Category Archives: Macbeth

Macbeth in performance

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.


There is an oft repeated cliché that plays are meant to be performed on a stage, not dissected in a classroom. Like so many clichés, there’s more than a grain of truth to this idea. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. His plays are filled with intrigue, betrayal and bloodshed and these features come to life more fully embodied in the flesh, rather than read on a page.

Yet an either / or debate pitting performance and close reading of the text against each other misses the point entirely. Students should both study the play and see the play! So the question really becomes, in what order?

Your experience of a play undoubtedly matters. The emotions you feel as the drama unfolds 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 Lady Macbeth imagines dashing her child’s brains out on the flagstone; as Macbeth cries out in horror “full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife”; and as Lady Macduff so piteously begs for mercy as her killers advance. As the tension rises and the stakes become ever higher; as their mental state unravels and ultimately things fall apart because the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. You should feel adrenaline coursing through your veins.

But, like it or not, sometimes the Shakespearean language is a road block to this level of connection. For many students, seeing the play ‘blind’ is an exercise in futility.

So let’s consider the other option: you study the play first, then you go see it performed.

This works well for two reasons. First of all, you know what the hell is going on! When you hear that Macbeth “unseamed” some bugger “from the nave ‘to the chops”, you have the mental image of him slicing someone open already hideously clear in your mind. You can bask in the dramatic irony of Lady Macbeth being addressed as an “honoured hostess” even as she plots Duncan’s murder and almost cringe at her confident assertion that “a little water clears us of this deed” because you are aware of her imminent psychological collapse. Knowing the play in advance deepens your experience of seeing it performed, even if it does admittedly deprive you of the tense anticipation of wondering what will happen next.

Secondly, you can disagree with the way the actors interpret the characters. They may play a character or scene differently to how you imagined it in your mind’s eye. This feeling, the feeling ‘that’s not how I’d play that scene’ is incredibly powerful and extremely valuable in clarifying your interpretation of both the characters and the play itself. Conversely, if you see the play before you study it, the version of each character presented to you by the actors is very difficult to dislodge from your mind. Their interpretation becomes the ‘truth’ of the character and may shut down debate, which is the last thing you want! Ultimately you are searching for the version of each character that makes the most sense to you personally, even if others might disagree.

Once upon a time, seeing three different versions of the play before sitting the exam was pretty difficult, but nowadays with youtube at your fingertips, theatre companies like Second Age and Cyclone Rep performing the leaving cert play annually and many different film versions to choose from, this isn’t such a tall order anymore.

So how does this help you to prepare for the exams?

It helps a lot, if you know what to do! Select a scene. It could be the Banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, or Macbeth’s famous soliloquy “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Go to youtube and compare the different levels of sympathy you feel depending on who’s delivering the lines. Re-watch pivotal scenes until you know which version fits your sense of how that scene should be performed. Now you know how you would play that character if you were acting in the play. Ultimately what you view as the ‘truth’ of that character should become clearer in your mind.

Let me illustrate with an example. Last summer, I saw Joseph Millson play Macbeth in the Globe in London. He’s about 40 but he looks younger. He’s tall, very good looking and has a commanding physical presence on stage. He interpreted Macbeth as an ambitious power-hungry noble, determined to prove his manliness to his wife. However, he rarely gave us any convincing glimpse of the “milk of human kindness” in his personality. He showed remorse for the murder of Duncan but his horror hinged on madness and his determination not to get caught was emphasised far more than any self-loathing. Hence, when he delivered his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, I found it hard to connect emotionally to his despair because I had never fully connected to him emotionally in the early scenes of the play. I was frankly quite glad when he was eventually defeated by Macduff.

I’ve also seen Patrick Stewart’s BBC version of Macbeth from 2010. His Macbeth is older, in his late 50’s at least and there is an insecurity to his character, a desperation to prove to his glamorous yet ruthless young wife that she has not made a mistake in marrying a man so much older than her. His pitiful panic, confusion and palpable fear following the murder of Duncan is profoundly disturbing for the audience, as is his gradual transformation from puppet in his wife’s schemes to a cold hearted murderer. When he delivers his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, he is looking down upon her dead body and his utter contempt for life is frightening to behold. His portrayal of Macbeth is edgy and unsettling, filling the audience with conflicting emotions as we are torn between sympathy and disgust in a film which plays havoc with our emotions and leaves us utterly exhausted by the end.

Finally, I recently saw Macbeth performed in a classroom in our school by Cyclone Rep Theatre Company, with Marcus Bale in the central role. He plays a Macbeth slightly younger than his wife, who is eager to please and quite easily manipulated. His immediate remorse is heartfelt and his transformation never feels fully complete despite the horrific deeds he engineers. Thus when he delivers his soliloquy, there is pain as well as numb despair as he observes that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. His interpretation of Macbeth was, for me, the most authentic of the three.

Seeing each of these performances allowed me to clarify that it is the human face of Macbeth’s character, despite his disturbing embrace of evil, that makes me choke back tears every time I hear that soliloquy. This perhaps says as much about me as it does about the play; about my blind determination to believe ultimately in the goodness of human nature, despite all the evidence to the contrary this play presents.

I believe it also helps to experience live theatre in a really intimate space. Film versions are always observed at one remove, and the Globe is a large open air space with the stage on high, which places the actors at a certain distance. By contrast, having the actors pacing the floor so close you could reach out and touch them really heightens the drama and establishes a connection to the characters that youtube can never provide!

Relevance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Relevance to a modern audience

In my classroom, at parent-teacher meetings, even chatting to acquaintances, I often get eye-rolls at the mention of Shakespeare.

It’s difficult though, isn’t it?” parents will sometimes say, expecting me to nod and let that be that.

Yes” I’ll reply… “It’s difficult” I nod… “But it’s bloody wonderful too”.

I don’t ascribe to the notion that if something is complex or difficult it’s not worth our time. In fact, chances are the more complex something is, the more time it demands, which is perhaps why people often give up on complexity prematurely. Relationships, careers, family; life itself is complex and at times, bloody hard work. Yet these complexities – being a wife, a parent, a teacher, a daughter, a friend – are also the source of most, if not all, of the happiness in my life.

Don’t run from complexity, embrace it. You’ll need a familiarity with complexity in the years to come, in the real world, in your real life, if you are to achieve and maintain the level of happiness we all deserve.

That’s not to demean or dismiss the very real challenge Shakespeare presents. For most people the language is not very accessible, at least initially. So you may be tempted to equate the challenge of accessibility with proof of the irrelevance of Shakespeare to your life, your world, your experiences.


It can be hard to access AND relevant at the same time.

I’m not here to provide you with an answer you can learn off and vomit up in the exam. In fact, I often struggle with the complexity of my role as teacher/blogger/guide on the side/sage on the stage. If I write a blog post, offer my opinions, give you, effectively, an answer, am I depriving you of the opportunity to think for yourself, to figure it out for yourself? Or am I simply provoking you to think harder, to look deeper, to contemplate things you might not have contemplated before? On the other hand, if I (or your teachers) don’t offer you something to work with, but instead leave you floundering (in a lovely space full of the text itself, to be fair!) isn’t there a danger that – at least some of you – may never fully see and appreciate the relevance of Shakespeare to your life?

I’ve made my peace with this (sort of) by reminding myself that if you look online, you’ll find it anyway, so perhaps by offering my own passionate perspective, I might change a few minds about the relevance of Shakespeare.

In a series of blogposts, I’ll make some suggestions as to why I believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still relevant in the modern world and will continue to be for centuries to come. This blogpost does not constitute a ‘sample answer’. Do not vomit it back at the examiner if this question (the relevance to a modern audience of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) appears on the paper in June. It doesn’t have the structure of an argumentative essay; it’s written in the colloquial style of a blog post rather than the formal language of academic critical analysis; and it is WAY longer than anything you’d get to write in an hour. This blog post is simply a discussion of one idea that occurs to me when I consider the relevance of Macbeth as a play and hence why I believe that despite the difficulty of accessing his work, Shakespeare is still worth studying. You’d need to discuss 3 – 5 reasons why you believe the play is relevant (writing approx 4 pages) in an exam scenario, not just one as I’ve done below.

NOTE: I wrote this first blog post back at the beginning of April & never got around to the others due to my mum-in-law passing away and my subsequent writers block, but I’ll publish this one anyway rather than leave it floundering in my drafts.



Have you ever witnessed a relationship fall apart? Your parents, your aunt and uncle, your sister and her boyfriend? Maybe you’ve had a relationship collapse personally. I know I have. It’s awful and it hurts and if only you understood why it happened, perhaps you could have saved it, stopped it, fixed it. At the very least if you could figure out what happened, you’d know what NOT to do the next time.

Lots of writers explore relationship collapse. So what makes Shakespeare so special? Why not study a film or a novel or a modern play IN PLAIN ENGLISH which explores this very same theme?

The answer, of course, is that you could. There are plenty of modern texts which dissect this issue brilliantly. Often, however, the crux of the plot is that these characters fall out of love. They love each other but they’re not IN love so often they cheat and this infidelity contributes to the collapse of the marriage.

This is NOT what happens in Macbeth.

In fact what’s fascinating and tragic is their journey from passionate, devoted equals in a fairly open and healthy relationship to isolated, depressed individuals who barely communicate, without any kind of infidelity or overt ‘falling out of love’ occurring. It’s kind of scary to observe how quickly and relatively easily this transformation occurs. So I believe that Shakespeare is quite original in exploring how a marriage can fall apart even though the couple still love each other and have each other’s best interests at heart.

That’s so sad too, and scary, the idea that it could all go to shit even though the love is still there. Excuse me while I go give my husband a hug!

The process looks a little something like this:  1. conflict takes over 2. communication deteriorates 3. they shut each other out 4. they end up leading separate lives.

Initially the relationship is relatively healthy. Macbeth confides in his wife; (writing to his “dearest partner of greatness“); they share the same dreams and ambitions (to be King and Queen)) and are determined to help each other achieve their potential, whatever the cost (“come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…”). However, this leads to one partner trying to change the other (“When you durst do it then you were a man“) which is never a good sign in a relationship. Unable to cope with the stress of his crime, Macbeth confides in his wife (“o full of scorpions is my mind dear wife“) only to be scorned and rebuffed (“infirm of purpose, give me the daggers“). Although she begins to feel the same regret (“nought’s had, all’s spent, when our desire is got without content”) she’s too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that she was wrong so instead she puts on a false face to hide what she knows in her heart, pretending to Macbeth that everything’s fine. The breakdown in honest open communication here is the key to the problems in their marriage. He’s not happy with the person he has become but he cannot confide in her anymore because every time he does she refuses to listen.

So they shut each other out. Ironically they’re both trying to protect each other (“be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck“) from the pain of their mutual stupidity (“things without all remedy should be without regard”) but their failure to communicate openly and honestly ultimately leads to the collapse of their marriage. They still try to help each other (“my lord is often thus and hath been since his youth“) but it’s ineffective because, again, Lady Macbeth offers not empathy but scorn and ridicule when faced with her husband’s suffering (“This is the very painting of your fear… shame itself! Why do you make such faces?”). So he becomes what she thought she wanted him to be (empty of the “milk of human kindness“) but now he’s not really interested in speaking to her anymore. He no longer even claims her as his wife but rather refers to her in a very detached manner, asking “how does thy patient doctor?”. He still loves her but their connection has been lost.

She goes insane, haunted by the horror of what her husband has become, in no small part thanks to her interference. Meanwhile he’s completely detached emotionally, depressed and homicidally suicidal, which means he wants to die but takes out his rage at the world on others, killing as many people as possible before he gets killed (think school shootings). When he hears of her death he replies “she should have died hereafter“. Nonetheless, do not underestimate the depth of his devastation. Like many people who lose a spouse, he’s numb initially, rather than collapsing in floods of tears but he also immediately feels that life is empty and pointless and no longer worth living; that “life’s but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing“.

Shakespeare’s wisdom: If you love someone, accept them for who they are. If you try to change them, they might change to make you happy and maybe you’ll convince them that it will make them happy too. But remember that some changes are more permanent than others, more difficult to undo (relocating to a new country; getting a boob job; embracing a life of crime, KILLING A KING).

If your partner admits that this change is making them unhappy (a new job for example) don’t force them to stick with it; don’t ridicule them for feeling regret. If you shut them down every time they try to be open and honest with you, eventually they’ll stop communicating, but their sadness will manifest itself in other ways (hallucinations, insomnia, depression, rage).

And if you feel you’ve made a mistake, admit it. Say sorry. Don’t hide what you’re really feeling, even if you think you’re protecting the other person by doing this. Because if you can’t talk, your connection will weaken until it’s too brittle to be repaired.

You too might feel unable to live with your new reality, but because you’ve refused to listen to their fears, you can hardly expect them to listen to yours now. So you end up with similar problems (sleepwalking, OCD, depression, suicidal despair).

Then you’ll end up lonely within a relationship, which is the saddest kind of loneliness there is.

Sadly, that’s how, even when two people love each other dearly, their relationship can still fall apart. It’s profound and sad isn’t it? And that’s why I love Shakespeare.

Answer the Q!!!

We’ve been revising Kingship in class this week. We’ve got fancy infographics analysing the models of Kingship (or future Kingship!) represented by Duncan, Macbeth and Malcolm (see below) and I’ve been trying to get it to hit home that it doesn’t really matter WHAT opinion you offer as long as you can back it up with relevant quotes and examples.Duncan infographic

In order to illustrate why it is that teachers & examiners get so bloody upset when students learn off notes and vomit them up in the exam, I took two exam questions, both of which relate closely to the theme of Kingship.

The first was “Macbeth is about power – its use and abuse

The second was “Kingship, with all its potential for good and evil, is a central theme in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Then I typed my response – off the top of my head – to each question, in the form of a single paragraph looking at the character of Duncan. The result was far from polished (I’m not used to live typing in front of an audience) and I’m pretty sure my paragraphs would be longer in an exam, but the exercise was nonetheless a good one.

My aim was to show my students that:

(a) You can know the info, you can have an opinion, but you cannot know the exact words you’ll use until you see the question.

(b) The words from the question must be integrated throughout your response.

(c) You cannot possibly include everything you know about a character so you must simply select some of what you feel is relevant to the question. In English, you are not losing marks for the things you don’t say, you are only gaining marks for the way you use SOME of what you do know to respond to the Q asked, all the while offering your opinion.

So what did we do next?

Well we underlined the important words/concepts in this question:

“Macbeth is about power – its use and abuse
Then I live typed this (in about 5 minutes) as a sample (mini-)paragraph.

Duncan is the most powerful individual in the Kingdom as the play begins. He uses his power wisely – as Macduff later notes he is “a most sainted King”. Even the man who is plotting to murder him, Macbeth, observes that he “hath been so clear in his great office that the angels will plead out trumpet tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off”. Absolute power is not without its challenges however. Duncan’s rule is challenged by Macdonwald & an invading Norwegian army who view his meekness as King as an opportunity to seize power. Ultimately, although Duncan does not ‘abuse’ the power he has as King, he is perceived as weak and this allows others to challenge his rule. In this end this is why he dies!

[Reading this over it is very short.I’d probably add a few more lines in an exam but I was conscious of my audience waiting patiently for me to finish!]

Afterwards, as you can see above, we highlighted in bold the places where I explicitly used the words from the question in my response.

Then we turned to the other question.

Kingship, with all its potential for good and evil is a central theme in the play”

Again, we underlined the important words / concepts.

Then I live typed this (in about 5 minutes) as a sample (mini-)paragraph:

The first King we meet in the play is the “sainted” Duncan, who has used his position in a noble, wise and fair manner. Even the man who is plotting his murder admits that Duncan has been “clear in his great office”. He is not a perfect King, he certainly makes mistakes, rewarding Macbeth more effusively than Banquo, with a title and a royal visit as opposed to a hug. This favouritism may explain why he has made enemies in the past. Nonetheless, his murder is shocking and immoral and nature reacts with horror (we hear the “owls scream and the crickets cry”) because the King was viewed as God’s representative on earth. Ultimately, once a usurper, in the form of Macbeth, takes over, the potential of Kingship to become a force for evil in Scotland is unleased.

Afterwards, as you can see above, we highlighted in bold the places where I explicitly used the words from the question in my response.

I could have prepared the examples in advance, but I think they might have missed the point, which is that your brain needs to be ON – needs to be on FIRE – thinking thinking thinking even as you write (not remembering, remembering, remembering stuff you’ve learnt off!). I also reassured them that my total recall of the play & all the quotes is just a function of having taught and studied the play about 9 times!!! And obviously I’ll find this easier than they will cause I practiced this skill for six years of college! And ever since…

I didn’t want the whole thing to become me showing off. It was a demonstration not a telling off (why aren’t ye doing this? blah blah blah blah blah, rant rant rant rant rant – I don’t know any student who responds to that tactic!). Still I do think I scared them a bit. Oops! Ah well, if it helps them to do better in the exams perhaps they’ll forgive me! Having taught in a boys school previously, dare I risk being accused of sexism and suggest that girls – especially girls in an all girls school – can sometimes get obsessed with the idea of having the RIGHT answer, as opposed to just coming up with the answer that makes the most sense to them personally…

Right, I’ll shut up now before I start offending people!!!

Here are the other infographics. They now have to take these, pick one of the two questions above, and write a full essay, ensuring that they engage fully with the question throughout their answer! Hopefully it’ll help them improve!

Macbeth infographic

Malcolm 2

Compelling Drama 3

Following a double class today, and in anticipation of a class tomorrow on Othello in which we’ll be examining what makes the play such “compelling drama”, it became clear to me that a more in depth analysis of what exactly my “10 features of compelling drama” mean might be helpful, before asking students to apply these concepts to a specific example.

So here goes:

1. Atmosphere – tension – suspense – foreshadowing

Definition = the atmosphere is the prevailing mood, the feelings which exist on the stage, between the characters. Any kind of conflict between them will create tension. Wondering what will happen next creates suspense. Dropping hints about what may lie in the future is foreshadowing – we can’t see it clearly, it is but a shadow, but we do have a feeling of foreboding, of dread.

Example = most horror movies begin with a tense, foreboding atmosphere, usually at nighttime, often aided by eerie silence, creaky sound effects or bad weather – rain, thunder, lightening – anything that makes it hard to see clearly which freaks most people out!

Effect = the mood on stage will have a strong impact on the audience. If it’s tense, we’ll feel tense. If it’s awkward, we’ll feel that awkwardness sitting in the audience. If something funny happens, we’ll join in with laughter.

2. Momentum. Sense of inevitability as the plot unfolds

Definition – momentum refers to the idea that the pace of events gathers speed as the plot unfolds, somewhat like a snowball getting bigger and moving faster as it rolls down a hill. It can start to feel like there is no going back, no way of slowing or stopping the chain of events which has been set in motion. When this happens, the audience get caught up in the action and can feel simultaneously frustrated and exhilarated by the seeming inevitability of the events. This is particularly true of tragedy where the downfall of the tragic hero appears almost impossible to avert.

Example: In Love/Hate, which opens with the murder of Darren’s brother, as each of his scumbag mates gets gunned down, it seems inevitable that he is heading inexorably towards his own annihilation and that this downfall is in many ways unavoidable.

Effect: A lively pace holds our attention, sweeps us up in the action and keeps the adrenaline pumping. It also provides a contrast for the quieter, more reflective moments, often reserved for the delivery of soliloquies.

3. High stakes – characters stand to win & lose a lot

Definition: If I stroll into the kitchen and  feel torn between apple pie and crisps, this is not a high stakes choice. There will be no consequences so it doesn’t matter what I decide. But imagine if I was a super model (yup, the world’s shortest, stumpiest super model!) then this decision would suddenly be more significant, particularly if I had recently lost out on a job because I had gained a few pounds. Of course, there are some decisions that are inherently high stakes no matter who’s making them – the decision to lie is a high stakes decision, particularly if there’s a strong possibility that I’ll get caught. The bigger the lie, the higher the stakes. Ultimately there is no higher stakes decision than the decision to kill a person and the consequences are permanent. In almost all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet (but notKing Lear) the central character grapples with the decision of whether or not to kill another human being. High stakes choices indeed!

Example: Macbeth decides to kill the King and his crime (regicide) has horrific consequences for himself, his marriage, his country and his future. Hamlet hesitates whether or not to avenge his father’s murder and his procrastination leads to the unnecessary deaths of his true love, her father, Hamlet’s mother and a few more along the way! Othello, torn between his love for his wife and his faith in Iago’s loyalty, chooses wrongly and is led blindly down an evil path of revenge on those who have done no wrong. The consequences, as we shall see, are horrific.

Effect: In life, we all fear making the wrong choices, taking the wrong path and then suffering the consequences forever. We fear remorse, regret, despair, yet these is no guarantee in any decision we make that we are making the right one. Seeing the effect, for good or ill, of major life choices on the central characters of any drama, often reminds us that we are all flawed and human and that what they are going through we might one day end up going through ourselves.

4. Honestly from the central characters. Confiding darkest secrets in us

Definition: the absolute definition of honesty in a play are the moments when we get to see the inner workings of the central characters heart and mind. It’s not until we know what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling that we come to really know and understand them.

Example: In Shakespeare, soliloquies are used to give us this privileged insight into their innermost thoughts and emotions. In “Philadelphia, Here I Come”, the two sides of the one character, Public Gar and Private Gar are used to help us get closer to the inner workings of his psyche. In “Dancing At Lughnasa”, the narrator, Michael as an adult, provides a commentary on his childhood that offers an insight into his character whilst all the while reminding us that how he saw things was not necessarily how others experienced that summer.

Effect: Because we have a direct line to the central characters brain, we understand their motivations, we sympathise with them and feel a connection to them, often despite their bad behaviour. However, this connection can be problematic. Often we feel like shouting out panto-style at them to STOP! And we feel implicated in their bad behaviour, even though we have nothing to do with it, we’ve also done nothing to stop it (I know, I know, what are we going to do, stand up and start shouting at the actors on the stage? Lol!). The best way I can explain this is as follows: imagine a student of mine – let’s call her Jane – takes a dislike to me (I know! Inconceivable right?) and decides to slash the tires on my car. Her friend, Tarzan, quite likes me as a teacher and knows that I have an important hospital appointment after school, but is afraid to get Jane in trouble so says nothing. If Jane then goes ahead and slashes my tires, even though Tarzan didn’t plan this evil deed, or have anything to do with carrying it out, he will feel implicated in the crime because he knew about it and did nothing to stop it! Hopefully that makes sense!

5. Emotional & psychological conflict & complexity 

Definition: The characters must seem like real people and real people are complex. We experience floods of conflicting emotions simultaneously and are often torn between two courses of action, which in turn causes conflict in our minds, in our psyche. If things get really bad, this mental and emotional conflict may drive us to madness or despair.

Example: as I eat chocolate cake, I feel satisfied, smug, content, greedy, guilty and gluttonous all at once – making me emotionally complex. There is a psychological conflict going on inside me as I indulge in my deep desire for chocolate but also feel shame and possibly frustration at my inability to control my impulses, particularly if it’s January and I’m trying to lose the weight I put on over Christmas. The ironic thing about this psychological conflict is that I may then go much further down this dodgy path, binging on the entire cake, instead of backing off for my own good. You see this in Shakespeare’s characters all the time, where they make one mistake and then they just keep making it again and again. That’s because human beings are complex (aka dopey!) and do not necessarily learn from their mistakes, or at least often by the time they do it’s too late!

Effect: We find complex characters believable and fascinating, which in turn helps us to buy into their story. You’ll often hear plays, films and novels criticised for having “one dimensional characters” which means they are flat and unrealistic and dull.

6. Battle between good & evil (internal as well as external)

Definition: Seeing a battle between good & evil unfold never goes out of fashion but audiences are weird. Sometimes we root for the villain (Walter White in Breaking Bad) because they are more interesting and compelling than the ‘good’ characters. This is why really good writers ensure that this battle often occurs within the central character, rather than between superheroes and ‘baddies’.

Example: Internally a character is often torn between doing what is right and doing what they want – think for a moment of those cartoons where a good angel perches on one shoulder offering advice, and an evil little devil sits on the other shoulder tempting the host to ignore his conscience and follow his desires. We find this endlessly fascinating because we too are often torn between doing what is right and what is enjoyable (often doing the wrong thing is fun and doing the right thing is dull dull dull!)

Effect: similar to one of the examples given above, a battle between good and evil often reminds us that we must decide whether we are a force for good or evil in the world. The internal battle reminds us that we are all flawed and human and that what they are going through we might one day end up going through ourselves. But it also reminds us that it’s ok to feel torn, that nobody’s perfect, which is nice to be reminded of every now and again!

7. Audience in privileged position – we know more than other characters

Definition: If I’m sitting in the audience, and I know something that one or more of the characters on stage doesn’t know, then I’m in a privileged position. If I could jump up on stage (but breaking the fourth wall – the illusion of this being ‘reality’ – is frowned upon so don’t so it!) I’d be able to tell them vital information which might completely change their behaviour and ultimately, their life!

Example:  We know in Othello that Iago is a sick, twisted, sadistic little monkey who cannot be trusted but crucially no-one else in the play knows this!

Effect: We feel knowledgable and powerful. We understand what’s going on on a much deeper level than most of the characters and this makes us feel superior to them. However, we often nonetheless avoid judgement because we have seen the central character’s innermost thoughts and feelings to arrive at this position of superior knowledge, so we sympathise with them and recognise that the other characters couldn’t possibly have arrived at the same depth of knowledge without this opportunity to spy on the inner workings of the central characters’ brain.

8. Dramatic irony

Definition 1: Irony can be created when we, the audience, know something that the characters do not and they say something ‘ironic’ but only we can see the irony

Example: Characters in Othello keep commenting how honest and trustworthy Iago is.

Definition 2: Irony can be created when the opposite of what characters expect to happen, happens. This reversal of expectations is ironic because it’s so far from what they thought would be the case.

Example: Lady Macbeth at the start of the play believes that “a little water clears us of this deed” – that they can wash the blood off and that will be that. Ironically, later on, we see her obsessively washing her hands, saying “what will these hands n’er be clean”. It’s ironic that the physical blood is gone but her conscience is so fraught that she’s hallucinating blood stains that aren’t there. This situation is the exact opposite of what she predicted / expected.

Effect: we feel smart when we identify irony! We may also feel sympathy for the characters who are stuck in the ironic situation, but it depends whether or not we feel they caused it themselves (in which case they deserve their dose of situational or dramtic irony. If it’s not their fault though, we;ll probably feel sorry for them – and also perhaps frustrated that they can’t SEE the irony!

9. Poetic justice

Definition: Justice is where evil is punished. The punishment should fit the crime. Poetic justice is where the punishment is so fitting and so appropriate that we get an intense feeling of satisfaction out of the situation.

Example: If I steal your lunch and eat it, and then I get food poisoning from the very lunch I stole, that’s poetic justice. If I cheat on my husband and catch a sexually transmitted disease, that’s poetic justice.

Effect: The audience get a smug satisfaction out of seeing someone get what they deserve in a way which kind of makes it their own fault. It reassures us that the universe is on the side of good. In truth though, it’s called poetic justice, becuase you see it in stories far more often than you see it in real life! I hate to break it to you but in the real world the baddies often get away with their crime!


Definition: Have you ever wondered why you like horror movies? Or violent video games (even though you’re not a violent person in real life)? Or Eastenders (it’s so bloody miserable and depressing all the time)? Or books that make you cry (I’m not a fan of “PS I Love You” but many of my – female – students love it)?

Some people suggest that we like all of these things because they’re not real. We can experience scary things in a fantasy way without putting our ‘real’ self in danger -the fear/rage/depression/sadness leave us as soon as we switch our brains off from the movie/video game/telly/book.

This process of temporarily experiencing negative emotions and then ‘cleansing’ them is known as catharsis.

Example: I was horrified watching the final scene of Breaking Bad but I was also relieved that evil had been defeated and I was glad I hadn’t ever had to make the terrible decisions Walter White did to protect his family.

Effect: We enjoy this process because it helps us to lose ourselves in someone else’s life for a while (if our own life sucks) or to appreciate how good we have it (if our own life is better than what we’ve just watched) when the movie/video game/telly/book ends.

[This list is not exhaustive. After I’d written it I began to think about other reasons we might find the play fascinating and dramatic. So my no.11 = relevance (e.g. Macbeth’s a tyrant. We’ve still got a few of them in the modern world; we’re still seeing innocents murdered in Syria & back in 2011 we witnessed the toppling of the Egyptian dictator Mubarak in the Arab Spring, thanks to a popular uprising – not unlike the events described in Macbeth, except Mubarak is still alive – not in prison but under house arrest. They didn’t chop his head off! So, watching a drama but connecting what’s happening on stage to what’s happening in the real world – or personally in your own life – is a really powerful reason a person might find a play compelling/fascinating & dramatic).

My no. 12 = emotional resonance (often with a character we connect to what they are going through. This resonance creates empathy – a much stronger emotion than sympathy – and we feel compelled to continue watching as events unfold because we are now invested in their emotional journey. I guess a weaker version of this explains why we often keep watching ‘the X-factor’, or ‘I’m a Celebrity’ long after it’s even remotely interesting, because we feel we’ve gotten to know the ‘characters’ on the show and want to see how it all works out for them). Anyway, my point is, my list of 10 features of Compelling Drama could easily be 12, and there are probably more I haven’t even thought of!]

Lesson Plan Compelling Drama


Step 1: Distribute this list:

Definition of compelling drama: captivating, irresistible, commanding attention.

10 Features of Compelling Drama:

  1. Atmosphere – tension – suspense – foreshadowing

  2. Momentum. Sense of inevitability as the plot unfolds.

  3. High stakes – characters stand to win & lose a lot.

  4. Honestly from the central characters. Confiding darkest secrets in us.

  5. Emotional & psychological conflict & complexity. Divided self?

  6. Battle between good & evil (internal as well as external)

  7. Audience in privileged position – we know more than other characters?!?

  8. Dramatic irony

  9. Poetic justice

  10. Catharsis

[This list is not exhaustive. After I’d written it I began to think about other reasons we might find the play fascinating and dramatic….

So my no.11 = relevance (e.g. Macbeth’s a tyrant. We’ve still got a few of them in the modern world; we’re still seeing innocents murdered in Syria & back in 2011 we witnessed the toppling of the Egyptian dictator Mubarak in the Arab Spring, thanks to a popular uprising – not unlike the events described in Macbeth, except Mubarak is still alive – not in prison but under house arrest. They didn’t chop his head off! So, watching a drama but connecting what’s happening on stage to what’s happening in the real world – or personally in your own life – is a really powerful reason a person might find a play compelling/fascinating & dramatic).

My no. 12 = emotional resonance (often with a character we connect to what they are going through. This resonance creates empathy – a much stronger emotion than sympathy – and we feel compelled to continue watching as events unfold because we are now invested in their emotional journey. I guess a weaker version of this explains why we often keep watching ‘the X-factor’, or ‘I’m a Celebrity’ long after it’s even remotely interesting, because we feel we’ve gotten to know the ‘characters’ on the show and want to see how it all works out for them). Anyway, my point is, my list of 10 features of Compelling Drama could easily be 12, and there are probably more I haven’t even thought of!]

UPDATE: In the interests of differentiation, I asked students to think about whether they feel they work better alone, in pairs or in groups of 3. I got them to put their hand over their eyes and vote for their preference. Then those who prefer to work alone moved to one part of the room, those who work better in pairs & threes moved forward to the front clusters of desks and we proceeded like this. I’m always a bit sad when very knowledgable students choose to work alone. I know it’s good for them cause they can go at a faster pace, but then the peer-to-peer aspect of the pair/group work loses their valuable contribution. Ah well, swings & roundabouts I guess!

Step 2: Give students, (in groups of 3) ten minutes to define (a) what each of these means & (b) why they appeal to the audience. That’s ONE minute per term so they’d better work fast (or else you can give them a little longer).

Use an online stopwatch on the whiteboard to let them know time is a ticking!

UPDATE: This took 35 minutes! For each term we changed it to 1. Definition 2. Example 3. Effect on audience. It took way longer than I had anticipated & turned into a whole class discussion to clarify each of the terms.

Step 3: Each group must now select what they consider to be the three most compelling scenes in the play. They should prepare some notes, bullet point style, as no-one is bullet proof. Any one of them may be called on to present to the class at the end of the exercise. Allow 15 -25 minutes for this part (I don’t know how long it’ll take, I’m trying it out for the first time tomorrow but we’ve got a double class so there won’t be any rush)

UPDATE: As we were running out of time I asked each student/pair/threesome to just analyse ONE scene and identify which  features from the list of 10 were evident in this particular scene.

Step 4: Using some method of random selection (I’ve got bingo balls 1 – 30 in a bag and if the number that comes out corresponds to the number in my roll book, you’re up!), select 4-5 students to present their “most compelling scene” to the class. If you want to raise the stakes higher, tell them you’ll be videoing it. Be warned, however, this may lead to all out mutiny!

Update: Did this – but discussing just ONE scene, not three.

Step 5: Get them to write the essay. There’s no point haven the craic and not following it up with an extended piece of written work if you ask me – but then I’m such a badass…. (yeah… like those flying pigs over my head…)

Well, that’s one double class prepared. It only took me like… 5 hours?…. sigh. Time for bed!