If you're any type of film fan or gamer, you've been exposed to some of the world's most famous literary works.

Wait a minute: video games - the very antithesis of books, based on literature? Indeed, dear readers, from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Frankenstein, there are scores of console and online games built on classic English literature.

However, you should know that UCAS will not accept high scores or game mastery for entry to any university undergraduate study programme. If that is indeed your goal, there are no shortcuts: you're going to have to read those most famous, favoured works.

You might question which works we are referring to, considering that Shakespeare is considered by some as the avatar of English literature. His extensive catalogue of poetry and prose is over 400 years old and there's been a lot of writing between then and now.

Just how much literary reading should you do, then? Could you even read every work of English literature in one lifetime? No, of course not; that would take away from the joy of discovery and the thoughtful analysis you would conduct as you read each one.

What's needed is a carefully curated list of titles and authors to explore as an introduction to English literature, after which you may select authors and titles that call to you the loudest.

Luckily, your Superprof has just such a list; you may think of it as your Literature starter pack.

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William Shakespeare

We have to start our exploration of famous literature here because... well... of course, the most famous and one of the most prolific wordsmiths of all time presents us with the full range of human experience. Drama and tragedy, comedy and farce; lyrical poetry that resonates still today.

"Shakespeare? How dull is that?" - Dr Who, the Daleks Take Manhattan

To some audiences, the Bard of Avon may indeed have produced just so much dullness. After all, how exciting can killing oneself or others be, particularly when described in a sonnet? If that's your opinion, you might be missing the point. Let's look at some titles.

William Shakespeare wrote plays and poems
William Shakespeare was the author of countless plays and stacks of poetry. Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Much Ado About Nothing

This delightful farce addresses sexuality and defined gender roles, fidelity and deception - all through a series of linguistic sleights of hand and misdirection.

Indeed, the title itself is meant as a play on words. 'Nothing' contains just one letter more than 'noting', neatly underscoring the theme that much can be made of anything if you just add a little something to the telling.

Macbeth

Dizzily pivoting from the humorous to the tragic, Macbeth lays bare all of the darkness caused by ambition and greed. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a perplexing mix of strength and weakness, cunning and cravenness, all salted over with an odd sprinkling of morality.

Although one of Shakespeare's shortest works - certainly, his shortest tragedy, Macbeth has had a powerful impact, not the least because of the rumour attached to it.

It is thought that the Bard consulted with actual witches in the writing of the spells. Those ladies, thought to have been enraged that their incantations were spoken on stage, presumably put a curse on the play.

Still today, theatre personnel avoid referring to the work by name, calling it The Scottish Play or Macbee.

Romeo and Juliet

Stories of star-crossed lovers exist in just about every culture but, perhaps, none quite so familiarly or expansively as this ill-fated duo.

Indeed, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the original Italian tale, even giving his lovers the same names. However, he widened the scope of the story, including new characters, for whom he wrote new plotlines.

The story of Romeo and Juliet is believed to be one of the most renowned of Shakespeare's works; indeed, it is one of his most replicated play.

Our beloved bard provides a delightful introduction to English literature, doesn't he?

Older Literature

Older does not refer to written works that predate The Bard; rather, it denotes texts written/published/performed before the 20th Century.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë's coming of age tale is one of passion and rebellion, aspects of character constantly at odds with Jane's moral rectitude and religious teaching. It is remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which is how Jane manages to assert herself in a time when women were supposed to be pliant and meek.

Perhaps that is a general reflection on the Brontë sisters' character. Charlotte and her sisters, all of whom were writers, published under male pseudonyms because they knew full well that women's musings would not be greeted with the same level of credibility and enthusiasm as books written by male authors.

Even if you didn't have to read any of the Brontë sisters' books for your English literature course, you should. The themes they address and their masterful writing are as compelling today as they were in their time.

Mary Shelley's monster was vividly described
Mary Shelley had a gift for creating images with words. Image by Etienne Marais from Pixabay

Frankenstein

Fun fact: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein essentially on a dare. How the challenge was made is a convoluted tale but the result was that Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Shelly - also a writer, penned one of science fiction's earliest works. She was 18 when she did so.

You are under no such challenge so, as you consider how to write your essay about her Gothic tale, take pains to connect elements of Ms Shelley's life and ideals to her creation. They are a major theme underpinning her work.

Here's another fun fact: Ms Shelley is Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter. Although she never knew her mother, her father too held progressive (anarchic?) views that he eagerly passed to his daughter.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella of human duality never fails to shock, awe and thrill. How can such a transformation, from urbane to crass be triggered by drinking a serum? More importantly: why did that suave doctor conduct those experiments?

Besides displaying the duelling nature humanity sometimes wrestles with, this allegorical tale embraces two other themes, one political and the other, philosophical... but all three tie themselves neatly together.

These three are just a few of the list of English literary works from the Victorian period that you will have the pleasure of reading as a part of your school literature course. Two other are: The Sign of the Four by Sir Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Let's hear your thoughts: with films, shows and streaming services presenting these titles, what's the point of studying English literature?

Modern Literature

None of these titles is more than a century old and, compared to Victorian-era writing, they tend to be a bit brasher and faster-paced. Still, they revisit many of the same themes explored in those earlier works: morality, social criticism and the duality of human nature.

An Inspector Calls might be seen as a dark version of Love, Actually, in that, it revolves around one character (not an event), with whom every member of the Birling family had dealings. Each of them negatively impacts the unfortunate Ms Smith  but, oddly enough, there is no tragic tale of suicide... or is there?

Class snobbery is one of that play's main themes; the same is true for Blood Brothers.

One twin is raised by a rich family while the other stays with his humble birth clan. Artfully proving that one's environment is just as crucial as parental nurturing in how children learn right from wrong, Blood Brothers also take the time to show that jealousy, rivalry and greed know no class distinctions.

Perhaps one of the more touching stories you will read in your literature course is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There are deception and betrayal woven through this tale but also, perseverance and enduring love.

For anyone who has experienced bullying of any type, it's easy to relate to the story's protagonist. A socially awkward, hyper-intelligent teen has a unique way of seeing the world. That quality is what led him to observe and obsess about the dog and, ultimately, to set off on the journey that changed his life.

The boys in Lord of the Flies also make personal discoveries that change their lives.

Stranded on an island, the boys attempt to build a society only to discover that personal inclinations - a lust for power among them, prevent them from achieving any semblance of civilisation. When they are rediscovered, their rescuers are appalled at the state of their collective and the destruction they wrought.

By contrast, the students in History Boys suffer from too much regimentation and things are about to get worse. The headmaster wants to advance the school's rankings so he engages a teacher who is rigid and, at times, even cruel. Much of the focus is on the adults' doings; how the boys deal with what they endure is mostly left up to the viewers' interpretation.

Your turn to talk: how would you analyse these texts? Which elements and themes would you highlight in your analysis? Why?

Reading poetry may encourage you to write poems
Reading poetry in your Literature course may inspire you to write a poem of your own. Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay

Poetry

The students I know tend to groan at the poetry module of their English Literature course. Obviously, they have the wrong idea of what poetry is and what it can do for them.

Consider for a moment why the unit of measure for knowledge is a nugget. Small, self-contained but of little worth on its own, nuggets of knowledge spice up our lives and entice us to a quest of gathering more nuggets.

You might think of poems as nuggets containing a slice of the human experience.

They challenge your understanding of life and the world around you, help you cultivate your natural empathy and help you make sense of the emotional stew you simmer in. By reading others' experiences and emotions, you can feel not quite so alone; indeed, you may feel compelled to respond to a particularly moving poem by writing one yourself.

Most importantly for us, who have come to expect instant... everything, from communications to food: poetry is quick.

Contrast the hours you'll spend reading and analysing A Christmas Carol to the few minutes you'll take to absorb Imtiaz Dharker's Tissue. Rather than a complex narrative involving several characters and plotlines, Tissue treats you to a single subject, discussed in short, musical verses.

If you will sit AQA exams, Tissue is just one sampling of poetry you'll savour as you research the English language and the creative writing that has resulted from it. Others are:

  • Climbing My Grandfather
  • Exposure
  • Kamikaze
  • Letters From Yorkshire
  • Neutral Tones
  • Remains
  • The Emigrée
  • Walking Away
  • Winter Swans

If you've chosen a different exam board, you should still read these poems. Each of them has a specific quality that recommends it.  Most importantly, though, they are all sure to provoke a great deal of thought, if not inspire you to pen a few verses yourself.

You can organise your literature studies in any way you find most suitable to you but this particular breakdown - classics, poetry, modern-day and older literary works can help you track the evolution of writing elements, themes and narrative structure as you revise for your English literature exam.

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.