How to answer Shakespeare essay questions – sample questions
1. Question: ‘Who is the more evil, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?’
This is a very common essay on Macbeth which is basically asking you to consider the relative evil of the two central characters. Actually, a Shakespeare essay which asks you to compare and contrast characters in this way is a gift because you can easily use the knowledge you have of the play as a whole but filter it through the characters under discussion.
In the case of Macbeth, you will have done considerable work on both of these characters if you are studying the play and therefore all you need to do is to decide what your response is to the question – in other words, which of them do you consider the more evil?
It is easy to opt for Lady Macbeth, she influences her husband towards the evil deeds which they both commit and she urges him to carry on when he is wavering (as in Act I, Scene v). However, Lady Macbeth is only involved directly in the murder of Duncan and is driven mad by guilt whereas Macbeth continues on his murderous rampage right until the end and is not seen to be really effected by guilt at all and is so closely identified as being like the witches that they recognise him via the ‘pricking of their thumbs’ and when he speaks to them he speaks, as they do, in true rhyme rather than blank verse.
Therefore, a balanced response to this question might be:
- Outline the different viewpoints in your introduction and suggest ways in which you intend to look at this.
- Develop your argument in your essay over three paragraphs in the main body, the first looking at Macbeth, the second at Lady Macbeth and the third comparing the two.
- Conclude your essay on Macbeth by summarising your main points and giving a simple response to the initial question that you now feel you have answered.
Remember that any Shakespeare essay will expect you to focus on the language used and the structure so you must always analyse your quotes and all points of your argument must be supported by evidence from the text.
2. Question: ‘Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is about passion, about violence as much as love.’ Discuss this statement with close reference the text.
This type of Shakespeare essay requires you to consider a famous play from a different angle. The classic story of Shakespeare’s ‘star crossed lovers’ is here expected to be reassessed so that the underlying theme of violence which causes the tragedy, the hatred which denies the love, is brought to the fore.
You should begin this essay by looking at the key scenes which deal with violence in the play:
- The opening (Act I, Scene i) where the eruption of violence between the servants shows how the feud really does effect everyone even connected with the houses of Montague and Capulet, introduces Tybalt’s aggression, the role of Benvolio as peacemaker and the foreshadowing warning of the Prince that the feud and violence cannot continue unpunished. This scene is in many ways the emblem of this Shakespeare play.
- The murder of Mercutio and Tybalt (Act III, Scene i) which follows the secret marriage of Rome and Juliet and crystallises the battle between good and evil in the play, as well as the futility of the feud as Mercutio dies crying ‘a plague a’ both your houses’.
- The struggle between Juliet and her parents where her father’s ‘finger’s itch’ (Act III, Scene v) and she stands alone despite her youth in defiance for love of Romeo.
- The murder of Paris by Romeo at Juliet’s tomb (Act V, Scene iii).
Structure this essay around close analysis of these scenes of violence, drawing attention to how they juxtapose with the love scenes. This is an essay that needs almost as much attention to the perception as to the language because the themes overlap and inform each other so you should concentrate on identifying those themes in the key scenes, analysing central quotations from each and structuring a basic five paragraph essay around them:
- Main body (three paragraphs)
The whole essay must, of course, be well supported by evidence throughout, displaying the love and hatred.
3. Question: Consider the idea that Shakespeare’s Henry V embodies the idea of Shakespeare’s ideal king
This essay is asking you not just to consider one play, or one character, but the way in which the play forms a culmination to a series of plays which Shakespeare wrote about kingship. In Henry V, he continues a theme which he has begun in Richard II i.e. what makes a good king?
This play develops a character first introduced as the wild young Prince Hal in Henry IV and now the audience has to believe that this ‘boy king’ can become a man whom his subjects not only respect but love. He does this by allowing the audience of this Shakespeare play to see both the inner struggles of the man and the strength of the anointed king, best exemplified by the famous St Crispin’s Day speech which follows Henry’s lone wander amongst his men in disguise, the night before the Battle of Agincourt (Act IV, Scene iii).
This essay requires that you focus on the way that Shakespeare shows Prince Hal’s development into Henry V, and also consider how he uses the interaction between the king and those around him to show this: his court, the church, the common men and his friends.
A suitable structure for this essay might be:
- An introduction centring on your thesis statement on Shakespeare’s intent and the methodology you intend to employ to show this.
- A main body of three paragraphs, the first identifying Henry’s early rebukes by those in authority, the second featuring his overcoming these one by one and establishing his kingship and the third showing how all of these blend to demonstrate not only Henry’s divine right to be king (like Richard II but unlike his father, the usurper Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV) but also his fitness for the role as ‘all things to all men’ and a strong leader.
- A conclusion which pulls together your ideas on the question and sums up your ideas.
Remember that this play is the climax of a series of plays and this essay should reflect that by showing some knowledge of the ethos behind the play to gain maximum marks. As with all of these Shakespeare plays, close analysis of the text is essential.
4. Question: ‘Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is as much about Elizabethan politics as it is about those of ancient Rome.’ Consider this statement by focusing on close analysis of the speeches of Brutus and Antony following Caesar’s assassination.
This essay asks you to do two things:
- Place the play in the context of Elizabethan political tensions
- Show your skills in analysis by comparing and contrasting the two identified speeches.
You should begin this essay by writing about the political scene in Shakespeare’s time. Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599, a time of great political tension, as the long-reigning monarch, Elizabeth, was reaching the end of her life, she had no heir and refused to name one. Also, her life had been perpetually threatened throughout her reign by Roman Catholic plots to put her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne.
Elizabeth was very much aware of the power of the theatre to influence her people, to the extent that she had banned the performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Shakespeare might thus be said to have been able to discuss contemporary politics more easily through the medium of history. All of this should be addressed in the first part of this essay.
The second part of the essay should focus mainly on analysis. As the question asks you to examine the speeches of Antony and Brutus following Caesar’s assassination (Act III, Scene ii) in particular, you should do that, comparing and contrasting the effectiveness of each in turn, the malleability of the crowd, the different approaches (Brutus to reason and patriotism, Antony to emotion and loyalty). It would be useful to comment, also, on the individual ambition of each.
This Shakespeare essay can easily follow the structure of the five paragraph essay, with the historical background being dealt with largely in the introduction and first paragraph and the remaining two paragraphs of the main body addressing the analysis of the speeches of Brutus and Antony in turn.
You should conclude this Shakespeare essay by commenting on the connection between the politics which caused the assassination of Julius Caesar and those prevailing at the time of Elizabeth, together with some closing comments on how each informs the other.
5. Question: Choose ONE soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and say how it reflects the major themes of the play
This type of essay is commonly seen on examination papers, often with a passage actually given to you as opposed to here where you select the passage yourself. On an exam paper, it would be extended to ask you how the given speech can be linked to another similar one elsewhere in the play.
In this essay, you need first to focus on choosing the soliloquy you wish to discuss. As Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most introspective play, dealing with inaction rather than action, it should be quite easy to find a soliloquy to analyse in detail for your essay.
To take one example, in Act I, Scene ii, Hamlet encapsulates his feelings about his own situation, the state of the country, the rule of his uncle, the death of his father, his opinions on his mother’s indecent haste in marrying his uncle and his own inability to do anything about it. All of these are major themes of the play which can be drawn out by close analysis of this one soliloquy and developed in your essay.
Follow the structure of the basic five paragraph essay:
- Introduction (one paragraph, saying why you have chosen the soliloquy that you have and the main themes you hope to identify)
- Main body (three paragraphs, each dealing with one or more themes you have identified) supported by textual analysis
- Conclusion (one paragraph, drawing together your thoughts on the play as reflected in your chosen soliloquy).
Focus particularly on analysis in this essay, as the question asks you to select a soliloquy and identify themes from it. You can only do this effectively in your essay by close-reading of the text. You need to quote and analyse thoroughly throughout in order to gain the maximum marks in this type of essay.
Remember that Hamlet is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s masterpiece and your essay should reflect this by giving priority to exploration of the themes as evidenced in the language and to the fact that the soliloquies witness to the fact that Hamlet is always the primary centre of consciousness in the play.
6. Question: ‘When Malvolio falls, he invites pity not laughter.’ How far do you consider this to be applicable to the nature of the comedy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
This Shakespeare essay asks you to consider the darker side of Shakespeare’s comedies, specifically, here, Twelfth Night. Increasingly, this is the way that Shakespeare’s comedies are staged and filmed because they seem more palatable to a 21st century audience if viewed in this way, since the comedy itself can seem rather out of step with today’s world if produced as merely farcical; much more out of step, in fact, than in the tragedies.
You need to think carefully in this essay about the way that Shakespeare presents the character of Malvolio (if a character is named in a question, they should provide the central focus).
Initially, he is a social climbing, pompous fool, far more so than the named fool in the play, Feste, who frequently acts as a sort of commentator in the play, a role that Shakespeare’s ‘fools’ often seem to occupy.
When he appears ‘yellow stockinged and cross gartered’ (Act II, Scene v) he is indeed a hilarious figure, mocked as much by his own arrogance as the trick played on him. However, when he is so far reduced in status to be wrongly imprisoned, he does invoke our pity.
Your essay needs to use this central image as the play does, to ask us to examine how close are the boundaries between tragedy and comedy and here you could bring in other themes of the play such as the supposed tragedy which causes Viola to adopt male dress in order to survive when she thinks her brother has drowned.
You should follow the standard five paragraph essay structure for this Twelfth Night Shakespeare Essay:
- The introduction, considering the narrow boundaries between comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare’s work
- The main body of three paragraphs with one on Malvolio and his interaction with the other characters, the second on the way Shakespeare develops this to make the plot darker and the third on how this reflects Shakespeare’s play as a whole.
- The conclusion, where you draw together your main points and emphasise the angle you have taken in your essay.
7. Question: Consider the gender specific emphasis in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare essays increasingly use the part that gender plays in Shakespeare’s comedies to examine the way that Shakespeare portrays women in general. This type of essay could be employed to discuss most of the comedies, since nearly all involve women adopting a man’s guise or taking the place of a traditional male role.
Of course, Shakespeare did this often for the practical reason that only men acted in his day and you might want to mention this in your introduction but even textually, women in Shakespeare are often presented in a strong masculine light.
This is the way you would need to approach this essay i.e. by looking at how Shakespeare presents the central characters in Much Ado About Nothing and how this relates to their gender. Clearly the central characters under discussion here would be Beatrice, Benedick, Hero and Claudio.
The structure to adopt would be:
- The introduction, where you discuss the role gender plays in the play as a whole and indicate the methodology that you intend to employ to address it.
- The main body, divided into three paragraphs with one paragraph on how the lovers are contrasted in the play, one on Beatrice and Benedick and one on Hero and Claudio, all supplemented by quotation and detailed analysis from the text. You should interweave these with the roles the other characters play in bringing the plot about and remain sharply focussed on the gender issues with which the question is concerned (you might examine the sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, for example, the disgrace of the falsely accused Hero and the way in which most of the men, including her father, abandon her).
- Conclude your essay with a summation of how Shakespeare uses gender in Much Ado About Nothing to show society’s degradation of women and the double standard that he saw to be operating.
Remember that the play is a comedy, so do not allow the discussion of the central issues dictated by the question to cause you to fail to comment in your essay on the witty exchanges which take place, especially between Beatrice and Benedick.
8. Question: Do you consider Richard of Gloucester to be wholly evil as presented in Shakespeare’s Richard III?
One of Shakespeare’s ‘history plays’, though sometimes categorised as a tragedy, Richard III is centred on the evil but charismatic, Richard of Gloucester and his rise to power. In an essay on this play, Richard would always be the central consideration and this question is no exception. However, this Shakespeare essay also requires you to consider the idea that there might, if not be good to be found in Richard, at least be a reason provided by Shakespeare for his behaviour.
In this essay, you should look carefully at the speeches where Richard interacts uniquely with the audience, making them co-conspirators, if you like. This draws the audience into Richard’s confidence and facilitates an understanding of how Richard can influence those around him.
You need to focus on key scenes in this essay, such as the seduction of Lady Anne (Act I, Scene ii) where having murdered her husband Richard is capable of persuading her to marry him. Richard’s potent sexuality seems to be inextricably linked in the play to his evil and in this way, although Shakespeare in no way diminishes his evil propensity it does show why others follow him and you should talk about this in your essay.
In the same way, your essay should address Richard’s disability, saying how Shakespeare uses this, how Richard speaks of it and how others do. Your essay should also consider whether Richard’s childhood degradation due to his disability might be connected with his evil nature (there is textual evidence of this as a possibility which you should cite).
Use the standard five paragraph format for this Shakespeare essay, i.e.:
- Introduction – addressing the question, stating your position and the methodology you will employ.
- Main body – three paragraphs taking a different aspect of the topic as outlined above for each, with strong, well-analysed textual evidence throughout.
- Conclusion – where you sum up your argument, perhaps suggesting that although Richard’s deeds are ‘wholly evil’ the man himself might not be.
9. Question: ‘Othello is the agent of his own downfall.’ How far do you agree with this statement?
This essay requires you to consider the notion of the ‘fatal flaw’ which is so often applied to tragedy. The concept, Greek in origin, argues that a tragic hero ‘falls from grace’ because of a basic flaw in his character. This is reflected in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies e.g. Macbeth’s is ambition, Hamlet’s is indecisiveness and Othello’s is jealousy. In this essay you are also being asked to make a judgement as to ‘how far’, i.e. to what extent, Othello’s propensity to jealousy influences his tragic end.
In this essay you should focus on two things:
- The idea of the fatal flaw and how it is applicable in this case
- The connection between Iago and Othello and how the former uses the latter’s weakness against him.
Following the standard five paragraph structure, this essay should be structured in the following way:
- The introduction – addressing the idea of the fatal flaw and how far it is applicable in this case.
- The main body – three paragraphs each of which addresses a different aspect of the topic: in this essay, it would be useful to devote one paragraph to Othello himself, one to his relationship with Iago and one to how the idea of the fatal flaw contributes to Othello’s tragedy as much as do the evil machinations of his enemy, Iago. All of these should, of course, as with any Shakespeare essay, be supported by textual evidence and analysis.
- The conclusion – in this essay, you should focus in the conclusion on stating the extent to which you feel Othello’s jealousy is the ‘agent of his downfall’ since the question asks you directly to address this.
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