If you look at the hashtags #hamlet or #ocrenglishliterature at the moment you will see a number of very upset students, teachers and parents. The gist is straightforward: since exams are not meant to post trick questions, why did OCR use a passage from Hamlet which is often cut in performance and does not actually appear in the body text of some editions of the play? It is clear that students opened their exam papers to see a passage which had never been in front of them before.
This is the thing. There was no need for this turmoil. Hamlet is huge – 4 hours and more and there was a need to find 50 lines to examine. It was the second examination of the specification, so they were hardly constrained by overuse. Yet they chose a contentious passage and one which presented an obvious question about student access. Why?
There is a message for teachers here too – the choice of edition can be vital, yet in many schools there is no choice. Budget squeezes mean that the edition used is the one on the shelves. Moreover, since I hear that one edition – the Oxford – omitted the scene, we are not dealing with ‘dodgy editions’. Either boards need to recommend or provide editions, or there cannot be use of such scenes -scenes which have the potential for such upset.
There are numerous reasons to cut the scene in performance, mostly due to actor and audience fatigue. And, yes, it is a great soliloquy and worthy of study. Yet the issue is not its intrinsic worth, but the fact that some editions (and the first folio and first quarto) omit it or carry it only as part of an appendix of ‘other scenes’. What a silly decision to use it, and what pain for the students who have just had their A level blighted, because, let’s face it, when this happens in Question 1, paper 1, we can hardly expect the rest of the paper not to be affected.
My heart goes out to these students and to their teachers -tears in the exam hall, so I hear, and tears in the staff room. This feels so wrong.