How do we approach essay questions when we feel stuck?
Trying to launch into writing an essay from a blank page or screen is always going to be difficult because you have no foundation or building blocks to start with. The good news is that the foundation is already in the question. Your job is to answer the question.
Here’s our question: ‘How far does Shakespeare present Macbeth as a hero?’ It’s a popular question, which may be phrased as ‘To what extent does Shakespeare present Macbeth as a hero?’ or simply ‘Discuss the representation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a hero’.
How do I answer the question? It looks complicated and I don’t understand it.
Break down questions into blocks – this makes them more manageable. It also helps to structure the essay and makes sure that you deal with each part of the question.
How do you break questions down?
Simply underline the key words in the question – often the words you don’t like the look of 🙂 . If you don’t understand a word in the question then just look it up in a good dictionary.
This question ‘To what extent / How far does Shakespeare present Macbeth as a hero?’ isn’t using difficult terms but two things jump out: ‘how far’ and ‘hero’. It’s nicely nuanced, encouraging you to avoid an overly simplistic answer.
Then you simply build on these blocks.
Jot down all relevant ideas, references and quotations. Take each of the ideas and try to think of one other relevant idea, reference or quotation.
Find working definitions for key terms – in this case ‘hero’.
You can use dictionaries but you will generally find more interesting definitions in critical or literary writings ie from writers themselves. Don’t dismiss the critical introductions in your edition of the text – they can be very useful because by definition they introduce you to the text. Footnotes can also be a really good source of authoritative comment and explanation. You don’t have to find something on Macbeth as hero. You can quote someone writing about any Shakespearean character as hero as long as you can apply it to your argument.
Since Macbeth is a tragedy you could use Aristotle as a reference point. I have some notes and quotations on tragedy here.
Aristotle, writing the Poetics some 2500 years ago, argued that the hero should be neither wholly good nor wholly bad – the one would make his fate intolerable to us, the other would remove him from our sympathy. He should be rather like us, albeit rather better, and of sufficient status for his downfall to involve others as well as himself. This should arouse pity in the audience because we feel his misfortunes are not entirely deserved but also terror for we can imagine ourselves in his place:
It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.
Aristotle, Poetics, XIII, Courtesy of the Project Gutenberg site.
The better your reference points are, the easier you will find it to write your essay.
If you have good detailed quotations to work with (from literary or critical sources), you can unpick what they say and demonstrate to what extent their definitions elucidate (shed light on) the text. This effectively structures your essay for you.
Remember that sometimes we define things in terms of what they are not. You probably won’t find it hard to find examples of heroic conduct and character that Macbeth fails increasingly to live up to.
Proving your argument
Essays are arguments and so you need to provide evidence.
Support every key point with a quotation and analyse the quotation to demonstrate its significance to your argument.
There are many ways to structure your work and you need to find one which is appropriate to your material but do make sure that you have a clear structure – this will make your argument coherent and more effective.
On occasion structuring material chronologically can work – tracing the development of a character or theme throughout a play, for example but if you do this please remember only to focus on key scenes and not to fall into the trap of doing a scene by scene analysis.
It’s generally preferable to structure material thematically ie for this question to address different scenes which shed light on Macbeth as hero (or not).
To do this you simply have a section on evidence suggesting heroic qualities in Macbeth followed by a section arguing that Macbeth ultimately loses whatever heroic characteristics he may have begun with.
You could start with ways in which the play establishes Macbeth’s credentials as hero (think about his status, his language, what we learn of his character and deeds as a warrior), followed by a section on his fall away from heroic ideals and concluding with the play’s suggestion that he may go some way to regaining some elements of his heroic past. By facing Macduff in battle Macbeth to some extent reasserts himself as warrior and gives Macduff the opportunity to avenge his family. Shakespeare has Macbeth choosing to die fighting rather than running away. You need to ask yourself what his dramatic purpose was here.
You may decide that the evidence points to Macbeth as an essentially unheroic character, or one whose early promise is undercut fatally by a downward spiral of ambition and acts of increasing barbarity.
Just remember that whatever you argue, you need textual support. That’s why it’s always best to look at the evidence and decide your argument from there rather than deciding what you think to begin with and then trying to prove it!
Don’t summarise your entire argument. Find a strong point / quotation (from text or critic) to clinch your argument and make sure that you state your position clearly.
The process of writing essays is not dissimilar to that of a trial: a lawyer is trying to convince a jury and you are trying to convince your reader. A lawyer structures his / her argument around the evidence, as you should. You give ‘evidence’ in the form of quotation and close textual reference and quote ‘expert witnesses’ in the form of critics. In his / her summation, a lawyer will remind the jury of the most convincing pieces of evidence and give a clinching point. They always try to close with something convincing and interesting; you need to do this too.
Using Critical Sources
Scholarly use of critical sources will strengthen your argument; simply quoting critics adds nothing to your argument and can obscure (or even take the place of) your own views. Don’t simply quote critics; integrate them into your own argument, indicating whether or not you agree with them and why (textual evidence).
If you write, ‘Baker argues that Macbeth is a hero’, you’re simply describing Baker’s argument. To make it part of your own argument, you can simply say, ‘Baker argues pertinently / helpfully that…’ Feel free to disagree with critics eg ‘Baker argues that Macbeth is heroic but the text ultimately does not support such an assertion / analysis’.
Try to avoid overly personal comments such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ that Macbeth is a hero – personal comments weaken the argument.
I’m going to shift to another writer here – this post is supposed to give general pointers which can apply to any essay.
Phrase your comments indirectly, eg:
Eliot defined poetry as:
the abstract conception
Of private experience at its greatest intensity
Becoming universal (‘A Note on War Poetry’).
This clearly directs the reader to view the personal and emotional register of the text in the context of the poet’s desire to universalise; emotion and ideas are not diametrically opposed but complimentary.
If you want to be more direct, you can simply write something like: ‘Eliot’s work clearly does express emotion but it is always subordinate to the ideas he is trying to express’. If you use a phrase like ‘Eliot’s poetry’ or the name of the novel or play you’re studying, or the writer’s name, followed by ‘is clearly concerned with / addresses / engages with’, you use the text itself as evidence for your view and can thus avoid ‘I think / feel’, which are weak in that they do not establish an argument.
If in doubt, the easiest way to structure your conclusion is to sum up one or two of your best points and end with a final comment or quotation. The conclusion is not simply the last paragraph of your essay where you tail off because you have run out of things to say!
N.B. Reading the title before writing the conclusion will help to guide your comments and make sure that you answer the question.
I hope that this has been helpful.
Good luck with your studies.
© Dr Beth Swan, www.english-lecturer.co.uk