If GCSE set authors lived in the time of coronavirus…

Coronavirus is dominating everyone's minds at the moment. So perhaps, says Sarah Ledger, it might help pupils' distance learning to imagine set-text authors dealing with the same concerns

Sarah Ledger

Text of Macbeth, with knife resting on top of it

You know me well enough to know that I’m not keen on the idea of sticking a picture of Mr Burns from The Simpsons on to a PowerPoint presentation and labelling him “Scrooge”. 

But these are shocking times, and radical measures are required. What harm would it do to make our GSCE literature texts a little more relevant? 

With apologies to my old pals, Will, JB and, of course, my beloved Jane.

Macbeth 

Lady Macbeth: 

Go get some water,
And wash this filthy virus from your hand.
Why did you bring the sickness to this place?

It must die here: go turn the taps; and smear
Your filthy hands with soap. 

Macbeth: 

I'll go to Morrison’s no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Queue there again I dare not.

Lady Macbeth: 

Infirm of purpose!
Give me the shopping list! If it do spread
I’ll cleanse the handle of the trolley withal;
For it must seem clean.

[Knocking within]

Macbeth: 

Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? Ha! They infect us all!
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this grief
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The hand sanitiser infect with germs,
Making the good one ill.

Lady Macbeth: 

In sooth, ‘tis the deliv’ry man who knocks
He will within the porch the takeaway 
Install. And from the box wherein I left 
The cash, will hence from here his payment take.

[Knocking within]

I hear a knocking
The Amazon man arrives: retire we to our chamber;
a little water clears us of this plague:
upon the morrow we will rise refreshed 
And look upon the news from No 10.

An Inspector Calls 

Mr Birling: 

Just let me finish, Eric. You've a lot to learn yet. And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn't a chance of lockdown. The world's developing so fast that it'll make a pandemic impossible. Look at the progress we're making. In a year or two we'll have vaccines that will cure anything. Why, a friend of mine went over this new hospital last week – taken over from the NHS by a private trust. It opens next week – 46 beds – breast augmentation and liposuction in five days – and every luxury – and uninfectable, absolutely uninfectable. That's what you've got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that – and not a few medical experts talking nonsense and a few world-renowned scientists here making a fuss about nothing. Now, you three young people, just listen to this – and remember what I’m telling you now. In 20 or 30 years’ time – let's say, in 2040 – you may be giving a little party like this – your son or daughter might be getting engaged – and I tell you, by that time you'll be living in a world that'll have forgotten all this coronavirus nonsense, these toilet-roll shortages, and all these silly little climate-change scares. There'll be health and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere – except, of course, in South Korea, which will always be behindhand naturally…

Pride and Prejudice

Breakfast was scarcely over when Elizabeth received the following text from Netherfield:

“My dearest Lizzy –
“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to mixing in a gathering of two or more people. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better and I must remain in self-isolation. They insist also on my ringing 111 therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of me making such a call – and, excepting a temperature and new persistent cough, there is not much the matter with me. – Yours, etc, Jane”

“Well, my dear,” said Mr Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the text aloud. “If your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness – if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr Bingley, and under your orders.” 

“Oh! I am not afraid of her dying,” said Mrs Bennet. “People like Jane – young and healthy – do not die of Covid-19. She will be taken good care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her if I could have the car.”

Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, having followed the trajectory of infection rates, was determined to speak to Jane, though a meeting in person was not to be had; and as she had no Skype, FaceTiming was her only alternative. She declared her resolution. 

“How can you be so silly,” cried her mother, “as to think of such a thing, at this time! You will not be fit to be seen when you call.” 

“I shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all I want.” 

“Is this a hint to me, Lizzy,” said her father, “to set up the laptop?” 

“No, indeed, I do not wish to avoid the call. The time is nothing when one has a motive; only a few minutes. I shall call before dinner.”

Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 33 years. She tweets as @sezl

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