Author Archives: evelynoconnor

Justice in King Lear – how to construct an answer…

I’m just digging up notes from a few years back and stumbled upon this – some of you might find it helpful…

King Lear

Justice and corruption are central themes in the play King Lear

How do you go about constructing an answer?

  • Look at the words in the question.
  • Underline the important ones.
  • These are the concepts you must respond to and weave throughout your answer – but that does not mean simply repeating the words superficially at the end of each paragraph. You need to demonstrate that you’ve thought about and gotten to grips with the meat and substance of the theme, issue or character you’re discussing.

Ask yourself:
WHO do these words apply to in the play? (each person could form the basis for a paragraph)
HOW / WHY does this character deal with this issue?
Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
Are there any SCENES which deal with this issue specifically?
What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?

This is just ONE WAY TO APPROACH formulating an answer to this question – there is no right way to do it, just many different options, but I find this a useful set of questions to ask myself when planning an answer, regardless of the theme I’m exploring.

INTRODUCTION: first you must directly address the question. Use the words from the question but don’t simply repeat them word for word, add your own opinion:

Shakespeare’s “King Lear” dramatically explores the concept of justice & presents a frightening vision of what happens in a society when those who control the justice system are cruel & corrupt.

You may wish to define the words used in the question, but you don’t have to:

The word ‘justice’ refers to the idea that we are fair and reasonable in our dealings with others. As a society we expect those who commit crimes to be punished because we value the idea of justice. In fact, many of our religious beliefs are based on the idea of divine justice – that God will reward good and punish evil.

Continuing your introduction, you must then tell the audience what aspects of the play you intend to discuss:

In this play, first Lear & then Regan & Goneril control the country & therefore the justice system. Their corruption seeps into every crevice of this society through the extreme and arbitrary punishments they mete out to those they feel have wronged them. Edmund also gains power & so he too becomes involved in handing out justice in this play.

Put it all together and here’s what your introduction looks like:


Shakespeare’s “King Lear” dramatically explores the concept of justice & presents a frightening vision of what happens in a society when those who control the justice system are cruel & corrupt. The word ‘justice’ refers to the idea that we are fair and reasonable in our dealings with others. As a society we expect those who commit crimes to be punished because we value the idea of justice. In fact, many of our religious beliefs are based on the idea of divine justice – that God will reward good and punish evil. In this play, first Lear & then Regan & Goneril control the country & therefore the justice system. Their corruption seeps into every crevice of this society through the extreme and arbitrary punishments they mete out to those they feel have wronged them. Edmund also gains power & so he too becomes involved in handing out justice in this play.

PARAGRAPH 1: Show how this issue is revealed at the beginning of the play. DO NOT TELL THE STORY, you can assume the examiner knows the plot.

Lear, as King, begins the play completely in charge of handing out justice to his citizens. He is tired of this responsibility and intends to “shake all cares and business from our age conferring them on younger strengths”. However he wishes to “retain the name and all the addition to a king”. The very idea seems to challenge our concept of justice and fairness – why should he have the status and privilege of being King if he is not also going to do the hard work?

PARAGRAPH 2: continue discussion of LEAR. DO NOT TELL THE STORY.

In the process of handing over his kingdom to his daughters, a serious miscarriage of justice occurs. Lear banishes his daughter Cordelia because she “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” and then banishes his loyal servant Kent for daring to challenge the wisdom of this decision (“come not between the dragon and his wrath”). Kent refuses to back down because he can see that their justice system is completely corrupt if a person can be banished (without trial) for speaking the truth. Similarly, Gloucester declares Edgar guilty of plotting to murder him without offering his son a fair hearing and thus a second miscarriage of justice occurs.

PARAGRAPH 3: move on to discuss other characters that personify this issue. DO NOT TELL THE STORY.

Once Goneril & Regan gain power, they destroy any remaining semblance of justice or fairness in this society. They put Kent in the stocks, strip Lear of his knights (“what need one?”) and shut him out in the storm (“lock up your doors”) all because he requested a little luxury in his old age (“allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beasts”). Here we see that they are disregarding one of the most basic concepts of justice – that the punishment should fit the crime. Many of us find our parents annoying at times but we don’t strip them of their final penny & throw them out onto the streets.

Lear himself refers to this idea later in the play when he recognises his mistakes but claims he is “a man more sinned against than sinning”. He later realises and regrets that as King he neglected his duty to provide social justice for the poor in his kingdom “poor naked wretches that bide the pelting of the pitiless storm. Oh I have taken too little care of this”. He also accepts that he has failed to administer justice fairly saying of Cordelia “I did her wrong”. Thus we see his concept of justice maturing and developing over the course of the play and the vanity and corruption which defined him in the early stages of the play giving way to a nobility of character, gained through suffering.

PARAGRAPH 4: Now move onto another character who is significant in discussing this issue. DO NOT TELL THE STORY.

Edmund is also central to any discussion of justice in the play. He feels that the society and the law discriminates against illegitimate children “why brand they us with base? with baseness? Bastardy?” particularly in the area of inheritance. If he does nothing, he will be left with nothing “legitimate Edgar I must have your land” and so he comes up with a plan to get ’justice’ of a kind for himself. Although we feel a certain measure of sympathy and admiration for him we cannot support his version of ’justice’ because it is not true justice – it involves destroying innocent people in order to get what he wants.

PARAGRAPH 5: Is there any particular scene where this issue is explored? DO NOT TELL THE STORY

During the play two key ‘trials’ occur which dramatically explore the theme of justice. Firstly, Lear holds a mock trial of his eldest daughters asking “is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?”. He appoints Poor Tom and the Fool as the judges, thus mocking the idea of justice by suggesting that fools and madmen control the justice system. Secondly Gloucester is put on trial after Edmund reveals to Goneril & Regan that his father has been assisting Lear and that a French army led by Cordelia is going to invade in an attempt to restore Lear to power. Enraged, they declare him guilty of consorting with the enemy and as punishment for being a ‘traitor’ they “pluck out his eyes”. At this point it is graphically clear that if those in power are corrupt, they can completely destroy any notion of true justice in a society.

PARAGRAPH 6: What final impression are we left with of this issue? DO NOT TELL THE STORY.

At the end of the play we are left with the sense that justice has completely failed in this society. Lear and Cordelia are captured, imprisoned and then Cordelia is killed on Edmund’s orders. Even though he makes a deathbed attempt to save her (“some good I mean to do in spite of mine own nature”), his gesture comes too late. We do feel it is right and just that Edgar is the one to fatally wound Edmund, but this is revenge not true justice and Edgar must then endure the pain of watching his father die. Goneril and Regan both die, but it is important to note that Goneril kills her sister in a fit of jealousy and then kills herself. Neither is ever brought to justice, to face up to and account for their crimes.

PARAGRAPH 7: Still discussing our final impressions.

Is it possible then to argue that divine justice succeeds where societal justice fails? In the play some of the good characters reveal a belief that God will punish wicked deeds and reward decent ones – Edgar at one point in the play proclaims that “the God’s are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us, the dark and vicious place where thee he got has cost him his eyes”. He suggests that Gloucester needs to be punished because he committed adultery and fathered an illegitimate child. However, if this were true then we would also expect the good characters to be protected by God and Albany reveals this very belief when he says of Cordelia “the Gods defend her” but almost immediately after he utters these words Lear appears howling with grief, holding the dead Cordelia in his arms. Surely Shakespeare is making a mockery of the idea of a just God. We find ourselves more inclined to side with Gloucester’s view that there is no such thing as divine mercy or justice when he proclaims “as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods / they kill us for their sport”.

Conclusion: Sum up your main points but try not to repeat the same phrasing.

Thus we see that justice and corruption are central themes in the play King Lear. Sadly those characters who believe in societal and divine justice endure the most suffering and hardship in the play. Although they achieve a measure of redemption, by the time Lear and Gloucester realise the importance of offering a just and fair trial to those accused of wrongdoing, their society is being run by their corrupt and evil children who do not believe in justice.. Despite their religious faith, the Gods do not intervene to save Cordelia and ultimately our final impression is that justice has failed and that we are left with a  “cheerless, dark and deadly” society where pervasive corruption can be tackled but never fully destroyed.

NOTE:Essays are built from paragraphs. Paragraphs are built around concepts and ideas.

It’s possible to sum up the core concepts from which this essay is built very briefly (mostly summed up in the final line of each paragraph) – see below:

Paragraph 1 / Concept 1: Lear is tired of being responsible for ensuring his kingdom is fair and just – but why should Lear have the status and privilege of being King if he is not also going to do the hard work? Surley it’s an injustice if others do the work and you get the rewards?

Paragraph 2 / Concept 2: Early in the play, 2 serious miscarriages of justice occur: Kent is banished for speaking the truth, Edgar is declared guilty of plotting murder with no evidence and no trial.

Paragraph 3 / Concept 3: Goneril & Regan’s punishments are far in excess of the ‘crimes’ committed – once Lear is at the receiving end of such injustice, he begins to realise that he could have been a better King, ensuring social justice for the poor.

Paragraph 4 / Concept 4: Edmund wants justice for his mistreatment but he doesn’t care who he hurts to get what he wants – this is not justice but the worst kind of Machiavellian scheming.

Paragraph 5 / Concept 5: 2 trials occur, both mockeries of true justice, both proving that true justice cannot exist in a society as corrupt as this.

Paragraph 6 / Concept 6: At the end of the play, as all of the corrupt characters die, but it is revenge, not justice, which dominates in these final scenes.

Paragraph 7 / Concept 7: Even divine justice fails – so if we’re waiting around for God to reward the good and punish the wicked, we’ll we waiting a very long time indeed!!!


Whenever you have to build an essay from scratch, ask yourself what core concepts each paragraph will contain – once you’re figured this out, the rest is a whole lot easier.

You can also do this if you’re reading notes or sample essays – extract, and in your own words outline what the core concept at the heart of each paragraph is. Doing this is an intelligent way of studying. Trying to learn off entire essays is plagiarism – it’s a waste of your brain power – it won’t deepen your understanding – and it won’t be rewarded because you have to adapt whatever knowledge you have to answer the question asked.

Hope that all makes sense!

The Old Warrior and Me

Let me tell you a little story.

It’s the story of an earthquake. It’s a story of poetry and justice and community. Oddly, it’s also the story of how I got published in a book in the Philippines.


When an earthquake struck the Bohol province on the 15th October 2013, perhaps I was fleetingly aware. It may have registered briefly in my consciousness even as it registered 7.2 on the richter scale, killing 200 people, displacing 380,000 and leaving 75,000 without homes.

What do you do in the face of such devastation?

If you live far away, untouched, relatively unaware, probably nothing. Perhaps you donate a few euros to Concern or the Red Cross. Perhaps you don’t. The news flits in and out of your consciousness. Another natural disaster takes its place. Occasionally a friend will be fundraising to go build houses somewhere houses need building (India? Africa? the Phillipines?)  and you mindlessly throw ten euros their way. Of course you’ll help. Worthy cause. It costs you nothing in the big scheme of your life. You will not miss the money.

But then one day, you get a message from a retired teacher, Milwida Reys. She grew up in the Phillipines and though she spent most of her adult life teaching English in Sydney, her heart is still at home, at home with the earthquake victims as they struggle to rebuild their lives from the ruins. Her childhood friend, Nestor Pestelos, has been fundraising to build 150 houses for the earthquake victims most in need, families with disabled or elderly members, families who will spend years living in tents if something is not done to help them. Entire communities come together, provide salvaged materials and labour, take the process of rebuilding their homes into their own hands; all, of course, with much needed financial assistance and guidance from the Bohol Quake Assistance fund.


But why is Miwilda emailing an English teacher in Ireland who lives half way across the globe and who she’s never met?

Well, Nestor is not only a leader and visionary in community development. He’s also a poet. His friends and colleagues recognise the beauty of his writing even as they appreciate that many years ago he put his first love, writing, to one side, to focus on his other passions: community and justice. At 72, he is showing no signs of slowing down, despite occasional mumblings about retiring so that he can write more.

Now, these two passions – poetry and community – have come together is an altogether unexpected way. Mrs Corazon Verzosa Lanuza, who attended the same high school as Nestor and is a former student of Milwida’s, has made a significant donation to the Bohol Quake Assistance fund, but she has also made a request. She has requested that some of this money be used to publish a school edition of Nestor’s poetry collection “Old Warrior and other poems” so that the students who now attend their alma mater can read and appreciate the poetry of this man who once roamed the same corridors they now roam; who encountered poetry just as they encounter it now at school.

In fact, the vision for the project grows and expands as other people become involved. What about including some of the poems in translation, so that those students whose English lags behind their native tongues of Tagalog and Visayan, can still access their beauty and their message? What about including a guide to studying poetry, so that reading and appreciating poetry becomes a more accessible, less elite activity? Why not also tell the story of the earthquake and the assistance fund? Couldn’t this book inspire young people to consider development work as a legitimate future, one which is quite different from the usual self-centered pursuit of career and self-fulfillment?

And so, an idea was born. Milwida, living in Australia but desperate to help, was given the task, alongside Nestor, of putting the book together. She had the original book of poems. Nestor could tell the Bohol Quake Assistance story, in between project meetings and fundraising and liasing with volunteers and contributors. Perhaps she could gather some responses to his poetry and some poems in translation? Now she needed a poetry study guide. And when she googled poetic techniques, from all the way across the globe, up popped little old me.

Milwida’s request was characteristically humble:

My main reason for trying to contact you was to ask your permission to reproduce ‘Poetic techniques & terminology’ from Is ‘Poetic techniques & terminology’ for the exclusive use of your students? Is it possible for Filipino students to access it, too? Not many schools in the Philippines are equipped with a computer system similar to that in schools in the West. Students cannot search information online as easily…

I’m helping Nestor Maniebo Pestelos, a friend since high school, promote his self-published book of poems, Old Warrior and Other Poems as a supplementary material to teach high school literature in my home country. The book would be even more invaluable if your ‘Poetic Techniques & Terminology’ could be included as a Study Guide when the Second Edition is printed”.

And that is how I came, one morning not too long ago, to greet the postman as he handed me a package all the way from the Philippines. That is how I came, for only the second time in my life, to hold in my hands a book in which my writing was published, the thrill altogether different to that of publishing online. That is how I came to read Nestor Pestelos’ beautiful poems and the Bohol Quake Assistance story and to feel the earthquake register in my consciousness in a way it never had before.


I don’t know what the moral of this story is.

It may have something to do with the remarkable way in which we are all now connected online in this incredible global village.

It may have something to do with the capacity some remarkable human beings possess to always look beyond the self. For Nestor, ‘Art, relative to life, can always wait’ which is why, rather than retire, he has responded to a summons to work for the next 6 months on a UNICEF project in Samar to assist those hardest hit by last year’s super typhoon.

It may, conversely, have something to do with how difficult it is for a tragedy that does not touch our lives to touch our hearts. This is perhaps the hardest thing of all for me to digest. How, without that random google search leading somehow to me, this earthquake would have remained nothing more than a barely registered event in the myriad of human and natural disasters that rain down on our TV screens night after night. Numbed by over exposure, how do we retain the capacity to care?

For more about the work being done in Bohol, take a look at












Single text options…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Tuesday 27th January 2015.


If you are sitting Honours English for the Leaving Cert, you have to study Shakespeare but you don’t have to do it as your single text. You can include it as one of your comparatives and answer instead on one of the prescribed novels for the 60 mark single text question.

This years list (2015) of single texts to choose from if you’re doing honours English and are using Othello as part of your comparative are:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
  2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. All My Sons by Arthur Miller

Because most of the country study Shakespeare for this section, you do have a certain psychological

advantage over your Bardic peers: any examiner will relish a break from the monotony of correcting the same content over and over again! However, when you see how easily students from other schools can get their hands on sample answers for every aspect of every character and theme in Othello, you may find yourself silently cursing your teacher. Fret not – your teacher knows exactly what they’re doing! No student ever did well by learning off sample answers prepared by other people. Nonetheless, it can be annoying to have few – if any – actual exam paper questions to work off, so here I’ll examine elements of character, theme and style it might be wise to revise.

Pride and Prejudice


  • Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennett – her strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for her, her journey as a character and the extent to which she has changed over the course of the novel. Her search for her true self & whether or not Mr Darcy encourages or gets in the way of this quest.
  • Mr Darcy – his strengths and weaknesses, his relationship with and influence over Lizzy.
  • Mr Collins and Mr Wickham as foils to Mr Darcy and love interests for Lizzy.
  • Jane, Mary, Kitty and Lydia and the representation of women they offer.


  • Marriage as an obsession is the central theme of Pride and Prejudice
  • Despite many setbacks, romantic love ultimately triumphs in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
  • Pride and Prejudice explores power and powerlessness in a world where women are second class citizens
  • “In Pride and Prejudice, all of Austen’s characters have trouble distinguishing between appearance and reality
  • Social class concerns dominate the world created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice


  • Austen uses many literary techniques in Pride and Prejudice to communicate the snobbery of the Regency Era
  • Our view of events is limited by the use of first person narration, but expanded when necessary by Austen’s inclusion of letters as a literary device


  • Despite the happy ending, Pride and Prejudice offers a very negative view of the world the Bennett sisters inhabit


Never Let Me Go


  • Kathy – her strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for her, her journey as a character and the extent to which she has changed over the course of the novel. Her search for her true self & whether or not Mr Darcy encourages or gets in the way of this quest.
  • Tommy – as above
  • Ruth – as above
  • Madame, Miss Emily, Miss Lucy – Examine the impact they have upon the central characters & the way they illustrate various themes.


  • The central theme of Never Let Me Go is the loss of innocence”
  • Never Let Me Go is a coming of age story which horrifies even as it enthralls
  • Moral questions dominate Never Let Me Go but are never fully resolved
  • Love and friendship are beacons of hope in the otherwise bleak novel Never Let Me Go
  • The search for self, for one’s true identity, for what it means to be human, is both memorable and tragic in Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go
  • In Never Let Me Go, as the future becomes bleak, characters obsess over the past


  • The true horror of this novel lies in the narrator’s calm acceptance of her nature & her fate
  • Kathy is an unreliable narrator in, yet this only adds to the pathos of her plight”


  • “Never Let Me Go is a timely novel which demands that we ask difficult questions about morality and the regulation of science”


The Great Gatsby


  • Nick Carraway – his role as narrator, his individual strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for him, his journey as a character and the extent to which he changes over the course of the novel.
  • Gatsby – his strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for him, his journey as a character and the extent to which he changes over the course of the novel.
  • Daisy – as above
  • Main supporting characters – Tom, Jordan, George, Myrtle, Meyer Wolfshiem. Examine their impact upon the unfolding plot & the way they illustrate various themes.


  • The Great Gatsby powerfully illustrates both the allure and the folly of the American dream
  • Idealism gives way entirely to despair in The Great Gatsby
  • The Great Gatsby memorably evokes the social upheaval and decadence of the roaring twenties
  • Obsessive love dominates The Great Gatsby, ultimately leading to ruination and despair”
  • “The Great Gatsby at its heart is a novel about ego and ambition”


  • “The title of “The Great Gatsby” is entirely ironic. Indeed irony, as a device, is used to devastating effect in the novel”
  • “Poetic language and rich symbolism make The Great Gatsby a seductive and beautiful work of art”


  • “The Great Gatsby offers an entirely depressing vision of human nature” Discuss


All My Sons


  • Joe – as a tragic hero; as an ‘everyman’; his strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for him, his journey as a character and the extent to which he changes over the course of the play.
  • Kate – her strengths and weaknesses, your level of sympathy and/or admiration for her, her journey as a character and the extent to which she changes over the course of the play.
  • Chris – as above; plus his relationship with his parents, particularly his father.
  • Ann – as above; plus her relationship with Chris, with her father and with Larry
  • Minor characters: George, Larry, Frank, Jim – dramatic function in the play. Extent to which they illustrate various themes.


  • The central theme of Miller’s play ‘All My Sons’ is father-son relationships”
  • “In ‘All My Sons’ secrets and lies shimmer beneath the ordinary surface of everyday life”
  • “The destructive power of guilt is unleashed to devastating consequence in ‘All My Sons’
  • “The past haunts the present in ‘All My Sons’ and in many ways determines the future”
  • “Justice and morality are central themes in Miller’s play”


  • In ‘All My Sons’, Miller plays with time to powerful dramatic effect
  • Scenes of compelling drama in All My Sons prove that Miller is a master playwright”


  • “The moral of Miller’s play is that we cannot escape the consequences of our actions”


Ordinary Level Single Texts

Students sitting the ordinary level paper have a wider choice of texts. They can choose any one of the following for their single text:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston
  • Home Before Night by Hugh Leonard
  • All My Sons by Arthur Millar
    Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey
  • Othello by William Shakespeare

Tackling the Comparative

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Tuesday 27th January 2015.


Knowing your individual texts is a vital starting point, but there’s more to comparative than knowing your texts. You also need to be clear what your modes of comparison are so you can draw connections between texts, analysing similarities and differences. The idea behind this section is, after all, the comparison of texts to each other. Once they stand in sharp contrast to each other you’ll find that you can see each text more clearly. With that in mind, consciously embedding linking phrases in your writing (until they flow naturally), answering the question that’s asked (not the one you wish was asked because you’ve it prepared) and aiming to achieve depth in your comparisons are three further skills you need to develop.

  1. Modes of comparison

At higher level, your modes for 2015 are theme or issue, general vision and viewpoint and literary genre. [At ordinary level, theme is also one of the modes, alongside relationships and hero, heroine, villain]. If you’re not entirely sure what the modes mean, google it, there are plenty of definitions out there. Every year the modes change, so if you’re sitting the LC in 2016, 2017 or later, make sure you check which modes apply to your year.

For theme or issue you might consider some of the following:

  • How is this theme introduced? How does this theme affect the central character/characters?
  • How is this theme developed? Do the central characters embrace or fight against it? How?
  • Do other characters influence how this theme unfolds?
  • How does the text end & what are our final impressions of this theme as a result?

Asking the same question of each text allows you to come up with the all important links (similarities & differences) but try not to over-simplify (more on this later).

For general vision & viewpoint you might ask yourself some of these questions:

  • How do I feel as I read/watch this text?
  • What view is offered of humanity (are the main characters likable or deplorable?)
  • What view is offered of society (is this society largely benign or does it negatively impact on the characters)
  • How does the text end & what vision are we left with (positive or negative) as a result?

Alternatively you could just take a beginning, middle, end approach but you must at all times focus on whether the vision/feelings/atmosphere is positive or negative and how this impacts on the reader/viewers experience. Be specific about the atmosphere in the text; the feelings experienced by the audience or reader. Showing an awareness of the way this vision is communicated (through the musical score, the editing, the use of symbolism, stage directions etc…) may also be important, depending on the way the question is phrased.

For literary genre, things are a bit more complicated. Literary genre deals with how a story is told and it’s worth remembering that ‘genre’ has multiple meanings. It can refer to whether a text is a tragedy, a comedy, a morality tale etc. It will also denote the conventions of certain types of stories – science fiction, thriller, romance, horror. On a basic level, it also references the fact that texts tell their stories differently depending on whether they are a novel, play or film. For the novel, this involves the use of descriptive prose with a narrator(s) unfolding the plot for us. In a play, the story is told through dialogue and stage directions. While we may study drama by reading its text, it is often easy to lose sight of the fact that playwrights intend for their work to be performed on stage and not simply read in a classroom. In this light, the performance of actors and indeed the production will be as critical as the text. This also applies to film but we don’t study a film by reading its screenplay or simply watching it, we engage instead with the language of cinema; with framing, camera angles, editing, mis-en-scene, the musical score etc…

You must focus on the aspects mentioned in the question – possibly some of the following, but this list is not exhaustive and you may well focus on other aspects:

  • Genre – differences between novel/play/film
  • Literary devices specific to that mode of storytelling
  • Narrator / point of view
  • Characterisation
  • Chronology – flashback / flashforward
  • Climax / twist


  1. Linking phrases

If you’re not used to making comparisons, at first your use of these phrases may be a bit clunky. The only way to achieve a natural flow is to practice, practice, practice until making the links happens organically, unconsciously. This is what will lead to good comparative writing.

To say the texts are similar:


In the same way / In much the same way

In ______, we also see ___________

These characters react in the same way, both __________ because _____

These characters react similarly but for completely different reasons….

Both texts reveal that __________

This is also obvious in ________ when _______, just like ____ decides __________

We also see this in ________

Likewise, in __________

This is mirrored in _________

The two texts share a similarity in that __________


To point out differences:

By contrast, in _________

In a different way ________

The opposite is seen in _________

Unlike _________

A completely different situation is clear in _________

In direct contrast to this, in _________, _________

The reverse is true in ________

Nothing like this is evident in _________ because they don’t value _______

These two texts could not be more different, particularly in thier outlook on _________

This is very different to ___________

This is somewhat different to _______


  1. Answer the question asked.

Again and again we’re told that those who genuinely engage with the question on the paper are rewarded and those who reproduce a stock learnt off answer are not.

Here’s an extract from the Chief Examiner’s Report

examiners were pleased when they saw candidates trust in their own personal response and demonstrate a willingness to challenge the ‘fixed meaning’ of texts. The best answers managed to remain grounded, both in the question asked and in the texts”.

Examiners complained that students had pre-prepared answers which they refused to adapt to the question asked. Don’t get confused here: in the comparative section you have to have done a lot of preparation prior to the exam. The similarities and differences are unlikely to simply occur to you on the day under exam conditions and the structure of comparing and contrasting, weaving the texts together using linking phrases and illustrating points using key moments is not something you can just DO with no practice. It’s a skill you have to learn. But you MUST be willing to change, adapt, and select from what you know to engage fully with the question asked.

  1. Depth

As we’ve already established, there are two fundamental errors you’re in danger of making when writing your comparative answers

  1. You fail to answer the question.
  2. Your links are weak and superficial.

Let’s look at depth in more detail now. Imagine the question is “What did you enjoy about exploring the general vision & viewpoint of the texts you studied?”

Below is the kind of answer that will get you a D2 ( I made up this answer. I’m not slagging off a real student’s work)

“I really enjoyed studying the general vision and viewpoint of my three texts. The opening scene of DAL is quite nostalgic as Michael looks back on his childhood in Donegal but it’s also pessimistic because he says things weren’t really what they seemed and he mentions Fr. Jack coming home but not being nearly as impressive as they expected. We then see the Mundy sisters together, they are a close family but Kate tends to boss them around and the others resent this, particularly Agnes. When she decides they can’t go to the harvest dance the sisters are pissed off but Kate thinks it wouldn’t be right. Similarly the opening scene of IID is quite pessimistic. Michael sits on his own in Carrigmore home for the disabled and he can’t communicate because he is handicapped and can’t speak properly. He tries to warn one of the workers that there’s a cable that might get snagged and someone will trip but they don’t understand what he’s trying to say. He seems really frustrated and I would hate to be in his situation. The first scene in HMB is also pessimistic. Alec is waiting to die and he won’t get in touch with anybody in his family to tell them what’s happening. He doesn’t seem to even care and when the priest comes in he sends him away after making jokes about his own death. So I enjoyed seeing how awful some people’s lives can be because mine is way better and that made me happy”

What’s wrong with this answer?

  • Question is thrown in at the beginning and end of the paragraph but no effort is made to actually engage with the question.
  • Sentences go on – and on – and on. The writer clearly has no control over what they’re trying to say. It comes out in a stream of consciousness onto the page.
  • Informal conversational language and slang “she bosses them around” “pissed off” “he doesn’t even care” “mine is way better”
  • Inaccurate and vague details: “handicapped” instead of “cerebral palsy”, “can’t speak properly” instead of “has a speech impediment”, “he says things weren’t as they seemed” instead of including the quote “I had an awareness of a widening breech between what seemed to be and what was”, reference to the “priest” instead of the “padre”.
  • Texts dealt with separately with superficial links barely established “similarly” “also”.


Now let’s have a look at how to do it really well (this is a difficult skill to master):

“Studying the general vision and viewpoint of my three texts offered me a fascinating insight into the quiet lives of desperation many people lead and I found myself on tenterhooks, rooting for the central characters as they attempted to create a better life for themselves. The opening scene of DAL is full of nostalgia as Michael the narrator launches into a flashback of the summer when Fr. Jack returned from the missions. Despite the closeness of the family unit (Michael remembers his aunts dancing wildly to the music from the wireless) there is an aura of mystery and foreboding, an awareness “of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was”. This aura makes DAL in many ways similar to HMB (from the beginning of both texts the reader feels something bad is about to happen) but the atmosphere of fear and foreboding are much more pronounced in HMB. The opening scene fills us with unease as Alec waits to die. Unlike the Mundy sisters (DAL) we have no sense that he feels close to his family – in fact he bluntly admits “I love no living person, I am committed to no cause…I have not communicated with either my father or mother”. I found his indifference to his plight deeply unsettling. Thus although I felt compelled to read on, I cannot say I ‘enjoyed’ watching him suffer.

The same is true of IID, where the central character’s difficulties fill the reader with sympathy. Michael’s cerebral palsy and speech impediment isolate him from the other residents but what makes this film subtly (yet significantly) different to HMB is that in IID we can see Michael’s frustration, through a series of close-ups of his face as he tries to communicate with Eileen and warn her of the impending accident (he has seen a vacuum cable snag and knows it will trip someone up). By contrast Alec (HMB) expresses no desire to escape the awful situation he finds himself in. Yet there are also interesting similarities between HMB and IID , for example the complete lack of family support and in some ways this makes DAL the most positive of the three – no matter what their difficulties at least the Mundy sisters have each other. Thus I can honestly say that all three texts captured my imagination, roused my curiosity and engaged my sympathy for the central characters in the opening scene, thus adding to my enjoyment and compelling me to read (or watch!) on.

Why is this so good by comparison?

  • The question is fully engaged with throughout by the writer.
  • Sentences are complex but highly controlled (writer uses brackets if adding something significant that would make the sentence unwieldy).
  • Formal language of critical analysis is used at all times.
  • Details are accurate and specific, including occasional use of quotes (perhaps four or five in total in your essay is more than sufficient).
  • Texts are interwoven; links are complex, recognising obvious similarities and differences but also going further to establish subtle distinctions.


NOTE: Always check the list of texts to see which ones are prescribed for your year. Above two of the three texts I mention are not on the list for 2015. For our purposes, that’s no harm: I want you to ignore the content and focus on the style of writing instead. But if you write on a text that’s not on the list for your year in the exam you will lose all of the marks available for discussing that text.

Reading Shakespeare (Othello)

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Tuesday, 27th January 2015.IMG_0304

Plays are meant to be performed on a stage, not dissected in a classroom! Right?

Well, wrong actually. An either/or debate with performance on one side and close reading of the text on the other is completely pointless. Plays are meant to be studied and performed.

Let’s imagine a bunch of actors are preparing to put on a performance of Othello. They will both study the play and perform the play and crucially, they could not perform it well without studying it closely. For this reason, in rehearsal, they will treat the play script like their bible.

A close reading of the text will assist them in figuring out:

  • Othello, Iago and Desdemona’s motivations [perhaps a quest for respect, revenge and freedom respectively?] and state of mind.
  • the relationships between them and how they change and evolve
  • the themes which dominate [jealousy, revenge, deception, betrayal and corrupted love?]
  • the key moments which best embody these themes
  • setting and cultural context [Venice as civilised but sexist, Cyprus as a volatile unruly hothouse, the complex issue of racism and attitudes towards adultery, honour and justice]
  • how the beginning grabs the audience [Iago’s secret scheme]; where the most compelling moments of drama occur [the temptation scene]; the dramatic climax [Othello murders Desdemona]; and the impact of the ending [horror, shock, disgust…].
  • the flow of the plot and the speed at which events unfold [Shakespeare’s text contains contradictions but it’s most likely that Othello murdered Desdemona within a few days of and possibly as little as a day and a half after, his arrival in Cyprus]
  • the impact of the dramatic and literary devices used. [For example, Iago’s soliloquies make us feel complicit in his crimes; foreshadowing is created through recurring imagery, particularly jealousy as a monster; the symbolism of the handkerchief as a sign of loyalty and the foreboding we feel as this symbol comes to represent ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s betrayal; and dramatic irony drips from every page as the gulf between appearance and reality gets wider and wider and wider, all thanks to Iago’s machiavellian scheme].

We tend to think that these features come to life more fully embodied in the flesh, rather than read on a page, and so they do, for an audience. But the actors job works in both directions, moving from the page to the stage and back again; engaging in a constant interplay between the two until what is on the page becomes so fully a part of the performer that he no longer needs to script.

Will actors look at other performances of the play as they prepare? Perhaps, but always in a comparative way. There is no ‘correct’ interpretation of Othello. Examining the differences in the interpretations various actors have taken might help, but an actor won’t copy and paste a performance. They wouldn’t get much praise or admiration for a ‘karaoke’ version; an actor needs to put their own stamp on the character!

You may well say ‘this is all quite fascinating but bottom line, as a student in a classroom, where should my focus be? Am I the actor figuring out how to perform the role? Am I the audience member, swept up in the emotion of the drama? Or am I the theatre critic, analysing how the various elements all hang together?

The truth is, you are expected to be all three!

You’ll need to think like an actor, constantly interrogating the play script to figure out all of the same things as the actor listed above – characters, themes, setting, plot, dramatic devices etc. The complicating factor is that you need to do this for all of the characters, not just one, so perhaps your role is closer to that of director than actor.

You’ll also need to think like an audience member. Your experience of watching a play undoubtedly matters and the emotions you feel should not be ignored or discarded or dismissed. In fact, one of the most common examination questions on the Shakespearean play asks you to trace your fluctuating levels of sympathy for the central characters, so tune in to your human visceral response as the play unfolds.

And finally, you need to think like a critic. How well put together is this play? What devices are used and how do they impact on the audience? What ‘version’ of each character is being presented to you in each performance you watch?

This is all very abstract so let’s try and make it real.


Imagine you’re an actor playing the role of Iago.  Will you play Iago as a vindictive twisted little man who’s throwing all the toys out of the pram because he didn’t get what he wanted (promotion and the social status that goes along with it)? If that’s the version of him that makes the most sense to you, you’ll create a performance akin to Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder. Sneaky, sly, manipulative and ultimately dislikable. But if you take Iago more seriously and see him as a dangerous sociopath, utterly devoid of conscience, then your version of Iago will more closely resemble Tom Vaughan Lawlor as Nidge in Love/Hate. A remorseless, ruthless, single-minded psycho with an indefinable charm. The kind of person who will smile in your face even as he stabs you in the back.


These two versions will in turn have very different impacts on the audience. We’ll be amused by the Blackadder-esque Iago but we’ll also view him as somewhat pathetic. His vindictiveness will disgust us and we’ll want him to get caught. But if we’re viewing a Nidge-esque portrayal of Iago, we’ll be constantly on the edge of our seats, terrified by yet weirdly drawn to this magnetic psycho. We’ll know he deserves to get caught but we’ll feel conflicted about whether or not we want that to happen.


What is it about the way Shakespeare has written the part of Iago that makes us wonder why the play’s not named after him? He is not the eponymous hero of the title and yet, without Iago, there is no play. How does he drive forward the plot? What language and imagery emerges from his mouth? How does the irony at the centre of the play hinge almost entirely on his contradictory words and actions? How does his behaviour at the end effect the atmosphere in the theatre as the play ends and the curtain comes down?

So should you study the play or see it performed?

The answer is not either or, but both!