Episode 2: The Supervision

The Sunday Serial continues as we join Anna in her first supervision of term. This one’s about tragedy

anna Cambridge claudia julian slater king lear merrily we roll along mollie wintle ploughing onwards pressing onwards Shakespeare silence steaming past supervision swept away tragedy

Catch up with episode one here.

Claudia sighed. It was always the pretty ones, wasn’t it? Thought they could turn up to a supervision without having done any work at all. Well, if Anna thought she was going to get away with it this week…she was wrong. She wasn’t going to get away with it. She hasn’t even bought a pen with her, Claudia noted with disgust. If she thought Claudia was going to give her one…well. Wrong again. Claudia would rather eat a banana with the skin on than give her a pen. That was just the kind of girl Claudia was.

Anna twiddled her thumbs and sighed. She was annoyed she hadn’t brought a pen with her. There was only so much twiddling you could do before you wanted to stop. The single sheet of paper that she had remembered to bring balanced gently, pointlessly, on one knee. Anna stared at it and idly wondered at what point Julian, their supervisor, was going to stop peering at her. Surely it was obvious by now that she wasn’t going to answer? Some people, Anna thought, some people just knew how to waste time, didn’t they?

Julian pressed the balls of his fingertips together with increasing pressure. Why weren’t either of them answering? Should he repeat the question? Would that make him look weak? Julian Slater had only recently started supervising undergraduates, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. Whenever he thought back to his sharp, dynamic PhD students, anxious to get as much out of their time together as they could, he would experience pangs of frustration and regret. These girls were just sitting there like a couple of blind owls. He tried again.

‘Both of you discussed silence in your essays – which voices would you say are often silenced in tragedy?’

The owls blinked at him, unseeingly.

‘“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”’

‘That’s from Lear.’ Julian cleared his throat. ‘King Lear.’

Anna gave him an absent-minded smile.

‘Claudia? Any thoughts?’ Julian turned to her with some desperation. ‘Any thoughts at all on which voices might be silenced in tragedy?’

Claudia shook her head.

‘Anna?’

Anna paused mid-twiddle. She was feeling generous.

‘The voices of the dead.’

Oh for God’s sake. Claudia wanted to punch Anna in the head. She just hoped Julian didn’t think Anna’s answer was representative of both of them.

‘Well that’s certainly a start,’ Julian spoke encouragingly. ‘Yes, the voices of the dead….because the dead –’

‘Can’t talk anymore,’ said Anna helpfully.

‘Is that always the case, though?’ Julian lent forward eagerly ‘I mean, if we’re looking at Shakespearean tragedy, what about Hamlet’s father – the talking ghost?’

‘I thought he was a fig of Hamlet’s imagination.’

‘Figment.’ Claudia muttered her first words of the supervision. ‘Figment of Hamlet’s imagination.’

Anna grinned. She’d known Claudia wouldn’t be able to resist that.

‘No, like a fig, like the fruit of his imagination.’ She turned to Claudia. ‘You mustn’t be so literal all the time. That’s really going to hold you back in the exam.’

Claudia wanted to scream and stab Anna with a compass. Julian stifled a smile.

‘Tell me more about his father’s voice then, Anna. What kind of authority do you think it has?’

Anna considered.

‘A paternal kind.’

Claudia could stand it no longer.

‘The Ghost doesn’t have any real authority at all. The character is a projection of Hamlet’s non-existent conscience. When he appears in the bedchamber, ostensibly to hurry Hamlet along with killing Claudius, he says that he has come to whet Hamlet’s ‘almost blunted purpose’ – conscience might unsettle a purpose, but it doesn’t blunt it. Hamlet is an amoral psychopath and the ghost is simply a device of Shakespeare’s to highlight this.’

‘So in a way, you’d agree he was a fig?’

‘OK Claudia, that’s an interesting interpretation, but –’ Julian was interrupted by a knock on the door. After a pause, it opened a crack and a head peeped in. ‘Yes? Can I help you?’

‘Sorry, I’m here to – ’ The boy stopped when he caught sight of the two girls in the room.

‘I’m here to, uh, I’m here to – ‘

‘Yes?’ Julian prompted. ‘Yes? You’re here to what?’ Never again, he promised himself. Never again will I talk to or teach teenagers.

‘Uh, to clear out the room for a talk, sorry, I mean if that’s OK. Art History Society booked it for a talk last term…’

Julian rubbed his eyes. ‘Yes, that’s right, you sent me an email about it and I completely forgot.’ He looked at Claudia and Anna.

‘I’m free tomorrow at the same time, if you can both continue this then? Yes? Good.’ He got up to go. ‘Please collect your thoughts beforehand. I want to supervise more students with mature, developed opinions.’

Convinced that she’d been given a compliment, Claudia sailed out after him, beaming. Anna offered a polite smile before heading towards the door.

‘Why don’t you stay?’

The words were out of Billy’s mouth before he had time to edit them into anything funny or persuasive. Anna turned in surprise.

‘Sorry?’

‘Why don’t you stay for the talk? It’s from James Fox. He’s…he’s really, really great.’ Anna didn’t respond. ‘He’s giving a talk on the colour gold.’ And God knows you’d have to be crazy to want to miss that, he added silently.

Anna smiled awkwardly. ‘I might another time but I have some stuff to do right now. Sorry.’

‘That’s fine!’

‘But good luck with it!’

‘Thanks! Good luck with your…stuff!’ But she was already gone.

On the carpet next to her chair, Billy spotted a single piece of A4 paper. He picked it up. It was completely blank. It definitely wasn’t something anyone would miss.

I could return it to her!

The thought was thrilling. Billy could already imagine the way they’d laugh about it together in weeks to come and – he stopped, and forced himself to look at the piece of paper properly.

You’d have to be crazy to want to have this back.

Well, thought Billy. I’m not the one missing James’ talk on the colour gold…

Find episode 3 here