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Dealing with Shakespeare - Writing about the Bard's Building Blocks

Do you remember the difference we use between structure and form?


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Structure is the way the ideas move in the text. We look for shifts in place, person, time, setting, season, colour, tone and so on. It can be a bit trickier to find because it isn’t immediately visible on the page like form is.


For us, form is the way that the text looks on the page. It includes sentence lengths, punctuation use, repetition, anaphora, single line paragraphs, enjambement, iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme and so on.

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One of the best places to analyse form and structure is in Shakespeare’s writing and understanding the form in Shakespeare's writing can help to deepen your understanding of the play and its themes. Of course, from an examiner's perspective, students showing and understanding of form and structure is important because it is an integral part of the GCSE examination criteria. Exam boards often require students to analyze form and structure in order to demonstrate their understanding of the play. For example, the AQA GCSE English Literature specification requires students to "analyze the language, form, and structure of a range of texts" and to "analyze the ways in which meaning is created through language, form, and structure.”. Note here that they not only want you to be able to identify the form or structure device, but also to talk about the effect it has on the audience, and even what it shows about the Shakespeare’s deeper intentions for the character and feelings about the character.


And all of this can be stressful, of course! Because - even if you manage to find the devices to talk about, how do you know what to say about them? How do you know what the effect is? Or what the Shakespeare’s intentions are? Or what he’s trying to say about the character?

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Let’s start at the beginning. Here are the things you can look for when analysing structure and form in Shakespeare’s works:

  1. Iambic pentameter: This is a form point .It is a metrical pattern of 10 syllables per line with the stress on the second syllable. It is present in most of Shakespeare's plays and creates a rhythmic and musical quality to the language. Remember - the nobility and people of higher morality and character will use iambic pentameter (if you’ve studied ‘The Tempest’, think about how Caliban slips into iambic pentameter when talking about the beauty of the island and nature, and what this reveals about Shakespeare’s own feelings about these things).

  2. Soliloquies: This is a structure point (it would change focus to just one character). These are monologues spoken by a character when they are alone or think they are alone. They reveal the innermost thoughts and feelings of a character and provide insight into their motivations and actions.

  3. Asides: Again, this is a structure point (it would change focus to just one character). These are short comments or observations made by a character that are not supposed to be heard by the other characters on stage. They reveal the character's thoughts, feelings or intentions to the audience.

  4. Chorus: A structure point. This is a commentary on the action of the play and provides a link between the audience and the characters (remember - you’ve got one of these in ‘Romeo and Juliet’).

  5. Prologues and Epilogues: A structure point. These are speeches that are spoken at the beginning and end of the play respectively. They are used to provide background information, set the scene, or summarize the action.

  6. Sonnets: This would be a form point (you are going to analyse how it looks on the page). These are 14 line poems using iambic pentameter and with a specific ABBA rhyme scheme, often used to convey the love story in the plays.

  7. Disguise and Mistaken Identity: We will consider this a structure device (by hiding their identities they are changing the focus to other characters and themes). Here characters hide their true identities, often used to create humor and conceal true feelings.

  8. Prophecy: We will think of this as a structure device (it's going to shift focus in time). Prophecy is used to predict future events, and is also often used to create tension and foreshadowing throughout the play.

  9. Repetition: A form device. This is the use of the same word or phrase multiple times, often used to create emphasis or a sense of ominousness.

  10. Foreshadowing: A structure device (changing focus in time). This is the use of hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in the story, often used to create tension or suspense.

But where can we find these in text?


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We’ll use the biggies in the GCSE syllabi for our examples - ‘Macbeth’, ‘Twelfth Night’, and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.


For example:

  • The writer's use of foreshadowing in "Out, out, brief candle" in ‘Macbeth’ serves to build tension and contribute to the theme of the fleeting nature of life.

  • The writer's use of repetition in "Double, double toil and trouble” in ‘Macbeth’ serves to create a sense of ominousness and contributes to the overall theme of the supernatural.

  • In Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet," the use of a chorus serves to provide a commentary on the events of the play and contributes to the overall tragic effect.


Okay, you think, I see it. But how do we talk about the effect? Or the intentions?

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Well, If we look at the examples above, we can see that they all follow the same basic structure:


The writer's use of <literary technique> in <quote> serves to <purpose> and contributes to the <overall effect/theme>.


Or to make it clearer -


The writer's use of <literary technique> in <quote> serves to <purpose> and contributes to the <overall effect/theme>.


For example:


  • The writer's use of foreshadowing in "Out, out, brief candle" in ‘Macbeth’ serves to build tension and contribute to the theme of the fleeting nature of life.

or:

  • The writer's use of repetition in "Double, double toil and trouble” in ‘Macbeth’ serves to create a sense of ominousness and contributes to the overall theme of the supernatural.

Of course, we'll change up the 'serves to' and 'contributes to' conjunctions as well. Maybe we could use, 'emphasises' or 'highlights' or 'reinforces'...it's up to you to choose what makes most sense in your writing.


If you want to boost the grade..


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If we want to develop our response further, and go for higher grades, we go back in and talk about the overall effect/theme again, giving more context or a slightly different interpretation:

  • In Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet," the use of a chorus serves to provide a commentary on the events of the play and contributes to the overall tragic effect. The chorus speaks at the beginning of each act, summarizing the events that have occurred and foreshadowing what is to come. Their speeches often reflect the themes of the play, such as the destructive power of love and the inevitability of fate. The presence of the chorus also creates a sense of distance between the audience and the characters, highlighting the doomed nature of the play's events.

Or:

  • The use of the aside by Malvolio, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" (Act 2, Scene 5), reveals his anger and desire for revenge towards the other characters who have made a fool of him. This serves to create a more complex portrayal of Malvolio, who is often only seen as a strict steward and not as a person with real emotions. The use of asides also contributes to the comedic effect of the play, as they often reveal the absurdity of a situation or the ridiculousness of a character's actions.


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So - the steps are as follows:

  1. Find the device

  2. Follow the basic structure to write it up: The writer's use of <literary technique> in <quote> serves to <purpose> and contributes to the <overall effect/theme>.

  3. If you are aiming for higher grades, go back into the overall effect/theme and develop this with more context or a slightly different interpretation

Good luck! If you have any questions or issues, pop them into the comments and we'll go through them.







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