Out of all the GCSE English Literature and English Language papers, Shakespeare is often the one that most students feel most worried about. It’s not hard to see why: the language is challenging, and it can be tough to make sense of what’s going on. Featured places and characters usually have names that can be difficult to remember (let alone spell) and on top of that, candidates looking to achieve the top grades are also expected to analyse the text and uncover layers of hidden meaning.
But while all of this sounds complicated, doing well in GCSE Shakespeare is actually quite simple – or at least, it can be. To pass, you need to write an essay that shows you understand what happens in the play (the plot and characters), its social and historical context, and include references to things like themes and motifs, which show basic analysis skills. To reach the higher grades, you’ll also need to be able to analyse the language (more on this below).
When it comes to revising, although you’ll have read the play with your teacher at school, you should remind yourself of the plot and what happens to each of the key characters by consulting a revision guide or looking online. This will help clear up any confusion about what happens in the play and when, and means that when you come to the more complicated stuff – revising themes and motifs and analysing language – you won’t have that nagging doubt at the back of your mind that you don’t actually understand what’s going on. Remember, if you don’t know what’s happening in the play, you cannot analyse it, so make sure you return to the basics, reviewing the plot and characters, first. Mentor Education has plot summaries and outlines for a number of different plays including Macbeth, Much ado about nothing, The strange case of Dr Jekyell and Mr Hyde and The curious incident of the dog in the night -time.
Once you’re clued up on the plot and what happens with the characters, you can start to explore social and historical context and themes (again, classroom notes or a revision guide will help here). For every important point you find – socio-historical connections to King James I in Mabeth, for instance, or the power of identity as a theme in Julius Caesar – try to find examples of it in the play. These should be a combination of scenes, passages or quotations, and you should use them in the exam to support the point you are making. For example, by focusing on Macbeth, a figure from Scottish history, Shakespeare both paid homage to King James’s Scottish heritage and emphasised his own close relationship with the monarch, who financed Shakespeare’s theatre company. Including a point like this indicates why a play like Macbeth might have been important to a contemporary audience, and thus demonstrates a deeper understanding that goes beyond simply what’s on the page.
As I’ve already mentioned, for the top grades, you’ll need to analyse the language of the play you’re looking at. Shakespearean English is hard and a lot of students find this daunting, but you should look out for examples of figurative language (also known as descriptive or literary language) and then try to explain why they are used and also why in that particular place and by that particular character. Along with the usual similes, metaphors and personification, extend your knowledge of descriptive language by memorising the following list that’s guaranteed to impress examiners:
Pathetic fallacy: This is when we attribute human emotion and behaviours to things that are found in nature. It’s a type of personification (when we attribute human characteristics to something that is not human), and in Shakespeare, it is often found in weather that reflects characters’ internal emotions – for example the stormy weather at the beginning of Macbeth. The weather can in turn also influence character’s behaviours, for example in Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet when Benvolio claims that the hot weather will raise people’s tempers.
Metre: In Shakespearean plays, noble characters often speak in non-rhyming iambic pentameter (also known as blank verse), with five iambs – the pairing of an unstressed syllable with a stressed one – for each line of speech: e.g. ‘shall I/compare/thee to/a sum/mer’s day’ (stressed syllables are underlined). In Macbeth, the witches speak in trochaic tetrameter – four trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one) per line – which gives them their eerie, sing-song style of speech: ‘Double,/double,/toil and/trouble’ (Act 4, Scene 1, l.20-21). The porter, meanwhile, who lets Lennox and Macduff into the castle in Act 2, Scene 3, speaks in prose (speech without a consistent rhythm) to indicate that he is a character of lower social standing.
Couplets: While most of Shakespeare’s plays are non-rhyming, instances of rhyming couplets (where two lines rhyme with each other) are often helpful pointers of where a character is making up their mind or concluding a thought. This often happens at the end of soliloquies, for example Macbeth’s soliloquy at the end of Act 2, Scene 1 where he rhymes ‘knell’ with ‘hell’ to indicate that he has made his decision to murder Duncan.
Oxymoron: In oxymoron, a type of juxtaposition, directly contrasting or contradictory elements appear together in speech, for example when Romeo speaks of ‘cold fire’ and ‘loving hate’ in Act 1, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet.
Hyperbole: Pronounced high-PURR-buh-lee, this language device is a firm favourite with a lot of students because it’s so easy to use (just make sure you spell it correctly with the ‘e’ on the end!). Hyperbole basically means huge over-exaggeration. Shakespeare loved hyperbole, and it’s all over his plays. We see it in Hamlet, when Hamlet compares his father to Hyperion, a powerful Titan, and in Act 5, Scene 1 of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth despairs that ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’ (l. 42-43).
Once you’ve identified any examples of descriptive language, make sure you learn them so that when the opportunity presents itself in an exam, you’ll have everything you need to make that killer point and score high marks. Good luck!