Are you old enough to remember context questions? Popular in RS or Eng lit exams, they gave you a pesky little quotation and asked you detailed questions about it, what did it mean, who said it and why – how minimalist was that? Candidates even had to translate key phrases/sentences into good modern English, as if the original were written in a foreign language. And of course it sometimes felt as if it was, which was one reason why reading a Shakespeare play aloud around the class was a recipe for total incomprehension and complete allergy to Shakespeare evermore. How many of us eventually discovered Shakespeare in a theatre, open-mouthed at how crystal clear was the meaning of every line – “OMG! So that’s what it meant! And that’s what actors are for!”
Teachers – OK, my teachers, but there were two of them – were manacled to the need to make sure we could tackle those compulsory context questions. Classes, hours, terms disappeared into line by line explication, word by blessed word. Chopping at the wood and missing the trees comes to mind. Looking back – and I begin to think I should stop doing this – there was very little overviewing of the whole text, themes, ideas, style. No time. Too busy going line by line. Maybe the teacher with whom I toiled through ‘Ant and Cleo’ thought if we only knew the meaning of every word, we could work out the rest for ourselves. Simples.