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3 brilliant paragraphs to help you boss a Shakespeare extract question

Introduction

How do I structure my Shakespeare essay?

I get it.

You’ve been confronted with a passage from a Shakespeare play and asked to write an essay about it. And…

… you don’t know where to start.

‘How do I structure my essay?’ is a question I get asked a lot. So:

I’ve put together 3 model paragraphs which you can use to help you build your own essay based on a Shakespeare extract question. And you can use all of them in one essay – or you can use just one of them, or a combination of them.

What will I learn?

You’ll learn a stonking (yes, I mean stonking) way to get your Shakespeare essay off to a good start – with 3 killer paragraphs that completely boss the plot, the setting, and the overall structure of the Shakespeare passage that you’ve been given. And better still…

… that leaves you with a free hand to discuss things like character development later on in your essay.

You’ll learn 3 different angles from which you can approach a Shakespeare extract question. You’ll learn how to write about these in paragraph form. And you’ll learn how to use these paragraphs to start building your Shakespeare essay.

Paragraph 1Boss the Plot
Paragraph 2Boss the Setting
Paragraph 3Boss the Structure
You can use any or all of these paragraphs to launch your Shakespeare essay

Why we’re not doing language analysis. For now.

Here’s another thing about these three paragraphs:

They don’t require you to do any analysis of Shakespeare’s language.

That’s right: no language analysis. Let me talk about that for a moment.

Don’t get me wrong – analysing Shakespeare’s language is often a requirement in this kind of assessment. And it’s virtually an inevitable part of a brilliant Shakespeare essay. And if you’re not sure whether it’s expected of you or not, you should check with your teacher.

Nevertheless…

… there is more to Shakespeare than just language analysis.

There are other ways you can show technical appreciation of Shakespeare’s craft as a playwright, and of the effects his writing can create – and I’m going to show you some of them.

In fact:

If you get even one of these paragraphs right, you’ve got a great platform on which to go and write about other stuff like characterisation – which is probably where language analysis is most useful.

Just one thing:

How NOT to use this guide – a word on plagiarism

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’ve designed this guide to help you write your own paragraphs on your own Shakespeare extract question – no matter which play you are studying. I want this guide to help you with your own work. But the guide itself – and my model paragraphs – are my work. Please don’t copy them or ‘tweak’ them and pass them off as your work.

The Romeo and Juliet extract we’ll be using

I’ve chosen a passage from the end of Romeo and Juliet – but it doesn’t matter if you’re not studying Romeo and Juliet. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t know anything about that play. Having said that, I know that a lot of readers will know the play, and that can’t do any harm.

The question we’ll be answering

My model paragraphs are based on a typical Shakespeare extract question – something which is quite common in exams. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about:

How does Shakespeare create tension in this passage?

Generic Shakespeare essay question

Or something like that.

In fact, we’re going to use that question (the one above) with the passage I’ve chosen. And by the way…

… whenever you’re answering this kind of generic question, as long as you play your cards right, you can almost always link anything interesting you have to say back to the question.

The Plot Paragraph

How it works

Everything else in the story hangs on the plot, so dealing with the plot first can be a really effective strategy.

Better still, this paragraph – the one I’m going to show you – simply draws on what you already know about the plot so far – by focusing on a clever thing that Shakespeare is always doing:

He’s always reminding us of the plot!

Finding plot in the passage

A yellow highlight indicates what I call a plot-reminder. That means that it’s somewhere Shakespeare is getting his characters either to remind the audience of something important that happened earlier in the play.

Act V Scene iii

A churchyard; in it a tomb belonging to the Capulets.

Enter PARIS, and his Page bearing flowers and a torch

PARIS
Give me thy torch, boy: hence, and stand aloof:
Yet put it out, for I would not be seen.
Under yond yew-trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shalt hear it: whistle then to me,
As signal that thou hear'st something approach.
Give me those flowers. Do as I bid thee, go.

PAGE
[Aside] I am almost afraid to stand alone
Here in the churchyard; yet I will adventure.

Retires

PARIS
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--
O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones;--
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans:
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

The Page whistles

The boy gives warning something doth approach.
What cursed foot wanders this way to-night,
To cross my obsequies and true love's rite?
What with a torch! muffle me, night, awhile.

Retires

Enter ROMEO and BALTHASAR, with a torch, mattock, etc

ROMEO
Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.
Hold, take this letter; early in the morning
See thou deliver it to my lord and father.
Give me the light: upon thy life, I charge thee,
Whate'er thou hear'st or seest, stand all aloof,
And do not interrupt me in my course.
Why I descend into this bed of death,
Is partly to behold my lady's face;
But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring, a ring that I must use
In dear employment: therefore hence, be gone:
But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

BALTHASAR
I will be gone, sir, and not trouble you.

ROMEO
So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that:
Live, and be prosperous: and farewell, good fellow.

BALTHASAR
[Aside] For all this same, I'll hide me hereabout:
His looks I fear, and his intents I doubt.

Retires

Adapted from source: shakespeare.mit.edu

Pulling out the main points (Plot)

The key expressions I’ve highlighted above remind the audience of three plot elements (which they already knew before the scene began):

  1. Paris was engaged to marry Juliet in good faith and intends to visit her grave every night to pay his respects as the man who would have been her husband. Who knows – if Romeo had never come along, he might have made a good husband for her?
  2. Romeo intends to break into Juliet’s grave secretly and kill himself alongside her dead body. He has decided that life is not worth living without her. Although Balthazar knows about Romeo and Juliet, he doesn’t know about his master’s suicidal intentions (and if he did know, he would surely try to stop him). The secrecy element is important because it readies the audience to empathise with the tragic shock when the people of Verona, and the Montague and Capulet families, discover the truth – that their petty quarrelling has caused the deaths of two beloved members of their families.
  3. Both characters are acting on the mistaken belief that Juliet is dead. Although there aren’t any direct reminders in this passage that she is actually alive, the audience already know (from a previous scene) about Juliet’s plan to fake her death: the references to her death therefore serve to compound the dramatic irony in the scene.

Now I use these three plot elements as the spine of my paragraph about plot. Notice – I initially introduce all of them in a cluster in one sentence – and then I go back and unpack them one by one through the rest of the paragraph.

Word count: c. 330 words
Quotations: 13

Model Paragraph (Plot)

Shakespeare creates tension in this extract by revealing that previous developments in the plot have put Romeo and Paris (rivals for Juliet’s love, though Paris does not know it) unwittingly on a collision course – because they both now have cause to visit Juliet’s grave in secret. Shakespeare achieves this by reminding the audience of (1) Paris’ attachment to Juliet and their engagement, of (2) Romeo’s secret and suicidal intentions as Juliet’s actual husband, and of (3) both characters’ mistaken belief that Juliet is dead. (1) First, an implicit stage direction (“give me those flowers”) emphasises that Paris has come to mourn and make his “obsequies” (prayers) at the grave of his supposedly dead fiancée (he refers to it as her “bridal bed”). (2) Meanwhile, Romeo’s dialogue offers a reminder that his intention is to kill himself in the same grave, alongside Juliet (even though he is hiding “what I further shall intend to do” from Balthazar). For example, as soon as Romeo arrives onstage, an implicit stage direction (“Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron”) signals his intention to open Juliet’s grave with these tools so that he can “descend into this bed of death” . Further implicit stage directions (“take this letter”, “take thou that”) reinforce the secrecy of his plan because the audience can deduce it is a suicide note – to be delivered to his father “in the morning”. Furthermore, although his excuse to Balthasar is that he intends to retrieve a “precious ring”, his final words to his friend and servant (“farewell, good fellow”) underline to the audience that Romeo never expects to see him again – because he intends to kill himself. (3) Lastly, this all creates dramatic irony, which is compounded by the audience’s knowledge that his “lady” (from whose “dead finger” Romeo claims to want to retrieve a ring) is not in fact dead, but only asleep. The uncertainty over whether Romeo will succeed – and what the fallout will be if he and Paris meet – helps to create tension.

Peter’s model Plot Paragraph from Act v Scene iii of Romeo and Juliet

The Setting Paragraph

How it works

The plot paragraph above shows us that it is possible to dedicate a whole paragraph to a successful discussion of how the plot alone is sustained in a Shakespeare passage: no setting, no characterisation, nothing else – just plot.

The plot is the foundation for what happens in the scene. Without it, scenes tend to feel directionless and pointless. But the setting can be pretty important too, and the setting often works in partnership with the plot. That’s certainly the case in the Shakespeare passage we’re working on here. So…

… is it possible to dedicate an entire paragraph to the setting too?

Yes, it is. I’ll show you.

When you’re trying to answer a Shakespeare extract question, this paragraph works really well if it follows hot on the heels of the plot paragraph (above) – but it doesn’t have to.

Finding setting in the passage

A green highlight identifies something we could call a setting-indicator. That means that Shakespeare is using the actors onstage to help the audience imagine the setting.

Act V Scene iii

A churchyard; in it a tomb belonging to the Capulets. [Don't forget that in performance the audience don't get to read this bit of information! So ignore it. Shakespeare has to find other ways of letting them know where the scene is set.]

[By the way, yew trees are traditionally common in English churchyards, and Shakespeare's audience will have known this - that's why I've highlighted the reference to them.]

Enter PARIS, and his Page bearing flowers and a torch

PARIS
Give me thy torch, boy: hence, and stand aloof:
Yet put it out, for I would not be seen.
Under yond yew-trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shalt hear it: whistle then to me,
As signal that thou hear'st something approach.
Give me those flowers. Do as I bid thee, go.

PAGE
[Aside] I am almost afraid to stand alone
Here in the churchyard; yet I will adventure.

Retires

PARIS
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--
O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones;--
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans:
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

The Page whistles

The boy gives warning something doth approach.
What cursed foot wanders this way to-night,
To cross my obsequies and true love's rite?
What with a torch! muffle me, night, awhile.

Retires

Enter ROMEO and BALTHASAR, with a torch, mattock, etc

ROMEO
Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.
Hold, take this letter; early in the morning
See thou deliver it to my lord and father.
Give me the light: upon thy life, I charge thee,
Whate'er thou hear'st or seest, stand all aloof,
And do not interrupt me in my course.
Why I descend into this bed of death,
Is partly to behold my lady's face;
But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring, a ring that I must use
In dear employment: therefore hence, be gone:
But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

BALTHASAR
I will be gone, sir, and not trouble you.

ROMEO
So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that:
Live, and be prosperous: and farewell, good fellow.

BALTHASAR
[Aside] For all this same, I'll hide me hereabout:
His looks I fear, and his intents I doubt.

Retires

Adapted from source: shakespeare.mit.edu

Pulling out the main points (Setting)

The green highlights above cue the audience to imagine the following key aspects of the setting:

  • It’s night-time – so it’s dark and difficult to see
  • We’re outside – so the characters are exposed
  • We’re in a churchyard – a morbid setting which might be quite a disconcerting place in which to hang around when it’s dark.

Model Paragraph (Setting)

Now here’s my model paragraph. Like the Plot Paragraph, it contains three main ideas about how the setting is important in creating tension – based on the setting indicators I’ve found in the passage. And as before, I introduce them in a cluster – and then go back to unpack them one by one:

Word count: c. 330 words
Quotations: 11

If the existing plot underpins the tension in this passage, the same plot brings us to Shakespeare’s night-time churchyard setting, which is also important in creating tension. Supported through the dialogue (the “yew trees” referred to by Paris were a common feature in English graveyards) the setting generally (1) heightens uncertainty over what will happen, (2) creates a morbid atmosphere, and (3) compounds the impression that both Paris and Romeo are performing private and secret acts. (1) First, the night-time setting creates uncertainty through opportunities for mistaken identity and deception. For example, both Paris (“Give me thy torch, boy”) and Romeo (“Give me the light”) issue implicit stage directions to emphasise how dark and difficult to see it is (important in the daylight of the open-air Globe Theatre) and for a similar reason Paris tells his page to put out the light (“for I would not be seen”) and sends him to listen out for anyone approaching. (2) Secondly, the churchyard setting is morbid in character. For example, Paris imagines the lifeless “canopy” of “dust and stones” above Juliet. Similarly, the Page’s confession in an aside that “I am almost afraid to stand alone / Here in the churchyard” emphasises the frightening situation. Furthermore, the Page is asked by Paris to keep his ear to the “hollow ground,” whilst Romeo calls it a “hungry churchyard” – characterisations which remind us that the churchyard is already full of dead bodies, and able to accommodate more. This morbid character anticipates the tragic and premature death of these three young people: Paris, Romeo, and Juliet. (3) Lastly, the setting helps to characterise Paris’ and Romeo’s activity as private and secret. For example, both men command their companions to stand “aloof” (distant), and Paris tells his page to put out the light because “I would not be seen”, whilst Romeo clearly instructs Balthazar: “do not interrupt me.” As well as facilitating plot, therefore, the setting itself brings uncertainty, morbidity, and secrecy, which help to sustain tension.

Peter’s model Setting Paragraph from Act v Scene iii of Romeo and Juliet

The Structure Paragraph

How it works

If the Plot Paragraph and the Setting Paragraph dealt with the foundations on which this scene is built, the Structure Paragraph begins to look at the nuts and bolts: how things fit together; how things actually play out and develop as the passage progresses.

In other words:

What actually happens in the passage and how does it help us answer the Shakespeare extract question?

Again, I’ll show you what I mean through a model paragraph.

Finding structure in the passage

A pink highlight identifies structuring of the scene by Shakespeare. That means that Shakespeare is controlling the order of events and the composition of the scene: who arrives, who leaves, who stays, which traps are set and which triggers are tripped.

Act V Scene iii

A churchyard; in it a tomb belonging to the Capulets.

Enter PARIS, and his Page bearing flowers and a torch

PARIS
Give me thy torch, boy: hence, and stand aloof:
Yet put it out, for I would not be seen.
Under yond yew-trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shalt hear it: whistle then to me,
As signal that thou hear'st something approach.
Give me those flowers. Do as I bid thee, go.

PAGE
[Aside] I am almost afraid to stand alone
Here in the churchyard; yet I will adventure.

Retires

PARIS
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--
O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones;--
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans:
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

The Page whistles

The boy gives warning something doth approach.
What cursed foot wanders this way to-night,
To cross my obsequies and true love's rite?
What with a torch! muffle me, night, awhile.

Retires

Enter ROMEO and BALTHASAR, with a torch, mattock, etc

ROMEO
Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.
Hold, take this letter; early in the morning
See thou deliver it to my lord and father.
Give me the light: upon thy life, I charge thee,
Whate'er thou hear'st or seest, stand all aloof,
And do not interrupt me in my course.
Why I descend into this bed of death,
Is partly to behold my lady's face;
But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring, a ring that I must use
In dear employment: therefore hence, be gone:
But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

BALTHASAR
I will be gone, sir, and not trouble you.

ROMEO
So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that:
Live, and be prosperous: and farewell, good fellow.

BALTHASAR
[Aside] For all this same, I'll hide me hereabout:
His looks I fear, and his intents I doubt.

Retires

Adapted from source: shakespeare.mit.edu

OK, let’s just sum up, in really basic terms, what happens in this passage:

Pulling out the main points (Structure)

  • Two guys, Paris and Romeo, turn up – one after the other – at the same particular place: Juliet’s tomb.
  • Each has the intention of doing something special and private at this place.
  • Each of them brings a servant along with them.
  • Each of them gives that servant instructions that are in some way meant to protect their privacy.
  • But neither character is 100% successful: the first one (Paris) gets interrupted before he can get started, and the second one (Romeo) gets spied on by the first one, and then by his own servant.

Hopefully you can see now how this paragraph is going to be different from the Plot Paragraph:

Plot ParagraphStructure Paragraph
Looks at how our passage fits in with the play as a whole.Looks at how things fit together in the passage.
The difference between the Plot Paragraph and the Structure Paragraph

Model Paragraph (Structure)

In the model below, I show you how you can put the ideas above into a successful paragraph in response to your Shakespeare extract question.

Just as with the Plot Paragraph and the Setting Paragraph, I introduce my main ideas in a cluster first, and then I spend the rest of the paragraph unpacking them.

Word count: c. 320 words
Quotations: 8

With the setting and plot in place, the structuring of this part of the scene also serves to create tension, because sequentially the audience watches both Paris and Romeo make (1) provisions aimed at protecting the sensitive and private acts they intend to carry out – and then watches (2) those provisions get frustrated, resulting in (3) unfinished business. Shakespeare stages two successive men arriving onstage and (1) making provision for a private act by trying to make sure that they are not going to be interrupted or spied on. However, there is first (2) uncertainty as to whether their provisions will be successful, and subsequently (3) irresolution when they are not successful: the first (Paris) get interrupted, and the second (Romeo) gets spied on. For example, (1) Paris first instructs the Page to keep his distance (“hence, and stand aloof”) and likewise Romeo tells Balthazar to “stand all aloof”, indicating the desire of each character for privacy. Then, (2) by getting Paris to send the Page away to keep watch and to “whistle” a “signal” if he hears anyone approaching, Shakespeare creates an irresolution in the scene until the boy “gives warning” and does in fact whistle. (3) The ultimate failure of Paris’ and Romeo’s provisions makes for irresolution over what the outcome will be. (i) First, Paris’ wish to perform his “obsequies” and “true love’s rite” undisturbed is frustrated by the arrival or Romeo. This sets up the further irresolution of Paris’ hiding (“muffle me, night, awhile”) at the point where Romeo comes onstage. (ii) Secondly, Balthazar’s aside stating his intention to “hide me here about” (when he has assured Romeo that “I will be gone”) on account of his “fear” and “doubt” over his master, followed by Balthazar’s own concealment onstage rather than exiting, creates a second layer of irresolution, so that two characters are now spying on Romeo. The sequential setting up and failure of plans therefore defines the passage and helps to create tension.

Peter’s model Structure Paragraph from Act v Scene iii of Romeo and Juliet

You’ll notice that I’ve split Point 3 into (i) and (ii). That’s because Paris and Romeo ‘fail’ to get the privacy they want in slightly different ways – so it just requires a bit more explaining.

Finally, in case you’re interested, I’ve produced the same extract below with all my colour-coded highlights – so you can see them all at the same time.

A churchyard; in it a tomb belonging to the Capulets. [Don't forget that in performance the audience don't get to read this bit of information! Shakespeare has to find other ways of letting them know where the scene is set.]

Enter PARIS, and his Page bearing flowers and a torch

PARIS
Give me thy torch, boy: hence, and stand aloof:
Yet put it out, for I would not be seen.
Under yond yew-trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shalt hear it: whistle then to me,
As signal that thou hear'st something approach.
Give me those flowers. Do as I bid thee, go.

PAGE
[Aside] I am almost afraid to stand alone
Here in the churchyard; yet I will adventure.

Retires

PARIS
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--
O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones;--
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans:
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

The Page whistles

The boy gives warning something doth approach.
What cursed foot wanders this way to-night,
To cross my obsequies and true love's rite?
What with a torch! muffle me, night, awhile.

Retires

Enter ROMEO and BALTHASAR, with a torch, mattock, etc

ROMEO
Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.
Hold, take this letter; early in the morning
See thou deliver it to my lord and father.
Give me the light: upon thy life, I charge thee,
Whate'er thou hear'st or seest, stand all aloof,
And do not interrupt me in my course.
Why I descend into this bed of death,
Is partly to behold my lady's face;
But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring, a ring that I must use
In dear employment: therefore hence, be gone:
But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

BALTHASAR
I will be gone, sir, and not trouble you.

ROMEO
So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that:
Live, and be prosperous: and farewell, good fellow.

BALTHASAR
[Aside] For all this same, I'll hide me hereabout:
His looks I fear, and his intents I doubt.

Retires

Adapted from source: shakespeare.mit.edu

That’s all for now. How helpful did you find this guide? How can I make it better? I’d love to hear your comments below.

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