Category Archives: Shakespeare

Notes on Hamlet, MacBeth, Othello and King Lear.

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!

King Lear questions

King Lear

First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into:



You may be asked to discuss the following when it comes to characters:

King Lear:

  • a tragic hero? (does he recognise his flaws and gain self-knowledge?)
  • his nobility (is he a good man? / strengths & weaknesses / virtues & flaws)
  • his relationship with his daughters & treatment of / by them
  • the extent to which he is responsible for the tragedy which occurs
  • our level of sympathy for him


  • his nobility / is he a good man? / strengths and weaknesses / virtues and flaws
  • our level of sympathy for him
  • his relationship with his sons & treatment of / by them
  • his dramatic function in the play

Lear & Gloucester:

  • how and why their stories mirror each other
  • the extent to which they bring about their own downfall
  • our level of sympathy for them


  • too good to be true or a believable character?
  • virtues and flaws / our level of sympathy for her
  • dramatic function in the play?

Goneril and Regan:

  • treatment of their father
  • extent to which they present a very negative view of women


  • an admirable villain? or a sociopath?

Edmund and Edgar:

  • contrast in their characters and personalities

Kent and The Fool

  • dramatic function and believability

All characters:

  • contrast the extremes of good and evil presented in the characters in the play
  • the play is very pessimistic about human nature
  • the play is very pessimistic about human relationships / family / parent – child dynamics


The major themes in the play are:

  • Justice
  • Family
  • Loyalty & Betrayal
  • Blindness
  • Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)
  • Madness
  • Love
  • Good and Evil
  • Suffering
  • Forgiveness
  • Kingship

For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself

WHO does this theme apply to?
HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?


  • Relevance to a modern audience
  • Pessimistic play?


  • Language & Imagery
  • Dramatic Irony
  • Compelling Drama – scene or scenes


In each case you are given a statement which you can fully agree with, partially agree with or completely disagree with. In the most recent Chief Examiner’s Report, students were advised to avoid taking an overly simplistic approach (“I agree 100% that…”). It’s understandable that this would be your first instinct under exam conditions, but remember that a single sentence rarely sums up accurately the complexity and nuance of an entire play. Yes, you’ll look for evidence that supports the statement, but you’ll also need to display an awareness that different phases in the play contain different truths. Your attitude to a character, theme, relationship in the play will change and morph as the play unfolds and the plot develops…

King Lear

King Lear is a man more sinned against than sinning” – Discuss

Lear is a ‘foolish fond old man’ who deserves everything he gets” – Discuss

Lear embarks on a harrowing journey through suffering to self-knowledge. At the end of the play he is a better and wiser man

The play King Lear is a realistic tragedy that depicts the tragic consequences of one man’s folly

King Lear is not a tragic hero, but rather a victim of circumstances


“Gloucester is a weak and gullible man, but at heart, a decent one”

“Gloucester serves an important dramatic function in making Lear’s circumstances more credible”

“Discuss the dramatic significance of the Gloucester story in the play King Lear”

Lear and Gloucester

“Neither Lear nor Gloucester are deserving of the love and service they receive from their followers”


“Cordelia shares with her father the faults of pride and obstinacy”

“Cordelia’s dramatic function in the play is twofold: her wisdom highlights her father’s foolishness; her goodness  highlights her sisters’ malevolence” 

Goneril and Regan

“Lear’s evil daughters allow Shakespeare to present a very negative view of women in the play”


“Edmund is a sociopath: a charming liar, incapable of remorse, who views men and women merely as obstacles or aids to his ambition”

“Edmund is an admirable villain. At the beginning of the play he has nothing; by the end he is almost King”

Edmund and Edgar

“Gloucester’s sons represent the very best and the very worst in human nature”

Minor characters: Kent & The Fool

“The Fool serves as Lear’s conscience in the play. When he disappears, it is because Lear no longer needs him”

“The fool is an unnecessary distraction in the play King Lear”

“Kent is too loyal to be believable as a real human being”

General character questions

“The play King Lear offers characters who represent the very best and the very worst in human nature”

“Shakespeare’s King Lear presents a dark and pessimistic view of humanity”



“Cosmic justice is denied, yet human justice prevails in the play King Lear”


“The relationship between parents and children is unrealistically portrayed in the play King Lear”

Loyalty (&/or Betrayal)

“It is only the loyalty of loved ones that enables Lear and Gloucester to endure their sufferings”


“The theme of blindness – both physical and emotional – is dramatically presented in the play King Lear”

Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)

“In King Lear, whilst characters are initially fooled by appearances, they gradually come to see the truth”


“In King Lear, ‘sane’ characters frequently behave in a crazy manner, whilst ‘mad’ characters at times seem perfectly sane”


“Love as a redemptive force is a major theme in the play King Lear”

The play King Lear memorably explores the meaning of love

Good and Evil

“King Lear examines the nature of good and evil but neither force emerges triumphant”


“Learning through suffering is central to the play”


The importance of self-knowledge and forgiveness is strikingly evident in the play King Lear”


“The play King Lear explores what it means to be a good King”


“The play King Lear offers us one central experience: pessimism”

“Shakespeare’s vision of the world is not entirely pessimistic in the play King Lear”

“King Lear is one of the greatest tragedies ever written”

“Scenes of great suffering and of great tenderness help to make King Lear a very memorable play”

“The two plots of King Lear are closely paralleled in theme, character and action, to great dramatic effect”

“What, if any, relevance, does the play King Lear hold for today’s readers?”


“King Lear is a play filled with striking images and symbols which heighten our experience of the play”

“Dramatic irony is used to tragic, and occasionally comic effect, in Shakespeare’s King Lear”

“The way characters speak accurately reflects their personality in Shakespeare’s King Lear”

King Lear contains many scenes of compelling drama, but the extremity of the cruelty and violence presented prevents the audience from achieving catharsis. Rather than a release, we feel haunted by what we have witnessed

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