Wednesday, 10 February 2016


New, free, online text-guide on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy 

A popular exam text

If you are studying:
  • A level English Literature with 
    • AQA (A or B)
    • Cambridge International
    • Edexcel
  • A level English Literature and Language with 
    • OCR
    • WJEC
  • Cambridge Pre U English Literature
chances are you will encounter Shakespeare’s Othello

And if you want to get the most out of the play, as well as do really well when it comes to exam time, then you need to know that a new, free, online text-guide will make all the difference.

Here’s some real help

Launched this week, the guide to Othello contains not only the usual scene-by-scene synopses and commentaries but lots more:
  • The guide takes you through the key themes of the play, the imagery Shakespeare develops, the way roles are characterised through relationship, action and language. 
  • There are sections dealing with what was going on in the society Shakespeare wrote for, as well as what they thought and believed, so that you can make connections with the text and see how the playwright played with the contemporary attitudes and culture of his audience.
  • There are also sections about how the play was structured, how it would have been staged in Shakespeare’s day and the way critics approach it now.
All this appears alongside handy advice on how to write essays at Advanced Level. And be assured - all guides are written by experienced UK teachers and examiners, who know the best help to give students.

Let us know

We hope you will like it. Why not have a look at the Othello text guide and tell us what you think? 

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

2016 - a special year

Shakespeare reigns

2016 marks four hundred years since the death of the world’s most famous and frequently performed playwright, England’s own William Shakespeare. Undoubtedly the focus will peak on 23rd April, which marks the date both of his (probable) birth and death, but celebrations will continue throughout the year.

Shakespeare isn’t just for theatre buffs. His tales have inspired all sorts of other art forms. During this year you can go to Shakespeare inspired ballets and concerts, look at the way artists have responded graphically to his settings and characters, or catch thirty-seven ten minute films which represent each of his thirty-seven plays – see

There’s a comic TV series (Upstart Crow) and exhibitions in Stratford and London to give a historical context to the Bard.

The Bard by any other name...

Reproducing texts in different styles is a particular skill explored in A Level English Language syllabuses. Having already started in October 2015, going through this year and on into 2017, are appearing a variety of re-tellings of some of Shakespeare’s most famous stories, using different contexts and in novel form:

  • The series was started by Jeannette Winterson, setting The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold against the worlds of London banking and the deep south of America
  • In February 2016, Shylock is my name: The Merchant of Venice Retold, by Howard Jacobson might give an interesting perspective on the semitic elements of the story
  • June sees Anne Tyler reimagining Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold, which you will be able to compare with the original in the forthcoming guide and online text
  • During October, providing interesting dystopian counterpoints from her recent work might impact Margaret Attwood’s retelling of The Tempest.

Coming up in 2017 are re-workings of:

  • Hamlet by Gillian Flynn
  • Jo Nesbo tackling Macbeth
  • Othello by Tracey Chevalier
  • Edward St Aubyn’s take on King Lear.

The writers are all high-profile, many of them prize-winners, so, if buying them yourself is an issue, get on to your school or college library to stock them (published by Hogarth, part of the Penguin empire).


Almost everybody who has ever studied English, studies Shakespeare. He’s universal.
Whilst at school, students may wonder why.
The older they get, the more they realise that William S. managed to convey, in striking ways that stay with you way beyond any performance, the most profound life truths.
No one is quite sure how he achieved it – but it’s worth celebrating that he did.

Make the most of this year!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

That fireside feeling

Why do so many Christmas cards feature fireplaces with glowing coals?

Undoubtedly it is partly to do with the idea that Saint Nicholas (from which ‘Santa Claus’ is derived) might visit. The classic verse ’Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C

Moore depicts his arrival:

‘As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.’

The jolly visitor proceeds to fill up the stockings hung ready for his arrival before disappearing back up the chimney with a nod.

Not just about Santa

But a glowing hearth also symbolises other things – warmth and cosiness, a sense of togetherness and contentment. The physical comfort it brings is mirrored by a positive glow of emotions. Gathering by the fireside is what we do once we are full of Christmas dinner, too replete to want to do much anything except relax with our family or friends.

If you are lucky enough to sit by a real fire or stove, you will know how the quiet snap and shuffle of burning fuel, alongside the patterns of dancing flames, gradually draw the attention away from external diversions to a quiet contemplation of the hearth.

The new guide to the poems of John Keats features an early poem which sums up the soothing mood cast by the fireplace, as the poet sits before it with his younger brothers, Tom and George:

‘Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o'er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o'er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles, (5)
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.’

You can read the rest of the sonnet and find out more about what led to its creation here. But meanwhile, as the rush of things to get done before Christmas Day may seem to overwhelm you, it is good to be brought back to a place of peace and communion by this poem. After all, peace and communion are part of the original Christmas message.

Enjoy the holiday!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Tragic early life of genius

200 years ago, it is 1815. 

He has just turned 19. 

He has almost no money, yet heads up a household of three boys and one girl, following the death of his father when he was 8 and his mother’s death when he was 14 (who had previously deserted her children for three years when he was 9).

The Duke of Wellington has at last finally defeated the French Emperor Napoleon, bringing to an end over twenty years of warfare between Britain and France.

He loves reading – in the best seller lists are novels by Walter Scott and Jane Austen, volumes of poetry by Byron, Shelley, Blake, Cowper and Wordsworth, although he cannot afford to buy them.

Political ferment is in the air – the mad old King George III has been replaced by his fat, lascivious, vain eldest son, George, Prince Regent and the press are reflecting the people’s dissatisfaction. Leigh Hunt and others are writing political pamphlets which get them arrested – pamphlets which he reads avidly, for he is a radical.

But he has no money, so he has to engage in a trade – learning how to do surgery at Guy’s Hospital in London.

It isn’t the best of starts. Life has been hard for this young man.

And in six years’ time he will be dead.

Why do we know about him – why do we care?

Because before he died of tuberculosis aged 24, John Keats had written some of the most moving and memorable poetry the world has ever read.

Immerse yourself in his world and discover what emerged from this unpromising start in the John Keats text guide.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The writing’s on the wall

By now many people will have seen the new Bond film, Spectre, and heard its haunting theme tune, The writing’s on the wall, sung by Sam Smith.
Many of Smith’s classic tracks (and the videos promoting them) focus on love, loss and death. Here he skillfully weaves the Bond iconography into that mix, with references to running, shooting, broken glass and facing the storm.

His lyrics also touch on the interior life that has emerged in recent Bond films – that of the hero’s essential loneliness. Faced with repeated loss and betrayal, Craig’s Bond has barricaded his emotions behind cold coping mechanisms. Yet Smith’s lyrics point to the plot development that casts doubt on Bond’s ability – or desire -  to keep functioning as he previously has (see the film if you want to know more!):

I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
Cause the writing's on the wall.

The last line of the chorus is highlighted in the promo vid when, in a clip from the film, Bond sees his name scrawled on a deserted building. But take away that immediate context (as anyone listening to an audio recording would experience) and what does this well-known phrase actually mean?

A prophecy of judgement

The saying is popularly used to allude to any dire warning of the end of something. Smith’s Catholic background means that he would probably be familiar with the origins of the phrase:
  • In the Old Testament book of Daniel, arrogant Persian king Belshazzar gives a feast where he drinks from sacred Jewish vessels. Then he sees a mysterious finger writing on the wall what amounts to a judgement on the king. He is frightened, and with good reason, for later that night he dies.
  • Check out the original story at Daniel 5:3-6; Daniel 5:25-30
No wonder the audience shares Bond’s trepidation when we see his name in dripping red figures above an arrow to follow – given the context of the film’s story, the song lyric and its biblical origins, we fear that this is an invitation for Bond to meet his doom.

Check out the video below and enjoy:

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Cover versions

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Why do recording artists do cover versions? It’s not like they are going to get lots of money from copyright fees – in fact they will usually have to pay the original authors, or their publishers, substantial amounts!

What they gain however is the pleasure of familiarity with the material, as well as being able to showcase their talents by putting a distinctive twist on their interpretation of the lyrics and mood. We listen to a cover version because we already like that type of song, but then appreciate the way the artist has enhanced the original.

Poets are the same. They often take well-known poetic styles and show how versatile they can be within that genre:

  • Shakespeare wrote 150 versions of a sonnet
  • More recently, Michael Symmons Roberts played around with the constraints of 15 line poems, creating 150 new verses in Drysalter.

Alternatively, poets can lead us from familiarity into new styles, just like someone wanting to listen to The House of the Rising Sun can end up encountering a folk, blues, rock, punk, dance or dubstep version of the classic folk ballad.

Keats’ experiments

John Keats (1795-1821) did not have a wealthy background or fine education, but immersed himself in books wherever he could lay his hands on them. As he developed into one of the most significant of the Romantic poets (before his premature death aged 24) he experimented with the different genres of poetry he came across. If we are to appreciate the talent he applied to each form, we need to get familiar with his starting materials.


In La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Keats takes the traditional quatrain verse form of a ballad (see last month’s blog) and plays against our expectations of a neatly tied up unit of sense by leaving the story sparse and unresolved. Check out here the familiar version of the quatrain.

Spenserian stanza

Just as today we are still influenced by poetry which, like Keats’, was written 200 years earlier, so Keats had a huge admiration for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, published 200 years before he was born. Keats used Spenser’s verse form (the Spenserian stanza) as a way of paying homage in his own narrative poem, The Eve of St Agnes.

Ottava rima

In another long, dramatic poem, Isabella: or The Pot of Basil, Keats works within the Italian verse form known as ottava rima, which was brought to England in the Renaissance. His contemporary Romantic, Lord Byron, used the tight format to highlight his satiric tone (see Ottava rima, whereas in Keats’ work we almost forget the restraints of rhyme etc. as the story sweeps us along.

La Belle Dame, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes – they are all, in one sense, cover versions of an existing format. It is how Keats – or any other poet - adapts them that demonstrates real talent.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Recognising poetry

Earlier this month, the UK celebrated National Poetry Day. Across the media there was a feast of readings and a special focus in many schools.

Verse that lives on

Poetry is an enduring medium. Since the earliest days of our oral culture, handing down dramatic narratives in verse form helped make them more memorable for both the teller and the audience. Gathering together to listen to these verse stories was the equivalent of watching the telly together today, drawn in by a dramatic tale.

An exam expectation

Poetry is a key component of all A Level English Literature syllabuses today and, apart from studying the output of well-known poets, examiners also like to put candidates on the spot by asking for an analysis of a previously unseen poem. Students are expected to recognise what style of text they are looking at, so that they can see how the author has played with – or against – the expectations of that particular genre. But how are you meant to know?

At you’ll find an entire section under ‘Aspects of poetry’ dealing with Recognising poetic form. Each brief article explains what is meant by a particular genre, the era in which it was most prevalent and the stylistic aspects by which it can be recognised. And this week three new articles have been added to the section.

What is alliterative poetry?

One of the earliest types of poetry in the English language was what we now call alliterative poetry:

  • Rather than grouping thoughts together by a connecting rhyme-scheme (e.g. rhyming couplets) Old and Middle English alliterative poetry contained stressed words which alliterated, giving energy and narrative flow to the verse
  • A very early example is Beowulf, an epic poem probably composed in the sixth century CE
  • The alliterative genre endured until about 1500 and another well-known example is Piers Plowman, written by a contemporary of Chaucer’s, William Langland. 

To find an example of how the verse works, visit here.


Another more enduring style of poem is the ballad. Originally associated with song, these simple rhyming folk narratives captured dramatic situations in an easily repeatable form and often served as commentaries on the events of the day. Later the genre was also employed by learned writers who wanted to capture the genre’s expectations of simple and direct communication. Find out more here.


Both ballads and alliterative poems are fairly easy to recognise, with regular rhymes or rhythms or familiar subject matter. But what if what you are looking at doesn’t seem to obey any of the ‘rules’ you expect of poetry, with no consistent metre, stanza form or rhyme-scheme for example?

Free verse

You may find you are analysing what is known as free verse. This twentieth century development echoed the modernist desire to forge new literary forms which were not tied to the constraints of tradition. Have a look here and see what you think.

Then watch out for more helpful definitions of poetic styles in November!