When it comes to studying English for GCSE, you will probably be aware that there are two parts; English language and English literature. English language focuses on how we can use English to its fullest extent for any given purpose, and English literature looks at some of the classic plays, novels and poetry in English from different periods in history.
As with any subject, your GCSE English literature syllabus will differ slightly depending on which exam board you take your exams with. However, if there are a couple of things that are for certain it’s that you will almost definitely have to answer at least one question on 19th Century Prose, and one question on William Shakespeare and his plays.
It doesn’t matter if it’s OCR, Edexcel or AQA, most exam boards put Shakespeare right at the heart of their English literature syllabuses. This means that the vast majority of students in British schools will have to study one of the following plays for their exams:
- Henry V
- Julius Caesar
- Merchant of Venice
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Romeo and Juliet
- Twelfth Night
The fact that most exam boards list Shakespeare’s plays in their own right and not as part of wider categories such as GCSE poetry, shows the importance that the playwright still has today. As such, any English literature student preparing to sit their GCSEs will have to pay close attention to his work as part of their revision.
In this blog, we will look at Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, including the plot of both texts, the key characters and themes running through them. However, we will start with some general advice about how to tackle the Shakespeare question in your English literature GCSE exam.
How Should You Answer a Question on Shakespeare?
Knowing how to answer a GCSE question on post 1914 prose/drama starts a long time before you even turn over the page to start the exam, and the Shakespeare question is no different. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the format of the exam by doing past papers. Remember that your English literature GCSE differs in format and content when compared to your English language GCSE. Generally speaking, the Shakespeare question will give you an extract from one of his plays that you have to analyse.
Therefore, when revising, make sure that you do exam questions in order to know what will be expected of you on exam day as well as ensuring that you can give a good answer in the time given. Your English literature GCSE is different to your Biology GCSE or the one you’ll do in maths. You can’t learn facts and formulas in order to pass and therefore getting some exam practice is a great way to feel prepared for the real thing.
- Once you do get into the exam, bear in the mind the following tips for the question on one of Shakespeare’s plays:
- Don’t just focus on the extract; remember to think about how the question refers to the play as a whole.
- Think about where the extract fits in to the story being told – what has happened before? What happens as a result?
- Think about the characters in the extract and their characteristics which are being exhibited in the extract.
- Start by highlighting some key words, ideas or quotations in the text that relate to the question.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth tells the story about how one man violently fulfils a prophecy to become King of Scotland, and how he extends this violent streak in an attempt to hold on to power but only succeeds in his own eventual gruesome downfall.
- Macbeth: The title character and general in King Duncan’s army. He hears the three witches’ prophecy that he will become king and goes on to kill King Duncan with the help of his wife. In an attempt to hold on to the reins of power he continues his killing spree, but this only serves to make him more paranoid and haunted. He eventually dies in battle when King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, lead an army to defeat him.
- Lady Macbeth: Wife of Macbeth who encourages him and helps in his plot to become king. Racked by guilt she goes insane and eventually kills herself.
- Three Witches: When the three witches meet Macbeth and Banquo for the first time they say that Macbeth will become king and that descendants of Banquo will also go on to be kings. Macbeth goes back to see them later on and they make three more prophesies related to his demise.
- Banquo: He is with Macbeth when he first comes across the three witches. They tell him that his descendants will be king, and he is ultimately murdered by Macbeth as he attempts to solidify his power.
- Macduff: The first to discover the body of King Duncan, he goes in search of Malcolm to persuade him to return as the rightful King of Scotland. In his absence, Macbeth has his family killed and Macduff persuades Malcolm to lead an army to dethrone Macbeth. Macduff fights Macbeth and kills him.
- Malcolm: Heir to the throne after his father, King Duncan, is murdered. However, he flees as he fears being blamed for the murder. Once Macduff comes to find him, he eventually decides that he must lead an army to gain revenge on Macbeth, defeating him at Dunsinane Castle.
Shakespeare wrote many plays and there are a number of different themes that run through each of them. Some of the key ones in Macbeth are:
- Ambition: Macbeth’s (and Lady Macbeth’s) ambition sees him become more and more morally corrupt, first of all to become King of Scotland, and subsequently to hold on to the throne and get rid of his perceived “enemies”.
- Appearance and reality: Nothing is what it seems in Macbeth. What a character says and means is often two different things, or at best heavily misleading. For example, the three witches prophesise that Macbeth won’t be killed by any child “of woman born” but Macduff later reveals he was born by caesarean section and goes on to kill Macbeth.
- Violence: In the play, violence leads to even more violence. Macbeth becomes king through murder, he maintains his position as king through further violence, and he eventually meets a violent demise.
Example Question and Answer
When you are putting together a timetable for your revision, make sure you dedicate enough time to doing past papers and practice questions. Especially for a Shakespeare GCSE English literature question this will prove invaluable as a good answer is not something you can learn as you can in the same way with GCSE science or GCSE maths.
With any Shakespeare question, including on Macbeth, there are certain things you should do to write a good answer:
- Which characters and themes are important to the question? What is your opinion about these things from your revision?
- Select two or three quotes from the extract that you will use to make your case, and importantly make a note of the language and structure that Shakespeare uses for his intended effect.
- What other moments from the play are important to fully analyse themes and characters?
- Try to set your answer in some form of historical context about what was going on at the time that the play is set/when Shakespeare wrote it.
If you can provide an understanding of the text and the context in which it was written, and you write with clarity, purpose and effect, then you will be towards the very top of the mark scheme.
Take a look at this annotated sample answer to give you an exact idea of what we are talking about here.
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story of a young man and a young woman from two opposing warring families which prevents them from being together. As with most Shakespearean tragedies, the play has a heart-breaking ending in which Romeo and Juliet both kill themselves.
- Romeo: Adolescent son of the Montague family who are in conflict with the Capulets. He meets Juliet at a party and they impulsively decide to get married the next day. He is banished after killing Juliet’s cousin and later, when he believes Juliet has killed herself, he drinks poison to commit suicide.
- Juliet: After falling in love with Romeo, an enemy of her family, Juliet proposes to him and they marry in secret with the help of Nurse. However, her father arranges for her to marry Paris after Tybalt dies. In an attempt to reunite with Romeo, she fakes her own death but when she wakes up, she finds that he is dead beside her and she kills herself.
- Mercutio: One of Romeo’s closest friends. He attacks Tybalt after Romeo refuses to fight back. When Romeo eventually intervenes, Mercutio is fatally wounded. This is first of many tragedies that come from the events between the warring families.
- Tybalt: Juliet’s cousin. Challenges Romeo to a fight but he refuses so Mercutio steps in and is fatally wounded. Romeo chases and kills him to avenge Mercutio’s death which leads to Romeo being banished.
- The Nurse: A confidant of Juliet, she arranges her secret marriage to Romeo. She stands up for Juliet when she is kicked out of her family and advises her to marry Paris which causes them to fall out.
- Friar Laurence: Secretly marries Romeo and Juliet in an attempt to find peace between the warring families. He prepares the position for Juliet to take in order to fake her own death, but his warning message for Romeo doesn’t arrive. Attempts in vain to prevent Juliet from killing herself when she finds Romeo dead.
When it comes to taking your GCSE exams, each subject requires a slightly different approach. For example, GCSE maths is different to GCSE biology which in turn is different to GCSE English language. When it comes to the Shakespeare part of your English Literature exam, you should be careful not to neglect the themes that flow through each of his plays. Here are a few of the key ones for Romeo and Juliet:
- Love: Aside from the obvious love between the two title characters, Shakespeare explores the positive and negative impacts that their relationship has on the love between other characters. For example, when Tybalt challenges Romeo to fight, Mercutio steps in. When Mercutio dies, Romeo states his willingness to die in an attempt to avenge his best friend’s death.
- Conflict: Conflict can be found at the centre of every plot twist in Romeo and Juliet; the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets that sets the scene for everything that happens, Juliet being internally conflicted when she finds out that Romeo is a Montague, and the ongoing conflict between Tybalt and Romeo just to name three.
- Fate: Romeo and Juliet’s tragic fate is signposted in the play’s prologue which says their love is “deathmark’d”. Fate brings Romeo into the Capulet’s house, but it is ultimately against the young lovers due to the conflict between their families. It is a cruel twist of fate that prevents Friar Laurence being able to get word to Romeo on time telling him that Juliet was not dead, which would have stopped him killing himself, and in turn stopped Juliet killing herself.
Example Question and Answer
It is important to remember that you have to go beyond explaining the literal meaning and effect of Shakespeare’s language in order to access the higher marks. Once you explore the language in a way that makes implications about what Shakespeare is trying to show, and then start to analyse this exploration, you will be coming towards the very top of the mark scheme.
There is a general template to answer all questions on Romeo and Juliet for your GCSE English literature exam:
1) Explain the literal meaning of what Shakespeare says: This is important as Shakespearean language differs from modern English and therefore needs to be almost translated.
2) Discuss the implications: Why is the language used important in relation to the question?
3) Analyse these implications, using quotes as support for your ideas. The BBC bitesize website has some good sample answers for you to check out to see exactly how to deploy this template to an extract question on Romeo and Juliet.
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How Can Superprof Help You Out?
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Find top resources for GCSE English literature here.