Learning quotations for English: is it really necessary?

Quotation or close reference?

With closed book exams at GCSE and A-Level it’s easy to think that memorising lots of quotations is the way to go. It’s something concrete, solid to learn, and feels like you know a lot. But can you use them?

I’ve written elsewhere about how and what to revise, and it’s also worth remembering that the assessment objective for analysis includes close reference, as well as form and structure – not just language. During the revision season, it’s a good idea to focus on detailed understanding of form, structure and micro-quotations, rather than trying to memorise whole poems or reams of quotations.

Learning quotations has always been hard for me, and I think lots of students struggle, worrying about getting the exact wording right or spending a disproportionate amount of time on memorising small chunks.

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.”

A scattering of quotation is most useful. When revising, try to recall words used to describe a character – Ophelia in Hamlet is “fair”, “pale”, “celestial”, “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, the language of Mother,, Any Distance includes inches, yards, acres – gradually growing in distance as the relationship between mother and son becomes more separated.

Doing more with less

You can do a lot with small, selective quotations and a solid understanding of the text. Take this example, from the OCR sample answers written by examiners (my emphasis):

 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…’).

Although it’s incredibly detailed and analytical, there’s almost no quotation – and actually, the last quote isn’t necessary: we know the last line. Instead, there’s a confident exploration of overall patternsThe examiner’s annotation suggests this is credited for analysing structure, which many students ignore as too complicated – and, I think, because it doesn’t have quotations and that makes them nervous.

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. 

A-Level

For example, when revising the role of Claudius in Hamlet, 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.

GCSE: 

When you’re revising the poetry, look at something like this downloadable pdf which has aspects of form and structure for each of the AQA Relationships cluster. The important thing is always to remember it’s about effect more than anything else – the changes in distance in Armitage’s poem are important because they symbolise the increasing distances between mother and son; the dramatic monologue of The Farmer’s Bride gives us his perspective but denies her a voice, making it a very one-sided relationship.

 

Personally, I’d always find form and structure 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 those quotes you still want to learn, check my free download on tips to help you memorise them

I’ve also published revision guides for Rossetti, Hamlet, and The Handmaid’s Tale at A-Level, available here with sample pages

These exemplars are all available on OCR’s website

What do you think?