7 tips to tackle Shakespeare set texts (GCSE English Literature)

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November 7th, 2022Last updated: February 27th, 2024

For a lot of students, the Shakespeare text question can be tricky and difficult to prepare for, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This article aims to help students tackle Shakespeare based questions with confidence. Georgina is an experienced English teacher and sets out her top 7 tips below.

How to succeed with the Shakespeare set text question

1. Know thy Shakespeare!

The number one obstacle anyone will come across for the Shakespeare text is the language. However, it is not really so tricky. Every copy of the play should have a glossary with it that picks up any unfamiliar words or references and gives you the definitions. If the word is not in the glossary then it should be in a modern-day dictionary. When you read through the play at school or at home it is good practice to write in meanings by the actual text; in this way it will be easier to understand when it comes to revision. Some words are used over and over (or should I say o’er and o’er) and so these are useful to learn. Remember that thee and thou both mean ‘you’ and that when an apostrophe appears in a word it means that a letter is missing (just as we today might write ‘don’t instead of ‘do not’). This is often done in Shakespearean texts to make the word one syllable so that it fits into the rhythm of iambic pentameter (more on that in a bit…). Therefore, although the word may look unfamiliar, if you think about the letter missing then it becomes obvious what the word means: o’er is over; cross’d is crossed; o’ means of; th’ means the and the list goes on. Never read a word independently and try and guess the meaning. Read the entire phrase or sentence and this will normally give away the meaning to you. 

Having your own copy of the play is essential so that you can keep your own notes and highlight or underline and annotate key speeches. The Arden, Oxford and Cambridge editions are all excellent and provide comprehensive glossaries and helpful introductions.

Spark Notes also provide an excellent service on their website called ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ which has most of the key texts with a modern translation alongside. This is useful for going through the main scenes and longer speeches to ensure you understand meaning completely. You can find the website here:


2. Play or poetry?

It is vital to understand that while you are technically studying a play, it is written in a mixture of verse (poetry) and prose (language in ordinary form). Most plays of the time were written in verse– this verse is sometimes rhymed, sometimes unrhymed but the ‘thing’ that makes it poetry is the rhythm. 

Shakespeare almost always uses iambic pentameter for his verse (10 syllables made up of a pattern of five iambs, each iamb being one syllable unstressed and one stressed, like a heartbeat. Occasionally he strays from this into other forms, notably for the witches in Macbeth who speak in trochaic tetrameter: eight syllables made up of four trochees, a trochee being the exact opposite of an iamb as it is a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable.

It is vital to realise that this doesn’t happen by accident. If Shakespeare is writing in verse, there is a reason; if he writes in prose there is a reason and if he changes the rhythm, as in the witches speech then there is a reason – by deliberately writing the witches’ speech in a different and completely contrasting rhythm he may be trying to show that the witches are completely against the natural order of things therefore setting them apart from the human world. In writing, little happens by accident! All writers think carefully about the words, images and structure they use, and Shakespeare is no exception. 

As a general rule of thumb: prose (‘normal’ writing such as that written in novels) is used for the lower class, less important or comedic characters such as servants, jesters and fools, whereas classic iambic pentameter is used for the higher-class characters. If iambic pentameter is also rhymed then it should be deemed particularly important in terms of the plot and is usually spoken by lovers or conversely by those characters explaining their evil deeds. Think about Romeo and Juliet’s first 14 lines upon meeting, which conforms to the conventions of a sonnet, or when Macbeth switches from unrhymed to rhymed iambic pentameter in speeches (often a rhymed couplet at the end of a soliloquy) in order to highlight his evil intentions.

Therefore, although you need to think of Shakespeare in terms of drama, you should also think of the extract in the exam in terms of prose or verse and explore this. If it is an extract written in verse then treat the analysis as you would treat poetic analysis, subject to the same terminology – caesuras, end-stopping, rhyme schemes etc. In your analysis you should comment not only on the literary imagery of similes and metaphors but also on the structure – prose, iambic pentameter or not, rhymed or unrhymed – and suggest a reason that Shakespeare might have chosen this form and structure. All this will set your answer apart from others that only consider the language.

3. Can’t we just watch the film?

You should definitely watch your set text in performance, either live or filmed. A play is meant to be seen and heard and has much more impact that way than simply reading. However, you need to be careful. Many film adaptations have been updated to other time periods – don’t let this confuse you! The opening fight in Romeo and Juliet is not in a petrol station in the original and neither do they fall into a swimming pool! 

In addition, performances often cut some parts of the original in order to have a shorter running time and therefore some elements of the story may be missed out. In most adaptations of Romeo and Juliet you don’t see Romeo killing Paris at the end, yet this is quite a major point in the play as it reveals the extent of Romeo’s grief and mental state, as well as his regret when he realises who he has killed. Ensure you understand the differences between the play as studied and any other versions you watch and focus only on the original play in the exam. 

4. Revise key quotes

The four major exam boards (AQA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR and WJEC Eduqas) all have an extract printed in the exam where you are expected to closely analyse the language and structure as well as a section that asks you to explore the play as a whole. Some exam boards treat this as one question and some separate the extract and wider play question into two parts, but they are all essentially testing skills of analysis and critical interpretation.

For the extract part of the question, you are expected to use literary terminology and analyse the use of language, imagery and structure closely. You may find it useful to use a structure such as PEEZ (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Zoom) or PETAL (Point, Evidence, Technique, Analysis, Link) to help you formulate your answers in this section and ensure you are analysing in enough technical detail.

This is a closed book exam meaning you do not have the play with you. You need to have a good understanding of the key parts of the play and how they fit together including the key themes in the play and where they are highlighted. You will be expected to explore specific key scenes or speeches and describe how they show the theme or character that is the focus of the question. Therefore, to back up your explanation and opinions of the ‘wider play’ part of the question you should have some key quotes up your sleeve. For this reason, you should highlight key quotes as you study the play in school and keep a bank of key quotations sorted into theme and character. Making key quote flashcards is an excellent revision activity. Whenever you explore a theme in the play or a character, you really need to give an example from the play to back up your point and quotes are a great way to do this and show off your in-depth knowledge of the play. You can create your own digital flashcards, or find sets that others have created at Quizlet:


5. Context is all

To understand how a play would have impacted an audience and explore the reasons Shakespeare made certain choices, it is essential to know what was going on at the time of him writing his plays in the late 16th and early 17th Century. It is also important to understand beliefs and traditions at the time. It really changes things if you understand that Juliet defying her father was a very big deal in the late 1500s and that the theme of witchcraft in Macbeth was probably written to specifically appeal to King James I who was fascinated by the subject and had even written a book on it himself. 

You gain marks for context in most specifications (except Eduqas) so understanding these things and relating them to Shakespeare’s intentions and choices will gain you the higher marks. Context should never be treated or written about separately (at the beginning or end of your answer for instance) but should be commented on throughout when you are exploring the impact of Shakespeare’s themes or characters.

6. Overall, it is about Shakespeare

When you answer the exam question, you are not explaining what Lady Macbeth is like or what Romeo said; you are exploring the way Shakespeare creates the character of Lady Macbeth and how he has used specific language techniques in Romeo’s speech. Shakespeare should be at the centre of your answer. Essentially, you are thinking about how Shakespeare has used specific techniques to get his point across and what his intention might have been. Beginning your sentences with ‘Shakespeare uses…’ and ending paragraphs with ‘Perhaps Shakespeare was trying to show the audience that…’ will ensure that you keep this focus on the writer and their craft, rather than drift into a mere description of what happens. 

Remembering all the above will expand your understanding of your Shakespeare text and make it more relatable and understandable. It may take some hard work at first but like most things in life, the rewards are worth the effort. 

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”

William Shakespeare (‘Julius Caesar’)

7. Consider some one to one support

Sometimes, it can be useful working one to one with a Shakespeare expert. Here at Owl Tutors, all of our English tutors are trained and experienced English teachers, who not only know Shakespeare inside-out, but also have a great understanding of exam syllabuses.

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