilot; a guide. A good exercise with students is to consider which one of these best encapsulates the idea of death in the play – which image gets to the essence?

We can do the same for love. Is love best encapsulated as “a smoke raised with the fume of sighs”, “a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes”, “a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears”, “a madness most discreet”, “a choking gall” or “a preserving sweet”? Or something else entirely?

These are images that are explicit in the text. We can find others, some of which work well to encapsulate a character e.g. “solitary as an oyster”* and some less effective – I’m not sure if “Juliet is the sun” is the best to get to her essence, perhaps “yet a stranger in the world” is better? We can also think of our own metaphorical lenses to view characters through. An example of this I use is that Jacob Marley is a mirror. While not explicitly stated in the text, we can view him as a mirror to Scrooge and a mirror to the reader. By seeing him like this, it elevates our responses a little and helps us to explore Dickens’ intentions and the context a little better.

What do you think? Which images from texts you are studying best encapsulate the characters/ themes?

*Not from Romeo and Juliet, although I would like to see a cameo from Scrooge in the play.

x=y: A threshold concept in English

In an article for the New York Times, Robert Sapolsky writes the following:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

This idea is fundamental to English teaching. In the texts that we study, things represent other things. Sometimes we are ushered as readers towards them quite clearly and other times they are puzzles for us to solve or flights of fancy for us to follow. James Geary, in his fascinating book I is an Other, explains metaphor in a simple equation: x=y. This equation is simple shorthand but it captures this idea in our subject that something we can focus on (x) sheds light on or represents another aspect (y). I would consider this to be a threshold concept: a ‘big idea’ that when understood will have a powerful impact on how students succeed in English. Once they ‘get it’, they are unlikely to go back. However, it can be difficult to spot when this hidden code is at work.

Sometimes metaphors are pretty obvious. One such example  is from Norman MacCaig’s lovely poem Frogs:

[frogs] make stylish triangles/  with their ballet dancer’s*/  legs.

The image is simple and works. We appreciate the physical resemblance. x (frogs’ legs) = y (ballet dancers’ legs). Elsewhere in the poem, frogs are ‘parachutists’, ‘Italian tenors’, ‘Buddha’. I love this poem in its simplicity- frogs are a bit like all of these things. However, even this has much more complexity if we explore it.

frog vennWhile a student certainly won’t be wrong if they comment on the physical similarities, they need to consider more: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers’ legs that we can also say about frogs’ legs? But it is more than this: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that we can also say about frogs? Or, even: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that Norman MacCaig wants us to think about nature? If students can grasp these layers of meaning then they will move beyond a straightforward interpretation of the phrase and the poem. Because then the comparison isn’t about frogs’ legs being like ballet dancers’ legs, it’s really about nature being beautiful and complex and graceful and strong. It’s about the fact that MacCaig can see in a creature and in a moment the beauty of the world.

The MacCaig example is a poet with his cards on the table and yet there are still so many layers. Robert Frost describes these layers of meaning as ‘feats of association’.

All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. Putting this and that together. That click.

The ‘feats of association’ are often subtle; they don’t hit us over the head and announce themselves. The ‘click’ isn’t always instantaneous. As John Fuller says in Who is Ozymandias, “The suspicion is generally and often rightly held that poetry is ‘about’ something other than its ostensible subject, and that there is a reason for its concealment.” Speaking of Ozymandias, my year 10 class have been studying it this week and the biggest challenge has been grasping the concept that the poem is a metaphor and that it isn’t really about a statue, it is about what the statue represents. If we don’t approach the poem as this kind of metaphorical puzzle then it really is just about a statue. There are also so many aspects of the poem which might seem arbitrary (like the rhyme) or inconsequential (like the traveller) if we don’t think in terms of  allusion and metaphor.

blackboardSo here’s where x=y comes in handy again. If students can balance the equation then they can solve it and unlock the poem. If they mention a technique for the x part then the equation needs to be balanced with the y of effect. If they comment on a theme in the poem (x) then they need to balance that with how that theme can be related to the wider world (y). This way of thinking makes them consider how anything they spot might have an intended effect rather than simply listing techniques. It also helps them to be disciplined when addressing the question, in our case about power and control. In the example in the image, we look at the effect of the alliteration. That could be explored even further, with all of those final ideas becoming a new x and wider points about power becoming a new y.

Of course, poetry is the place where we expect this trickery, but it is everywhere.  x is the dagger before Macbeth, x is Squealer in Animal Farm (x is everything in Animal Farm!), x is the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead.

It’s a concept which can improve writing too. How often do students just write when what we want is for them to consciously craft writing? Even students who can analyse writing well don’t necessarily reverse engineer great writing themselves. By thinking about the y of their writing, then the x parts become rather straightforward. For example, if they want a particular tone in their writing then the vocabulary choices need to balance that equation.

This isn’t a neat mathematical equation and I would be loathe to reduce everything to this. Nonetheless, I think it’s an interesting way to approach a fundamental aspect of English.

*This apostrophe has bothered me.

Further reading:

Alex Quigley’s blog on Threshold Concepts is well worth a read.

GearyI is an Other is  a fascinating look at the role metaphor plays in our lives. His TED Talk on the same topic is here.



fullerWho is Ozymandias? is a book about the puzzles in poetry.