Cultural Literacy: Hamlet Versus Withnail


Sleddale Hall, Cumbria: Uncle Monty’s cottage in ‘Withnail and I’

I’m rather fond of the 1986 cult film Withnail and I. I particularly like the scene at the end when Withnail (played by Richard E Grant) stands under an umbrella in the rain, and recites these lines from Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither

Indeed, it’s because of repeatedly watching the film in my youth that I know these lines rather well. It’s one of those fragments of culture that I have picked up despite having received a typically fragmentary and diffuse education at a bog-standard comprehensive.

It is important that no-one reaches the ages of sixteen without knowing something about Hamlet: that he is the hero of a Shakespearean tragedy; that he avenges his father’s murder by his uncle; that he is moody and melancholy and hesitant; that he develops a loathing for the female sex; that he is a Danish prince. That’s probably about as much as an educated, literate person needs to carry around in their heads, along with a few choice quotations.

This is the kind of core knowledge which E D Hirsch describes in his masterful Cultural Literacy, which was published in 1987, the year before I embarked on my bog-standard secondary education. Armed with this knowledge, young people will be able to understand allusions to Hamlet; they will have gained admittance to the world of the educated because they have learned to understand its language. Learning about Withnail will not have the same effect, however important he is to the history of cult British films.

I was top of the class most of the time through all of those years at my local comprehensive school. But by the time I reached the age of sixteen, I could have told you very little of the history of Britain, or the highlights of its glorious literary heritage. I had an outline knowledge of the Holocaust and the Russian Revolution; I knew two Shakespeare plays quite well in overview (but I couldn’t have quoted more than a few words from them). And of course I knew huge amounts about the pop chart history of the late eighties and early nineties.

What a missed opportunity. I, like any other young person, could easily have mastered a good body of general knowledge during all of those countless hours I spent in the classroom. Instead, I was being prepared for public examinations which had shunned core knowledge in favour of developing supposedly transferable skills. I certainly learned to play the examination game very effectively, but I was left in a shocking state of ignorance. Had I not had a father who knew all sorts of things about all sorts of things, and liked to talk about them at the breakfast table, I shudder to think of how ignorant I would have been.


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