THIS is what we do, students.
We are archaeologists of the written word. Remember that.
We take our soft brushes and gently but resolutely stroke away the accumulated layers of popular misconception, plain bullshit, and systemic Shakesnobbery that surrounds a text until we are left with the bare bones – the words themselves …
Then – armed with contextual knowledge that keeps us somewhere on the Continuum of Plausibility™ – we ‘perform’ (and that is precisely the word, so enjoy the performative aspect of the work) forensic autopsies on those long-dead words: we dissect, analyse and record our findings.
Occasionally, what we’re looking at might seem as alien as some of the stuff Scully chops up in the X-Files, but we persevere, we find points of reference, and with care we perform a kind of necromancy: we can practically bring the sample in front of us to life.
We can give those long dead words tone, inflection, pace … and meaning.
THIS … … … is OCR H472/01 (Drama and Poetry pre-1900), A Level English Literature, section 1, question A … your Shakespeare extract task.
… and this is the purpose of this new series, Forensic F Friday.
What I propose to do is publish something like what follows every(ish) Friday. That’s F number 1.
I’ll take a line or two from a Shakespeare / Marlowe text – sometimes one we’re studying in class (but often not, because this isn’t about spoon-feeding you answers), and forensically (F number 2) dissect it for you, as shown below.
Which leaves F number 3. In this case, it stands for Flash, as in flash fiction, not as in showing off, although I will probably do that too. I will limit myself to 250-words each time. If you know me, you know that will be a challenge. You know that you need to analyse an unseen extract, in 35-odd minutes, and that you are marked as follows:
AO1 (25%): articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate, written expression.
AO2 (75%): analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
My mission is to show you what you can do with a short extract, in terms of:
- writing economically, hence the 250-word limit;
- exploring how Shakespeare uses language for dramatic effect, demonstrating analysis skills by considering multiple meanings and how multiple techniques combine for overall effect;
- evidencing thought and insight; and
- using terminology frequently and fluently
Yes, in 250 words.
If you read enough of these, you can do it too.
Here’s the first. Feed back please, so I can adjust these as we go along. They are fun to write, but they are also intended to be useful, particularly for my own students …
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Richard III: I.i.20-21
In this short extract, Shakespeare implies that Richard believes himself a victim and uses this to encourage sympathy for him. All four verbs Richard uses are passive, denying him choice or agency in the condition he was born in. The last three, ‘Deformed, unfinish’d, sent’, work as a triplet to accumulate Richard’s depth of emotion. Shakespeare has Richard focus on his premature birth: almost ironically associating Richard with newborn helplessness and innocence, and subtly adding to the audience’s sympathy for him. That birth is euphemized as ‘sent before my time’, almost as if Richard cannot bring himself to state it more bluntly, it is so painful to him. Here we might see some of the roots of Richard’s misogyny and difficult relationship with his mother – it’s reasonable to assume that when he personifies nature he conventionally feminizes it, and combining the adjective ‘dissembling’, with the opening verb, ‘cheated’, clearly imply that nature has not played fair with him: promising much, perhaps, during his mother’s pregnancy, only for that promise to be a lie when Richard is born. It is no coincidence that these two lexemes have combined to disrupt Richard’s use of iambic pentameter, signalling that he is being overwhelmed, emotionally, at this point. As a trochee, ‘Cheated’ begins the line forcefully, and the polysyllabic ‘dissembling’ disturbs the metre further – they combine to demonstrate how important Richard’s appearance, and the consequences of it, are to him. Shakespeare has combined several linguistic tools to encourage the audience’s pity for our protagonist.