Trying set texts

“Shakespeare at his worst,” murmured our distinguished visitor— admittedly in private. He had just attended the school production of The Merchant of Venice.

A bit hard, I thought: there are lovely things in The Merchant, and the actors had made strong magic of the garden scene in the moonlight:

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold…

Plenty of other things had been well exploited for their comedy and irony. And this was Shakespeare, who even at his worst is Shakespeare.

That was years ago, but it came to mind recently, when with sighs of relief we got to the end of the A-Level Greek prose set book— Lysias’s Against Simon. “So why the admiration of Lysias?” asked a sixth former who had suffered it, and I did wonder why that speech had been chosen by the examiners. It may well be Lysias at his worst.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said a colleague. “They chose it for content.”

Perhaps it was true. A court case about a same-sex love triangle: yes—topical, trendy, and, in the minds of examiners wanting to be relevant, likely to be interesting to the modern young person. It was a misjudgement: numerous works of Lysias are, to put it crudely, better.

Quintilian has firm views on quality. He says:

  • … non ita difficilis supererit quaestio, qui legendi sint incipientibus. Nam quidam illos minores, quia facilior eorum intellectus uidebatur, probauerunt, alii floridius genus, ut ad alenda primarum aetatium ingenia magis accommodatum. Ego optimos quidem et statim et semper, sed tamen eorum candidissimum quemque et maxime expositum uelim… Institutio Oratoria II.V.18
  • There will remain the question—not so difficult—of what authors should be read by beginners. Some people have recommended the lesser ones, because understanding them seemed easier; others have recommended the more florid type, as being more suitable to feed the minds of youngsters. But in fact, I would go for the best, both at the start and at all times—with a preference among them for the most lucid and most clearly set out…

What are the criteria for choosing the best? Writers all through the 20th century argued about this, in a culture gradually dominated by the mass media, and increasingly subjective.

One of David Holbrook’s students at Cambridge mentioned some of them, suggesting that the best literature:

  • starts new processes of thought;
  • reveals things unconsidered;
  • adds to the culture of the feelings;
  • opens gates into landscapes not previously noticed.


Of interest: David Holbrook, English for Maturity, CUP 1961