AQA ENGLISH LIT PAPER 1 QUESTION 1: SHAKESPEARE

QUESTION 1: SHAKESPEARE

As a reminder, the question will give you an extract and ask you to answer the question based on both the extract, and the play as a whole.

As we work through this first question you should be able to see how we go about this. There is a specific approach to this which won’t vary. And may save your life. Or at least improve your grade a bit. Same thing right now? Probably.

Let’s turn to the question from the sample paper on the AQA website:

Read the following extract from Act 1 Scene 5 of Macbeth and then answer the question that follows.

At this point in the play Lady Macbeth is speaking. She has just received the news that King Duncan will be spending the night at her castle.

The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements. Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between

Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,

To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

Starting with this speech, explain how far you think Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman.

Write about:

  • how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth in this speech
  • how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth in the play as a whole.

[30 marks]

AO4 [4 marks]

 

Jeff (our friendly exam marker) will mainly be looking for your ideas and quotes to back this up, but you should also reflect on how the play might in general be exploring ideas of femininity and power (AO3) as well as spelling well and using paragraphs (AO4).

How then do we tackle the above to maximise our marks? Here’s how.

STEP 1

Guess what? Read the question. READ THE QUESTION. (I do shout sometimes, but only in a friendly way.) Underline the key words. IMHO, the two phrases which stand out are:

Starting with this speech, explain how far you think Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman.

The ‘how far’ bit is giving you the opportunity to do something. Can you see what it is? Of course you can: you are able here to argue the opposite, providing you back up with evidence.

So, don’t just say that she is – is there anything that suggests otherwise? Remember AO3: thinking perhaps about modern ideas of power and femininity. Whilst not the highest mark-earner, making one reference to modern ideas will get you an extra mark or two.

What you should also have noticed is where in the play this passage is taken. This is really important when you come to reflect on the passage in relation to the play as a whole. More on that below.

STEP 2

Go through the excerpt with your pen and quickly underline anything which links to power:

The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements. Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between

Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,

To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

 

STEP 3

When you do this, you will begin to see common references emerging. In this case, you should be able to see the following:

  • References to possession/ownership
  • References to sex
  • References to her physical body
  • References to nature and the natural woman’s role
  • References to faith/religion

You can then do one of two things. You can either scribble notes around your underlined quotes above, or you can jot down some quick bullet pointed notes on your answer paper.

My preference is the second of these options for one clear reason: if you run out of time, the exam marker may look at your notes to see whether you have covered off any additional points. That’s not to say that you can write your whole answer in this way: but it’s better to have some extra points as notes than not at all.

You might structure your notes like this (I’ve stuck them in a table so we can think about the rest of the play in a minute – but you don’t have to):

Ownership – ‘my battlements’ – her castle not M’s – against trad notions of patriarchy?
Sex – ‘unsex me here’ – suggests she wants her femininity removed – link between this and powerlessness – power as male?
Physical body – ‘make thick my blood’ – blood as carrier of life, passion, mortality – explore these different interpretations. ‘women’s breasts…milk for gall’ – links to above – milk poisonous not life giving
Nature / woman’s role – ‘visitings of nature’ – doesn’t want her nature as woman to get in way
Faith/religion – ‘smoke’ covering any faith – power needing distance from faith

Just quick words and phrases to help us with planning our answer.

STEP 4

We are now going to think about the rest of the play. The trick here is always to think about change. How characters change, grow, diminish, develop, are challenged and so on. Every single text you study will be about change. If you think of it like this, you can’t go wrong. Or maybe go less wrong.

I’ve now added some notes to my table to suggest how Lady M might be different later in the play:

Ownership – ‘my battlements’ – her castle not M’s – against trad notions of patriarchy? Start of play – wants to reduce her femininity – questions M’s manliness ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ –  but as play develops we see her losing her grip and becoming more feminine again in M’s eyes: ‘be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck’

 

Sex – ‘unsex me here’ – suggests she wants her femininity removed – link between this and powerlessness – power as male?

 

Physical body – ‘make thick my blood’ – blood as carrier of life, passion, mortality – explore these different interpretations. ‘women’s breasts…milk for gall’ – links to above – milk poisonous not life giving

 

Uses blood to mock M ‘I shame to wear a heart so white’

Blood reference  during sleepwalking – ‘out out damned spot… will these hands ne’er be clean?’

Nature / woman’s role – ‘visitings of nature’ – doesn’t want her nature as woman to get in way

 

Power as concealment – ‘smoke’ covering any weaknesses

 

LM’s request to M ‘sleek o’er your rugged looks’

End of play ‘hell is murky’ – concealment has caused madness

It’s more likely that the extract will be from the early part of the play, as the examiner will want you to look at how characters change as the play progresses. However, if the extract is from the end of the play you are going to flip this on its head and instead explore what happened to lead the character to this point.

STEP 5

You’ll have spent around 15-20 minutes getting to this point (remember, you have 1 hour 45 minutes for the whole exam, which means about 45 minutes on each text/question and 15 minutes to read through at the end (in an ideal world…). With 15-20 minutes to read, underline and plan, about 30 minutes is the ideal amount of time to write your answer.

KEY QUESTION: HOW MUCH SHOULD I WRITE?

I see this so often in forums. How much detail? How many quotes? How many paragraphs? The honest answer is that this is not about quantity – it is about doing enough to get the maximum number of marks. No more, no less.

In the case of this question, the very top marks will look for you to be exploratory, use precise quotes, analyse the effect of the writer’s methods on the audience, and explore ideas linking to the context of the play. If you can do all that in a few paragraphs all the better. Go for attacking one or more of the assessment objectives with every sentence, not writing 10 pages.

Because you’ve written your notes as bullets above, writing paragraphs is quite easy. You just need to make sure you use the correct language and follow the right structure.

WHY PEE PEES ME OFF

Whoever thought of PEE first should be banned from teaching. For life. Why? It’s too simplistic. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about (and seriously where have you BEEN?), PEE stands for Point, Evidence, Explanation. If you do this guess what? YOUR ESSAY WILL LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’S. And what I have been trying to stress to you with this guide? THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU WANT. You want your writing to jump out at Jeff, to make him take notice. So you are going to mix things up a bit. And I will show you how to do this below.

The general format you’ll follow when you write your answer is this:

  1. You introduce the quote, by saying where in the play it is (if you can’t remember the act and scene number, just say beginning, middle or end).
  2. You bring in the quote, making sure it feeds into the sentence (in other words, when you read the sentence with the quote in it flows nicely). At this point you may also bring in the literary technique or language feature used.
  3. You explain how the quote answers the question. (The analysis bit.)
  4. You might explore here alternative points of view. You are saying more here, thinking of other ways in which quotes could be interpreted. This is the grade 8/9 zone.
  5. You then link this into the next point you’ll make.

So it’s less about PEE, and more IQEAL. Not as easy to remember, is it. Probably why PEE usually wins.

SEEING IT IN ACTION: A SAMPLE OPENING

Here’s a paragraph I wrote that would probably get top marks. You’d hope so, being as I’ve taught this play A MILLION TIMES. We can look at what it does afterwards.

This soliloquy, from the opening act of the play, introduces Lady Macbeth’s inner world to the audience. In it, she explores the ways in which she wishes to gain power and control over herself in order that she can murder Duncan.

The opening words of this monologue suggest her somehow owning the castle: by referring to it as ‘my battlements’ (contrasting with traditional notions of masculine ownership of property), Lady Macbeth is placing the seat of power (the castle) in her possession. This notion of her putting herself into a masculine position is further developed by the powerful phrase ‘unsex me here’: by removing her femininity she seems to suggest that she can become more powerful and in control. However, by doing so, Lady Macbeth also puts herself at risk of losing that which gives her balance. By casting off her natural femininity at the beginning of the play, she begins a chain of events which ultimately lead to her madness and death.

References to her physical body are an important theme both within this soliloquy and later in the play…

 

You can probably see how I’ve used the structure I mentioned above here. But for ease, I’ll make it even clearer by putting it in a table:

This soliloquy, from the opening act of the play, introduces Lady Macbeth’s inner world to the audience. In it, she explores the ways in which she wishes to gain power and control over herself in order that she can murder Duncan.

 

This is the introduction. That’s it. No more than this. Just a couple of sentences. Place the passage in context and introduce the question. It also brings in a literary technique – ‘soliloquy’
The opening words of this monologue suggest her somehow owning the castle: Introduce quote with another name for soliloquy – ‘monologue’
by referring to it as ‘my battlements’ Quote feed into sentence. Sometimes just 1-2 words will do.
(contrasting with traditional notions of masculine ownership of property), Lady Macbeth is placing the seat of power (the castle) in her possession. Some complex stuff going on here. A bit of context in brackets, and some sophisticated analysis (with additional info in further brackets).
This notion of her putting herself into a masculine position is further developed by the powerful phrase ‘unsex me here’: Taking things further with another quote…
by removing her femininity she seems to suggest that she can become more powerful and in control. However, by doing so, Lady Macbeth also puts herself at risk of losing that which gives her balance. By casting off her natural femininity at the beginning of the play, she begins a chain of events which ultimately lead to her madness and death. And taking things still further with extensive, exploratory ideas, alternative points of view (power as imbalance), and reference to the end of the play.
References to her physical body are an important theme both within this soliloquy and later in the play…

 

Next point is introduced.

Of course there are some similarities to PEE, but you can see how much more detailed it is. It allows you to do much more IMHO.

What you’ve probably also noticed is that I don’t take the first bullet point (the passage), write about it, then take the second point (play as a whole) then write about that. It cannot work like that. Why?

Because characters are on a journey. And that journey is continuous. So you have to write about how the character appears to you in the passage and then contrast with how they are later in the play. I can’t see how you can get the higher marks otherwise.

And if I am saying something opposite to your teacher? You choose which method works best for you. I just know from experience that this way works best! (Just saying.)

THESE ARE THE THINGS THE EXAM MARKER WILL BE LOOKING FOR WITH THIS QUESTION How do I know? I’ve taken them from the website 😉

AO1

  • Power in terms of status
  • Lady Macbeth’s power in terms of her relationship
  • Lady Macbeth as a powerful/effective character in the play
  • How Lady Macbeth changes as the play develops
  • Contrast between Act 1 and Act 3 and/or Act 5

AO2

  • How Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth to influence the plot development
  • The use of language to suggest Lady Macbeth’s desperation for power
  • The use and effect of imagery of the supernatural
  • The use and effect of pronouns to suggest power and control

AO3

  • Ideas about power and how it is achieved/perceived
  • Ideas about the role of women
  • Attitudes towards the supernatural
  • Ideas about the soul/heaven and hell
  • Ideas about equality/status
  • Contemporary reception towards Lady Macbeth’s behaviour in this speech and actions elsewhere in the play

These are pretty good ways in to revising the whole play, to be honest. You can substitute ‘Lady Macbeth’ and ‘power’ for any of the main characters and themes.

YOUR TURN

OK, it’s time for you to have a go yourselves. Here’s another passage, this time Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7. I may be wrong, but I think this is a contender for the exam:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other. 

Starting with this speech, explain how Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s fear of the consequences of his actions. Write about:

• how Shakespeare presents Macbeth in this speech

• how Shakespeare presents Macbeth in the play as a whole.

 

What I want you to do is go through the above in the exact same way as before, underlining anything which suggests this hesitation and questioning, and then comparing this with the rest of the play. You might want to consider the role of the witches, how he treats Lady Macbeth, and how as the play progresses he changes, becoming less and less questioning, until his final soliloquy where he questions life itself.

Once you’d got your underlinings, spend 7-10 minutes creating your exploratory, questioning notes, and then use variations of the IQEAL approach above to create your works of art. I know you can do it. You just gotta have faith.

TO RECAP

  1. Always make sure you read the question carefully to work out exactly what it’s asking you to do. In this case both argue for and potentially against the question theme.
  2. Underline your quotes then make exploratory notes – questions are good in note form as they can then be answered in your essay.
  3. When you write your answer, aim for more of an IQEAL than PEE structure. But don’t be a slave to it. Mix things up a bit and make Jeff’s life more interesting.
  4. Make sure you’re using those dramatic terms you’ve revised. Get them in there but make sure you show their effect/why they are used. This is important otherwise all you’re doing is listing. And anyone can list. My Siamese cat could probably list. If he could hold a pen. Or turn on my laptop. Which he can’t because he’s lazy.
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