“Don’t tell them, SHOW them.”
Last week, as an interesting experiment (interesting to me as much as to anyone else), I set my two KS4 classes the same question, to see how they fared with a little competition.
For the Year 10 pupils, we’re just beginning our sojourn; the Year 11s, though, are just a few short weeks away from their final exams. I selected the opening scene not because it might come up in the exams (I never play those prediction games) but because it was a very familiar passage they could win on. The target, therefore, was to show off their ability to produce a well-structured, thoughtful answer.
And many did.
But, in the spirit of never shying away from what you ask students to do – and, actually, because I love analysing texts – I produced a short example for them.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the specification, students are given a short extract to analyse and marked against the following Assessment Objectives (AO), colour-coded as I always for my students:
AO1 (12 marks): response to question; skill in quotation choice; use of subject terminology; ability to link to the play as a whole (I call this WHAT the writer was trying to do);
AO2 (12 marks): analysis of the ways in which language, form and structure create meaning; consideration of effect on audience (I call this HOW they tried to do it, and HOW we react); and
AO3 (6 marks): ability to draw specific links to the contexts in which the texts are created or received (I call this WHY it was written like this)
So – to the question: ‘how does Shakespeare use language to present the witches in Act I scene i of Macbeth?’
[Remember this is just a part of a model answer: some prompt questions appear below, for working out why this is a good answer]
Many people believe that when he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare was influenced by King James I’s interest in witches and his 1597 book, Daemonologie. This might be why he begins the play with the ‘weird sisters’, and seems to put a lot of effort into making them sound realistic. An example of this is the final couplet of the scene: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ Shakespeare uses several techniques to make this sound like a spell. Firstly, it is a rhyming couplet, pronounced in unison by all the witches, implying that they know the words off by heart, and chant them together. In the first line, the alliteration of the letter ‘f’ doesn’t just slow the pace down; it adds stress to the abstract nouns, ‘fair’ and ‘foul’, emphasising the strange trochaic tetrameter that has already marked the witches as outsiders. The line is deliberately ambiguous, which is a constant feature of the witches’ talk – such as when they tell Banquo that he will be greater AND lesser than Macbeth. They are, as Macbeth says, ‘imperfect speakers’. The juxtaposition of the terms imply that it is good to be evil, and vice versa, leaving the audience confused, but wary because they understand that the witches are immoral. The couplet, and the spell, is completed with the same alliteration pattern; here ‘fog’ and ‘filthy’ aren’t simply part of the overall pathetic fallacy that Shakespeare uses to create a dark atmosphere – they might also symbolise the audience’s inability to see clearly what the witches mean. Finally, the verb, ‘hover’ takes us back to a strong conventional belief of witches – that they could fly.
Could this be improved? How? What does this student do well? You might consider how and where they:
- put forward their own independent ideas about what Shakespeare was trying to do;
- analyse the chosen quotation, and the number of things they say about it;
- use subject terminology to add authority to their answer;
- consider the reaction of the audience;
- link to other parts of the play;
- make detailed links to the time the play was written in; and
- ensure that every sentence they write meets at least one of the Assessment Objectives