Particularly when teaching writing, I’ve often compared a text to a map. My thoughts generally run like this:
When your reader lands on a fresh page of prose, they haven’t got a clue what landscape they are standing on; it’s up to us as writers to orientate them, and our language forms the contour lines and the key to the world we are mapping out for them. We have to make careful decisions about what and how much to show – how far they can see; how quickly they can recognise signs, symbols and the direction of travel. We need to contextualise what they’re reading, even if that is the relationship between this page and the previous one, or this paragraph and the one before it, because context is key to avoiding the dizzy nausea that can turn a reader off.
Conversely, when teaching close reading, it’s all very well spotting WHAT a writer is trying to do. By the time pupils hit KS3 at Y7 they can all spot a simile: a symbol on the map. But how many students, even when we get up to the heights of Y13 can really read the map, talk about WHY the simile was employed; WHY that particular comparison was chosen?
Context, in it’s broader sense, is everything …
Which is why I read as many contextual works for the Early Modern period as I do critical analyses of the plays. Sometimes they’re contemporary works – a stranger on Twitter recently expressed surprise (which sounded very much like sneering via that anonymous interface) that I had read King James‘ Daemonologie (1597). Why wouldn’t you, if you’re interested in how Macbeth plays to what people thought of witches back then? How can you gain a real insight into how the audience might have reacted to Act I scene i, for example? And what if everyone took Captain Twit’s advice? Then no-one would have read it.
The same applies to the increasing number of biographies and histories I seem to be reading. Slowly but surely, my personal maps are becoming ever more populated with symbols which help me navigate, better understand the lie of the land, enjoy the journey and the experience more.
This summer’s project – a little behind schedule and running in fits and starts – is a textbook for A Level students. The Shakespeare component doesn’t reward AO3 – context – in either of the two questions posed. But without it, I think students lose essential guidance to deepen their ideas and arguments (to say nothing of making complete numpties of themselves). So I’ve spent part of today writing some ‘need to knows’ for it.
All this feels like a waffly – I’m short on time today, and feeling a bit unwell – way of introducing Ellen Meiksins Wood, who puts it so much better than I do.
“… they [political theorists] are, like all human beings, historical creatures; and we shall have a much richer understanding of what they have to say, and even how it might shed light on our own historical moment, when we have some idea of why they said it, to whom they said it, with whom they were debating (explicitly or implicitly), how their immediate world looked to them, and what they believed should be changed or preserved. This is not simply a matter of biographical detail or even historical ‘background’. To understand what political theorists are saying requires knowing what questions they are trying to answer, and those questions confront them not simply as philosophical abstractions but as specific problems posed by specific historical conditions, in the context of specific practical activities, social relations, pressing issues, grievances and conflicts.”
My emphasis. This surely applies as much to our playwrights and poets as it does to the political theorists she is speaking of?
I didn’t reply to Mr Sneer on Twitter – despite the temptation to fire one back, I felt I had better things to do with my day. Perhaps I should have sent him this …
Ellen Meiksins Wood, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, (London: Verso, 2008)