Tag Archives: essay writing

Lady Macbeth Jigsaw

Recently, I decided there were 3 things I’d really like all of my students (not just those who always get A’s) to understand about essay writing. They were

STANCE – you have to take up a position, interpret events, offer an opinion. The same facts can lead to different conclusions for different people (mostly agree, balanced view, mostly disagree)

STRUCTURE – you must create tightly woven paragraphs, with depth, flow and sophistication. See the “perfect paragraph project” for a simplified version of this idea.

SEQUENCE – for character and theme essays you’ll probably follow the chronological order of the play. You don’t have to, but it probably helps to follow the order in which events unfold. Also, starting with the murder of Lady Macduff, then jumping back to Duncan’s murder, then hopping to the sleepwalking scene and then back to the Banquet scene wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, now would it? The danger here is that you need to avoid telling the story. ONLY include details relevant to answering the question.

(WARNING: certain questions require a non-chronological response, for example “Relevance to a Modern Audience” or “Shakespeare’s play offers a dark and pessimistic view of human nature” because each paragraph will most likely focus on a different character or theme or scene).

To teach these concepts, I came up with the following lesson, designed for a double class period:

Below you’ll find 15 paragraphs on Lady Macbeth all mixed up in no particular order. 

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which takes a very positive interpretation of her motivations and behaviour.

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which takes a balanced view of her motivations and behaviour.

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which basically slates her! 

I didn’t include introductions or conclusions – I felt that would makes the ‘jigsaw‘ too easy.

I gave the fifteen paragraphs, out of sequence, to my Leaving Certs. I asked them to decide which 5 paragraphs belonged in the positive essay; the balanced essay; and the negative essay. (Thus they were reading for a specific purpose)

Then they had to arrange them in the correct order. As they completed the exercise, I gave them a photocopy of each essay in the correct sequence so they could check the correct order and see how they’d done.

Next I asked them to highlight any words/phrases or ideas they didn’t understand and I explained what they meant. (Again, reading for a specific purpose)

Their next challenge was to figure out what the essay title was!

Finally, I gave them 3 essay titles. For homework they had to select one and write an essay as a response.

Here are the essay titles I gave them:

Lady Macbeth is the architect of her own downfall” – Discuss

We feel little pity for Lady Macbeth in the early stages of the play, but as her remorse grows, so does our sympathy for her” – Discuss

Lady Macbeth is motivated by selfish ambition and lacks a moral conscience” – To what extent do you agree with this assessment of her character?

Below you’ll find the paragraphs in mixed up sequence:


Lady Macbeth did not make a positive first impression on me. She sees nagging as a form of bravery, vowing to “chastise [Macbeth] with the valour of [her] tongue” and views kindness as a weakness, criticising her husband for being “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. This moral confusion and inability to distinguish between right and wrong makes her in some ways similar to the witches who claim that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. However, unlike them, evil does not come easily to her – she knows she will need help to behave in an immoral way, hence her demand “come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…. fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty”. Furthermore, she may be doing the wrong thing but she’s doing it for the right reasons: she is utterly devoted to her husband. She knows he wants to be King but may not be willing to do what she feels is necessary to realise this goal (“thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition but without the illness should attend it”)  and hates the thought that he might live to regret his inaction in the face of the prophecy. Thus, although I don’t approve morally of Lady Macbeth’s behaviour I found it easy to understand her, to empathise with her motivation and thus to like her somewhat despite her flaws.


From the very first moment she appeared on stage, Lady Macbeth struck me as a manipulative, domineering wife with zero moral conscience. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that they will have to engage in acts of “direst cruelty” in order for Macbeth to become King, despite the fact that her husband never suggests that they use violence to achieve “what greatness is promised”.  This evil streak is further evident in her commentary on her husbands’ personality: she views his humanity and empathy as negative traits, describing that fact that he is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” as a weakness. Her eagerness to “pour my spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear”, her willingness to be possessed by evil spirits (“come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…”) and her delight in embracing the darkness (“come thick night and pall thee in the funnest smoke of hell”) are all to me strong evidence of her fundamentally immoral outlook and domineering personality. I certainly would not like to be married to her. 


Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s letter about the witches prophesy introduced me to a devoted wife who will go to any lengths to help her husband achieve his potential. Her belief that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” and lacks the ruthlessness necessary to fulfil his ambitions is what drives her on. She is determined to “chastise [him] with the valour of [her] tongue” because she hates the idea that her husband will one day look back on his life and feel as if he let opportunities for greatness pass him by. It’s also clear that Lady Macbeth in not inherently evil – she in no ways relishes the idea of committing the sin of regicide. In fact, she knows she will need to be possessed in order to see it through, hence she proclaims “come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty”. Thus, my initial reaction to Lady Macbeth was quite positive: here was a woman willing to do whatever it took to support her husband in achieving his dream of one day becoming King.


Whilst some critics point to Lady Macbeth’s failure to carry out the actual murder, this does not endear her to me. Duncan’s coincidental similarity to her father (“Hath he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t”) is not enough to make her re-consider their plan. She fakes comforting words (“these deeds must not be thought of after these ways; so, it will make us mad”) to try and snap Macbeth out of his reverie but in my opinion she is motivated entirely by self-interest here – she doesn’t want them to get caught. Her lack of compassion reappears as she lambasts her husband for bringing the murder weapon from the crime scene (”infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers”) and without hesitation, she returns to Duncan’s chamber to “gild the faces of the grooms” with blood, thus framing them for the murder. She will do whatever it takes to get away with murder, including her false fainting spell, designed to draw attention away from Macbeth. She is a selfish, ruthless, immoral individual whose lack of empathy or remorse is best summed up in her flippant remark “a little water clears us of this deed”. As you can see, I do not like this woman, nor do I buy into the notion that she is guiltless simply because she did not “bear the knife [herself]”.  


However, ultimately I found myself devastated to witness her intense suffering during the sleepwalking scene, and this I took as proof that despite her significant flaws, I had grown fond of her. I found her horror as she relived their crimes (“the Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?”) and her devastating realisation she would never again be free of this guilt (“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”) truly heartbreaking. She made a mistake and this mistake destroyed her, her marriage, her happiness and her future. Thus I liked her despite her flaws, yet I could nonetheless understand why Malcolm described her as a “fiend-like queen” given the havoc and destruction wrought upon Scotland by her and Macbeth’s crimes.


This devotion to her husband is again evident when she convinces him to murder Duncan. Although her tactics are quite manipulative (suggesting he doesn’t truly love her if he doesn’t keep his promise) Lady Macbeth is once again concerned only for the regret he will feel if he backs out now. She warns him that he will have to “live a coward in thine own esteem” forever and worries about the negative impact this would have on his self-esteem. Her obsession with Macbeth’s future happiness is actually quite easy to understand. Firstly, she loves her husband. Secondly, she knows that he is deeply ambitious. Thirdly, it’s possible that she feels guilty that she has not provided him with a living heir; after all, a woman’s role in this era was primarily to get married and produce children. We know they have had at least one child (“I have given suck and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me”) who, for reasons unknown, has died. It is possible that she feels guilty that she has failed to fulfil his dream to be a father and this in turn has made her doubly determined to see him achieve his other life’s goal, which is to be King. She may be convincing him to do the wrong thing, but she is doing it for good reasons and as a result I could not help but like her. 


The sleepwalking scene is generally highlighted as the moment of greatest empathy and connection between the audience and Lady Macbeth but I personally found myself unmoved by her suffering. Yes, she is reliving their crimes, which is no doubt unpleasant, but she also reminds us here of her part in convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan (“Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard?”) and of her filthy smearing of his royal blood on the chamberlains (“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”). In this context, is it any surprise that she asks the question “what will these hands ne’er be clean?In my opinion, it is about time that the horror of her crimes registered with her properly, but it stretches the bounds of human empathy too far to expect me to feel pity for this “fiend-like queen”.



My fondness for Lady Macbeth increased tenfold when her intense remorse finally surfaced. She learns too late that “a little water” will be wholly inadequate to clear them of this deed as she realises that “noughts had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content”. I empathised with her deep suffering as she began to envy Duncan’s peaceful sleep of death, observing sadly “tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”. Yet she conceals her inner turmoil from her husband, pretending that everything’s fine so that he won’t worry about her. Her desire to comfort and protect him never wanes as she advises him that “things without all remedy should be without regard”. Even as he pushes her away (“Be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck”) she continues to protect him, both during the banquet (“Sit worthy friends, my lord is often thus and hath been since his youth”) and afterwards (“You lack the season of all natures, sleep”). Her humanity has never been more evident and my sense of her as an essentially good, if misguided woman, was strengthened even further here.


Lady Macbeth’s humanity is briefly evident when she finds herself unable to murder Duncan and this glimpse of a conscience (“Hath he not resembled my father as he slept I had done’t”) made me like her a lot more. Her desire to help her husband (“these deeds must not be thought of after these ways; so, it will make us mad”) and save him from insanity is touching, as is her naive belief that they will be able to simply forget their crime (“a little water clears us of this deed”) and move on with their new life as King and Queen. However, just as I was starting to like her, she lambasted her husband for bringing the murder weapon from the scene of the crime (”infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers”) and without hesitation, she returned to Duncan’s chamber to “gild the faces of the grooms” with blood, thus framing them for the murder. Once again I found myself on a roller-coaster, unsure how to feel about the Machiavellian yet vulnerable Lady Macbeth.



Immediately prior to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth’s behaviour is bullying, manipulative and quite shocking, making it difficult for us to like her. She mocks her husband, demanding dismissively “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”; emotionally blackmailing him by suggesting that he doesn’t really love her if he backs out; painting a horrific picture of a future filled with self-loathing (“and live a coward in thine one esteem”) if he passes up this opportunity; calling his manliness into question (“when you durst do it, then you were a man”) and most disturbingly of all, describing in vivid detail how she would commit infanticide – would pluck her nipple from her beloved child’s suckling mouth and dash his brains out on the floor – rather than break a promise to her husband. However, all of this is motivated by her love for her husband and her awareness of his ‘vaulting ambition’. I also found myself feeling very sorry for her when I discovered that she had given birth to and lost a child. Hence, almost despite myself, I found myself quite liking this determined forceful woman who would let nothing get in the way of her husband achieving his ambition.



Lady Macbeth finally begins to realise that evil actions have very real consequences (“nought’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content”) but this was not sufficient to make me actually like her. Yet again her focus was entirely on her own happiness, and I found it particularly twisted that she would have the cheek to ‘envy’ Duncan (“tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”) because he is ‘safe’ in death. I’m sure given the choice he would have swapped death for life in a heartbeat – but Lady Macbeth did not give him the option to live and now she has the gall to suggest that he’s better off dead! Her utterly selfish desire to protect her own power and position is again evident in the Banquet scene. She first blames Macbeth’s erratic behaviour on epilepsy and when it becomes clear that this is an inadequate explanation, she dismisses their guests unceremoniously “stand not upon the order of your going but go at once”. Combined with her sarcastic mockery of Macbeth (“Why do you make such faces? You look but on a chair”), I found Lady Macbeth an utterly contemptible character with few, if any, redeeming characteristics.


Even in the moment where Duncan is murdered, Lady Macbeth’s humanity is in evidence. She gets the chamberlains drunk, yet when it comes to committing a truly evil deed, she does not have what it takes to murder an old man in his bed, commenting sadly that Duncan “resembled [her] father as he slept”. Once there is no going back, yet again her wifely concern surfaces as she tries to shake Macbeth out of his trance insisting “these deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad”. She is naive in believing that “a little water clears us of this deed” but naivety is not a trait I normally associate with evil people and her fainting spell may well have been genuine shock when faced with the reality of their crime. Alternatively, even if her faint was fake, it was nonetheless inspired by a desire to protect her husband, lest anyone get suspicious following his admission that he killed the chamberlains. Thus, despite her immoral scheming, I continue to see her humanity and like her as a person. 


The ultimate testament to Lady Macbeth’s character comes in the moments before her suicide. In the sleepwalking scene, I found her guilt as she relives their crimes (“The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?”) and ultimately recognises that she will never again view herself as anything but a killer (“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”) truly heartbreaking. She made a mistake and this mistake destroyed her, her marriage, her happiness and her future. I liked her despite her flaws,  was devastated to hear that she “by self and violent hands took off her life” and could never see her as Malcolm did, as nothing more than a “fiend-like queen”


My negative impression of her was further strengthened when she bullied Macbeth into agreeing to murder Duncan. She mocked her husband, demanding dismissively “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”; emotionally blackmailing him, suggesting that he doesn’t really love her if he backs out; painting a horrific picture of a future filled with self-loathing (“and live a coward in thine one esteem”) if he passes up this opportunity; calling his manliness into question (“when you durst do it, then you were a man”) and most disturbingly of all, describing in vivid detail how she would commit infanticide (would pluck her nipple from her beloved child’s suckling mouth and dash his brains out on the floor) rather than break a promise to her husband. Her manipulation of him was so profound, so morally bankrupt and so effective that within minutes she had transformed him saying “we shall proceed no further in this business” to moments later agreeing to kill Duncan “I am settled and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat”. How anyone could like this woman or defend her behaviour is absolutely baffling to me.


Lady Macbeth’s remorse, when it surfaces, does help us to like her, yet her failure to confide her doubts and fears in her husband is a frustrating aspect of her personality that lessens our fondness for her. She admits to us that “nought’s had, all’s spent where our desire is got without content” and that she would rather be dead like Duncan (“tis safer to be that which we destroy”) than living the hellish uncertainty she now inhabits (“than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”), terrified at any moment that they will get caught. However, her pretence that everything is fine (“what’s done is done”) and later, during the banquet, her scorn for her husband’s suffering (“this is the very painting of your fear”…. “Shame itself! Why do you make such faces? You look but on a chair”) made me waver in my affection for her. Every time I find a reason to like her, she provides me with a very good reason not to.



Remember, there are no introductions or conclusions but you MUST include both.

Finally, the essay title was the very simple “Lady Macbeth is not a likeable character” – Discuss.

Conclusions (Othello)

Iago is a narcissist and a sadist, with a ruthless Machiavellian outlook on life, yet we find him utterly compelling


To tackle this question we defined the key words of narcissist, sadist, Machiavellian and compelling.

Narcissist = if you love yourself, consider yourself superior to others physically or intellectually, take pride in your every achievement and are generally arrogant in your outlook and behaviour, you’re a narcissist.

Sadist = if you take pleasure in witnessing or inflicting suffering and pain on others you’re a sadist. We don’t have a word in the English language for the feeling of satisfaction you might experience if you saw someone walk into a wall, but they have one in German, it’s “schadenfreude” and for a very funny (and very rude – you have been warned) song explaining what it means, check this out:

[youtube_sc url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55fzXL3uc1s]

Machiavellian = if you are completely ruthless in your behaviour and will do whatever it takes to get what you want, no matter who you hurt in the process you are Machiavellian. Click here for some quotes from “The Prince” by Machiavelli for a deeper understanding of the origins of this word.

Compelling = if you command people’s attention when you walk into a room; if others are intrigued by you and see you as intelligent and charismatic, you’re a “compelling” character. Dictionary definitions, while impeccably factual, are to my mind often bland but I like this one “evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way“. It captures the concept perfectly.

Here’s a picture of the list of reasons why my fifth years believe Iago is a compelling character.


A few students struggled to write a conclusion however, as they feared they might end up just repeating themselves. They were right to worry – simply repeating your introduction IS NOT WHAT A CONCLUSION IS FOR! I like to think of the introduction as a road map, laying out the directions in which your essay will go. The conclusion, meanwhile, reflects back on the journey, identifying what the experience meant; what you have learnt from going on this journey. You must answer the question “so what?” in order to write your conclusion.

Here’s a sample conclusion I wrote to help a student whose essay was very good but whose conclusion was rubbish:

Thus we see Iago’s sadistic, Machiavellian and to a lesser extent narcissistic behaviour is evident throughout the play. However, what I found really interesting was the counter-intuitive fact that these traits actually make him more intriguing, more compelling and more fascinating for the audience. Perhaps we are captivated by him because he is so unusual, so unapologetic and so honest in confiding his own ruthlessness to us. Like every great villain in literature and popular culture, we do not like him, yet we cannot look away. Iago, after all, is the focal point of the drama, the tension and the tragic violence that make this play worth watching“.

For more on conclusions, check out this link.




Topic of the week: The Future

Trying to imagine what the future will look like can make your brain wibble-wobble in all sorts of uncomfortable ways.

For some reason when people envisage the future, cities looks quite like they do now but they’re curvier and have random flying pods zooming about.

Everything is also crystal clean sparkly clear and the air is somehow fresher, brighter, sharper than it is when you look out the window (not sure how that will happen but here’s hoping) – or else we’ve been through some kind of armageddon and everything looks vaguely like it did during World War 2…

Given that we can only speculate, here are a few questions to get your idea juices flowing…

On a global scale:

  • Will we end up zooming around in hovercrafts?
  • Will the ice caps melt?… and will Ireland drown as corresponding sea levels rise?
  • Will solar, wind and wave technology finally free us from our dependance on fossil fuels?
  • Will medical advances allow us to grow spare body parts? And will we be able to select the genes our children inherit? Perhaps we’ll even be able to ‘transplant’ our brains into a new body and thus find a way to live forever!
  • Will the threat of nuclear annihilation re-imerge? Will religious fundamentalism lead to the break-out of a global jihad between Muslims and Christians? Will ‘the Hunger Games’ ever come to pass? It may sound crazy but pick up a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and you’ll see just how much big brother’s already come to pass!
  • Will robots finally do our housework for us? (please let the answer to this one be yes…)
  • Will we find a way to populate other planets? Holidays on Mars anyone? Underwater cities? There are 7 billion of us on earth now after all. That’s a whole lotta peeps for one planet…

On a personal level:

  • What will your life be life? What will you spend your time doing?
  • What will you achieve?
  • Will you make the world a better place? Or a worse one? Or have no effect on anything!
  • Who do you picture IN your future with you?

I’m particularly taken by the idea of augmented reality which isn’t far in the future – check these out:





Also, if you’re not doing the Leaving Cert until next year I recommend you read “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future” by Mark Stevenson over the summer. If you like reading that is…which I’m presuming you do if you browse this website for shits and giggles!!!

Cracking the comparative ;-)

If this is how you feel when you think of the comparative, you are not alone, so don’t panic. I’ll try my best to simplify what is actually the most complex essay structure on the course.

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.

It’s impossible to know what the question will be until you open the paper, but if you want to see what type of questions generally come up, click here on ‘Theme or Issue questions‘, ‘Literary Genre questions‘ and ‘General Vision and Viewpoint questions‘ (note: these are the modes for 2012, they’ll be different if you’re doing the leaving in 2013).

So let’s imagine the question is “What did you enjoy about exploring the general vision & viewpoint of the texts you studied?”

This is the kind of answer that will get you a D2:

“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”

Before you read on, I made up this answer. So no I’m not slagging off a real student’s work.

What’s wrong with this answer? Let me count the ways:

  1. Question is thrown in at the beginning and end of the paragraph but no effort is made to actually engage with the question.
  2. Sentences go on – and on – and on. The writer clearly has no control over what they’re trying to say. It comes out as a stream of consciousness ‘vomit’ onto the page.
  3. Informal conversational language and slang “she bosses them around” “pissed off” “he doesn’t even care” “mine is way better”
  4. 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”.
  5. Texts dealt with separately with superficial links barely established “similarly” “also”.
The simplest way for me to explain why this is the greatest mistake you can make is through a knitting analogy. Have a look at this stripy jumper:

Each colour is knitted separately. They only touch briefly.

Now let’s say white represents the times when you’re talking about all three texts.

Dark grey represents DAL.

Light grey represents HMB.

Purple represents IID.

Each section exists on its own, never mingling with the other colors, only briefly linking with them, perhaps for a line or sometimes just for a single stitch (or ‘link’). All of the ingredients are there but they never get mixed up together. In fact you could just take out each color and knit four separate jumpers if you wanted to.

Now let’s have a look at how to do it properly:

“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 curiousity 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?

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

Again the knitting analogy is useful.

This pattern also has all of the ingredients necessary but if you look at the body of the jumper (ignore the sleeves) you’ll see that the person knitting this jumper begins a line with one color but then switches to another – or sometimes switches to a different colour for one line but then switches back again.

In your essay the texts need to be interwoven in this way. You need to establish complex links. You can keep your basic pattern – I’ll mostly discuss DAL, then HMB, then IID – but you must be willing to link them in subtle and meaningful ways. If the examiner feels like they could easily separate your essay out into three separate essays (unravelling this jumper would be a lot more complicated than unravelling the one above) then you have a problem.


If you chose to answer a 30 / 40 mark split you will deal with one text entirely on it’s own.

 So let’s say this cream jumper represents DAL.

You completely ignore the other two and just discuss DAL on its own.



Then when you move on to the 40 mark discussion of your other two texts (HMB and IID in this example) you weave the two texts together. In this example, the charcoal can be HMB and the light grey can be IID. You can occasionally refer back to DAL (cream) but not in any great detail.

Pay attention to how the question is phrased. If it says “in the light of your discussion above” then you must deal with the same ideas, issues etc.. If it doesn’t you don’t have to – but it’s probably easier.

I have no idea if that makes things any clearer but I don’t know any other way to make you aware of how important it is to have interwoven your texts together, rather than simply treating them as three separate entities. Ultimately, answering the question asked and having in-depth quality comparisons (both similarities and differences) make the difference in doing well or doing badly in comparative studies.




Studied poetry: mistakes.

  1. Ignoring the question: if you are asked for a personal response to a poet’s work, every paragraph must contain at least two sentences which include the word “I”. If you are given a statement to discuss, keep using the words from the question (and synonyms) and showing how what you’re discussing is relevant to the question asked. Don’t just rewrite the question at the end of every paragraph and hope this will do – it won’t!

  2. Writing the name of the poem incorrectly (or worse getting the name of the poem wrong!). When you write the name of a poem, use capital letters and quotation marks eg “The War Horse”, “A Constable Calls”

  1. Lack of quotes! The sure sign of a bluffer. Quotes provide proof that you

    (a)know the poems and (b) can back up any statements you make with concrete evidence.

  1. Quotes at the beginning of sentences/paragraphs. Never write down the quote and then comment on it. This suggests you’re just throwing the quote on the page and then making up something to say about it. Bad idea! The rule is statement FOLLOWED by quote. This way you show you are in control of what you want to say.
  1. Telling the STORY of the poem – sum up what the poem is about in ONE or two sentences. Leave it at that. Your job is to analyse the way the ideas are expressed (techniques), the feelings the poem contains & creates in you, the way ideas recur and develop from poem to poem. Comment on the ideas rather than just saying what ideas the poem contains.

  1. Lack of personal response! You need to show that studying this poet has changed your perspective on life, taught you something valuable, opened your eyes to an issue you had previously ignored, provoked an emotional response, connected to something in your own life. Your job is to convince the reader that this poet is worth a closer look. However, don’t ramble off on a tangent about yourself (there was this one time, at band camp… yawn!). Ultimately you are offering a detailed analysis of the poetry, not a diary of your life. A good rule of thumb is to confine personal response to two sentences per paragraph.

  1. Long rambling sentences, paragraphs that sprawl to over a page, pointless repetition. Try to form the sentence in your head before you write it down. DO NOT vomit onto the page. If you can say what you need to say neatly and concisely in 2 sentences instead of 6 – DO. Try to avoid saying the same thing a couple of different ways. Make your point and move on. The examiner is looking for economy of language: each sentence is crammed with information; no idea or quote is ever repeated; essay is carefully structured into neat paragraphs; linking phrases are used to create flow from idea to idea and from paragraph to paragraph.
  1. Poem by poem analysis which doesn’t establish links between them – you are giving an overview of the poet’s work, showing how the poems fit together, analysing common themes or recurring techniques. Do not just write three mini essays on individual poems. Link them! Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence. This topic sentence can be thematic, stylistic or tonal.

e.g. THEMATIC = “Boland explores historical events from a deeply personal and individual viewpoint”

e.g. STYLISTIC = “Eavan Boland makes wonderful use of contrast in many of her poems, to bring each issue she deals with into sharper focus”

e.g. TONAL = “Boland masterfully evokes the depth of human suffering in her poems”