Pre-U English Literature

At MCS, English Literature in Sixth Form is taught to the Cambridge Pre-U syllabus. Pre-U English in Literature introduces you to some of the most enjoyable, inspiring and challenging writing from the late 1300s to the present day. It encourages learners to read both closely and widely, to pursue their own interests and enthusiasms, to enjoy their reading and to be able to develop a critical and informed response to it.

The course ranges widely across and beyond the traditional canon, whilst sharpening students’ skills in textual analysis. You are encouraged to make connections between the texts you study and to explore them within their intellectual, cultural, social and historical contexts. The subject is highly valued by universities and employers for the skills it fosters in thinking analytically, reading sensitively, approaching problems creatively, evaluating others’ views perceptively, and expressing arguments concisely and persuasively.

Numerous extra-curricular opportunities supplement the course. There are weekly extension seminars, regular theatre trips to London, Oxford and Stratford, creative writing workshops and competitions, talks by visiting speakers, student publications, and essay prizes; the flexibility of the syllabus means passions sparked beyond the classroom can be nurtured within it. The lower burden of exam texts compared to A-level makes Pre-U English a viable, complementary fourth subject for those whose main interests lie elsewhere.

Course content

In the Lower Sixth, you will study a wide range of literature with your two teachers, encountering writings from different historical periods, literary movements and English-speaking cultures. You will also begin to explore different ways of reading and writing, considering critical and theoretical approaches to literature, and practising re-creative writing alongside the traditional essay. The best way to prepare for this is by reading widely as widely and adventurously as possible, using the ideas below as a starting point. You could supplement this with visits to the theatre – the Oxford Playhouse, Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe all offer cheap tickets to U18s. In the Upper Sixth, the bulk of the set texts are studied in depth, while pupils complete a Personal Investigation on a combination of texts that reflects their interests and passions in the subject.

The works listed below are all classics of English Literature and are well worth reading. We ask that you explore at least two of them, from contrasting periods, over the summer before you begin the course.

Further inspiration and suggested preparation
Marlowe, Christopher Dr Faustus c.1590
Shakespeare, William Henry IV Part One, As You Like It, King Lear, Sonnets 1597-1609
King James Bible, especially Psalms, Job and the Song of Solomon 1611
Burrow, Colin (ed.) Metaphysical Poetry 2006
Pope, Alexander The Rape of the Lock 1714
Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels/A Modest Proposal 1726/29
Walpole, Horace The Castle of Otranto 1764
Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice 1813
Bronte, Emily Wuthering Heights 1847
Dickens, Charles Great Expectations 1859
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss/Middlemarch 1860/72
Wilde, Oscar The Importance of Being Earnest 1895
Hardy, Thomas Tess of the D’Urbervilles 1891
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness/The Secret Agent 1899/1907
Joyce, James Dubliners 1914
Eliot, T. S. Prufrock and Other Observations 1917
Woolf, Virginia Mrs Dalloway/A Room of One’s Own 1925/28
Waugh, Evelyn Decline and Fall/A Handful of Dust 1928/35
Greene, Graham The Power and the Glory 1940
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot 1953
Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart 1958
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar/Ariel 1963/65
Larkin, Philip The Whitsun Weddings/High Windows 1964/74
Vonnegut, Kurt Slaughterhouse Five 1969
Carter, Angela The Bloody Chamber 1979
Atwood, Margaret The Handmaid’s Tale 1985
Roy, Arundhati The God of Small Things 1997
Smith, Zadie White Teeth/NW 2000/14
Rankine, Claudia Citizen 2014

The British Library’s Discovering Literature  is a rich source of information on the works above and many others. Alternatively, f
or a good paperback overview, try Jonathan Bate’s English Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2010).



The following all offer very good overviews of Shakespeare’s work and style:

Simon Palfrey Doing Shakespeare (2005)

Emma Smith This is Shakespeare (2019)

Jonathan Bate The Genius of Shakespeare (1997)

Sean McEvoy Shakespeare: The Basics (2000)

Stanley Wells William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction (2015)

For something more interactive, you could sign up for the Future Learn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that King’s College London has put together Shakespeare, Print and Performance.

An enjoyable way of beginning to think about the ways Shakespeare has been interpreted over the years would be to read some novels inspired by his plays. For example, if you studied Macbeth for GCSE, you could read Jo Nesbø’s eponymous thriller. If you’ve seen King Lear, why not compare Jane Smiley’s reimagining of it in the American west, A Thousand Acres (1991), with Edward St Aubyn’s Lear-as-Rupert-Murdoch satire, Dunbar (2017). If you want to read very contemporary fiction, consider how two of the most praised novels of 2019 – Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise and Ali Smith’s Spring – both rework Pericles, a late play Shakespeare probably co-authored with George Wilkins. For novelisations of other plays, see


There are several excellent anthologies of poetry which you could dip into. The Oxford Book of English Verse (ed. Christopher Ricks, 1999) and The Penguin Book of English Verse (ed. Paul Keegan, 2000) are good examples; others can easily be found in second hand bookshops. We would strongly recommend that you buy one of these and get into the habit of regularly and randomly picking, reading and re-reading a short poem or two.

James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry (2003) is a readable handbook.

How to choose

Go to the library, a bookshop or an online bookseller that allows you to ‘look inside’. Browse. Read the first page, or the synopsis, or take Ford Madox Ford’s advice: ‘Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.’ Enjoy!