GCSE LITERATURE: THE ONE CRITICAL MISTAKE NOT TO MAKE

Not long until the Lit exams, is it. Remember to breathe and take careful note of what I am about to tell you. As it could genuinely mean the difference to a top grade and a meh grade.

I’m writing this post in response to a lot of you who have been stressing about one key element of your Lit essays. It’s this.

How much context is enough?

Well, here I am to tell you. And you may be surprised.

The short answer? Not that much.

Let me break this down for you by turning to the AQA assessment objectives. In brief:

  • AO1 is the analysis one
  • AO2 is the language, form and structure one
  • AO3 is the context one
  • AO4 is the SPAG one

You all know that.

What you might not know is the way in which these are weighted in the two AQA Lit papers:

AO % BREAKDOWN
  PAPER 1 PAPER 2
1 15 22.5
2 15 27.5
3 7.5 7.5
4 2.5 2.5
TOTAL 40% 60%

Let’s take a moment to think about what this is telling us:

  • Paper 2 is worth 60% of your total Lit grade. The two papers are not even.
  • The first two assessment objectives are worth a lot more than the last two

Do you see where I’m going with this? I’m sure you do.

What this means is that:

  • in Paper 1, 75% of your mark comes from analysis and looking at language, form and structure and
  • in Paper 2, it’s a whopping 83%.

And AO3 context?

  • Worth 19% of Paper 1 and
  • only 13% of Paper 2.

My conclusion? Don’t write a history essay.

I’ve seen this so often. Students who write two paragraphs telling the examiner all about James I and the divine right of kings and blah blah, and that has hardly anything to do with the question on Macbeth.

This is not what you are being asked to do. You are being asked to analyse a book or a play or some poems. And write about how context helps you understand them better.

I know why students do this, and I do understand. I remember doing it myself many years ago. If you are a bit unsure about the text it’s easy to lapse into recounting what you learnt on that Wednesday afternoon lesson before Christmas, which you found quite interesting. So during revision you decide that it’s a good idea to go online and learn as much as you can about JB Priestley’s life or the Great Depression, and before you know it you’ve wasted a couple of hours.

Let me now show you how to use context in a Lit exam. I do think this could change your life. Or at least raise your grade. Which I guess are similar things right now.

HOW TO FEED CONTEXT INTO AN ESSAY

First of all: my mantra – EVERYTHING COMES OUTWARDS FROM THE QUOTE. Got that? Yes, that was me shouting (nicely).

What do I mean? It’s pretty simple. Your whole essay should be built around the analysis of quotations. Single words, short phrases – nothing more. You probably won’t be able to remember long quotes (and if you can then well done – I was always rubbish at that, still am).

Here goes: my fool-proof way to get that pesky context into your essay.

We can use my sample essay question from Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7 – you can find it in this post.

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’d 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.

 

STEP #1

Don’t start an essay with a paragraph on context. That’s a waste of time. Introduce the passage in 2-3 sentences then get straight into analysing the text.

This soliloquy, near the beginning of the play, presents Macbeth alone thinking about the act he is about to commit. His fear is palpable, both through the language he uses and the structure of his monologue.

STEP #2

You then get straight into an analysis of the language and structure. Context will come later.

He begins by wishing the act were over ‘quickly’: by repeatedly referring to the murder as ‘it’, Macbeth shows the audience that he cannot confront it directly, thus showing his fear. The use of the colon after the opening leads Macbeth on to explain his hopes, that he will ‘jump the life to come’: jump over this act and into the life that he and Lady Macbeth dream of.

You can see that I have tried to do several things here: analysed individual words and looked at structure (repetition of ‘it’), referred to the ‘audience’ (showing an understanding of form), and looked at a small structural feature – the colon. This is exactly what the examiner is looking for.

Remember this: say a lot about a little, rather than a little about a lot. It’s a good one, isn’t it? Say as much as you can about small details rather than write a long quote and say hardly anything.

STEP #3

No, not yet – let’s leave the context until a bit later. We can then take this idea of his fear of the act and desire for the outcome a stage further, bringing in a quote from later in the play.

The use of the conjunction ‘But’ in the next part of the monologue suggests to the audience that he understands the reality of the situation. By referring to these ‘bloody instructions’ returning to ‘plague the inventor’, Macbeth foreshadows later in the play: in his final soliloquy, he refers to life ‘signifying nothing’, as if he finally realises that everything he has done is worthless. The language of ‘blood’ and ‘plague’ emphasises the fear he currently feels.

STEP #4

OK, we can now bring in a bit on context. Not much is needed though.

Macbeth’s fear comes largely because he understands the gravity of what he is about to do. Regicide (the murder of a king) is a terrible act against the country: this was particularly so during Shakespeare’s time, when the king was seen as having a direct line to God. A Jacobean audience would have been shocked at what Macbeth was considering.

You don’t need much more than that. One or two sentences at the right points to show that you understand that the time in which the play was written impacts on our understanding of characters’ actions and reactions.

Let’s look at the whole thing (not the whole answer, but a good start):

This soliloquy, near the beginning of the play, presents Macbeth alone thinking about the act of murder he is about to commit. His fear is palpable, both through the language he uses and the structure of his monologue. He begins by wishing the act were over ‘quickly’: by repeatedly referring to the murder as ‘it’, Macbeth shows the audience that he cannot confront it directly, thus showing his fear. The use of the colon after the opening leads Macbeth on to explain his hopes, that he will ‘jump the life to come’: jump over this act and into the life that he and Lady Macbeth dream of.

The use of the conjunction ‘But’ in the next part of the monologue suggests to the audience that he understands the reality of the situation. By referring to these ‘bloody instructions’ returning to ‘plague the inventor’, Macbeth foreshadows later in the play: in his final soliloquy, he refers to life ‘signifying nothing’, as if he finally realises that everything he has done is worthless. The language of ‘blood’ and ‘plague’ emphasises the fear he currently feels.

Macbeth’s fear comes largely because he understands the gravity of what he is about to do. Regicide (the murder of a king) is the worst act anyone can commit: this was particularly so during Shakespeare’s life, when the king was seen as having a direct line to God. A Jacobean audience would have been shocked at what Macbeth was considering.

IN SUMMARY

  • Paper 2 is worth 60% of your overall grade.
  • AO3 context is worth a fraction of the overall mark for both papers. You should therefore not write a history essay.
  • Everything you write should come outwards from quotation. Remember my structure from previous posts.
  • Introduce quickly to get into the analysis asap.
  • Bring in links to the rest of the text as you write (remember my previous posts on this).
  • Bring in context only if it helps you to explain the quote(s) in more depth and detail.

 

I hope that was helpful. Do check out my English Language guide on Amazon (as the Language exam isn’t far away either….)

 

 

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