Meaning is all and all is meaning
We need to think carefully about how we ask students to apply literary and linguistic terms to their reading. It’s all too easy to confuse the identification of key features with genuine analysis of what a text means. Here’s an example of a response that focuses closely on using key terms by a Year 8 student, taken from a blog:
Shakespeare fuses alliteration with rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery, which would have petrified, yet enthralled, the Jacobean audience.
It relates to famous lines delivered by the three witches in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through fog and filthy air
The student has, indeed, accurately identified three features from the lines and, in ‘chiasmus’, has used a term that might well be unfamiliar to some teachers. The student is also right to link the features to the creation of a supernatural mood. But is that enough? And is it all that important? What of the words in the lines themselves? What is their particular significance? You see, while the three features belong specifically to those lines, they are of relatively minor importance compared to what the lines actually mean. And the ‘malevolent supernatural sorcery’ is emphasised throughout the scene rather than just by these lines. In a way, the student could have commented on the features of almost any lines in the first scene and tagged on to this ‘to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery’. Look what happens if I try to do it for these lines:
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
A student, with direction from the teacher, could write:
Shakespeare fuses rhyming couplets with pathetic fallacy and questioning to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery, which would have petrified, yet enthralled, the Jacobean audience.
The actual meaning of the ‘fair is foul’ couplet is fairly straightforward. Essentially the witches are stating their upside down view of the world: what is good, or ‘fair’ to others is evil or ‘foul’ to them, and vice versa. The ‘fog and filthy air’ presumably refers to the type of environment in which they thrive. Importantly, the gist of what they say foreshadows what is to come: the natural order will be turned upside down when Macbeth murders King Duncan. The fair world will become foul. Placing this paradox at the start of the play alerts the audience to the likelihood of strange events to come. This, I would say, is a really important point for students to grasp: involving real knowledge about the function of a chorus and about how drama works.
I’m not, I’d like to point out, criticising the student’s work. The blog explains how he or she has been carefully directed by the teacher towards this response. I don’t want to be critical of the teacher either. The current model of English, as exemplified by the GCSE subject content and assessment objectives, requires students to draw on linguistic and literary terminology when responding to texts. If I have a criticism, it is with a system that focuses so much on assessment requirements that we can lose sight of what is really important in textual study: meaning.
Foregrounding the identification of features in textual analysis, I would like to suggest, runs the risk of overlooking meaning. If, in contrast, the search for meaning is prioritised, features need not be ignored, but can be drawn on where necessary (‘judiciously’ seems to be the term favoured by the awarding bodies) to show how the author highlights what he or she wants to say. Even then, careful judgement needs to be used about whether or not it is necessary to comment on features at all. After all, Shakespeare almost certainly wouldn’t have talked about ‘chiasmus’ if asked to explain his own words. How do I know? Because, if my etymological research is correct, the word did not come into use until the late 17th century.