How to stop worrying about quotations: Getting form, structure and language right without memorising the whole text

When exams are closed book, it’s easy for students to panic and worry more about memorising quotes than anything else. The assessment objective for analysing language always includes the selective/judicious use of quotation, but it does also include close reference. While I will do some on how to learn quotes, as we’re coming into the final half-term before AS exams, I’m starting to spend more time on how to get that detailed, precise understanding of FSL (form, structure and language) without necessarily remembering whole poems or soliloquies.

As someone who’s not great at remembering quotes themselves (from literature, anyway – apparently I can recite the whole of Buffy without any difficulty whatsoever) it’s always been the key words or phrases that I find the most useful. more than that, though, it’s an understanding of the text itself that’s actually the most important. I think students worry about quotes  getting things the right way round and, in poetry and Shakespeare in particular, making sure that they get the rhythm and meter right.

There’s a line in The History Boys from Hector that sums this up:

“Remember boys: festoon your answers with gobbets, and you won’t go far wrong.”

This suggests a scattershot of quotation, and can be incredibly useful. When revising, recall words used to describe a character – Ophelia in Hamlet, for example, is “fair”, “pale”, “celestial”,. “beautified”, “nymph”. A handful of words – but together they portray Ophelia as beautiful but weak, the passive female unable to act other than as commanded by others.

At GCSE and A-Level, you can do a lot with small, every selective words/phrases, and a solid understanding of the text as a whole. Take this example, from the OCR sample answers written by examiners fr the new AS-Level: I’ve underlined the bits I think are important for this post.

 The poem is composed of six stanzas which follow a fairly regular pattern; as often in Rossetti’s work she gains many of her effects from frequent repetition and subtle variation (in this poem, the opening line is repeated in different versions throughout the poem, following the development of the simple narrative).  The first half of the poem focuses on human love and is written in the past tense; the second part shifts subject matter to divine love and also alters the tense to the present.  The very last line moves into the future (‘shall not question…’).

This section looks at structure and form – the repetition, the stanza regularity, the changes of tense. Not a quotation in sight until that very last line which is actually quite unnecessary. Instead, there is a very confident understanding of the overall structure and patterns of the text – and the examiner’s annotation credits this bit for looking at structure, which many candidates avoid.

Here’s another example, this time exploring Hamlet.

The play opens with Bernardo’s ‘Who’s there?’ and this abrupt interrogative immediately creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust,

Again this is credited for close textual detail, but it’s hardly memorising the whole of to be or not to be! It’s a very simple quote – it’s the point of it being abrupt and at the opening of the play which is important – structure again.

So, how do we work this into revision? 


Focus more on structure and the text as a whole. 

For example, when revising the role of Claudius, instead of turning to his first speech to the court, brainstorm what students can remember of it – where was it, when was it, why was it delivered that way, what does it look like onstage, why is it important to the rest of the play.

  • Regal
  • His use of the royal “We” = signals his authority
  • Measured and stately – blank verse throughout
  • The first time he’s addressing the court – the need to assert himself and ensure they are on his side
  • Introducing his new wife – a pivotal moment when he needs the court’s trust.
  • Stagecraft – they all enter together but then what? Are Claudius and Gertrude together? Is Hamlet beside them or skulking at the back? What does that imply?  Where were they in different versions – on thrones, or in the centre of the court?
  • The contradictions in his language (“With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage”) which suggest that all is not as comfortable as he’s trying to make it sound

Again there’s just the one quote – and you could probably get away without that, too. But expanding on this detail and exploring its implications, here in note form, you’d have a very solid analysis of FSL without having to remember quotes.

Personally, I’d always find that easier to remember than worrying about getting quotes exactly right. As Matilda in Mister Pip would say: “it’s gist.” Only, in this case, used in a precise and analytical way.

For further guidance on the Rossetti poetry for OCR, see my revision guide. 
I’ve also published a revision guide to Hamlet! Click here to see sample pages

These exemplars are all available on OCR’s website


What do you think?