in Drama, English Literature, Essay Technique, Shakespeare, Writing Skills

Macbeth: Essay Question Breakdown

Below, you’ll find two Macbeth essay questions – each one is broken down into a clear process that shows you how to identify keywords, select information from the extract, formulate a plan and develop a thesis. This process is a generalised process, so make sure to check your own exam board and mark scheme criteria and tailor your essays to suit them – for instance, some exams might be heavily contextual and need you to use more context than is given here; others may require you to use critics’ quotations or give you a pure question with no extract for support. Regardless of which type of essay you have to write, you can use the templates given below as a way of giving yourself a clear structure and format to plan and organise your ideas. 

Always use the following process, regardless of the question or exam board: 

STEP 1: Underline Keywords of the Question + Find the Focus 

STEP 2: Collect together ideas on the focus of the question – this may include underlining parts of the extract, or sketching out your own thoughts 

STEP 3: Organise your thoughts into a clear plan – make sure this plan is suited to the type of essay you’re writing (e.g. argumentative, close reading, discursive or comparative) 

STEP 4: Develop and refine a clear thesis that ties all your different paragraphs together 

STEP 5: Write the essay! 

STEP 6: Check and edit. 

The process below will take you through steps 1-4, up to the point where you write the essay. The ‘notes’ section in a real exam doesn’t need to be this long, a lot of this part of the process should be in your head if you’re working in timed conditions! It’s written out in detail here so you can see how it should work.

Thanks for reading! If you need more help with Macbeth, take a look at our full course.

This course includes: 

QUESTION 1: 

Starting with the extract, explain how far you think Shakespeare presents fear as a sign of weakness. 

Step 1: Keywords + Focus 

How far – shows that it is an argumentative essay (you have to debate an opinion) 

Shakespeare – remember to write about Shakespeare’s message, the reason for writing 

Presents – use dramatic devices, language devices, poetic techniques etc 

Fear as a sign of weakness –  the focus of your essay: is fear a sign of weakness or not? What are Shakespeare’s thoughts about the connection between fear and weakness? 

Step 2: Collect Ideas

(extract highlighted below, then notes collected afterwards) 

In this extract, Duncan’s body has just been discovered and the lords and ladies of the court are panicked. Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee the country. 
EXEUNT ALL BUT MALCOLM AND DONALBAIN
MALCOLM: What will you do? Let’s not consort with them. To show an unfelt sorrow is an office. Which the false man does easy. I’ll to England.
DONALBAIN: To Ireland, I. Our separated fortune shall keep us both the safer. Where we are, There are daggers in men’s smiles. The near in blood, The nearer bloody.
MALCOLM: This murderous shaft that’s shot Hath not yet lighted, and our safest way is to avoid the aim. Therefore, to the horse, And let us not be dainty of leave-taking, But shift away. There’s a warrant in that theft which steals itself when there’s no mercy left.
(Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3) 

Notes on ‘fear and weakness’: 

  • Fear causes Duncan’s sons to panic, to try and survive by fleeing and separating; this action leads Malcolm and Donalbain to be blamed for the murder, as it seems suspicious – panic and fear are not good tools for creating peace.
  •  It’s not good to indulge in fearful feelings – the actions of Malcolm and Donalbain cause more death.
  • “Daggers in mens’ smiles” – fear creates paranoia and weakens trust – Link to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are driven mad by paranoia. 
  • She makes the point that courage and bravery are needed to lead, weak characters aren’t fit to rule a country and stabilise it.
  • Lady Macbeth and Macbeth become increasingly afraid of visions and darkness as the play progresses, driven mad by their own guilt or encouraged down a path of madness through their own paranoia. 
  • However, Macbeth is shown as ‘brave’ throughout – possible counter-argument. 
  • Context – Machiavelli said ‘it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both’. 
  • Context: – attempt on James I’s life, Gunpowder plot, instability in the Jacobean era. 
  • Context: Witches were a real fear, James I wrote Daemonologie to help the public identify a witch and avoid evil. 

Step 3: Plan

Intro 

In the extract… 

In the play as a whole… 

Thesis – Shakespeare uses fear to warn his audience against Machiavellian politics, showing them the negative consequences of gaining power and ruling by fear; overall fear is sometimes a mechanism that encourages guilt and paranoia, leading to mental suffering – but only for the ‘evil’ characters. 

Paragraph 1:  

Agree: Fear creates paranoia and makes people see the worst in everything, creates mental weakness 

Evidence: “There’s daggers in mens’ smiles” 

M + D’s trust is affected negatively by their fear of being murdered 

Metaphor – violent, reflects the violent manner in which their father was murdered, 

Motif – the dagger is an object that recurs throughout the story, it symbolises death and violence, fearful image 

Link to Play: 

Links to ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’, hallucination, shows that his fears are driving him mad, questioning also suggests paranoia 

Context – Argument against machiavelli – fear creates irrational behaviour, stops people thinking clearly 

Paragraph 2: 

Agree: Fear forces people to be secretive, which leads to tension and suspicion – creates weakness in relationships 

Stage directions – the two characters are left onstage, we see their distrust of the others 

“Let’s not consort with them.” – creates division and isolation, ‘consort’ can mean to discuss with/keep company with but also has negative connotations and often is used to refer to a group of criminals, reinforces their isolation 

Context – Gunpowder Plot – shows the negative consequences of secrecy and lack of harmony within a society 

Link to Play: Lady Macbeth’s detachment from those around her as she is fearful of being discovered and cannot live with the guilt: “Out, damn spot!”, “The Thane of Fife had a wife, / Where is she now?” – becomes isolated from Macbeth and the others by the end, unable to control her fears, panic of impending death and meeting the same fate as Lady Macduff 

Paragraph 3: 

Counter Argument: It could be argued that fear is positive and not always a sign of weakness 

Malcolm + Donalbain’s fear allows them to escape with their lives – Malcolm redeems himself by returning and conquering Macbeth

Lady Macbeth + Macbeth are right to be afraid, they commit evil acts and this destroys them in the end – they are weak but this is because they are evil 

Evidence: “Our separated fortune/ Shall keep us both the safer.” and “our safest way/Is to avoid the aim.”

However, the comparative adjective ‘safer’ shows their desire to survive but also uncertainty as to whether their plan will work. The repetition of this idea with ‘our safest way’ further reinforces the sense of anxiety, although “safest” is a superlative adjective which suggests more confidence 

Link to Play: “this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen”, Malcolm’s final speech shows confidence and clarity, rather than the uncertainty he feels in this scene – strength that he has found to reclaim what is rightfully his shows bravery is a sign of power

Context: Divine Right of Kings (notice this is changed from the original notes which suggest ‘witches’, it is important to use context that supports your point so feel free to edit your plan accordingly)

Macbeth: “present fears are less than horrible imaginings” – motivated through fear and his desire to escape it, ends up badly and suffers more as a result 

Conclusion – overall fear is a sign of weakness, though at times it can be useful so long as the people who listen to their fears are able to overcome them 

Thanks for reading! If you need more help with Macbeth, take a look at our full course here.

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