Clare College Cambridge

Studying English at Clare

Studying English at Clare


The English course is divided into a two-year Part I and a one-year Part II. For most students, Part I involves the study of literature written in English from Chaucer through to the present day. At the end of the first year there is a relatively painless formal examination: you submit a portfolio of three essays on Shakespeare, and take an exam in practical criticism, where you give an account of particular passages in relation to larger questions about the form and functioning of literature. At the end of the second year examination papers are set in each of four large periods of literature which take you from Chaucer through to the present day. These exams have few prescribed elements, and are generously conceived as regards the kinds of questions set: 'Cambridge English' is a very broad church indeed, and allows plenty of room for individuality of approach. Most students will choose to sit three of these four papers, replacing one with a 5,000-word dissertation on a subject of their choice.

There are also some minority options which students can choose to take instead of one of the mainstream papers. If you wish to study early medieval literature (1066-1350), or to work on literature in a modern foreign language or in Latin or Greek, or to learn to read Old English or Norse or medieval Welsh or medieval Irish, this can be arranged as part of your English course.

The Part II course, followed in the final year, offers wide scope for personal choice. Together with the compulsory papers on Practical Criticism and on Tragedy, there are a large number of optional papers - on Chaucer, American literature, medieval culture, early modern drama, love gender and sexuality in Romantic literature, lyric, Victorian literature, literature and visual culture (including film studies), postcolonial literature, English and European ethical thinkers, contemporary literature written in the last 15 years, the history and theory of literary criticism, mid-twentieth-century prose forms, and more. You may choose to do either two of those papers and one long essay (up to 7,500 words, on pretty much any literary topic) or one paper and two long essays; thus you are free to put together the course of work that best meets your particular strengths and interests.

More information on the course is available on the University of Cambridge website:


Clare is well placed geographically: the English Faculty and English Library are on our doorstep, as is the University Library. Our own College library, the Forbes-Mellon, gives you access to much of the primary literature as well as expert guidance with electronic resources.

Teaching goes on through lectures run by the English faculty, and classes and supervisions which take place within college. Lectures are given on a university-wide basis; they offer the stimulus of a wide range of topics, approaches, and models of critical thinking. Attendance is optional; you are free to go to as many or as few as you find valuable.

Classes are with some or all of the others in your college year-group; there will normally be between four and ten students in a class. The style of discussion tends to be informal, but not casual. In your first year you might typically take part in three classes a week: one dealing with background material relevant to the period on which you are working, another involving an exercise in practical criticism, and a third in which to discuss the Shakespeare play set for that week. (At Clare the study of Shakespeare is spread in this way across the first three terms, with most of the writing being done in the third term. We introduced these classes as an experiment some years ago, and students have liked this way of doing it.)

The heart of the course is the weekly supervision, the hour-long meeting in which your supervisor discusses with you the work you have been doing during the past week. As an example, when you are studying Renaissance Literature, you might spend a week working on John Donne; your supervisor would advise you about which poems to concentrate on, and suggest other works where comparison could be stimulating – Donne's sermons, perhaps, or other metaphysical or Elizabethan poetry – together with a number of possible questions to bear in mind. (Some critical essays might also be mentioned, but at Clare the emphasis falls decidedly on reading literature rather than on academic criticism.) You would then have five days or so for intensive reading in and thinking about Donne, before writing an essay on some aspect of his work that has caught your attention. A weekly essay is normally an exploratory, experimental piece of writing, in which second thoughts, interesting muddles and wild surmises can be all to the good; it is meant to focus perceptions and to try out arguments which can then be developed, qualified, or challenged in discussion with your supervisor.