It all depends how thorough you want to be and how impressive you want to be, when it comes to memorising quotations. We won’t lie: people have received a grade A in Higher English and not used any quotations. They have referenced the text: this means they have referred to the text, or paraphrased it, but they have not used a single quotation.
We can only state what we think works best for most students and what sets the highest standards. Quotations are useful because it shows a candidate who can take the time to memorise them: impressive. Quotations are useful because it shows a candidate understands them and can interpret them in a way that supports an argument: more impressive. Quotations are useful because they make the essay more in keeping with the long tradition of literary criticism, now spanning centuries, that has housed such great names as Samuel Coleridge, F R Leavis, T S Eliot and Terry Eagleton (I know…means nothing): impressive. And they look nice if well set out.
So, assuming you’re going to use quotations then the next thing to resolve is are you going to remember lots of little ones, or go for a few substantial ones? Some students prefer to write essays dotted with quotations (nothing wrong with that); some students prefer to use larger quotations as part of a clear structure.
Our preference is for the larger quotations for similar reasons to those given previously, but also because, in our experience, too many small quotations can be irrelevant or provide little opportunity for thorough analysis. That’s just our experience. How big is a larger quotation? Anything bigger than a few words – a couple of lines or more.
Onto the number of reasonably sized quotations that you should learn. Each year in the Higher exam the tasks change but the general areas which students are asked about remain the same. Students are usually offered a task about a main character; they are usually offered a task about conflict. So, if you have quotations that cover these areas then you will be covered.
If you’re really clever, then you can have quotations that cover two areas at once. So a quotation about a main character might also be relevant to a task about a relationship the main character has. This can reduce the amount of quotations you have to learn, or allow you to learn more!
The other thing is that it’s best to take your quotations from the entire text. Not just the beginning, not just the end, try to get a blance of quotations taken from throughout the text.
Ok, here are the number of quotations to memorise and the areas from which they should be taken:
4 quotations for setting
4 quotations on a main character
4 quotations on an important relationship between a main character and another character which is meaningful
4 quotations on a symbolic minor character/or symbolism
4 quotations on a main character
4 quotations on how tension/drama/feeling is created
4 quotations that are relevant to a key scene, including the key scene itself, the build up to it and the aftermath
4 quotations that show important points of the plot up to and including the end
Memorise the poem.
If it’s too long (and not many are) memorise quotations that are important to the main themes and make sure that quotations are taken from throughout the poem.
If you memorise quotations with substance for each area then, you’ll be covered for the exam. We can’t advise you to skip any area as we, like everyone else, do not know what areas will come up in the exam. We think it’s too much of a risk just to learn quotations about setting, and hope for a task based on setting.
Our e-book has good examples of quotation sizes and use. You can access it by signing-up to myetutor.