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Word’s worth of Shakespeare before Shelley

Wrestle with Shakespeare before you tackle Shelley. Try Marlowe before you do Maugham. Much to the consternation of teachers, Calcutta University (CU), while revamping its English syllabus, followed the chronology of the history of English literature to introduce the classics to students, instead of being more realistic and taking into consideration whether or not they are at all capable of stomaching the archaisms of Elizabethan English.

Much to the relief of teachers and students, a large chunk of Indo-Anglian and more modern literature has been introduced in the under-graduate curriculum. But it has let chronology guide the manner in which students are to be introduced to foreign literature. Teachers say this change will definitely make their (as also the students’) job much tougher in classrooms.

For instance, students, till date, were introduced to the obscurantism of the Shakespearean language in their third year of college, only after they cut their teeth on the language used by romantic and modern poets, a language closer home.

The batch that enrols in 2003, however, will find things vastly different. As soon as they join college, students will be forced to grapple with Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. “Most students, barring those who study in the better colleges like Presidency or St Xavier’s or Maulana Azad, who come to do their honours in English, cannot write an error-free sentence,” said the head of the department of a north Calcutta college. “How do you expect the average college-goer, who comes from a suburban school, where she learnt the language only after she was 12, to come to terms with Shakespeare before learning the much simpler and more familiar language of, say, a Wordsworth'” he wondered.

All aspects of the syllabus — prose, poetry and drama — will see the changes, say CU officers, with the contents of the three sets of double papers (one each in Part I and Part II) being reversed. Paper IV (the drama paper in Part I), for example, used to test students with the language of Shaw and Galsworthy — a language that has not changed too much in the past century — and Paper VII (the drama paper in Part II) had the “more ancient and, therefore, more difficult” language of a Shakespeare or a Marlowe.

In the new order, students will encounter Shakespeare and Marlowe in the first year. “Things will become impossible in the classroom once the changes are effected,” admitted a teacher of a Calcutta college with a high percentage of outside-Calcutta students. “The use of Bengali in the English (honours) classroom (in most colleges except the top-bracket ones, teachers use the vernacular to teach English literature) is definitely going to increase,” he added, predicting that the drop-out rate will rise.

Board of studies chairperson Dipendu Chakraborty said: “A change of syllabus was necessary, though problems may arise because standards may vary from college to college.”

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