how to ace any shakespeare question macbeth extract passage analysis

How to ace any Shakespeare extract question

Among the various question types students encounter on English Literature exams, the extract-based response is probably the most popular. 

While this takes the form of unseen poetry and prose analysis on exams like the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Advanced Placement (AP), it always also shows up as a Shakespeare task on the I/GCSEs and the AS/A-Levels. 

While I’ve written plenty of posts on key themes in Shakespeare’s plays (which you can check out here), I realise that many students still struggle with presenting their ideas when it comes down to writing the actual essay. 

In my ‘8 top tips to ace English Literature exams’ video collaboration with Mr Salles Teaches English, Dominic makes a great point about how students could know everything about a specific group of quotations, and still not be able to communicate their knowledge in a cogent essay. 

To address this ‘pain point’, I decided to tweak my approach for this post. Instead of breaking down another key theme from a Shakespearean play, I’ll show you all how to prepare for a written response on a Shakespeare extract, using violence in Macbeth as an example. 

For detailed analyses on other themes/characters in Macbeth, make sure you check out the links below: 

The revision stage: how to prepare for any Shakespeare extract response

Broadly, there are 5 steps to preparing for any Shakespeare analysis task:

  • Step 1 – Source all quotations / moments relevant to a specific theme
  • Step 2 – Understand the situation and essence of each quotation
  • Step 3 – Zero in on 1 key quotation per act 
  • Step 4 – Identify the ‘arc of transformation’ reflected in the ‘shortlisted’ quotations
  • Step 5 – Consolidate your line of argument about the theme based on the quotations

Step 1: Source all quotations / moments relevant to a specific theme

The best way to revise for a text is to actively engage with it. Beyond reading – or watching – a play from start to finish (which is the bare minimum), we need to unknot the text by categorising its quotations into buckets of key themes. 

Remember, a) literary texts are ultimately about certain themes, and b) techniques are used to illustrate the text’s themes. Where quotations come in, then, is that they serve as a site for techniques and themes to collide, as we identify the techniques (whether stylistic, structural or formal) from words, phrases or the arrangement of such words and phrases to understand more about the themes. 

Let’s take violence in Macbeth as an example. A good tip I have for accelerating the quote-sourcing process is to find an e-copy of your text (there’s loads for Shakespearean plays, but take care to cross-check any discrepancies between your school’s copy and the digital version you use).

Then, suss out the keywords related to the theme and run a Ctrl+F search throughout the text. What are some keywords related to violence? “Blood”, “murder”, “kill”, and of course, “violent/violence” itself. While searching, remember not to press space after typing in each keyword, as they could also show up in various grammatical forms and be relevant to the theme (e.g. “blood” could show up as “bloody”, “bloodlust”, “bloodthirst”, “murder” or “kill” could be “murdering” in “murdering ministers”, 1.5, or “killing” in “killing swine”, 1.3). Leverage the power of technology to make your revision life easier! 

Having crawled through the text for the word “blood”, I arrive at a comprehensive list that looks something like this: 

Act 1 Scene 2 – 

For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;

(Captain reporting to Duncan)

Act 1 Scene 7 – 

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor:

(Macbeth’s soliloquy) 

Act 2 Scene 3 – 

And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet,
And question this most bloody piece of work,
To know it further.

(Banquo to Macbeth, Malcolm, Macduff, Donalbain etc., Lady Macbeth has fainted) 

Act 3 Scene 1 – 

So is he mine; and in such bloody distance,
That every minute of his being thrusts
Against my near’st of life:

(Macbeth on Banquo, speaking to the assassins) 

Act 3 Scene 2 – 

Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale! 

(Macbeth to Lady Macbeth) 

Act 3 Scene 4 – 

It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood:
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?

[…]

                               For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:

(Macbeth to Lady Macbeth, after Banquo’s ghost vanishes and the banquet guests have disbanded) 

Act 4 Scene 3 – 

I grant him bloody,
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name:

(Malcolm to Macduff, on Macbeth)

Act 5 Scene 1 – 

What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

(Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking soliloquy) 

quotations about blood in macbeth violence

You’ll notice that I’ve also specified the speaker and addressee for each quotation, which puts everything in clearer context. 

With references to “blood” covered, we can now move on to identify the murders (successful or attempted) throughout the play. 

Once we do that, we’ll notice that a pattern emerges: 

Act I – Macbeth slains the rebel Macdonwald (this takes place offstage and is only reported)
Act II – Macbeth kills Duncan
Act III – Macbeth orders the murder of Banquo and Fleance
Act IV – Macbeth orders the seizing of Macduff’s castle and the murder of his wife and son
Act V – Macbeth kills Young Siward, but is then killed by Macduff 

… Killing happens in every act of the play. 

From both the set of quotations on “blood” and our observation of murder in every act, it’s obvious that Macbeth is a violent character. But a more interesting point to note is Macbeth’s comments about the cyclicality of violence, which is reflected in the pattern of killing throughout the play. 

“We but teach/Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return/To plague the inventor” (1.7), Macbeth ponders alone at the start of the play, and indeed, we see that Macbeth slains Macdonwald at Duncan’s bidding (implied), only to then slain Duncan shortly afterwards; he orders the assassination of Banquo, whose ghost then returns to haunt him and push him towards more acts of violence; he kills Macduff’s wife and son, only to then be killed by Macduff at the end. 

In a similar cadence, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband towards physical violence, and is eventually visited by mental violence in the form of madness, and spurred towards extreme self-violence in an implied suicide. Basically, karma’s a b*tch. Or to put it in milder terms, what goes around comes around. 

Step 2: Understand the situation and essence of each quotation 

Next, we want to understand what’s happening in the play’s narrative when each of our selected quotations appears. 

Once we map out the situation, i.e. who’s speaking, who’s speaking to whom, what’s going on at that point in the scene, we can start annotating by homing in on the stylistic, structural and formal specifics of each quotation. 

To illustrate, let’s use the Act 3 Scene 4 “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far” quotation as an example. 

Act 3 Scene 4 – 

For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:

(Macbeth to Lady Macbeth) 

What’s happening at the point when Macbeth says this to his wife? 

It comes right after Macbeth’s hallucination of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, when his guilt over having killed so many people starts gnawing at him. He becomes even more suspicious of those around him, and asks Lady Macbeth why she thinks that Macduff has rejected his invitation to the banquet (the implication being that Macbeth suspects Macduff knows the truth). With this background in mind, it becomes easier for us to see why there’s a hidden metaphor in his claim that – 

                                                    I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:

Here, Macbeth acknowledges that he’s at the point of no return: he’s simply committed way too many murders for the blood to ever be washed off his hands. The logic implied, then, is that he might as well go the distance and murder more people. So what’s the metaphor? Note the word “wade”, which means ‘to walk through water or other liquid substances’. The comparison is that between a man falling deeper into an abyss of guilt and a man navigating treacherous waters on a boat. 

Except in this case, it’s a figurative river of blood, not water, that Macbeth sees himself steering through, which suggests several things: first, contrary to the impression of him having powerful, violent agency, he sees his role as being subordinate to wider, uncontrollable forces (a river has the potential to become a flood); second, he is being carried through the tides of violence (that “returning were as tedious as go o’er” suggests that the decision to advance or retreat is no longer in his hands). This implies his powerlessness against the seduction of illicit, deadly desires. 

Rather than a reflection of tyrannical power, then, this quotation reveals Macbeth in the firm grasp of violence – he is, on the surface, a perpetrator of violent actions, but he is largely pushed towards committing these actions as a victim of larger, violent forces over which he has no control. 

Step 3: Zero in on 1 key quotation per act 

Once you annotate and identify all the interesting points in each quotation, it’s time to be selective, which is such a crucial skill in textual analysis. 

Why is being selective important? That’s because there’s always going to be way too much to talk about for any text in a timed exam situation. When you only have an hour, you just can’t analyse 10 quotations and expect to do it well, because you’ll be spreading yourself too thin. 

Instead, zero in on 1 quotation per act from your cluster, as this’ll make sure that we are covering the beginning, middle and ending of the text. This enables us to trace the development and transformation of a character or theme throughout the entire narrative, and ensures that we’re engaging with the text as a whole. Of course, it would make sense to pick a quotation which is rich and versatile in terms of content and techniques, as that gives us more points to analyse. 

Also, try to pick quotations from different characters or perspectives, i.e. instead of going for quotations mostly spoken by Macbeth, look for a variety of quotations by Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo/Malcolm/other characters. This will make our analysis more comprehensive, diverse, and in turn, insightful. 

Going back to our selection above, a good basket of ‘quotations about violence in Macbeth’ could look like this: 

Act 1 Scene 7 – Macbeth to himself: “we but teach/Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return/To plague the inventor” 

Act 2 Scene 3 – Banquo to Macbeth, Malcolm, Macduff, Donalbain etc. (Lady Macbeth has fainted): “And when we have our naked frailties hid,/That suffer in exposure, let us meet,/And question this most bloody piece of work,/To know it further.”

Act 3 Scene 4 – Macbeth to Lady Macbeth, after Banquo’s ghost vanishes and the banquet guests have disbanded: “For mine own good,/All causes shall give way: I am in blood/Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er” 

Act 4 Scene 3 – Malcolm to Macduff, testing the latter’s loyalty: “I grant him bloody,/Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin/That has a name”

Act 5 Scene 1 – Lady Macbeth to herself: “…who would have thought the old man/To have had so much blood in him” 

quotations about blood in macbeth essay writing

Small caveat: when I say “zero in on 1 quotation per act”, I don’t mean ignoring the rest of the quotations – they are still important, and we should definitely still prepare for them. We just need to practice prioritisation and know which quotations are likely to be more significant and useful when it comes down to dealing with focused exam questions. 

Step 4: Identify the ‘arc of transformation’ reflected in the shortlisted quotations

Having picked out our key quotations, we need to build a cogent argument around them. There’s little use for us to just hop from one quotation to another, analysing them in isolation, because that won’t give our essay an organic, logical flow. The first step to coming up with an argument, then, is to examine how these quotations reflect any sort of change, transformation or irony (which is a form of change) about the character or theme in question. I like to call this the ‘arc of transformation’, which is similar to the concept of the character arc (but broader in scope). 

With the set of quotations I’ve picked out, I see a clear cyclical pattern of violence: Macbeth begins the play with an ominous warning to himself that those who instigate violence will have violence visited upon them, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, this is exactly what happens after he kills Duncan in Act 2 and Banquo in Act 3, but the ‘violence’ arrives first as mental and emotional violence (peaking in the banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost followed by Macbeth’s desperate call for the Witches), then as extreme physical violence at the end of the play, when Macduff beheads Macbeth and order is restored. 

Step 5: Consolidate your line of argument about the theme based on the quotations

The final step is basically expressing Step 4 in cogent, essay-friendly sentences. Based on all the quotations we’ve sourced and analysed, we can now arrive at a solid argument that with regards to violence in Macbeth, it is manifested in a cyclical pattern, whereby Macbeth sets off a series of violent acts and suffers from mental, emotional and physical violence as a result, finally culminating in both Lady Macbeth’s suicide, and his own death at the hands of Macduff. 

The exam stage: how to tackle any Shakespeare extract response

But wait, with my arsenal of quotations and line of argument, how do I use them to tackle any given extract on the exam paper? 

By following the 4 steps below, basically. 

Step 1: Recall (if not given) where in the play the extract appears

This is always given on the GCSE and A-Level papers, but some other exam boards or your teacher may choose to remove the reference to Act/Scenes to test your familiarity with the play, so make sure that you know the play well enough to at least pin down where – the beginning, middle or ending – the extract is from. 

Step 2: Identify the key stylistic, structural and formal features in the extract – analyse those in relation to the proposed theme

When it comes to formal features in drama (or tragedy in particular), remember to engage with technical terms like tragic hero, hamartia (tragic flaw), hubris (pride), peripeteia (reversal of fortune), anagnorisis (a sudden awareness of an important fact) etc. 

Step 3: Fit the extract within the broader ‘arc of transformation’ and comment on the extract’s function in this ‘arc’

If the extract comes at the start of the play, does it set up the foundations of dramatic irony which will be revealed later? If it arrives halfway into the play, does it contribute to building climactic tension? And if it appears towards the end of the play, is it part of the catastrophe or resolution, or does it catalyse or amplify the protagonist’s tragic fall?

Step 4: Recall at least 2 other quotations from the other parts of the ‘arc’ – comment on them in conjunction with the extract given

For example, if the extract provided comes in Act 1 Scene 7, then consider sourcing related quotations from Act 3 and 5 to cover the entire span of the text

And that’s really it! The rest is just the topping and tailing of your argument and analysis, which I trust that you are more than capable of doing 😀

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