False heroes find favour
Reading GCSE English literature scripts provides incidental diversions for the examiner, though the sobering afterthought is that it will take more than Sam Wannemaker's Globe theatre or all Mark Rylance's best efforts with performing dogs, shades and Reeboks to put Nineties children in touch with the religious, philosophical and moral assumptions of Shakespeare's age, let alone Chaucer's.
Last summer I was particularly worried about a question on Macbeth. Candidates had to discuss whether they thought Macbeth was evil, or just weak and easily led. It was a popular choice, but I don't think the board (or the Bard) would have anticipated the line taken by a significant minority.
Macbeth was seen as "strong" at the beginning of the play in his "Bellona's bridegroom" phase. He was thought to have pulled himself together a bit towards the end and was commended for his "at least we'll die with harness on our backs" line at the end, which was seen not as despair and bleak bravado but as a return to "strength".
But in the middle, Macbeth is seen as weak as water - not in his unsuccessful attempt to resist his own "dark and deep desires" or the valorous chastisement of his wife or the mesmeric utterances of the witches, which would have been fair enough, but weak in his delays, his doubts, his dreams, his anxieties, his reluctance to murder his king and his best friend. Remorse is weak; agony of mind is weak; introjection is weak; a longing for evil to be undone is weak. All that makes Macbeth human is "weak".
To take this line is to reduce Macbeth to an action drama with a most unsuitable action man in the title role. The tragedy must be largely incomprehensible and the progress of the drama must seem maddeningly slow, interrupted as it is by soliloquies. Hamlet would be even worse: a revenge drama lacking pace and focus.
Still, Shakespeare must seem remote to some of our children. William Golding should be more accessible. A popular question for candidates studying Lord of the Flies concerned the qualities of a successful leader as shown in the novel. I was surprised and disturbed to find that Ralph was often perceived as weak and ineffectual: weak to spend so much time thinking and talking; weak to consult others; weak in his hope of rescue, his desire for fair play his tenacious clinging to notions of right and wrong. No wonder he ended up losing all his friends, on the run for his life with the paradise island turning to ashes behind him.
Jack, on the other hand, though a little lacking in finesse and admittedly with a violent streak, was admired for his rapid adaptation to island conditions, for his charisma, his shrewd psychology, his "strength". Jack had glamour: he wasn't boringly concerned with making shelters or sending signals; he wasn't cautious, he didn't fuss about fair play. He united the boys where Ralph failed. Never mind that he united them in hatred and hysteria, in fear, darkness and the terrible bond of shared guilt. He wanted power and excitement and he took them. He was a "strong" leader, a real leader.
None of Golding's sense of paradise lost, of innocence replaced by guilt or the erosion of joy and hope reaches these candidates. They seem not to be aware that but for the rescue at the end of the novel, Jack would have presided over a dead world and a "tribe" doomed to starvation.
The other two characters with leadership qualities are Piggy and Simon. Piggy is seen as a loser, though he seems to arouse more friendly interest than Ralph. His common sense and self-deprecation are disarming, but fat, wheezy, short-sighted, reproving Piggy could not be a leader.
The most worrying aspect is that Simon is not mentioned at all. Simon the seer, the prophet, the Christ-like figure who is compassionate, loving, perceptive, courageous is not even considered. The one character who realises the essential goodness of the island; who understands that the Beast is the darkness of Man's heart; who loves beauty and harmony; who had the courage to find out the truth on the top of the mountain and who lost his life trying to deliver his companions from fear was not even considered. His death was not seen as a significant loss; his apotheosis in all its beauty and consolation did not seem to register. Golding in his novel shows the tragedy of the boys' failure to understand Simon but if the reader does not understand either then the point is lost and Golding's message goes unheard.
These candidates are in a minority. Many others show a mature understanding of the weakness of apparent strength, the strength of apparent weakness.
But while much has been said recently about the need for teachers to focus on moral values, how sad it is that some children have such a primitive and limited concept of human life and society. We must all be to blame for that.
The study of literature is not primarily a means of moral education, but great writers do speak to us eloquently of good and evil, virtue and shame, beauty and ugliness, love, friendship, hatred and depravity. They speak to us in ways which stimulate the imagination and satisfy the longing for the good and the beautiful and the true. Children need the help of wise teachers to understand these texts. Anyone who reads Macbeth and Lord of the Flies as simple adventure stories has failed to learn anything of value - and we have failed to teach them.
Gillian Harrison teaches English at Rye St Antony School, Oxford, and is a GCSE English literature examiner