Essays: not as easy as ABC, 123

Sure, Michael Jackson and his brothers were pretty confident when they sang ABC but they weren’t talking about writing text analysis essays.  Or were they?

A common misconception is that an English essay just needs to reflect the topic back in some way.  Like a ‘paint by numbers’ activity in the diagram above, this approach  involves identifying different elements in the topic and then writing a paragraph on each, slapping a generalised introduction and an even more generalised conclusion on either end.  Bingo!  You have a very run-of-the mill essay.  It may not present a coherent, insightful interpretation but it shows the student has read the topic and found evidence in the text which matches it.  This approach will merely illustrate the essay topic, much like the painting above is a mere illustration of the numbers diagram, rather than someone’s original, independent interpretation of a house in the snow.  An essay like this might only ever get a C+ or B grade at best.  The content won’t be wrong but the thinking won’t be very right.

This painting is a more nuanced interpretation of a house in the snow.  You know you want a more nuanced interpretation of the text you are studying so let us see how this might play out when we start to think about  Macbeth.

A possible essay topic might read:

”This dead butcher and his fiend like queen’.  To what extent do you think this is an accurate assessment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?’

A ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach would be to structure an essay question in this way:

Main contention: Yes, Macbeth is definitely a ‘butcher’ and Lady Macbeth is ‘fiend-like’.

P1 Macbeth kills Duncan = butcher

P2 Macbeth kills Banquo and Macduff’s family = butcher

P3 Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits = fiend-like


Notice how the main contention offers a very simplistic yes/no response to the question. The main contention should be a student’s ULTIMATE ANSWER. Notice how the paragraphs merely seek to illustrate the topic’s key elements.  The supporting arguments need to provide an interpretation of the text.

A more sophisticated essay plan responding to the same essay question might look like this:

Main contention:  Although Macbeth has a conscience when hesitates to kill Duncan and experiences guilt after murdering Duncan and Banquo, he is most definitely a butcher by the play’s end while Lady Macbeth presents as a woman capable of being fiend-like when she is Macbeth’s partner in crime however her demise is pitiful.  She dies mad and guilt-ridden and Malcolm’s assessment of her as having evil power at the play’s end does not ring true.

P1 Macbeth resists the idea of killing Duncan and is troubled by his actions, both in killing the King and later Banquo, which suggests his conscience prevents him from merely ‘butchering’ those who stand in his way.

P2. Macbeth does become a butcher by the play’s end because he becomes impervious to his conscience and doggedly pursues he course of action to the end which includes ordering the killing of Macduff’s family in a brutal, bloody manner.

P3.  Lady Macbeth demonstrates her fiend-like capacity when she calls on the evil sprits to make her capable of goading Macbeth to kill Duncan and when she is able to present as unperturbed by the crime to the court.  It is when we see her madness emerge later that we understand that her freedom from guilt was only temporary and she dies more wraith-like – powerless.

Notice how all the key elements of the topic have been interpreted for the benefit of this essay – this student is officially ‘doing more with the topic’ which is teacherspeak for THINKING.  This main contention is an ULTIMATE ANSWER.  It sets the terms for the essay – the interpretation.

The ‘to what extent’ part of the question is answered in the main contention by considering where or when in the text it might be true or untrue and qualifying their response.  In this example the main contention is basically this: it is true for Macbeth (though not at the play’s beginning) and it is not true for Lady Macbeth (though true at the play’s beginning).

The topic sentences all go part of the way to answering the topic.  Each stage demonstrates knowledge and understanding and goes beyond the deceptively simplistic essay topic.

This second essay plan shows that the student has weighed up all their ideas first before settling on their interpretation.

Remember that these are only the bones of the argument.  The student would have to flesh these out with quotations and analysis – explaining the significance of the language of the quotation in the light of their interpretation of the text.

See?  Not as easy as ABC, 123, do re mi…but much more meaty (if you will allow me a butcher’s expression).




Wu-Tang Clan & Will.i.amb Shakepeare


Ever get the sneaky feeling that Shakespeare would be doing hip hop if he were alive today?  Rapper Akala brings hip hop and Shakespeare together.  Listen to his Comedy, History, Tragedy to get a flava of his work (see what I did there?).

One of the founders of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, Akala explores the connections between Shakespeare and hip hop, and tests his audience to see if they can recognise lines from rappers from lines from Shakespeare.  The results are surprising…

He goes on to argue that hip hop’s founders and artists like the Wu-Tang Clan see themselves as ‘custodians of knowledge’ in the same way that William Shakespeare was in his day – their work sharing the same celebration of audacious intelligence.

Drop a beat.




Screw your courage…

…to the sticking place and you’ll not fail!


You now need the courage of your convictions to respond to one of the following essay topics:

  1.  ‘Macbeth is a tragic hero in that there is more to pity than detest in him.’   Discuss.

  2. Women are the most powerful characters in the play and the catalyst to all of Macbeth’s crimes.’ To what extent do you agree?

  3. Fair is foul and foul is fair is an equivocation that helps us to understand the destruction of Macbeth.’  Discuss


Consider where you stand on the following controversial statements to get your brain warmed up and your arguments sharpened.  They should get you thinking about the extent to which you agree (crucial thinking steps to take before committing to a position and presenting your main contention and supporting arguments).

  1. Macbeth lacks the courage and strength of character to make a clear decision.
  2. Macbeth’s ambition is ill-founded.
  3. Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth better than she knows herself.
  4. Macbeth learns nothing in the course of the play.
  5. Macbeth is too easily led by others.
  6. Lady Macbeth has more of the ‘milk of human kindness’ than Macbeth.
  7. The audience is never in any doubt as to who is evil in this play.
  8. Lady Macbeth is more frightening than Macbeth and the ultimate ‘fair is foul’
  9. Lady Macbeth’s desire for control is her own fatal flaw.
  10. Women are responsible for the bad things that happen to men in this play.
  11. Fate appears to have the final say in the play.  Free will plays no part.
  12. Macbeth learns to act without thinking in order to act in his own interests.
  13. The play is about what it means to know oneself.

This dead butcher and his fiend-like queen


As you read Act 5, consider the theme of illness and suffering and how the power of characters has changed from when we first met them at the play’s beginning.  Macbeth is the acknowledged tyrant; his wife a mere shadow of her former self.  The Doctor, speaks in verse as he alerts us to the distempered nature of events:

‘Unnatural deeds/Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.’

When Macbeth is brought the news of his wife’s death, he responds with indifference.  He delivers one of the most famous soliloquies dealing with the futility of life which begins wearily:

She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word.  To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…

For an insight into this soliloquy, watch Sir Ian McKellen analyse it with the keenness and attention to detail of a practiced Shakespearean actor.

As Macbeth receives word of the approaching Birnam Wood, he delivers his final battlecry:

‘Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!/At least we’ll die with harness on our back.’

As Macduff enters and commands Macbeth: ‘Turn, hell-hound, turn!’ we get this from Macbeth: ‘…But get thee back, my soul is too much charg’d with blood of thine already’


Consider the advice the witches gave at the beginning of Act 4: ‘Be bloody, bold and resolute.’  How does this play out for Macbeth?



It weeps, it bleeds


As you read Act 4, consider the role of the witches.  They open this scene and remind us all of the power they wield:

Double, double, toil and trouble; /Fire burn and cauldron bubble….


By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes…

That ‘something wicked’ is Macbeth.  Consider, too, the changes in Macbeth.  Now, as king, he demands: ‘Answer me’.  He is pleased by their equivocations (he interprets them as predictions in his favour) and acknowledges that they have guessed his fear when they warn him of Macduff.  As he watches the apparitions he is led to feel pleased: ‘Sweet bodements!/good!) but can’t help give voice to his nagging fear that his actions might all be for Banquo’s issue.  He asks a direct question and is shown the line of eight kings – he is in disbelief.  This is a moment of realisation.  It is to Lennox that he communicates his change in his attitude towards them: ‘Infected be the air whereon they ride, / And damn’d all those that trust them!’  The audience understand the irony and the action to come plays out the foreshadowing in this scene.

Throughout Act 4 there are many references to blood and bloodshed and it is clear that nature is rebelling agains the unnatural reign of Macbeth.  Malcolm’s admission:

‘I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds’

This is a cry for the tyranny and violence to end. The climax of the action in this act is undoubtedly the onstage killing (remember that Duncan’s was off stage) of Macduff’s family.

Act 4 closes with the resolution that Macbeth must be stopped.  Macduff is overcome with grief but receives this advice from Malcolm: ‘Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief/Convert to anger; blunt no the heart but enrage it.’  The audience is prepared for the play’s final act and the downfall of Macbeth.

To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus

As we read Act 3 think about the following:

  • the relationship between Banquo and Macbeth?
  • the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?


Shakespeare’s choice of imagery is deliberate.  It is essential that you can perform close, word-level analysis to show your reader how the imagery operates in the text to illuminate the ideas. Below is a series of images that are suggested by the language in Act 3.  For each image, find the relevant quotation/s and provide and explanation of the significance of the image.  Who or what does it relate to and how does it help to highlight something for the audience?