Teaching the Big Three: Making Sense of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton
Arguably, the three most important early writers in the English language – indeed, one might say the founders of the language – are Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and John Milton (1608-1674). Yet our experience at the higher level of education is that students have had little exposure to the life and times of these writers or of their work. Our study shows that, while some Georgian school leavers have been exposed briefly to a bit of Shakespeare, few have chanced to encounter Chaucer and none to Milton. Moreover, while teaching what we might call “The Big Three” of English language and literature, much the same might be said at the master’s level: a bit of Shakespeare, little of Chaucer, and none of Milton. To the extent that students of English as a foreign language encounter any literature at all, they tend to be offered little other than literal translation. “Retell the text.” They miss the nuances of the English language as they would encounter them through the greatest of writers. It is, therefore, essential that those who teach any or all of these great writers develop a strategy to fit the needs of the students while meeting the objectives of the course. The key to making sense of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton is to make connections to what students already know, to their own experiences, to make these greatest of all English writers relevant to the lives of the students in ways they can understand.
Keywords: English literature, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton
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