6th October 2000 at 01:00
NATE CRITICAL READING AT POST-16. The Duchess of Malfi. By Jill Dewhurst.

TRANSLATIONS. By Sue Dymoke and Maurice Quirke

ARCADIA. By David Rowbottom. NATEYPS pound;6.95 (pound;5.95 members) each. Tel: 0114 255 5419

There is always a danger in a study guide that the less confident students will hang on to the background and biographical information for dear life, as established facts that are more certain than the difficult nuances and interpretations of the actual text. The NATE Critical Reading guides tread a careful and successful path, opening up the issues of the plays before exploring the texts, then turning to wider reading and contextual material at the end.

Focus on text is particularly well-handled in the Translations guide,with pertinent questions on specific episodes demanding detailed examination, whereas the Arcadia volume helps students tease out the complexities of the play with close attention to extracts. The play text is less well examined in the Duchess of Malfi guide than in the other two, which contains plenty of character and theme points, but little grappling with detail.

All the guides, though, have a good range of suggested activitie, from those approaches that will be comfortingly familiar to pupils fresh from GCSE, to more sophisticated activities and directed research for students at later stages in their course.

Though designed for advanced study of English Literature, the guides would serve equally well for theatre studies students, helped by a strong sense of the plays as theatre. Dramatic structure, performance, staging and design are all discussed, with production photographs, reviews, and directors' and designers' notes. Many of the suggested activities are drama or improvisation based, giving students a practical appreciation of the genre. One of the most impressive features is the wider reading: the shifting focus of Webster criticism and historical material about the social status of women in The Duchess of Malfi, a particularly wide range of poetry and extracts from Friel's diaries in Translations, scientific and philosophical background to Arcadia.

These provide stimulating and provocative encouragement to students to think through the issues of the plays and conduct their own further researches.

Noel Cassidy is head of English at St Albans School, Hertfordshire

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