Go ahead and tilt your mobile the right way (portrait). The kool kids don't use landscape...
Whether you’re studying english, literature or even language it’s hard to avoid Shakespeare. So, we’re going to take a broad look at: Shakespeare’s historical context, his language, and of course, what this means for interpreting his plays. Since Shakespeare has so many plays chances are your text will be excluded. Instead I’m going to use Othello as a case study.
Othello follows the Moorish general Othello and his relationship with his wife, Desdemona. The antagonist Iago is jealous that Cassio was made Lieutenant instead of him, and seeks vengeance on Othello. Iago attempts to destroy Othello’s reputation, and uses the rich but foolish Roderigo to fund his revenge plot. Through careful manipulation of his Wife Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, sending him into an obsessive jealousy. When Emilia steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of Othello’s love, and Desdemona cannot produce it, Othello believes he has all the information necessary to condemn Desdemona. He smothers her to death, before Emilia reveals Iago’s involvement. Othello, struck by regret, stabs himself, declaring that he “loved not wisely but too well”
So who is this Shakespeare guy? And more importantly, what kind of a world did he live in?
Shakespeare was born in England in 1564, in the middle of the Renaissance Period. This period of “rebirth” was categorised by the increasing reliance on ancient classical authors for information about the world. This is why Shakespeare plots are famously reinterpretations of Ancient histories and Roman plays. Changes in education resulted in the Elizabethan moral and social customs being questioned. This included the Divine Right of Kings, and notions of gender and identity.
Religion is also significant in this period, and the Protestant Reformation is a subject often alluded to by Shakespeare. It is necessary to contextualise Shakespeare within the Renaissance period, because as you will see, themes, words, and references that make very little sense to us were common knowledge in Shakespeare’s time, and understanding them boosts our appreciation of his work.
Now that we understand when Shakespeare was writing, let’s look at how.
Starting as broadly as possible, Shakespeare’s difficult-to-read language is actually Early-Modern English, and so many words Shakespeare used are either lost or unused in modern English. Any good copy of Shakespeare will have definitions of these words in the margin or opposite page.
Moving in closer, we have the two types of plays, Tragedy and Comedy.
Comedy is tonally more light-hearted, and has an apparently happy-ending. These are Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It among others. Despite being made to entertain, they are rarely unsophisticated, and the genre may mask something more sinister. For example, the character of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is entertaining and presented as self-obsessed, but could be used as an example of Shakespeare critiquing masculinity in Elizabethan society, as Malvolio feels entitled to Olivia’s affections.
Tragedies cannot be defined by their tone, however. They are defined by a tragic hero, who has a fatal flaw or Hamartia that results in their downfall. This may be Othello’s Jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition, or Brutus’ naivety in Julius Caesar. These traits all cause the tragic heroes’ demise, as their hamartia leads them to make bad decisions or fail to address the real evil. Tragedies will usually end in the unnecessary loss of lives and an unhappy ending for all involved. Most of Shakespeare’s plays fit into tragedy, including most of those based on historical figures. An analysis considering the conventions of Tragedy--like hamartia and tragic heroes--is a great way to stand out when discussing Shakespeare, and so when interpreting a tragedy you should consider what about it is tragic. For example, is Othello a tragedy because Iago is able to manipulate Othello, or is Othello’s jealousy and mistrust ever-present? Either of these options reveals Othello to be a tragedy, however they both say different things about the characters and plot. If Iago manipulates Othello, the tragedy is because a fundamental good person is corrupted. However if Othello was always mistrusting, the play becomes tragic as the audience must watch an unloving marriage slowly dissolve.
Next, we have the two ways Shakespeare formats his dialogue. Students will often focus on what the characters say without considering how it is said. Knowing the difference between Verse and Prose and how they are used is an easy way to stand out in an essay.
Verse is essentially poetry, where one line follows another. It can rhyme, but often doesn’t. What Shakespeare verse will ALWAYS do, however, is follow the Iambic Pentameter. This is a line of poetry with 10 syllables where every second syllable is stressed. This creates a kind of bounce or flow like a heartbeat. The easiest way to recognise this is to count the syllables in each line: thus / do / i / ev / er / make / my / fool / my / purse. Pay attention to when it is not followed, or when characters are interrupted during the pentameter. When the pentameter is interrupted by another character, look at who is interrupting it. It is likely to reveal a power dynamic between the two characters. Alternatively, a character finishing the pentameter, literally finishing their sentence, could be a symbol of love or affection between them. Using linguistic devices like the iambic pentameter as evidence shows an understanding of the text beyond the words spoken
The alternative format is prose. It’s used quite sparingly so look out for it. Is the way we speak normally in conversation, or how a normal novel is written. You can tell a character is speaking in prose as it’s usually just a big chunk of text. Shakespeare’s prose can reveal different things, so it depends on the context and the character using it. In act 1 scene 3 of Othello, Iago speaks to Roderigo in prose and then transitions to verse once Roderigo leaves. This displays Iago’s ability to code-switch and manipulate those around him with words. Prose is considered more simplistic, so in order to control Roderigo, who is presented as quite dumb, Iago relies on simple language, bringing himself to Roderigo’s level. This is directly contrasted with Iago’s use of the complex verse form, which he uses at all other times.
We’ve now covered Shakespeare’s historical context, his play styles, and his dialogue, but what should we look for when reading Shakespeare that allows us to use this information in a text response or close passage analysis. I’ve already given some examples of how Shakespeare’s language is relevant to his themes, but I’m going to give a rough guide of what themes are common in Shakespeare’s plays, and how they are shown in the language.
Fate versus free-will
This is a theme that can lead to a long discussion and gives you the opportunity to express your own opinion. Are the characters acting with free-will, or is some other force impacting their fate? This isn’t really in Othello, so let’s look quickly at Macbeth; if we consider fate versus free-will with the characteristics of a tragedy in mind, then the tragic hero must act freely even though his ‘fatal flaw’ will lead to his demise. However, the inclusion of the witches in Macbeth subverts the tragic structure and implies Macbeth is being toyed with. Even though Macbeth believes he is in control his fate is met, so is it a coincidence that his decisions fulfill his fate, or was the Witches’ prophecy real?
Appearance versus reality
The different uses of verse and prose are a good way to show when characters are genuine or performing for others. I have already mentioned how Iago ‘code-switches’ by using prose to speak to Roderigo, appearing simple and ‘laid-back,’ but his revelatory soliloquy in verse displays his true nature, both in the content of the speech, and the way it is presented.
Order and disorder
In Othello, disorder could be represented by Iago, destabilising the lives of those around him through his use of rhetoric and manipulation. Order is then returned when Iago is revealed and Othello takes his life, recognising himself as tragically misused. Analysing the theme of order and disorder would support the interpretation that Othello is a good man controlled and abused by disorder and manipulation.
So, hopefully this very brief introduction helps you get into Shakespeare! Even if I didn’t cover your text, the use of tragic heroes, prose, verse, and iambic pentameter are things evident in all Shakespeare plays, so you just have to make it relevant to your text. And remember that in order to read Shakespeare, one must first read Shakespeare. It may take several readings or viewings to grasp what is happening in the play, only after that can you start to analyse in the way I have today.
Get our FREE VCE English Text Response mini-guide
Now quite sure how to nail your text response essays? Then download our free mini-guide, where we break down the art of writing the perfect text-response essay into three comprehensive steps.
Much Ado About Nothing is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies, and is in fact the most performed of his plays – even more than Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. While it was also popular in Shakespeare’s time, its themes are still very contemporary. Much Ado About Nothing is a story of mixed-up love, lies and deceit, themes that are still prevalent in current hit movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, or 10 Things I Hate About You. The banter between Beatrice and Benedick is amusing and ridiculous, and the ensuing drama between Hero and Claudio is probably not far off the modern drama in the relationships of your friends.
Much Ado About Nothing explores themes of love, the ways that we can be opposed to love and relationships, the position of women and necessity of marriage, and the ways we can deceive each other and ourselves. If you’ve ever felt attracted to someone who really pushed your buttons, felt a spark with someone the first time you saw them, experienced your friends’ relationship drama, said you’d never have a relationship because study is too important, or even maybe tried to play matchmaker for two people, this play is for you! Love is a beautiful and yet frustratingly unavoidable part of life, and Shakespeare shows us the many ways in which people can react to this and manipulate this for their own desires. This play uses comedy to reassure us that mistakes and misunderstandings in love are an innate part of humanity, as we struggle to communicate how we feel towards another person. Further, it is a play about how we stage these relationships to one another and questions whether true love needs an audience at all. As you’ll see, it’s very much a play about appearance and reality, and deception and truth – these are the kinds of questions that humanity will always face when dealing with love.
Themes / Motifs
Marriage and its effects on Freedom
Marriage acts as the primary source of the drama that unfolds in the play, and the main factor that drives its romantic plot forward. Much Ado About Nothing explores the paramount importance the Elizabethan society placed upon the notion of marriage, and the threat this often placed upon the free will of many individuals. This is primarily perceivable in the characters of Benedick, who compares the married man to a tame and lifeless animal, and Beatrice, who disparages the idea of saccharin romance and thus ‘mocks all her wooers out of suit’.
Chastity and Family Honour
Much Ado About Nothing also examines the social concept that a woman should act gracefully and stay ‘chaste' until marriage in order to bring honour to her family. Claudio’s public rejection and public humiliation of Hero during their wedding ceremony acts as the climax of the plot and a direct representation of the societal values in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare assumes an arguably feminist stance in his implied denouncement of this despotic treatment of women, who were expected to lose all social standing if they happened to lose their virginity before marriage. The extent of this cruelty is emphasised by the harsh, obliterative words of Leonato, as in his belief that Hero is unchaste, he proclaims his own daughter as ‘stained’ and ‘fallen into a pit of ink’, having brought dishonour upon his entire family.
Much of the play’s plot is driven by both accidental and deliberate deception, of which almost every character is a victim. False language in Much Ado About Nothing is so prevalent that it obliterates the truth and forms an alternate kind of society, in which characters assume the very roles chosen for them by the lies spread about them by others. For example, the rumours that Benedick and Beatrice are in love lead to their marriage, and Hero is treated as a whore by her own father due to Claudio’s denunciation of her as ‘every man’s Hero’. Despite this, Shakespeare examines both the positive and detrimental effects of such deceit; just as the duping of Claudio and Don Pedro culminates in Hero’s social demise, her faked death also allows her to reconcile with Claudio and attain her public redemption.
Perception and Reality
The defining characteristic of Much Ado About Nothing is that nothing of material actually happens in the plot, other than marriage. There are no real fights, deaths, trials, illnesses or sexual encounters - the only perceivable change in the play is the perception of various events and characters, such as whether Hero is a virgin, or whether Claudio and Benedick will fight - hence its name, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
Used to represent the idea of perception in the play, eyes are often utilised by Shakespeare when characters’ perceptions are distorted by the deceptive actions of others. Much like Claudio’s rhetorical question, ‘Are our eyes our own?’, the play questions the extent to which others affect an individual’s way of thought.
Beards act as a complex emblem of masculinity in Much Ado About Nothing. Benedick’s autonomous bachelorhood is symbolised by his full, rugged beard, whereas Claudio’s clean, shaven face is a token of his ‘softness’ and emotional vulnerability. In tandem with this, Beatrice’s aversion to beards represents her scorn for men in general. It is important to note that the action of shaving one’s beard is a symbol that accompanies the act of getting married - Benedick’s first action as a married man is to shave his beard, and by doing such, allowing himself to be as vulnerable with Beatrice as ‘Lord Lack-beard’ Claudio is with Hero.
The Savage Bull
Don Pedro’s taunting of Benedick that “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke,” symbolises the act of a free-willed man succumbing to the attractive comfort of marriage. The notion that marriage can be a kind of prison to men is repeatedly alluded to in the play through the symbol of the ‘savage bull’; just as the bull is tamed by humans’ training, the free bachelor is tamed by responsibility when he is married. However, the image of marriage shifts in the play along with a transformed imagery of the bull, as Claudio assures Benedick that his horns will be ‘tipped with gold’ and love through his marriage. This suggests that while it may seem like an intimidating and suffocating prospect, marriage can also provide infinite warmth and comfort to those who embrace it.
Niece of Leonato and cousin of Hero.
Although kind to her loved ones and described as ‘pleasant-spirited’, she is extremely witty and cynical, particularly towards Benedick, whom she once loved but now engages in constant bickering with.
Shakespeare’s symbol of early feminism, as she is a character of justice and female autonomy, vowing at the beginning of the play that she will never marry a man in order to keep her freedom.
A lord, recently returned from fighting in the wars.
Just like Beatrice, he also vows that he will never marry and stay a liberal bachelor.
Although he often retorts Beatrice’s snide remarks and sarcastic wit with insulting retort, his observant friends perceive an underlying affection for her beneath his facade of apathy.
The main character through which Shakespeare explores the theme of deception and performance; as a natural entertainer, it is difficult for the audience to comprehend whether he is merely pretending to be in love with Beatrice, or genuinely in love with her.
The beautiful, gentle and graceful daughter of Leonato.
The quintessential and ideal woman of the Elizabethan era, as she is obedient to her father and cherished for her perceived pureness and chastity.
A young, handsome and widely appraised soldier who has attained great public acclaim through his noble fighting under Don Pedro’s command.
Falls in love with Hero immediately upon his return to Messina.
Although depicted as the ideal male Elizabethan hero, his suspicious and doubtful nature results in his downfall, as he is quick to fall for deliberate lies and wicked rumours, even about those closest to him.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the Prince’, Don Pedro is an established nobleman from Aragon and longtime friend of Leonato.
A character with two faces; although socially adept and courteous in his public actions, he is, like Claudio, quick to fall for rumours and takes hasty revenge on those who fail his expectations. Through this characteristic of Don Pedro, Shakespeare condemns the hypocrisy of societal expectations, presenting the idea that propriety can often cover devious intent.
Also referred to as ‘the Bastard’, Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro.
Perpetually melancholy and dispirited due to his social standing as an outcast, he devises a treacherous plan to ruin the happy courtship between Hero and Claudio.
Despite Shakespeare’s depiction of Don John as the villain of the play, many of his characteristics suggest rather that he is merely an individual driven to commit evil deeds due to his inherent inferiority to his brother, and constant rejection by a prejudiced society.
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”
This quote by Beatrice represents her aversion to the idea of marriage and her belief that no man will ever be able to satisfy her.
As it was widely believed that the beard of a man symbolised his manliness and maturity, this conundrum suggests that Beatrice believes that no man, whether a man without a beard or a boy with one, will be able to win her love or admiration.
“The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.”
This quote is Benedick’s mocking, sarcastic reply to Don Pedro’s adage about how all men, even the wildest of them, eventually settle down to become married.
The ‘sensible Benedick’ here refers to a Benedick who is too clever and pragmatic to yield to the fleeting attractions of true love, as he knows that he will be disappointed by it soon enough. His imaginative scene of himself with ‘bull’s horns’ on his head symbolise the Renaissance belief that cuckolds, or men whose wives committed adultery, grew horns on their heads due to their futility. Thus, Benedick here is implying that part of his disinclination towards marriage stems from his fear that his wife will be unfaithful to him.
“But now I am returned and that war thoughts have left their places vacant, in their rooms come thronging soft and delicate desires, all prompting me how fair young Hero is, saying I liked her ere I went to wars.”
Claudio here describes his swift transformation from a war hero to a passionate lover of Hero. The change that occurred in Claudio is so rapid that it is more of a passive event that occurred to him, rather than something that he chose of his own volition.
As such, Shakespeare uses this quote to emphasise his volatile character and foreshadow the swiftness with which Claudio later disowns his feelings for Hero and humiliates her.
Sample Essay Topics
Quote-Based Essay Prompt
1. "I am a plain dealing villain." Don John is the only honest character. Discuss
How-Based Essay Prompt
2. How does Shakespeare use music and poetry to convey love and the intricacies of communication?
Metalanguage-Based Essay Prompt
3. Discuss Shakespeare's use of symbols throughout the play and how they relate to the concepts of appearance and reality.
Note: You’ll notice that each essay (or prompt, as we like to use interchangeably), has been labelled a particular type of prompt (theme-based, character-based, etc.). While we won’t go into detail with the types of prompts in this blog, in LSG’s How To Write A Killer Text Response, we explore the five different types of essay prompts. By identifying the type of essay prompt, you’ll immediately understand how you should answer the essay prompt so that you satisfy the VCAA criteria for your SACs and exams. This approach to essays is incredibly valuable as it saves you precious time during assessments, while ensuring you don’t go off topic.
Essay Topic Breakdowns
Character-based essay prompt
Much Ado About Nothing is primarily Shakespeare’s strong argument for feminism and female autonomy.
1. Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing utilises the character of Beatrice as the quintessential strong female hero, and thus encourages female autonomy.
Beatrice’ strong, independent spirit and fierce wit defines her as the most powerful female character in the play. Her desire to remain a ‘maid’, uncommon in the times as every woman was expected to aspire to marriage, is a striking emblem of feminism, as her self-governance and liberated spirit is depicted.
Beatrice is also perceivably masculine - she even expresses her desire to have been born a man in her patriarchal society, stating, ’I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.’ As such, Shakespeare advocates that society should accept a more diverse range of women, including those with more masculine characteristics.
2. In tandem with this, the character of Hero is employed as an instrument through which Shakespeare condemns the harsh societal expectations of women.
The public humiliation of Hero as ‘unchaste’, or sexually loose, results in her rejection both from society and her own family, including her previously doting father, Leonato.
As such, Hero’s devastating plight reminds the audience that being a woman in the Renaissance meant that one was constantly vulnerable to inferior treatment compared to men, and their harsh judgments - even from male relatives or close ones.
3. Ultimately, the repeatedly negative connotations of marriage expressed by female characters highlights the lack of autonomy women possessed in the Shakespearean era.
Beatrice’s extreme aversion to marriage, as she ‘cannot endure to hear tell of a husband’, suggests that it was not all women’s choice to marry but rather a heavy societal burden placed over their heads.
Hero is perceived to have almost no agency or self-determination when choosing a life partner, perceivable by Leonato’s reminder to her, 'Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer.’ As Hero expresses that her heart is ‘exceedingly heavy’ on her wedding day, the audience is positioned to question the extent of power that fathers held over their daughter’s fates in the Elizabethan era.
Theme-based essay prompt
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare argues that deception always results in negative consequences.
1. Deception is portrayed as a negative tool in Much Ado About Nothing, as trickery leads to tragic events, as Don John’s lies directly results in Hero’s social demise and the destruction of her relationship with Claudio.
Don John’s deceitful words to Claudio before their wedding, “I came hither to tell you, and, circumstances shortened—for[Hero] has been too long a-talking of—the lady is disloyal,” lead to Claudio’s public humiliation of Hero as every man’s Hero’ - an unfaithful woman.
The catastrophic outcome of this highlights the negative power of deception and the danger of being swayed by mere hearsay, as Hero is not only scorned by all of society, but also disowned by her own father, who wishes death upon himself and his ‘stained’ daughter.
2. Despite this, deception is not always detrimental in Much Ado About Nothing, in which deliberate trickery leads to the resolution of the main romantic conflict between Beatrice and Benedick.
The act of deceiving Benedick and Beatrice that the other is in love with them eventually leads to their marriage - the resolution of the main conflict of the play.
Although Benedick is firmly against the idea of being contained by marriage in the beginning of the play, he becomes a passionate lover as soon as he hears the false words, “Did you know Beatrice is madly in love with Benedick?”, declaring that he ‘will be horribly in love with her’ thenceforth.
Similarly, Beatrice is also positively influenced by deceptive words, as the audience can discern her transformation from a ‘flighty maid’ to a woman full of genuine affection of Benedick - perceivable by the end of the play, in which she delivers the lines, ‘Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand,’ as if releasing the very last fragment of her stubborn heart to him.
3. In a similar vein, Hero’s staged and thus deceptive death results in her social and familial redemption, as well as the saving of her marriage with Claudio.
In order to punish Claudio for his mistakes, Leonato’s household publicly ‘publishes’ that Hero has died.
The idea of Hero’s death brings so much guilt to Claudio that he begins to remember all of her benevolent qualities in a fit of misery, delivering the lines, ‘Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I loved it first.’
Leonato asks Claudio to marry his niece (Hero in disguise) instead of the ‘dead’ Hero, and as Claudio tearfully agrees, the redemptive masquerade through which Hero and Claudio reconcile symbolises the positive factors of deception.
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. If you're you’d like to read completed A+ essays based off the two essay topics above, as well as the ones listed below, complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can emulate this same success, then I would highly recommend checking out LSG's Killer Text Guide: Much Ado About Nothing. In it, we also cover themes, characters, views and values, metalanguage and have 4 other sample A+ essays completely annotated so you can smash your next SAC or exam! Check it out here.
Themes, motifs and symbols are different kinds of narrative elements - they’re parts of a story that help to shape its overall effect. However, even though they’re words we use all the time in our English studies, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference!
This post will take you through some definitions, give you some examples and show you how you can use them in essays too. Let’s start with the broadest of the three…
What Is a Theme?
A theme is an idea or a subject that an author wants to explore. Themes appear throughout a work, and they’re often abstract ideas rather than concrete images that you can explicitly identify. Themes usually appear in interactions: for example, a parent reuniting with a child might evoke the theme of parenthood or family, an experience of discrimination might evoke the theme of prejudice or racism, a character facing a difficult choice might evoke the theme of morality or conflict, and so on. As you might be able to see, themes can require us to read between the lines because they are usually implied.
What Is a Motif?
A motif is something a bit more specific. Rather than an abstract idea, we’re looking for a concrete object (usually physical items, but also potentially sounds, places, actions, situations or phrases) that returns time and time again throughout a text. This repetition of motifs helps to create structure for a text - it can tether parts of the story to or around a central image. Because motifs are often linked to a theme, they can also serve as a reminder of that theme’s importance. For example, if the central theme was family or parenthood, the author might create a bird’s nest outside a character’s room; as we watch the bird and the chicks grow throughout the text, parallels are also drawn back to the theme.
What Is a Symbol?
You can think of symbols as motifs minus the repetition. It’s the more default word we use when referring to an object that represents an idea, and unlike a motif, symbols only need to appear once to have an impact. They can simply tell us more about a character or situation in that instant, at that specific time, rather than being a parallel or recurring throughout a text. However, they’re still identified in a similar way to motifs: symbols are also concrete objects and they’re still connected to themes.
Examples of Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Here are some text-specific examples for a closer look at these terms:
Themes usually come across in interactions, and a possible first step to identifying them is thinking about if an interaction is good or bad, and why. For example:
In Rear Window, one of the neighbours berates everyone else for failing to notice their dog’s death.
This is a bad interaction because:
a dog dying is never any good
it tells us that none of these neighbours are looking out for or really care about each other
someone may have killed the dog
The theme we might identify here is duty. The film might suggest that we have a duty to look out for our neighbours (without sacrificing their privacy) or to do our part to keep the neighbourhood safe from potential criminals.
Another example might be:
In The Great Gatsby, the Sloanes invite Gatsby over for dinner without really meaning it.
This is a bad interaction because:
it tells us how nasty the Sloanes are
Gatsby still seems to be a misfit despite his wealth
Tom is at best complicit in the Sloanes’ insincerity
The themes here might be society, wealth and class. This interaction shows us where these characters really stand with regard to these categories or ideas. Because he is ‘new money’, Gatsby cannot understand or fit in with the cruel and disingenuous customs of ‘old money’.
Most interactions in a text will fit into a theme somewhere, somehow - that’s why it’s been included in the story! Try to identify the themes as you go, or maintain lists of interactions and events for different themes. Because themes are so broad, they’re useful for guiding your understanding of a text, particularly as you’re reading it. They also provide a great foundation for essay planning since you can draw on events across the text to explore a certain theme.
Identifying and Using Motifs & Symbols
While themes can generally appear in texts without the author needing to make too much of an effort, motifs and symbols have to be used really consciously. A lot of interactions might just be natural to the plot, but the author has to take extra care to insert a symbol or motif into the story.
To identify either, pay attention to objects that might feel unusual or even unnecessary to the scene at first - from the examples above, Gatsby showing Daisy his shirts might seem like a strange detail to include, but it’s actually an important symbol in that moment. Then, you go into the brainstorming of what the object could represent -in this case, Gatsby’s newfound wealth. Symbols in particular often appear at turning points: the relationship between two characters might take a turn, an important sacrifice might be made or perhaps someone crosses a point of no return - all of these are potential plot points for the author to include symbols. For motifs, look more for repetition. If we’re always coming back to an image or an object, like Daisy’s green light or Lisa Fremont’s dresses, then it’s likely that image or object has significance.
Symbols and motifs can be more subtle than themes, but they will also help to set your essay apart if you find a way to include them. You’d usually include them as a piece of evidence (with or without a quote) and analyse what they tell us about a theme. For example:
On the surface, Gatsby appears to be financially successful. Over several years, he has acquired many material belongings in order to demonstrate his great wealth. For example, Fitzgerald includes a scene featuring Gatsby tossing his many ‘beautiful’ shirts onto Daisy, who sobs as she admires them. This display of wealth represents the superficial natures of both characters, who prize material belongings over the substance of their relationship.
You don’t need a quote that’s too long or overpowering; just capture the essence of the symbol or motif and focus on what it represents. This is a really good way to show examiners how you’ve thought about a text’s construction, and the choices an author has made on what to include and why. To learn more about text construction, have a read of What Is Metalanguage?
Measure for Measure is currently studied in VCE English under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Ahh William Shakespeare. That guy. You’re probably thinking, “Great. More fancy language. Hasn’t he been dead for centuries? Why does he keep popping up in our English curriculum?”
At least, that’s how I reacted.
Shakespeare is actually a huge figure in the history of the English language, and really no high school English curriculum is complete without a mandatory dose of him. In fact, the current VCAA study design demands that one of his texts must be on the text list. What a legend.
Shakespeare doesn’t only influence our world in the classroom. The Bard coined many words and phrases that we use today. We can thank this playwright for “be -all, end-all”, “good riddance”, and my personal favourite, “swagger”.
The Bard’s play “Measure for Measure” was first performed in 1604; over 400 years ago. So why do we still study his works today? In fact, the ideas and themes that are evoked in his plays are universal and timeless; pertinent to his contemporary counterparts, as well as today’s audience. Shakespeare’s plays are like soup (bear with me, this is going somewhere). One could say the playwright is a master chef; he mixes tales of the human condition and experience and asks us to question people and ideas. Everyone, regardless of their time, will gobble up the story.
So, what is this soup- I mean ‘Measure for Measure’ about? The play is known as a “problem play” and/or “tragicomedy”. That’s right, it’s both a tragedy and a comedy. Dire trials and tribulations are intertwined with humorous gags and jokesters. I guess Shakespeare couldn’t choose just one.
‘Measure for Measure’ is also a problem play. Critic W.W Lawrence defined a problem play as one in which "a perplexing and distressing complication in human life is presented in a spirit of high seriousness ... the theme is handled so as to arouse not merely interest or excitement, or pity or amusement, but to probe the complicated interrelations of character and action, in a situation admitting of different ethical interpretations".
Ok, crazy, but he also said that "the 'problem' is not like one in mathematics, to which there is a single true solution, but is one of conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Often it cannot be reduced to any formula, any one question, since human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified.”
In short, a problem play presents lots of complications and issues that are open to different ethical interpretations. As in “Measure for Measure”, the “problem(s)” is/are not always solved.
So, what actually happens in this play that is problematic? What are our ingredients in this problem soup?
Get it? Cause soup is cooked in a pot. Sorry.
The Duke of Vienna appoints his deputy, Angelo, as the temporary leader. This Duke then pretends to leave town but instead dresses up as a friar to observe what happens in his absence. Angelo, strict and unwavering in his dedication to following the rules, decides to rid Vienna of all the unlawful sexual activity; including shutting down the brothels. Prostitutes like Mistress Overdone (pun alert) and her pimp Pompey are poised to lose their livelihoods. Laws against this activity exist, but they’ve gotten lax over the years. Angelo, a stickler for the rules, has Claudio arrested because young Claudio has gotten his engaged wife-to-be (Juliet) pregnant before they were officially married. Claudio is to be executed.
The virtuous Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is poised to enter a nunnery. Upon hearing of her brother’s arrest and sentence, she goes to Angelo to beg him for mercy. He hypocritically, in an absolutely dog move, propositions her, saying he’ll pardon her brother if she sleeps with him (with Angelo, not Claudio). She immediately refuses, being the religious and chaste woman that she is. At first Claudio is upset because he wants to live, but then he calms down and accepts death.
Luckily, the Duke (secretly dressed as a friar) helps in their sticky situation. He brews up a plan; Angelo’s former flame Mariana was engaged to him, but he broke off their engagement after she lost her dowry in a shipwreck. The Friar (Duke) plans to have Isabella agree to sleep with Angelo, but then send Mariana in her place. In theory, Angelo would pardon Claudio and be forced to marry Mariana by law.
The old switcheroo goes off without a hitch. But come morning, Angelo refuses to pardon Claudio, fearing he will seek revenge. The Duke, in collaboration with the Provost, send Angelo the head of a dead pirate (Ragozine) who died of natural causes. They claim that it’s Claudio’s head, and Angelo is satisfied, thinking him to be dead. Isabella is also told that her brother is dead and is encouraged by the Friar (Duke) to complain about Angelo to the Duke, who is returning home.
The Duke makes a grand return to Vienna, saying he will hear any complaints immediately. Isabella tells her story, and the Duke feigns disbelief, despite having orchestrated the plan himself. In an act filled with more twists and turns than a Marvel movie, everything comes out; the Duke reveals he was a friar all along, Angelo is forced to confess, and Claudio is pardoned amongst other things. To top it all off, the Duke proposes to Isabella. Crazy!
It’s important to acknowledge what was going on in the world during the writing of a text. This may help give insight into why the author has included (or not included) some aspect of their work.
The Divine Right of Kings
This holy mandate states that a monarch derives his right to rule from the will of God and is not subject to earthly authority. The “king” or monarch is hence practically divine, and questioning his orders is also questioning god; blasphemy.
The Great Chain of Being/Class divides
This chain is a hierarchy of all life forms and matter in the following order:
Kings & Royalty
Commoners (Gentry, Merchants, Yeoman, Laborers)
Hence, alongside The Divine Right of Kings, this ideal gave monarchs huge power over their subjects.
In early 1600s England, there was a defined social hierarchy and class system. Everyone had a place in the hierarchy, and there was little movement between the classes. Within each class, men were considered superior to women.
Shakespeare encourages us to ask a few questions of our supposedly holy leader and his actions. According to the Divine Right of Kings, the Duke is god’s right-hand man, and thus all his decisions are holy and backed by heaven. However, the Duke is pretty shady when he plots his bed-trick plan with Isabella and Mariana. Is this deceptive behavior still holy? Furthermore, is it not sacrilege to pretend to be a holy friar when one is not truly a holy man?
Moreover, when the Duke assigns Angelo as his deputy, would this transform Angelo into a divine ruler too? Could he be divine, considering his cruel rule and despicable request to Isabella?
Women were considered subservient, lower class citizens then men. Alliances were forged between powerful families through arranged marriages of daughters. These girls may have received an education through tutors attending their homes (there were no schools for girls), but their endgame would be marriage, children and maintaining the home. Women and girls of a lower class did not receive any formal education but would have learned how to govern a household and become skilled in all housewifely duties. Impoverished and desperate women (Mistress Overdone) would turn to prostitution to stay alive.
Shakespeare perhaps highlights the struggle of women in his female characters; Isabella, Mistress Overdone, Juliet, and Kate Keepdown. Their futures appear bleak; Isabella is poised to enter a nunnery, Juliet’s husband (her only source of income and protection) is to be executed, while the brothels that facilitate Mistress Overdone and Kate Keepdown’s livelihoods are being closed down by Angelo.
It was a tumultuous time when Shakespeare penned ‘Measure for Measure’ in 1604. A year earlier came the end of the 45 year long Elizabethan era and began the Jacobean era under the rule of King James. Since the late Queen Elizabeth had no direct heirs, King James of Scotland (a relative) took to the throne. Little was known by the English people of this foreign king.
Perhaps, as Shakespeare portrays the ruler in ‘Measure for Measure’ as clever and good-hearted, the Bard sought to appease the king by calming the people and encouraging them to trust in their new monarch.
The playwright characterizes the Duke as loving his people, but not enjoying being before their eyes and in the spotlight; much like King James, a quiet ruler who relished studying privately in his great library.
Playhouses and Brothels
The general public (commoners) paid a penny (could buy you a loaf of bread back in the day) to see Shakespeare’s plays, standing in the “yard”; on the ground, at eye-level of the stage. The rich (gentry) paid 2 pennies for seating in the galleries, often using cushions. The really rich (nobles) could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself. Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre. Playhouses in Shakespeare's time were often close to brothels, both in terms of their physical locations in the suburbs and the way they were viewed by some of polite society. Thus, Shakespeare's relatively sympathetic portrayal of sexual deviance in ‘Measure for Measure’ may also constitute a defence of other suburban entertainment—his plays—and a way to humanize lower classes who patronized them.
WRITING ABOUT 'MEASURE FOR MEASURE'
If you’re lucky enough to study this interesting piece, the study design requires you to prepare “sustained analytical interpretations…discussing how features of the text create meaning and using textual evidence to support (your) reasons”. Basically, you’ll be given a topic; this topic could surround themes, characters, etc., and you must write analytically.
While you may choose to structure paragraphs around themes, ideas or characters, make sure to embed some historical context in there; that’ll show the examiner that you’ve done your research and have a thorough and deeper understanding of why Shakespeare put this or that in. Talking about authorial intent in your analytical essay leads to a more in-depth analysis.
“Shakespeare portrays characters that are flawed as a result of pre-destined circumstances. These characters, such as bawd Pompey and prostitute Mistress Overdone, lived in a time when there existed strong class divides, and movement within the social hierarchy was rare. As per the “Great Chain of Being”, a contemporary religious dogma, there was a hierarchy of all living things and matter, from lofty God and his angels down through the ranks of men and finally to animals and non-living things. In some cases, attempting to move up the social ranks was even considered a blasphemous rejection of the fate chosen by God.”
- embedding historical context (The Great Chain of Being) into a paragraph that discusses characters being flawed because of their circumstances
“Shakespeare offers characters such as Isabella and The Duke who strive for self-improvement through understanding and temperance. Perhaps the playwright suggests that perfection is very difficult if not impossible to attain, even for a ruler like the Duke and a pure soul like Isabella. However, he posits that it can be strived for and that perhaps this attempt to become better is what truly matters.”
- talking about authorial intent - what is Shakespeare trying to tell us?
Think of it as an opportunity to make your very own soup! Add some themes, stir in character analysis, sprinkle in some quotes and serve with historical context and authorial intent. Just like with a soup, there’s got be a good balance of all your ingredients; test out different structures during the year to find what works for you. (Just try not to overcook it, like I have done with this soup metaphor). If you need more help, How To Write a Standout Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare Essay is for you!
So, you see, there’s more to Shakespeare and ‘Measure for Measure’ than just fancy old language and iambic pentameter (What’s that? Well...). Keep on reading this blog post, where we’ll delve into themes, characters and symbols/motifs. In the meantime, let’s have a break. Grab a snack, a drink, and enjoy this tasty Shakespeare meme.
...Aaaaand we’re back!
Are you ready for part 2 of the Shakespeare train? Hop on board as we explore themes, characters and symbols/motifs.
These are the major themes in ‘Measure for Measure’.
As you can see, the themes are interconnected. (Do you like the diagram? Made it myself :)) Why does this matter? Well, if you get an essay topic about Justice, for instance, you can also link it to Sexual and Gender Politics as well as Social Decay/Cohesion.
So, why is any one theme an important theme?
Which moments and characters are these themes related to?
Is there a link to historical context?
What are some key quotes?
What could be Shakespeare’s potential message? (Keep in mind that depending which pieces of evidence you look at, the Bard could be saying something different. In this piece, we’ll only discuss one or two authorial messages. The beauty of Shakespeare is that much is open to interpretation. You can interpret characters and ideas in so many different ways!)
Those are some great questions. Let’s explore some of the biggest themes...
Power and Authority
Power not only dictates the Viennese society, but we see it is a basis for moral corruption (I’m looking at you, Angelo!). The Duke is the leader of Vienna, ordained by God. He hands this power to his deputy Angelo, who misuses it in his request of Isabella. Now consider Isabella - she has power too, but a different kind… Also consider characters who have little to no power - Mistress Overdone, Pompey etc.
This theme could be linked to the Divine Right of Kings, the Great Chain of Being and Women.
“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant” - Isabella when she pleads to Angelo to not kill her brother (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 130-132)
“He who the sword of heaven will bear should be as holy as severe” - The Friar (Duke) to himself, not happy with Angelo’s dog move (Act 3, Scene 1, 538-539)
“When maidens sue, men give like gods” - Lucio to Isabella, encouraging her to convince Angelo not to kill Claudio (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 87-88)
"Hence we shall see, if power change purpose, what our seemers be.” - The Duke lowkey suggesting that once Angelo gets power, he’ll change into something evil (Act 1, Scene 4, Line 57)
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” - Escalus is sneakily hating on Angelo. This quote shows that power and authority often involve corruption (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 41)
Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that power is a dangerous weapon and that in the wrong hands, it could be deadly.
Morality and Sin
This is an interesting theme. What defines sin? For instance, if Isabella sleeps with Angelo she’s sinning before God. But if she doesn’t, then she’s letting her brother die, which is not good either. Bit of a pickle that one. Some characters to consider include Isabella, Angelo, The Duke, Claudio, Lucio, the Provost…. jeez just about everyone! So many of the characters take part in questionable deeds. Was it immoral for the Duke to pretend to be a holy friar? Is Claudio’s sin of impregnating Juliet really punishable by death if both parties were willing, and no one else has been punished for the same “crime”? Are Pompey and Mistress Overdone being immoral in being in the prostitution business, if it’s the only way to survive?
Deep stuff man. This can be linked back to class divides, women and the contemporary playhouses/brothels.
“What sin you do to save a brother’s life, nature dispenses with the deed so far that it becomes a virtue” - Claudio begs his sister to sleep with Angelo (immoral, especially since she’s poised to enter a nunnery), saying that it’s for a good cause, and will actually be a virtue/good deed (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 146-148)
“Might there not be a charity in sin to save this brother’s life?” - Angelo asking Isabella to sleep with him and trying to paint the act as a charitable deed (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 65-66)
“I am a kind of burr, I shall stick” - Lucio, who represents sin and immorality in Vienna (we’ll talk more about this later in symbols/motifs) (Act 4, Scene 3, Line 182)
“To bring you thus together ‘tis no sin, sith that the justice of your title to him doth flourish the deceit.” - The Friar (Duke), encouraging Isabella and Mariana to do the dodgy bed-trick and trick Angelo (Act 4, Scene 1, Line 79-81)
Perhaps Shakespeare tries to tell us that there is a fine line between something moral and something sinful. Maybe he’s asking, “who are we to judge?”, since we all do questionable things sometimes. Everyone from the almighty Duke to a lowly prostitute has committed potentially immoral acts. Perhaps audiences are encouraged to be more understanding of others, and their reasons for these deeds.
Mmm, this theme ties in nicely with just about all of the others. How does one define justice? The play explores this idea; does justice mean punishment? Or mercy? How do we balance the two to deliver the right punishment/lack thereof? Characters that dispense justice include The Duke, Angelo (although they have differing ideas of justice) and Isabella. Since Vienna is a religious place, consider the divine justice system (ie. a perfect, flawless system meted out by God) and the earthly one (ie. the flawed, human justice system). Laws exist in an attempt to ensure justice. But does it always work? Consider also the Old and New Testament ways of thinking - the former strict and punitive, while the latter is more measured and merciful (see symbols/motifs below for more info).
This theme can be linked to the Divine Right of Kings, Great Chain of Being, Women, and Jacobean Audience.
“Justice, justice, justice, justice!” - (Wait, are you sure this quote is about justice?) Isabella pleads for (you guessed it) justice to the Duke (no longer dressed as a friar), thinking Angelo has, in fact, killed her brother (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 26)
“The very mercy of the law cried out… ‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’ Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure, like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” - The Duke, explaining that it’s only fair that Angelo die for “killing” Claudio. (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 437-441)
“liberty plucks justice by the nose” - The Duke tells Friar Thomas that the laws have slipped over the years, and the citizens of Vienna are not being punished for immoral deeds (prostitution, sex before marriage etc)
Perhaps Shakespeare says that since we humans are inevitably flawed, that any justice system created by us will too be imperfect. Who are we to decide the fates of our fellow man? Furthermore, the Bard may be encouraging us to be kind when dispensing justice, leaning more to mercy than punishment.
Sexual and Gender Politics
Who run the world? Gir- no it’s a bunch of men. This theme contributes to why ‘Measure for Measure’ is a problem play. The exploration of the female characters in this play are very interesting, and kind of sad. Of 20 named characters, only 5 are women. Together, their lines make up only 18% of the play. Yikes! There is a lot to unpack here. Our female characters are Isabella, Mariana, Mistress Overdone, Juliet, Francisca (a nun who speaks twice) and Kate Keepdown (who we never meet). Their situations: a maiden poised to enter a nunnery, a prostitute, a pregnant girl about to lose her husband, a nun, and another prostitute. Quite gloomy, isn't it? Meanwhile, the men are leaders (The Duke, deputy Angelo, and ancient lord Escalus) and gentlemen (Lucio, Claudio, and Froth). Over the course of the play, our female characters are put into worse situations by men. Their experiences are dictated by men. Consider taking a “feminist perspective” and exploring ‘Measure for Measure’ from a female point of view.
This theme links to the Great Chain of Being, Women and Playhouses/Brothels.
“see how he goes about to abuse me!” - These are the last words we hear from Mistress Overdone, as she calls out Lucio for betraying her even though she kept secrets for him. All this happens while she’s being carted off to prison in only Act 3! What do you think Shakespeare is saying to us? (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 481)
“Then was your sin of heavier kind than his” - The Friar (Duke) says to Juliet that she sinned more than Claudio, even though their sin was “mutually committed”. Even though they were both consenting, the woman is blamed more. Consider what would become of Juliet if Claudio was executed. She’d probably end up like Mistress Overdone... (Act 2, Scene 3, Line 31)
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” - Angelo says this after Isabella threatens to reveal his disgusting request. Ouch. It really goes to show how untrustworthy women are deemed. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 163)
“Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” - The Duke says this to Mariana. Basically, he says a woman can only be those 3 things. Jeez. (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 196-197)
“When maidens sue, men give like gods” - Lucio to Isabella, encouraging her to convince Angelo not to kill Claudio. So, perhaps women do have some power. But, it’s due to their sexuality; something evaluated by men. Peachy. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 87-88)
Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that women are treated unfairly in society. Maybe he posits that women are afforded so few opportunities in a man’s world. The Bard potentially says that such sexual and gender politics do not create a cohesive and just society.
This theme, again, connects to many others. It can link to all groups of people (The wealthy, the poor, women, criminals etc). Most of the mercy is dispensed at the end of the play when the Duke does his grand reveal. Characters who choose to mete out mercy over punishment include The Duke and Isabella. Also consider Angelo, who instead of choosing to spare Claudio, decides to kill him to uphold a law that hasn’t seen anyone punished for the same deed. We might think this is harsh, but it a legal and lawful decision.
Connect this idea with historical context, specifically Jacobean audience and playhouses/brothels.
“I find an apt remission in myself” - Apt remission = ready forgiveness. The Duke says this after pardoning Angelo (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 539)
“pray thee take this mercy to provide for better times to come” - The Duke pardons murderer Barnadine, asking him to use it to do better. How lovely! (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 525-526)
“let us be keen (shrewd/sharp), and rather cut a little than fall and bruise to death” - Escalus says this to Angelo, who wants to enact all strict laws immediately. The ever-reliable Escalus advises Angelo to be lenient and merciful. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 6-7)
“Mercy is not itself that oft looks so, pardon is still the nurse of second woe” - Escalus says this, defending Angelo’s decision to punish Claudio. He suggests that sometimes being merciful can encourage further wrongdoing. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 282-283”)
“I show it (pity) most of all when I show justice” - Angelo says to Isabella that he is showing Claudio pity/mercy by punishing him. A firm believer in the law, Angelo thinks he’s doing the right thing and teaching Claudio a lesson by punishing him. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 123)
Perhaps Shakespeare encourages us to look at mercy and punishment from different perspectives. Angelo believes he is punishing Claudio for his own good, and cleaning up Vienna of lechery too. Maybe we ought to be merciful in our opinion of the deputy. Nonetheless, the Bard shows that in the case of young Claudio, mercy and forgiveness is the right path to choose. Finally, consider why Shakespeare may have portrayed a merciful leader to his Jacobean audience. Maybe if he were to portray a leader as fair and merciful, the Jacobean audience would trust that their new king (a man similar in character to the Duke) could be kind and merciful too. Earning the favour of the king and writing a killer play? He’s killed two birds with one stone.
Human Frailty & Fallibility
I’ve encountered many essay topics about how humans are flawed and imperfect. It’s a pretty big theme in many texts, not just in our friend William Shakespeare’s. Human fallibility is to blame for a lot of the going-ons in ‘Measure for Measure’. Angelo takes the law too seriously, he gets heart eyes for Isabella and kills Claudio even though he thinks he’s slept with Isabella. Why? He wants to save his own ass, fearing Claudio will seek vengeance. The Duke is flawed too. He’s a leader, but he just avoids his problems, leaving Angelo in charge to deal with them. Then he plans to swoop in and look like a hero. Kinda dodgy. Consider Claudio and Juliet too. They, like Angelo, succumbed to lust and slept together before they were officially married. (Sigh, humans just can’t get it right.) It’s also worth thinking about the “low-lives” and poorer characters. Are the poor frail in a different way? For example, Mistress Overdone keeps Lucio’s secrets for him. In that way she is virtuous. However, she sells her body to survive. Perhaps she is not prone to desire like Angelo, but serves another desire - a desire to survive?
In terms of historical context, consider the Divine Right of Kings, the Great Chain of Being and Playhouses/Brothels.
“They say best men are moulded out of faults, and for the most become much more the better for being a little bad” - Mariana pleads to Isabella to support her in begging the Duke to pardon (her new husband) Angelo. She is optimistic for man, believing our bad deeds can lead to self-improvement. (Act 5, Scene 5, Line 473-475)
“Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once” - Isabella pleads to Angelo to pardon Claudio. She states that all souls were flawed before Christ offered redemption. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 93)
“I speak not as desiring more, but rather wishing a more strict restraint” - Isabella is speaking to a nun as she is poised to enter the ranks of the nunnery. We usually think of a nun as living a very strict life, but Isabella wants it even stricter! Here we see her flaw is that her thinking is too singular and blinkered. (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 3-4)
“Lord Angelo is precise, stands at guard with envy, scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite is more to bread than stone.” - The Duke talks about how unhuman Angelo is. The deputy follows rules very closely, almost to the point where he’s like a machine. His nature is too strict. (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 53-56)
“I love the people, but do not like to stage me to their eyes” - The Duke says this to Angelo and Escalus as he hands over power to his deputy. Even the Duke is not perfect, in that he does not like being before crowds of his people (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 72-73)
Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that no one is truly perfect, not even a leader supposedly ordained by God, a law-abiding deputy, or a maiden who is poised to enter a nunnery. Yet while Angelo is overcome by his lust and emotion, the Duke and Isabella attempt to better themselves by showing mercy and temperance. Maybe Shakespeare suggests trying to improve one’s flawed self is most important.
God, Religion and Spirituality
Phew, we’re at our last theme. So, society in Vienna is very much religious. Their beliefs dictate actions and laws within the city. Some very religious characters include Isabella and Angelo. However, our novice nun, who is obsessed with virtue and chastity, agrees to and takes part in the bed-trick, a deception that is not particularly Christian. Our lusty deputy also succumbs, hellishly propositioning a maiden to sleep with him in exchange for her brother’s life. Even The Duke, supposedly semi-divine, makes some dubious choices. He spends most of the play posed as a holy man, even though he is not. He plans the bed-trick to deceive Angelo and lets poor Isabella think her poor brother is dead, instead of saving her so much pain. Furthermore, the title of the tale, ‘Measure for Measure’, comes from the Gospel of Matthew. (See symbols/motifs for more deets). The question of how much we should let religion dictate us is another reason this piece is a problem play.
The theme of God and Religion can link to historical context such as the Divine Right of Kings.
“more than our brother is our chastity” - (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 194) and “Better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister by redeeming him should die forever” - (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 111-113) show that Isabella values her chastity and virtue over her brother!! Damn girl!
“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, to lie in cold obstruction and to rot” - Claudio tells Isabella that he fears the uncertainty of death. Perhaps his belief in a heaven has left him in the wake of his impending death? (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 129-130)
“Let’s write good angel on the devil’s horns - ‘tis not the devil's crest” - Angelo is talking to himself about his lust for Isabella. It’s an appearance vs reality (ooh another theme!) kind of idea, where you can try to pretend something is something else (ie. Angelo doesn't lust after Isabella), but it doesn't change the thing (ie. he’s still keen). The deputy is comparing his emotions to these religious extremes. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 16-17)
Perhaps Shakespeare criticises religious extremism in his portrayal of characters like Isabella and Angelo. Or maybe he just wants us to remain open-minded about ideas and our spirituality.
Yikes, there are so many themes in this play! Let’s move it along, and talk a little bit about characters.
Each character can be viewed in different lights, even more so than themes can be. We’re going to discuss characters very briefly because it’s up to you how you want to read them.
Here are the characters, in order of how much they speak in the play. To keep things short, let’s pretend these are all tinder bios. Who would you swipe right on? (Hint: not Lucio)
super chill (the benevolent ruler of Vienna who’s let the laws slip a little)
loves dressing up (actually spends most of the play disguised as a friar)
clever/cunning (secretly counteracts the injustices decreed by Angelo)
strong morals (would rather her brother die than she lives in shame)
can get wild (conspires with the Duke to complete the bed-trick)
holy gal (poised to enter a nunnery)
a gentleman (well, his title is. He’s rude about the Duke and abandoned a prostitute that he got pregnant, so maybe he’s not that kind of gentleman)
loves attention (legit! He’s a minor character but he has the third most lines of them all! Lucio loves to stir the pot!)
loves some symbolism (Lucio represents all the bad stuff in Vienna…..see symbols/motifs)
plays by the rules (a little too much)
hypocrite (Sentences Claudio to death for sex before marriage, while asking the same thing of Isabella…. wow we’ve found our antagonist)
Deep (Angelo is a bit of a complex character. He seems aware of his misdeeds and struggles to deal with these desires. It’s hard not to pity him at times)
reliable (consistently counsels Angelo against acting too harshly)
virtuous (he’s merciful, lets Pompey go with a warning in Act 2 Scene 1)
loyal (trusts in the Duke)
hard worker (he’s a prison ward)
virtuous (does what’s right by him, disobeying Angelo’s orders to behead Claudio)
magician (not really, but he makes Angelo believe that pirate Ragozine’s head is Claudio’s)
clever (philosophically debates whether prostitution is worse than murder)
funny (his character is the clown, and he’s got some sassy comebacks)
poor (Pompey is a bawd employed by Mistress Overdone. Not the best dating bio)
down for a good time ;) (impregnates Juliet before they are officially married)
cool family (he’s Isabella’s brother)
good hearted (initially is horrified at Angelo’s request of Isabella, saying she shouldn’t do it. Unfortunately, his fear of death get’s to him. After he’s calmed down, he’s accepting of death)
a man in uniform (a policeman)
a little dumb (he speaks a lot of malapropisms - hilariously using similar but incorrect words)
not like Pompey (Pompey is a clever poor man, while Elbow is a policeman who’s a little bit all over the place)
dedicated (still in love with Angelo even though he called off their engagement because her dowry was lost)
a willing accomplice (participates in the bed-trick)
poor (she’s a prostitute, who fears for her livelihood when Angelo announces he’s destroying all the brothels)
good hearted (kept Lucio’s secret. What secret? Read on…)
works for the Duke (as an executioner…. there’s no way to make that sound nice)
doesn't have a great name (c’mon it’s true)
also likes to have a good time ;) (pregnant before official marriage)
dependent (if Claudio dies she will probably end up as a prostitute to survive)
can sing (Mariana asks him to sing a sad song about how she lost her beloved Angelo)
holy gal (she is a nun)
Kate Keepdown (we never actually meet this character)
a colleague of Mistress Overdone (a prostitute)
single mum (Lucio got her pregnant and then ran away. He thinks marrying a prostitute is akin to whipping and hanging)
Ragozine (we never actually meet this character)
dies (legit that’s all he does)
SYMBOLS & MOTIFS
These are people, objects, words etc that represent a theme or idea. For instance, the fact that I’ve used a bad soup metaphor AND a tinder reference means I need to go outside more. But let’s move on…
The title, “Measure for Measure” draws from the gospel of Matthew. The idea of heavenly justice vs earthly justice is prominent throughout the text. Moreover, it’s worth exploring the Old Testament ways of “an eye for an eye” and “measure for measure” in comparison to the New Testament teachings which lean towards forgiveness and mercy. Now, where do the Duke’s actions fit in? Is he harsh and equalising? Is he just and sympathetic?
New Testament vs. Old Testament
When the Duke sentences Angelo to death, he makes a fancy speech which includes the play’s title.
“‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure.
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.”
Act 5, Scene 1, Line 439-441
This mimics the Old Testament views, which famously states “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). These ideals teach that the person who committed a misdeed shall have the same misdeed done unto them. (For example, if you don’t like my new Facebook profile picture, I’m not liking yours…..but way more severe.)
In comparison, the New Testament states that we “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:36-37)
So, when sentencing Angelo the Duke employs the words of the Old Testament. However, he doesn’t go through with Angelo’s execution, instead showing the mercy encouraged by the New Testament. He’s not really following either way. Perhaps he’s instead choosing a middle road; one of temperance and justice.
Wait, who? We haven’t mentioned the “gentleman” Lucio much in the plot and in this blog post. That’s because he doesn’t really do that much other than buzz around and annoy everyone. Maybe that’s why his name rhymes with mosquito….
Regardless, we do see enough of Lucio’s character to learn that he’s not a very nice person. He treats Mistress Overdone and Pompey poorly, makes visits to the brothel, doesn’t take responsibility for his actions (getting Kate Keepdown pregnant) and bad-mouths the Duke. So yeah, we don’t like Lucio, what’s the big deal? Well, in Act 4, Scene 4 Line 182, Lucio says something very intriguing.
“I am a kind of burr, I shall stick.”
Burr - those little brown prickly things that get stuck to you.
We can think of Lucio as representing all the sins and misdeeds in Vienna - lechery, immorality, lack of justice, selfishness etc. Hence, Lucio is saying that these shortcomings and flaws will always be present to people and in Vienna, sticking to the city like a nasty burr. Damn, that’s deep.
The metre of the verse (ie. the classic Shakespeare writing) in ‘‘Measure for Measure” is iambic pentameter. This means that each line is divided into 5 feet. Within each foot, there is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
I’ll TELL him YET of ANgelO’S reQUEST, And FIT his MIND to DEATH, for HIS soul’s REST. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 195-196)
Verse does not have to rhyme, as the above lines do. Shakespeare often employs a rhyming couplet to close a scene and add some drama.
Verse is usually reserved for the higher class citizens, with those who are less fortunate speaking in prose.
Prose is language in its ordinary form, with no metre.
Certain characters, such as Lucio, switch between verse and prose depending on who they are speaking to. This could allude to Lucio’s duplicity, or perhaps a deep understanding of class divides in Vienna.
Names: Escalus and Angelo
Escalus is the ever reasonable and loyal lord and close confidant of the Duke. His name gives connotations of scales and balance - characteristic of the rational man.
Angelo’s name has connotations of “angel”. If we judge him only by his name, he should be a pure and heavenly being. Bah! That’s so fake! We can see that appearance is very different from reality. Isabella notices this too, stating that “this outward-sainted deputy...is yet a devil” (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 95-98).
There is so much to unpack about this douchebag. Let us briefly consider 2 ideas. When he propositions Isabella to sleep with him, he requests that she “lay down the treasures of (her) body” (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 100).
Firstly, that’s weird. Perhaps Angelo can be seen as someone who is obsessed with the physical - Isabella’s body and treasure. Maybe this obsession leads to his immorality and poor leadership.
Secondly, Angelo struggles to directly say, “hey, let’s sleep together”. He weaves his way around the request, propositioning Isabella so indirectly that at first, she does not even seem to understand his request! However, once she threatens to tell everyone about his vile demand, he speaks bluntly; “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 163). Perhaps this shows Angelo is self-aware that he’s being an ass. Or maybe this scene is yet more evidence of a patriarchal society, with the men knowing very well the power they hold.
We never actually meet this fellow. Ragozine is a pirate who dies in jail while “Measure for Measure” unfolds. His head is used in place of Claudio’s to convince Angelo of the former’s execution. Fascinatingly, Ragozine is the only person who dies in the entire play. ALSO, he dies of natural causes. Interesting. It feels like the play is full of death, grief and many heads on the chopping block. But curiously, there is only one death, of a minor character, of natural causes. Perhaps this says something about fate and justice or offers some commentary on life and hope.
Elbow vs. Pompey
Elbow is a silly policeman who speaks in malapropisms (using a similar but incorrect word for humorous effect). Pompey is a clever pimp who seems to have a deep understanding of justice and the Viennese people. The comparison of these characters, fortunate and dumb to unfortunate and clever, perhaps serves to show that the law is not always apt and that sometimes those who break the law are more clever than it.
Mistress Overdone (or lack thereof)
Mistress Overdone is a pitiable prostitute. She worries for her survival when Angelo begins pulling down the brothels, and she keeps Lucio’s bastard child a secret, only for him to throw her under the bus to save his own skin. The last we see of Mistress Overdone is her getting carted off to prison, crying “See how he goes about to abuse me!” (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 481) Yes, the last we witness of one of five speaking female characters is of her imminent incarceration. Furthermore, this happens in Act 3 of 5, around halfway through the play! The audience never hears from Mistress Overdone again, and her future is left uncertain. Even Barnadine, a convicted murderer, is given freedom and a happy ending.
Consider writing a few sentences of your essay from a feminist’s perspective. Think about the events of the play from the female characters’ points of view. What is Shakespeare saying by portraying Mistress Overdone (and other women) in such a way? Perhaps he is pointing out the injustices of the patriarchal system, or how uncertain a woman’s life was in his contemporary time.
“Measure for Measure” truly is an incredible text. This blog post is by no means an exhaustive list of all its quirks and complexities. This play’s relevance has survived centuries, and I believe it will continue to be pertinent to audiences well into the future. You are very lucky to be studying a text with such universal themes and ideas that you can carry with you even after high school.
Extinction by Hannie Rayson is usually studied in the Australian curriculum Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
[Modifed Video Transcription]
This is the prompt that I have decided to approach for this video and blog post:
Heather Dixon-Brown and Piper Ross’s dynamic is fuelled by competitiveness unique to the female experience in contemporary times.
Let’s break it down!
Different Interpretations of Extinction
Today I’ll be talking about different interpretations of texts, specifically the feminist lens, which is a critical lens for you to know if you’re wanting to get those top marks. Even if you’re not there yet, and you want to amp up your essay, this is it. So keep watching (or reading)!
I won’t be talking about the feminist lens in detail in this video/blog, but know that this is one of the must-know VCAA criteria points I discuss in my How To Write A Killer Text Response ebook. It is particularly relevant to Extinction because by viewing your text through a feminist lens, you’ll be able to get so much more out of your discussion. Think about it this way, you can wear all sorts of ‘glasses’ (i.e. lenses) when you’re reading a text: a feminist lens, a pro-sustainability lens, an ecocritical lens. If you were to put these lenses on, how would it change your interpretation of the text? By adopting this advanced way of approaching a text, you’ll undoubtedly wow examiners because you’re able to discuss your texts on a level that the majority of students aren’t even aware of! I touch more on feminist and ecocritical lenses at the end of the video above :)
This prompt specifies two characters – Dixon-Brown and Piper – and therefore mandates an in-depth discussion of them within your essay. However, it is important to be careful of focusing exclusively on the explicitly mentioned characters when given a character prompt. After all, while Dixon-Brown and Piper are both very important to Extinction, they are not the only relevant characters! In order to ensure that your discussion covers enough of the text, make sure your brainstorming stage includes the ideas and themes exemplified by the unmentioned characters, and how they relate to the ones that are specified.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Agree to the prompt, but not entirely – Dixon-Brown and Piper do experience competitiveness between themselves, as two women in the twenty-first century, but it is not the only factor impacting their relationship dynamic
Female competitiveness in relationships and desirability – e.g. having sex with Harry without the other knowing (make sure to use DB’s quotes about competition!)
Make this more specific – competition in terms of sex, sexuality and whether or not one is desired (can link this well to the young/old dichotomy)
Young/old – related to female competitiveness, but more specific – tension between what is wanted and considered attractive versus what is no longer given value
Idealism/pragmatism – separate from the sphere of gender; has more of its roots in politics and contrasting schools of thought
Adopt traits from a feminist lens – focusing on women, power, relationships with men, when they can speak versus when they can’t, etc.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Body Paragraph 1: Contemporary demands for female competitiveness undoubtedly underlie the dynamics between Dixon-Brown and Piper Ross.
Under the modern-day patriarchy, women are encouraged to compete over social resources – reputation, desirability, and, crucially to Extinction, one’s sex and sexuality against the context of men. Both women are attracted to Harry, and eventually, both engage in 'covert sexual relationship[s]' that 'compromise the integrity' of the tiger quoll project. Beneath the veneer of assertiveness, Dixon-Brown’s underlying insecurities expose her treatment of Piper as a rival.
Although she openly denounces Harry’s assumption that 'You thought I wanted to compete for your affections', she nevertheless demands to know if Harry is 'quite smitten with Piper'. Dixon-Brown tries to distance herself from such romantic bindings, insisting that she 'do[esn’t] need a relationship' and thus subconsciously pitting herself as Piper’s opposite – in other words, a competitor for the different instances of Harry’s affection.
Rayson is quick to highlight and consequentially reject this modern female infighting, arguing that the insecurities as birthed from the patriarchy directly and unnecessarily demean the relationships between women.
Body Paragraph 2: The primary source of female conflict between Dixon-Brown and Piper is that of their incongruent ages; Rayson maintains that the tension between ‘younger’ and ‘older’ individuals contributes massively to the wider tenseness in their dynamic.
Patriarchal values dictate that the value of a woman decreases with age: Dixon-Brown claims that Harry 'would prefer a younger woman', implying that her desirability has decreased with the increase of age.
The professor’s obsession with appearances and reputation as a woman is almost completely absent in Rayson’s consideration of Piper, who is actively pursued by both Andy and Harry throughout the play. She is 'adore[d]' by the former, and the latter is enthusiastic at the prospect of 'mak[ing] love like that…again' during Act Two, Scene One. Rayson attacks the systems of patriarchal value that have driven both women to resist and distrust each other in the first place.
Body Paragraph 3: Conversely, while the spheres of politics certainly overlap occasionally within feminism and the question of female competition, they nevertheless form a largely distinct motivation behind the conflict between Piper and Dixon-Brown.
Piper and Dixon-Brown’s dynamic is perhaps most aptly summarised in Act One, Scene Two, with the introduction of the Dixon-Brown Index. Dixon-Brown claims that 'five thousand' is the 'latest magic number' with which to determine what animal populations are most feasible to make conservation efforts towards. Piper criticises the index immediately, pointing out the ridiculousness of having it 'apply to every mammal on earth', regardless of any other relevant factors. To Piper, every animal life is 'worth saving', whether they be 'killer whales or teeny potoroos' – Dixon-Brown, by contrast, must 'liv[e] in the real world' and exists at the mercy of funding, of which there is 'only so much… to go around'. The tension within their dynamic thus bears this underlying current of idealism versus pragmatism, and persists even after the primary establishment of the tiger quoll project.
If you're studying Extinction yourself, then LSG's A Killer Text Guide: Extinction study guide is for you! In it, we teach you to think like a 50 study scorer through advanced discussions on things like structural feature analysis, views and values, different interpretations and critical readings. Included are character breakdowns, a play summary, 5 A+ fully annotated essays and so much more!
English is tough. Whether it be memorising quotes or writing under timed conditions, everybody has something that they need to work on — some missing link that may make the difference between grades.
The fun yet exasperating part of English is that there’s always some way to improve. Even the best of the best can struggle with differentiating themselves from the pack, irrespective of how many quotes they know or how well they understand the subject matter. Often, students can feel shackled by the formulaic “topic sentence plus explanation plus evidence plus analysis plus concluding statement”, leaving great ideas in the mud as they scramble to fit their essay into restrictive boxes.
Sometimes, the conventional structure of an English essay can weigh a student down, which is why bending those rules is a skill that, eventually, can prove the key to truly going above and beyond.
Walk before you run
Before you move past your structure, though, you’ve got to know it.
Every essay paragraph needs to hit on a few key points: a main argument, evidence, and analysis of that evidence relating back to the prompt. For example…
In Station Eleven, forgetting is more important than remembering. Do you agree?
Planning is crucial irrespective of your writing style. The texts you study are meant to be thought-provoking, so thought needs to go into what you’re going to say even before you start saying it. My more flexible, relaxed essays always resulted in plans that looked identical to more conventional responses, as seen below.
Forgetting is important as a coping mechanism to the post-modern world -> older people who “lost more” e.g. Jeevan, Dieter, Clark’s demands to “[not] think about it”
Nevertheless, remembering is important in forging paths to the future -> the Travelling Symphony
When they are both embraced, both forgetting and remembering can create the new and honour the old -> the Museum of Civilisation and the electric town
Once you have this understanding of structure, you can begin to move past it.
What exactly does an essay “beyond structure” mean? The way English is currently taught results in a lot of essays more or less looking the same, with a topic sentence dutifully followed by explanation of that point, and evidence not being introduced until about halfway through the paragraph.
Essays beyond structure don’t ignore those points, but rather, they shuffle them around a little. Evidence can be introduced right after the topic sentence, for example.
The shock of the Georgia Flu is catastrophic, entirely subverting the technological interconnectedness of the 21st century… The “divide between a before and an after” that the Georgia Flu marks is so devastating and uncompromising that it is little wonder, then, that forgetting should become such a crucial tool for reconciling oneself with the radical new world order.
Growing out of "crutch" phrases
In structured essays, transitions between points are obvious. When we want to introduce a quote, we say something like “In Mandel’s Station Eleven…”, and when we want to analyse that quote we say “Here, the author…”.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using phrases like these! They can be very helpful in showing your assessor where you are addressing the task and the text. But addressing “crutch” phrases in your writing, which are often overused and underdeveloped, is a fairly straightforward way of forcing yourself to write differently.
Some “crutches” that I always used include:
This exemplifies… – introduction to analysis
Indeed… – transition to another point
Ultimately/In conclusion… – concluding
It is important not to mistake signposting for these crutch phrases, such as “Furthermore” or “Conversely”. Signposting helps assessors determine when you are building on or deviating from previous points, which is highly useful when they’ve read a hundred essays on the same prompt as yours. Crutch phrases, on the other hand, make you feel better about your essay, when in actuality they contribute very little and could be rewritten to be something of greater value.
The following statement follows the typical English pattern of evidence to analysis.
In Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Dieter “longs for the sound of an electric guitar”. This exemplifies the wider loss of technology, and even identity, suffered by humanity after the Georgia Flu, and indeed is further highlighted by the “incomplete list” of Chapter 6.
There’s nothing wrong with the analysis above, and it makes a good point about the text. But removing “This exemplifies” forces a writer to try something daring and new…
Dieter, an otherwise well-adjusted member of the Travelling Symphony, “longs for the sound of an electric guitar” – his desire echoes Chapter 6’s list, and the omnipresent lack of electricity to a species once defined by it.
Shorter quotes are your friend
A great way to keep up the momentum of such an essay is to let points bleed into each other. There is no rule in English that says the first two sentences of your paragraph can’t include evidence, nor any regulations stipulating that the end of a paragraph has to be a rewritten version of the topic sentence.
Evidence, I have found, is the best way to bridge gaps between discrete points of structure. Not only does using evidence show understanding of the text, but it doesn’t have to be an entire sentence all on its own. Sometimes, two or three words are enough to marry two points – and, at the end of the day, shorter quotes are easier to memorise!
Mandel’s narrator mourns fundamental modern aspects of survival, such as “pharmaceuticals” and “fire departments… police”, in the same space that she pays homage to “concert stages” and “social media”. The resulting impression is not one of traditional cutthroat dystopia… Rather, Mandel’s quiet remembrance of the … modern innovations of technology that brought the 21st century together … highlights the emotional consequences of such ease of communication being lost.
Reading is fundamental
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed about moving beyond structure, don’t worry – there’s something quick and easy that you can do right now to help push your writing, and it doesn’t even involve any writing of your own.
If you get the opportunity to, I would encourage you to read other people’s essays. Obviously, higher-grade essays are always valuable, but they can also be intimidating, even demoralising. I’ve found that reading essays at my grade level, or even lower, have been fantastic for learning new phrases and picking up different bits of evidence.
The best thing about English, in my opinion, is the same thing that brings it the most criticism – that there is no right answer. It can never hurt your understanding of a text (or your potential grade) if your discussion is informed about more perspectives.
Practice makes... progress!
At the end of the day, any and all good English essays have their roots in the fundamentals. Even as you play around with structure and move past formula, it is always crucial to remember the basics, and to return to them if you feel like you’re getting lost.
Always remember to link back to the prompt! It’s something so basic and obvious that students of all grades overlook. The prompt is the backbone of your essay – make sure that you keep it centre stage.
Get feedback as often as you can, whether it be from teachers, tutors or other students that you trust. English is a game of constant tweaking and refinement, and the more feedback you get the better your essays will be for it.
Finally, practice. Writing, like any skill, can only be honed and improved if one puts effort into honing and improving it. Writing beyond structure often comes as a massive learning curve, and it is diligence and a willingness to learn – not natural talent – that will allow you to become better and better at it.
English is tough, and because almost everybody does it, it can be hard to stand out from the masses. Being different takes courage, and in VCE it certainly takes a lot of work, but I have found that writing beyond structure has the potential to elevate not only your understanding of a text or your performance in SACs and the exam, but your enjoyment of writing for English as a whole.
Year of Wonders is set in the small English village of Eyam in 1665, as the town struggles through a deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague. While the characters and events are fictional, author Geraldine Brooks based the novel on the true story of Eyam, whose inhabitants, at the urging of their vicar, courageously decided to quarantine themselves to restrict the spread of the contagion and protect other rural townships.
The experience of the plague provides Brooks fertile ground to develop characters that illustrate the extremes of human nature; displaying the dignity or depravity, self-sacrifice or self-interest that people are capable of when faced with terror, pain and the unknown. She explores the consequences of a catastrophe on an isolated, insular and deeply religious community and we see characters exhibit tireless dedication and heroism, or succumb to depression, exploitation and sometimes murderous depravity.
The novel illustrates that adversity can bring out the best and worst of people and that faith can be challenged and eroded. The novel explores how crises affect human behaviour, beliefs and values and reveal the real character of a community under pressure. Our job while studying this text is to consider how all the different responses to an external crisis contribute to an analysis of human nature.
2. Historical Context
Year of Wonders belongs to the genre of historical fiction (meaning it is fictional but based on historical events) and aims to capture and present the historical context accurately. The context of Year of Wonders is important to understand as it informs a lot of the division and instability in Eyam during the isolation and crisis of the plague (we explain in more detail why context is so important in Context and Authorial Intent in VCE English).
In 1658, only 7 years before the novel opens, Puritan statesmen Oliver Cromwell (who defeated King Charles I in the English Civil War and ruled as Lord Protector of the British Isles from 1653) died and Charles II, heir to the throne, returned from exile to rule England as King. Charles II replaced Cromwell’s rigid puritanism with the more relaxed Anglicanism and his reign began the dynamic period known as the Restoration. During the civil war and Cromwell’s rule, all the past certainties – the monarchy and the Church – had been repeatedly challenged and overturned. This all happened during the lifetime of the Eyam villagers presented in the novel and the recent religious upheaval in Britain was beginning to influence the conservative and puritan congregation of Eyam as the old puritan rector was replaced with Anglican vicar Michael Mompellion. The tension between the puritans and Anglicans is evident early in the novel and is exacerbated by the arrival of the plague, causing further internal fission.
The 17th century also marked the beginning of modern medicine and the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, people began to privilege reason and sensory evidencefrom the material world over biblical orthodoxy as the primary sources of knowledge. The Enlightenment advanced ideals such as progress, liberty, tolerance, egalitarianism and the scientific method. These values are reflected in the liberal characters of Anna, Elinor, Mem and Anys Gowdie, and to an extent, Michael Mompellion. However, we also see the limited reaches of the Enlightenment in characters who succumb to superstition or self-flagellation when the plague arrives. This was a time when religious faith was frequently challenged and redefined.
3. Character Analysis
The novel is narrated in the first person by protagonist Anna Frith. Anna, a young widow, mother and housemaid, becomes the town’s nurse and midwife during the plague alongside her employer and friend Elinor Mompellion. Anna is a compelling protagonist and narrator because she is part of the ordinary, working-class life of the village, but also has access to the gentry in her work for the Mompellions, meaning readers can see how the plague affected all social groups.
At the beginning of the novel, Anna is in many ways very conventional. Aside from her intelligence and desire to learn, evidenced by her interest and quick proficiency in learning to read, Anna married young, is a dedicated mother, had an incomplete education and never thought to question the town’s orthodox religious beliefs. However, it is revealed early that she has progressive views on class and morality and as the novel progresses, the extraordinary circumstances of the plague evoke in her heroism and courage. Brooks notes, Anna 'shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place'. During the plague, Anna becomes the village’s voice of reason and an indispensable figure due to her expanding medical knowledge, tenacity, resourcefulness and tireless generosity.
Michael Mompellion is Eyam’s Anglican preacher, having been appointed three years earlier after Charles II returned to England and replaced Puritan clergies. Generally, Mompellion is altruistic and open-minded: softening strict class divisions, combatting superstition and embracing a scientific approach to the plague. When the plague arrives, the local gentry (the Bradfords) flee and due to his charisma and position in the Church, he becomes the town’s unofficial leader. Mompellion persuades the townspeople to go into self-imposed quarantine to prevent the spread of the plague. His personal charisma, powerful rhetoric and indefatigable dedication to his work mean he can motivate and inspire his parishioners.
Mompellion’s unwavering commitment to his beliefs makes him a good leader, but we also see that his single-minded religious zeal can lead to harsh irrationality and hypocrisy. While progressive on issues such as class divisions, Mompellion is conservative – bordering on fanatic – when it comes to female sexuality. When his beloved wife Elinor dies, it is revealed that Mompellion denied her sexual intimacy for their entire marriage to punish her for the premarital affair and abortion she had as a teenager. Mompellion realises upon Elinor’s death that he extended forgiveness and understanding to all but his wife and, recognising his own hypocrisy and cruelty, he suffers a breakdown and loses much of his religious faith. Through Anna’s eyes, we see Mompellion shift from a character of moral infallibility, to a flawed and inconsistent man of a more ambiguous character.
Elinor is Mompellion’s wife and Anna’s employer and teacher. By the end of the novel, Anna and Elinor are confidantes and friends and their friendship arguably forms one of the strongest emotional cores of the novel, sustaining both women through enormous strain and hardship. Elinor teaches Anna to read and seems not to notice or care about their different social strata, treating everyone equally. Elinor came from a very wealthy family and initially had little practical knowledge of the hardships and necessities of life. During the plague, she confronts pain, suffering and true sacrifice. Because of her beauty, fragility and generosity, the whole town – and especially Anna – view her as a paragon of virtue and the embodiment of innocence. However, Elinor reveals that as a teenager she had a premarital relationship that resulted in an illegitimate pregnancy which she ended through abortion. Elinor considers herself to be permanently marked by sin and is plagued by the guilt of her adolescent mistakes, but her commitment to atone through service and working to help others is admirable.
Anys and Mem Gowdie
Anys and her aunt Mem are the town’s healers and midwives. Both women live on the margins of society, as their knowledge of herbal medicines and power to heal certain ailments causes fear and suspicion. Additionally, Anys further alienates the villagers by having conspicuous affairs with married village men. Anna admires Anys’ herbal knowledge and healing skill and her autonomy and unashamed sexuality, which were rare for women at the time. When the plague breaks out, Anys and Mem are murdered by a mob of hysterical townspeople, who believe they are witches responsible for the plague. This episode shows the power and acute danger of superstitionand hysteria.
Josiah and Aphra Bont
Josiah 'Joss' Bont is Anna’s estranged father and Aphra is Anna’s stepmother. Brooks depicts them as unsympathetic and unforgivable, if understandable, villains as they both seek to profit off the heavy misfortune of others. Joss abused Anna greatly throughout her childhood, and while she manages to forgive him due to the suffering of his own youth, when he cruelly exploits villagers in his position as gravedigger, Anna finds his actions irredeemable. As gravedigger, Joss charged exorbitant fees from desperate people to bury their dead, regularly stole from the beleaguered families and attempted to bury a wealthy plague sufferer alive to loot his home.
Aphra is similarly amoral and greedy. Although her love for her children is shown to be strong, she capitalises on the fear and superstition of her neighbours by selling fake charms while pretending to be Anys Gowdie’s ghost. After the death of her husband and children, Aphra becomes completely deranged, dismembering and refusing to bury the rotting corpses of her children and eventually murdering Elinor. Aphra’s fate and actions show how prolonged catastrophe and suffering can totally erode an individual’s sanity.
The Bradford Family
The Bradford family are arrogant and pretentious. When the plague arrived in Eyam they also proved themselves self-serving and opportunistic, exploiting their wealth and status as part of the gentry to flee Eyam instead of enduring the quarantine with the rest of the village. They provide a foil to the Mompellions, who are of similar status and are newcomers to Eyam with fewer historical ties and thus expectations of loyalty. The two upper-class families provide directly opposite responses to the crisis, with Brooks clearly condemning the cowardice and selfishness exhibited by the Bradfords.
Social Convention and Human Nature in a Crisis
Perhaps the most significant theme or exploration of the novel is what happens to an individual’s character and community norms in a crisis. Year of Wonders depicts a small and isolated community that experiences intense adversity from the plague and, because of their self-imposed quarantine, are additionally isolated from the stabilising forces of broader society. These factors cause the people of Eyam to increasingly abandon their social conventions and descend into chaos and Brooks raises the question of whether people can live harmoniously without a strong social code. She suggests that societal cohesion is the result of social pressure rather than innate to our nature. The social norms and protocols of Eyam collapse under the pressure of the plague, allowing discerning observers like Anna to explore the validity and value of her society’s fundamental values. Eyam’s experience of the plague demonstrates that some norms, like the limited role of women and the strict class divisions, do not need to be so repressive, while other norms and social virtues, like the rule of law and justice, are proved even more essential for their absence as order and civility disintegrate.
Brooks also explores the response of individuals to extreme and enduring adversity and questions whether crises reveal someone’s true nature or instead force them to act out of character.
Anna and Elinor are examples of characters who respond to the crisis of the plague, amongst other real hardships, with a steadfast commitment to their principles. Their innate charity and work ethic are only strengthened and bolstered by the demands of the plague. However, not all residents of Eyam respond to the plague with courage and decency. Many descend into fear and hysteria, while others become malevolent and exploitative in their efforts to protect themselves. The Bonts and the Bradfords are examples of people who act with appalling selfishness, yet Brooks is careful to illustrate them as cruel and self-serving even before the plague. Thus, Brooks appears to argue that our actions under intense duress are intensifications of our true nature.
Faith, Suffering and Science
A major theme explored in the novel is the role of faith in people’s lives and throughout the novel faith, superstition and emerging science contend with each other. Before the plague, the townspeople believe whole-heartedly in God’s divine plan – that the good and bad things that happened to them were God’s rewards or punishments for their virtues or sins. However, the plague makes this worldview unsupportable as the unremitting suffering of plague victims, depicted through gory and vividly gruesome descriptions, demonstrates that their suffering is not commensurate with their sin and that no one can deserve this fate. In particular, it is the suffering of children that most intensely shakes Anna’s faith in a divine plan. Her two young sons are early victims of the plague and their youth and innocence mean it is impossible to justify their deaths as punishment for sin. The sheer tragedy of the plague causes Anna to realise that faith in God’s plan is inadequate to explain suffering and tragedy and she looks for another explanation. This leads her to use science and medicine to ameliorate pain. By focusing on discovering possible cures or pain relievers, Anna and Elinor are indirectly treating the plague as just a 'thing in nature', eschewing the prevailing religious view that the plague is the result of God’s wrath. Their emerging scientific worldview does not rely on God’s presence and intervention in the material world and Anna loses her religious faith.
However, the scientific method and worldview were only in its very nascent form and most people held a firm belief in supernatural intervention, making the townspeople prone to superstition and, in their ignorance and fear, murderousmobhysteria.
Women and Female Sexuality
Women in Eyam had lived highly circumscribed and restricted lives until the crisis of the plague disrupted the social order. The behaviour and speech of women were heavily policed and punished. In a particularly horrifying episode, Joss puts his wife in a muzzle and parades her through the village after she publicly criticises him. While Joss is undeniably an all-round bad guy, his misogyny cannot be dismissed as singular to him. Even Mompellion, an altruistic and in some ways quite progressive man, takes a very harsh stance on female sexuality. Although he preached to adulterous male villagers such as Jakob Merrill that 'as God made us lustful so he understands and forgives', he denied Elinor forgiveness for her teenage sexual relationship and was unfathomably rageful when he discovers Jane Martin having sex outside of marriage. However, Brooks criticises the taboo on female sexuality and shows that sexual desire is an awakening and liberating force for Anna, twice helping her to come out of deep depressions and reminding her that life has joy and meaning.
There are strong feminist undertones throughout the novel as each female character exhibits strengths that the male characters do not and challenges the limitations of her role, expressing desire for more personal autonomy and agency. From the beginning of the novel, Anna admires the sexual freedom of Anys Gowdie and the ability of Elinor to unreservedly pursue her intellectual interests. During the plague, Anna finds herself eschewing her old role and social position and assuming many challenging and indispensable responsibilities that would have been unthinkable for any woman – especially a young single working-class woman – before the plague.
Leadership and Judgement in Times of Crisis
The text explores both the power of religious leaders to influence public opinion and the ability of strong and courageous individuals to rise to positions of respect and authority in a crisis. Mompellion’s natural leadership and rhetorical skill keep the community calm and bring out the spirit of self-sacrifice in them. His clear dedication to his work and parishioners inspires trust in the community, and although Mompellion comes to doubt his judgement, it is undeniable that his strong leadership and assumption of huge responsibility saved countless lives. Anna also emerges as an unofficial leader; she becomes an essential figure and the voice of reason in Eyam. The community’s newfound respect for Anna is evident in the way she is listened to and adhered to and her confidence in firmly and decisively addressing and directing men and those of a higher social class.
We see examples of powerful leadership in the novel, but we also see how an overwhelming crisis can lead to a shortage of clear leadership and expose flaws in existing governing systems. Eyam relied on its gentry (Colonel Bradford) and vicar (Michael Mompellion) to adjudicate and administer justice. However, on the advent of the plague, the Bradfords fled from Eyam and Mompellion became overwhelmed by work, leaving the townspeople to frequently administer their own justice through group tribunals or vigilante action. Additionally, the extreme circumstances of the plague mean the town must deal with crimes it has never faced before and is unsure how to punish. Brooks explores what it means to achieve justice when the only means available are faulty. There are many examples of miscarriages of justice which forces readers to think about the necessity of a strong, fair and prompt judicial system and the weaknesses inherent in these institutions.
5. Sample Essay Topics
How does Year of Wonders explore the concept of social responsibility?
‘In stressful times, we often doubt what we most strongly believe.’ How is this idea explored in Year of Wonders?
‘Year of Wonders suggests that, in a time of crisis, it is more important than ever to hold on to traditional values.’ Discuss.
‘How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.’ What does the text say about community and one’s understanding of reality?
‘Year of Wonders explores human failings in a time of crisis.’ Discuss
Now it’s your turn! Give these essay topics a go using the analysis you’ve learnt in this blog.
The starting point of any theme-based prompt is the ideas, and while this prompt characterises the novel as one essentially about courage, it is more generally exploring the theme of how people responded to the various challenges of the plague. ‘Discuss’ questions give you scope to partially agree, disagree, or extend the prompt. It is okay to ultimately agree with the prompt but to also demonstrate the complexity and nuance of the author’s intentions, and I think that is the best approach for this essay!
Step 2: Brainstorm
As we’ve already discussed, Year of Wondersdepicts a community experiencing an acute crisis and Brooks presents the very worst and very best of human nature. There are characters who display enormous courage (Anna and Elinor), others who are cowardly (the Bradfords) and those who exploit others’ hardships for their own gain (Joss Bont). There is also an entire supporting cast of characters who individually display neither extreme courage nor cowardice but who muddle through a terrible situation with numb apathy. There is also the opportunity to define what courage means here – after all, the decision to isolate themselves within the boundaries of Eyam took immense courage from all the villagers, who knew full well that they would inevitably be exposed to the deadly contagion.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Paragraph 1: [Agree] The novel is grounded in and revolves around the initial courageous decision of the villagers of Eyam to quarantine themselves and risk their own lives to protect others from the spread of the bubonic plague.
Focus on the initial act of courage and the knowing self-sacrifice that this decision required from every single person in Eyam.
As the event that forms the basis of this work of historical fiction, a logical argument can be made that this first act of courage in adversity forms the foundation of the novel and therefore affirms the idea that Year of Wonders is about great courage.
However, importantly, this decision was an act of community courage that anticipated future adversity but was taken before many of the villagers had actually experienced the acute hardship and suffering of the plague. This is why it is important to now discuss the courage shown by individuals in the midst of extreme adversity [link].
Paragraph 2: [Agree] The individuals who displayed courage, hope and conviction in the face of acute personal adversity demonstrate the enormous power of courage to steel us through a crisis.
Anna and the Mompellions concentrate on helping others and their service helped keep some degree of social order and provided comfort to victims of the plague. What they were able to achieve and provide for the community (and how much worse the situation would have been without their courageous assumption of responsibility) illustrates Brooks' high respect for courage and service.
To demonstrate additional analytical thinking, you might consider discussing the fact that these characters were not courageous solely out of charity, but that having an occupation and something to keep them busy and focused actually became a personal survival mechanism. This further highlights the absolutely pivotal role of courage in adversity and is only reinforced through the contrast with the ignoble behaviour of those characters who did not behave courageously and forthrightly [link].
Paragraph 3: [Partial disagree] However, Year of Wonders shows how adversity can provoke extremes of human behaviour and is thus also a story of human failings under immense pressure, with many characters motivated by cowardice and self-interested opportunism.
Here, you should discuss the dishonourable behaviour of the Bonts, the Bradfords and the hysterical mob that murdered the Gowdie women. Your aim should not only be to explain that they behaved without courage, but also to focus on the negativerepercussions their behaviour had for them and the community This will help you build an analytical argument that Brooks’ core message is about the power and necessity of courage in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, while no character escapes from the pain and loss of the plague, Brooks provides illustrations of how different people responded to their shared suffering and it is clear that she believes that the best way to respond to adversity is with the courage and strength to face the challenge head on.
If you found this essay breakdown helpful, let us know if you’d be interested in a complete LSG Year of Wonders Study Guidewhere we would cover 5 A+ fully written sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can reach your English goals!
Hey everyone! This is Part 2 in a series of videos I will release on VCE Study Guides. The content goes through the sample VCAA Chickens Range Free article which you can find here. Feel free to analyse it yourself, then check out how I’ve analysed the article!
I’m super excited to share with you my first ever online tutorial course for VCE English/EAL students on How to achieve A+ for Language Analysis!!!
I created this course for a few reasons:
Language Analysis is often the key weakness for VCE English/EAL students, after my workshops, students always wish we had spent evenmore time on Language Analysis, many of you have come to me seeking private tuition however since I am fully booked out, I wanted to still offer you a chance to gain access to my ‘breakthrough’ method of tutoring Language Analysis,I am absolutely confident in my unique and straightforward way of teaching Language Analysis which has lead to my students securing exceptional A graded SAC and exam scores!
Are you a student who:
struggles to identify language techniques?
finds it difficult to identify which tones are adopted in articles?
has no idea explaining HOW the author persuades?
finds it difficult to structure your language analysis essay?
becomes even more unsure when comparing 2 or 3 articles?
feels like your teacher at school never explained language analysis properly?
prefers learning when it’s enjoyable and easy to understand?
wants to stand out from other students across the cohort?
wants to know the secrets of 45+ English high achievers?
wants to know what examiners are looking for?
sees room for improvement whether you’re an average student or a pro?
wants to get a head start and maximise your potential in VCE?
This is what you will accomplish by the end of the course:
Be able to successfully identify language techniques in articles and images
Be able to successfully identify tones adopted in articles and images
Be able to analyse a single article or image
Be able to analyse 2 or more articles and/or images
Be able to apply your new skills coherently and clearly in essay writing
You will be able to accurately describe HOW an author uses language to persuade
You will be able to plan and write a language analysis essay structure (single article/image)
You will be able to plan and write a language analysis essay structure (2 or more articles/images)
You will understand common pitfalls and how to avoid these in language analysis
Be confident when approaching your SACs and exam
Know exactly what examiners are looking for and how to ‘WOW’ them
Know how to distinguish yourself from other students
Have unlimited help in course forum from myself and other VCE students
You will become a better VCE English language analysis student!
To find out more, you can check out the full details of the coursehere!
What Are You Expected To Cover? (Language Analysis Criteria)
School Assessed Coursework (SAC), Exams, and Allocated Marks
How To Prepare for Your Language Analysis SAC and Exam
How To Write a Language Analysis
What Is Language Analysis?
Language Analysis (also known as Analysing Argument, Argument Analysis, and an array of other names) is comparatively the most different of the three parts of the VCE English study design. The other two parts of English, Text Response and Comparative, focus on analysing texts (like novels and films) where students are then expected to produce an extended piece of writing reflecting on those texts' ideas, themes and messages.
Language Analysis, officially known as ‘Analysing Argument’ in the study design, is the 2nd Area of Study (AoS 2) - meaning that majority of students will tackle the Language Analysis SAC in Term 2. Unlike Text Response and Comparative, in Language Analysis you will be asked to read 'cold material' (meaning that you won't have seen the piece before, i.e. not had the chance to study it prior to your SAC and exam). This 'cold material' will be 1-3 articles and/or images (we'll just refer to all articles/images as 'texts' for simplicity) written for the media, whether it be an opinion piece for a newspaper, or an illustration for a political campaign.
You are expected to read the article, analyse the persuasive techniques used by the author, and express this in an essay. Let's get into it!
What Are You Expected To Cover? (Language Analysis Criteria)
What are teachers and examiners expecting to see in your essays? Below are the VCE criteria for Language Analysis essays.
Note: Some schools may express the following points differently, however, they should all boil down to the same points - what is necessary in a Language Analysis essay.
1. Understanding of the argument(s) presented and point(s) of view expressed
The first most important step is to understand the contention and arguments presented in the text because you'll base your entire analysis on your assumption. This can be tricky if you're unfamiliar with the contentious topic, or if the writer expresses their ideas in complex ways. In the worst case scenario, you'll misinterpret what the author is arguing and this will subsequently mean that your analysis will be incorrect. Never fear! There are many tactics to try and ascertain the 'right' contention - we'll go into detail later.
2. Analysis of ways in which language and visual features are used to present an argument and to persuade
This is where 'language techniques' come into play. You're expected identify the language used by the writer of the text and how that's intended to persuade the audience to share their point of view. There are too many language techniques to count, but you're probably already familiar with inclusive language, rhetorical questions and statistics. For most students, this is the trickiest part of Language Analysis. To read more on how to overcome this part of the criteria, get educated with Why Your Language Analysis Doesn’t Score As Well As It Should. My golden SIMPLICITY and SPECIFICITY strategy (discussed further under 'ebook' later in this guide) shows you how to analyse any language technique with confidence and accuracy.
3. Control and effectiveness of language use, as appropriate to the task
When examiners read essays, they are expected to get through about 12-15 essays in an hour! This results in approximately 5 minutes to read, get their head around and grade your essay - not much time at all! It is so vital that you don’t give the examiner an opportunity to take away marks because they have to reread certain parts of your essay due to poor expression and grammar.
School Assessed Coursework (SAC), Exams and Allocated Marks
Reading and Creating is assessed in Unit 1 (Year 11) and Unit 3 (Year 12). The number of allocated marks are:
Unit 1 - dependant on school
Unit 3 English – 40 marks
Unit 3 EAL – 30 marks (plus 10 marks for short-answer responses and note form summaries)
Exactly when Language Analysis is assessed within each unit is dependent on each school; some schools at the start of the Unit, others at the end. The time allocated to your SAC is also school-based. Often schools use one or more periods combined, depending on how long each of your periods last. Teachers can ask you to write anywhere from 800 to 1000 words for your essay (keep in mind that it’s about quality, not quantity!)
In your exam, you get a whopping total of 3 hours to write 3 essays (Text Response, Comparative, and Language Analysis). The general guide is 60 minutes on Language Analysis, however, it is up to you exactly how much time you decide to dedicate to this section of the exam. Your Language Analysis essay will be graded out of 10 by two different examiners. Your two unique marks from these examiners will be combined, with 20 as the highest possible mark.
How To Prepare for Your Language Analysis SAC and Exam
Preparation is a vital component in how you perform in your SACs and exam so it’s always a good idea to find out what is your best way to approach assessments. This is just to get you thinking about the different study methods you can try before a SAC. Here are my top strategies (ones I actually used in VCE) for Language Analysis preparation that can be done any time of year (including holidays - see How To Recharge Your Motivation Over the School Holidays for more tips):
Get your hands on some sample texts
If your teacher hasn't given you any to practice with, try the VCAA English exam page. You've got exams dating back to 2001, so there are no shortages of practice papers!
Know your terminology (persuasive techniques and tones)
Make sure you brush up on the definitions of persuasive techniques. It’s not going to be a tick if you use metaphor instead of simile, or if you use alliteration instead of assonance. These mistakes do happen! Don’t fall into this trap.
Here are 10 easy Language Analysis techniques you should definitely know:
Credentials and expert opinion
Also ensure you're familiar with tones. It may be easy to identify the writer is ‘angry’, but is there a better way of expressing that? Perhaps ‘irritated’ is a better term or ‘vexed’, ‘passionate’, ‘furious’, ‘disgruntled’, ‘outraged', ‘irate’ and the list goes on….Stuck? Have a look at our 195 tones for Language Analysis.
Images (including cartoons, illustrations, and graphs) are something you also need to get your head around. Understanding how an image persuades its audience can be challenging, so test yourself and see if you know to look for these 10 things in cartoons.
Read and watch Lisa's Study Guides' resources
Doing this study all by yourself can be rather daunting, so we've got your back. We specialise in supporting VCE English by creating helpful videos, study guides and ebooks. Here are some just to get your started:
We create general Language Analysis advice videos where I answer your questions in a QnA format:
We also create article-specific videos where I select a past VCAA exam and analyse it in real-time:
Check out our entire YouTube channel (and don't forget to subscribe for regular new videos!).
Our awesome team of English high-achievers have analysed popular Language Analysis articles (most based off past VCAA exams). Here's a compilation of all the ones we've covered so far:
In this ebook, I teach you my unique SIMPLICITY and SPECIFICITY strategy.
Many people overcomplicate Language Analysis, and as a result, they think it's much harder than it should be. I was one of those people.
To be fair, when I was in VCE, I was getting straight As in my Language Analysis (and that was awesome!). However, I wanted to achieve more. I wanted to break the A+ barrier that I just couldn't seem to breach. I tried using more advanced language techniques, tried to make my analyses more complex, but they all failed.
It was only when I figured out the SIMPLICITY and SPECIFICITY strategy that I finally saw my marks hit the A+ range - I was ecstatic! Find out more by accessing a sample of my ebook via the Shop page, or at the bottom of this blog.
Practice Your Analysis
Analysing can get messy when you will have dozens of annotations sprawled across the text. Start testing out strategies that work for you. For example, try using idea-based-colouring. This means that if the article discusses injustice – for all techniques you identify dealing with injustice, highlight it yellow. For freedom, highlight them green. This will have you annotating and grouping ideas in one go, saving time and confusion.
Another approach is to use technique-based-colouring, where you highlight same or similar techniques in the one colour.
Above is an example of idea-based-colouring from my Lawton, The Home Of The Giant Watermelon - VCAA Exam 2016 video. If you haven't watched this video series, don't worry if it doesn't make sense to you for now. The point here is how the colours help me to quickly locate ideas when I'm writing my essay.
Once you've done some analysis and revision , it's time to write plans! Plans will help ensure you stick to your essay topic, and have a clear outline of what your essay will cover. This clarity is crucial to success in a Language Analysis essay.
Doing plans is also an extremely time-efficient way to approach SACs. Rather than slaving away hours upon hours over writing essays, writing plans can will save you the burnout, and get you feeling confident faster.
Yes, sad but it’s a fact. Writers only get better by actually writing. Even if you just tackle a couple of essays then at least you will have started to develop a thinking process that will help you to set out arguments logically, utilise important quotes and time yourself against the clock. It will help you write faster as well – something that is a major problem for many students. With that said, let's get into how to write a Language Analysis next.
How To Write a Language Analysis
Since we've established that Language Analysis is quite different from Text Response and Comparative, it's not surprising that the essay has its own set of best practices and rules.
Depending on how many texts you're given in your SAC or exam (it can be up to 3 texts), you should have an idea of how you plan to execute your essay accordingly - whether that be through a block structure, bridge structure or integrated structure. To learn more about essay structures, check out Christine's (English study score 49) advice in How To Structure A Language Analysis For Two Or More Texts.
In an introduction, you're expected to have the following:
In recent years, the issue regarding the treatment and management of asylum seekers has become a topic of interest for many Australian citizens, with the debate focusing centrally on the ethics of their indefinite detention, and the reliability of this initiative as a working solution. Many articles intending to weigh-in on the debate depict the Australian Government’s favoured solution in various tones, with two pieces, written by news source, The Guardian, by authors Ben Doherty and Helen Davidson, and activist Kon Karapanagiotidis, respectively, asserting that the initiative is the wrong approach to a growing problem. In their piece, 'Australia’s offshore detention regime is a brutal and obscene piece of self destruction', the former of the authors speaks with an accusatory tone to their audience of regular readers of the popular news publication site and debates the practicality of the 'arbitra[y]' detention of these asylum seekers, as well as calls into question the humanity of the act and assesses whether it is an effective use of Australia’s wealth, intending to persuade readers to be similarly critical of the initiative. Likewise, the author of the open letter, 'Stand in solidarity with people seeking asylum this holiday season', writes to supporters of his resource centre in a tone of conviction, asserting that asylum seekers deserve the safety of asylum within Australia, that detaining or barring them from entering the country is inhumane and the root of much suffering, and that overall, it is morally wrong, and thus should be ceased immediately. Both articles contend that Australia’s current solution to the growing issue is incorrect, with Doherty and Davidson specifically believing that there is a better solution that must be sought, and Karapanagiotidis believing that detention as a whole is inhumane and should not be further employed by the government.
Try to keep your introduction to the point. There's no need to prolong an introduction just to make a set number of sentences. It's always better to be concise and succinct, and move into your main body paragraphs where the juicy contents of your essay resides.
Most of you will be familiar with TEEL. TEEL can stand for:
In Language Analysis, it seems that schools teach their students different acronyms, whether it be TEE:
And if your teacher or school teaches you something slightly different to the aforementioned acronyms - that's okay too. At the end of the day, the foundations in what's expected are the same. Below is an integrated structure example:
While both articles make very different arguments on the same topic, in one particular case they give voice to the same issue, namely, the inhumanity of detaining refugees, in which both articles become advocates for the abolition of offshore detention. Authors for The Guardian write that it is 'needlessly cruel', 'harsh', and a 'brutal regime', using emotive language to give weight to their argument and invoke a sense of discomfort within their readers, particularly towards the government’s chosen solution. They call on the opinions of a number of other sources who have 'repeatedly criticised', the operation, such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other similar experts on the matter. The authors depict Asylum Seekers as individuals who are 'arbitrarily punished offshore', and who 'have been accused of no crime', and are therefore, by the judgement of the authors, being treated immorally. In agreement, Karapanagiotidis writes of the abuse endured by asylum seekers in detention, including their separation from loved ones, their arbitrary incarceration, and stating that he, himself, 'cannot begin to imagine the personal toll detention has had on [them]', implying further damage has been done and inviting his audience to similarly place themselves into the figurative shoes of an asylum seeker. The author writes that the offshore detention of asylum seekers causes 'pain', and 'suffering', as well as the 'depriv[ation] of [their] hope', using emotive language to invoke sympathy and understanding within his readers. Karapanagiotidis hands the blame for such 'suffering inflicted', on the Australian government, a similar tactic which The Guardian employed throughout their piece. Overall, both articles use a range of language devices and expert sources to agree that the act of detention is inhumane, and the root of much suffering.
As you're writing essays, you'll probably find that you're using the word 'persuades' very often. To mix it up, have a ‘Persuade’ Synonym Word Bank with you whenever you're studying so that you can build up your vocabulary bank and avoid the dreaded, 'I just keep repeating the same word over and over again!'
Conclusions should be short and sweet.
The two articles, in their discussion of Australia’s offshore detention initiative, bring light to several key points. Authors for The Guardian use various appeals, emotive phrases and evidence of reported monetary statistics to sway the reader to share their opinion, as well as arguments regarding the lack of reliability the initiative provides in its ability to deter boats, the sheer cost of the program, and the morality of the issue. Similarly, Karapanagiotidis, the author of the open letter, uses a humanising image, appeals to the values of the readers, and employs phrases with pre-existing connotations known to the audience, to assert main contentions: that asylum seekers deserve asylum, that barring them from settling in the country is the root of much suffering, and that their indefinite detention is not only inhumane, but morally wrong.
If you’d like to see a list of sentence starters to help you broaden your vocabulary for your Analysing Argument essay, check out this blog.
That's it for the Ultimate Guide to Writing a Language Analysis. Good luck!
The use of cartoons alongside articles has become more and more popular for School Accessed Courseworks (SACs) and end of year English exam. At first glance and even the second glance, cartoons may not always appear to contain great amounts of information for students to analyse. However, when students know what to look for, it can be a vital jump-start for an insightful cartoon analysis. After all, there is a reason why teachers and examiners choose to use cartoons. It is crucial that students develop a strong ability to analyse cartoons with or without written articles. For a detailed guide on Language Analysis including how to prepare for your SAC and exam, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Language Analysis.
While there are many resources helping students gain skills in analysing written articles, few are specifically focused on cartoons. Below are 10 things you should look for in cartoons. These are common techniques used by illustrators and are a fantastic starting point in cartoon analysis.
In coloured cartoons, there are myriad of things you can look for. Ask yourself these questions:
What colours did the illustrator use?
What colours are used most? Least?
Is there a repetition of colours?
Is there only one colour?
Colours can be separated into two groups – warm colours and cool colours. Warm colours including red, orange and yellow may be used to evoke feelings of comfort and warmth. It can also be used to express anger and embarrassment. Meanwhile, cool colours including blue, green and purple may represent calm and tranquility. Otherwise it can mean sadness and misery.
Remember that a group of colours can represent an overall meaning:
Red, blue and white – can represent Australian flag and symbolises patriotism.
Red, orange, and dark brown – can represent earth and nature.
While analysing colourful cartoons, also consider that many cartoons are black and white. Although these cartoons lack colour, illustrators use other methods to create meaning.
What shading is used? – heavy shading can mean power and solidity; light shading can indicate frailty and insignificance.
What textures/patterns are used? – smooth or rough.
What shapes are there?
Remember that no cartoons are simply just ‘black and white.’
Analysis: The monochromatic national broadband laid across mountains and kilometers just to serve one shack may represent a sombre plan that is pointless for Australian citizens.
Size is an important element in cartoons and one that is often quite obvious. Investigate:
Is anything disproportioned?
What is large and what is small?
Analysis: The oversized ‘WikiLake’ appears to be irrepressible and too overwhelming for any of the three politicians from preventing another information release.
Background: Wikileaks exposes information about Hilary Clinton and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s subsequent condemnation of the website.
What is labeled?
What do the labels say?
Do the labels tell us the situation? Person? Time change?
Background: In the aftermath of the 2011 Queensland floods, many will be seeking insurance for home and business damages.
Analysis: The label ‘Grin Insurance’ is satirical in that one would expect a customer to be ‘grinning’ to have their insurance. However, the insurance policy only ‘covers [them] against small ‘f’ flood’, not the ‘capital ‘F’ Flood’ they have just experienced, leaving them with no insurance and little to ‘grin’ about.
4. Speech bubbles
Who is speaking?
What are they saying?
Is it a conversation?
Background: Cows contribute to greenhouse gases via flatuence of methane gas.
Analysis: The irony of a cow stating that he is a ‘climate change septic’ when his own release of methane gas is a significant cause in growing greenhouse gases.
A symbol is something that represents or stands for something else, usually an idea. They are commonly found throughout daily lives such as the cross for Christinity or the Red Cross for the organisation that helps victims of war or natural disasters. Sometimes symbols may be as obvious as those mentioned above, yet other times may be more subtle in their meaning.
What symbols are incorporated?
Why are particular symbols used?
Is it a well-known symbol?
Is the symbol’s meaning clear and identifiable? Or is it vague and can have multiple interpretations?
Background: Ted Baillieu, opposition leader against John Brumby in 2010 Victorian state elections.
Analysis: The representation of Baillieu as an iceberg indicates that he is a powerful force preventing the Labor Party from moving forwards and winning the 2010 state elections. The cartoon symbolises the famous movie, Titanic, and indicates that the Labor Party is bound to ‘sink’ against Baillieu and fail to ‘move forward’ to a victory.
The focus of a cartoon can indicate the main issue or situation.
What is in focus?
What is in the foreground and background?
Background: Wikileaks obtaining information about politicians.
Analysis: While a gigantic fly labeled ‘Wikileaks’ is the main focus of the cartoon, it is humorous in that it succeeds in surreptitiously listening in on Kevin Rudd and Hilary Clinton’s unsuspecting private conversation.
Angles often provide readers an indication of the status of particular people or things. If the angle is sloping down, then it creates an image of a smaller person or item. This indicates weakness, inferiority and powerlessness. An angle sloping up towards a person or item provides it with power, superiority and authority. A straight-on angle can represent equality.
Is the angle sloping up?
Is the angle sloping down?
Is it straight on?
From behind? Front on?
On top or below?
Background: Banks and Power Companies are two sectors important to Australian society.
Analysis: The angle tilted up towards the Bank and Power Company demonstrates that they are domineering, powerful and authoritative.
The tone of a cartoon can indicate the illustrator’s attitude and stance towards the issue.
Background: The North Koreans are well known for their possession of nuclear weapons.
Analysis: Although North Korea has made significant technological advances with their nuclear weapons, it is ironic that their other tools of war remain underdeveloped, perhaps since the Middle Ages as the catapult implies.
9. Facial Expression
Facial expressions are key to the character’s thoughts, feelings and emotions.
What facial expressions are used?
Do they change (sequential cartoons)?
How do expressions compare to another’s expression?
Is it an expression we expect?
Background: Prince William introducing Kate Middleton to his royal family.
Analysis: While Prince William appears to be proud and excited to introduce Kate to his family, his fiancé’s expression demonstrates that perhaps she may be apprehensive about the event.
The context of a cartoon is important. Most of the time, cartoons are attached to articles and usually draw upon a point contended by the writer of the article.
Does the cartoon support or oppose the article?
Is it relevant or irrelevant?
Does it focus on the past, present or future?
Which aspect of the article does it relate to?
Does it add further information?
However, there are times when you will have to analyse a cartoon alone, where it is not accompanying an article. In this case you will have to understand the background, the situation and the issue that is represented.
Hey guys, welcome to another week of Lisa's Study Guides. Thank you so much to everyone who came to the VCE expo that happened last Thursday through to Sunday. It was so great meeting so many of you - I really did not expect this many of you to rock up and say hi, but I'm so grateful that you did. So, thank you again so much! It just reinforces that what I'm doing is being really helpful to you guys, and I'm so glad! I'm going to keep going with this. I'm going to keep making sure that I offer you guys amazing English tips on this channel. So, hit that subscribe button below (check out our YouTube channel here), if you do support, and make sure you tell your friends about it as well, because the more love we can share, the more we help each other out.
Today we're going to be talking about tones. You might be interested in looking at tones because you are analyzing articles, but sometimes we're also looking at tones when it comes to the author's writing style when it comes to texts.
So, What Is a Tone and Why Is It Important?
A tone is essentially the attitude that an author takes towards their piece. What is really important is that you realise that there's a difference between tone and mood.
Mood has to do more so with the reader's response to an article, whereas tone is the approach that the author has towards the piece.
It's definitely tricky trying to identify tones, but there are a few things that you can ask yourself to help steer yourself in the right direction.
First thing is: does the author have a positive or negative attitude towards a certain idea? For example, if the author says, 'I can't wait to go to this party' (said in an enthusiastic tone), as opposed to saying, 'I can't wait to go to this party' (said in a sarcastic tone), who do you think is more excited about the party? Probably the first one. In this case, it's been a little bit easier because you see visually how I approached it, but if you just listen to what I've said, the first tone is immersed with a lot more enthusiasm, whereas the second one is sarcasm. Just remember that even though I said it was enthusiasm and sarcasm, if you yourself interpreted it differently than that is okay.
Remember with English, as always, there's not always that one perfect answer. Everyone interprets things differently. It's just a matter of you being able to back it up with your own evidence and your own explanation of why you've come to this certain tone.
So, any form of human emotion can ultimately be translated into a tone. So, whether that is being nostalgic, honoured, sentimental, condescending - these are all tones. And, there are actually so many tones that I've linked a link down below that goes to my blog (if you’re reading this you’re already on our blog!) that includes 195 tones you can choose from. I've also separated these turns into positive, neutral and negative tones and divided them yet again, depending on the type of emotion in order to help steer you in the right direction in picking out a tone amongst all the many, many tones that are available out there.
One more additional tip is that authors can also change their tone. So these can be called tonal shifts, or shifts in tone. An author might not start a book with the same tone and finish it with that same tone - so much has happened throughout the entire book or the event, or maybe even if it's just an article, depending on what they're talking about, they can change their tones. Don't get tripped up by that, acknowledge that sometimes throughout a piece there will be modifications. And, if you're able to pick that up, then that goes a really long way when showing off your efforts to your teachers or examiners.
So, just as a heads up, these tips that I've spoken about are all in our ebook How To Write A Killer Language Analysis. If you're keen to find out more about tones, then go ahead and check it out. There's more there, more examples to help test you, to see whether you're on the right track, more questions that you need to ask yourself to find the right tone and what you can do with tonal changes.
I'm also going to do something a little bit different today, I'll write down three different sentences and I want you guys to interpret them your own way and tell me what tones do you think they are? I think this will be a fun exercise to bring our community together. And I'd just love to see what you guys have to say. I'll check in with you guys next time!
Alright, let's see what different tones you identify from these sentences:
1. Check out my new shoes, I just got them yesterday!
2. It was long since I had returned to this place; the memories washed over me wave after wave.
3. It is imperative that we initiate fair laws for all workers!
List of Tones for Language Analysis
We've all struggled with identifying tones for language analysis. So, I've compiled an assortment of tones you can choose from, categorised into their 'intensities'! For a detailed guide on Language Analysis including how to prepare for your SAC and exam, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Language Analysis.
'Without mortality and fallibility, humility cannot exist.' Compare how the two texts explore the importance of humility.
Compare the ways the two texts explore the efficacy of different leadership types.
"In a world that is also subject to chance." (Ransom) "Under the bludgeonings of chance; My head is bloody, but unbow'd." (Invictus). Compare how chance influences lives and societies in these texts.
Compare how these texts examine the societal consequences of conformation and rebellion.
Compare how Invictus and Ransom explore resistance to change.
'Forgiveness can correct any miscarriage of justice committed.' Compare how this idea is demonstrated in these texts.
'Leadership and sacrifice are never mutually exclusive.' Compare the connections between leadership and sacrifice in Invictus and Ransom.
Compare the ways the two texts explore the power of shared experiences.
'...let his name, from now on, be Priam, the price paid" (Ransom) Compare how Invictus and Ransom show the roles of the past in determining one's future.
"But the women's presence is stronger than [Achilles']. This is their world." (Ransom) Compare what these texts say about the power of women in societies focused on masculinity and male experiences.
'Family can have many interpretations and meanings.' Compare the ways family is perceived in these texts.
Compare how the two texts explore intergenerational relations and their importance.
Compare how, in Invictus and Ransom, the aftermath of forgiveness is both redeeming and transient.
"Words are powerful. They too can be the agents of what is new, of what is conceivable and can be thought and let loose upon the world." (Ransom) "Just words. But they helped me to stand when all I wanted was to lie down." (Invictus) Compare how words shape one's hope for change is explored in both texts.
'Stories hold unseen truth and potential.' Compare how the two texts explore the importance of storytelling.
Ransom and Invictus is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing). For a detailed guide on Comparative, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
What Are You Expected To Cover? (Comparative Criteria)
School Assessed Coursework (SAC), Exams and Allocated Marks
How To Prepare for Your Comparative SAC and Exam
How To Write a Comparative Essay
1. What Is a Comparative?
Comparative is also known as 'Reading and Comparing', 'Comparative Essay' and less frequently, 'Compare and Contrast'. For our purposes, we'll just stick to 'Comparative'.
As its name may indicate, a Comparative is when you analyse and write on two texts, comparing their similarities and differences. In VCE, there are 8 pairs of texts Year 12s can choose from (or more accurately, your school chooses for you!). The most popular combination of texts include novels and films, however, plays also make it onto the list.
When you start doing Comparative at school, you will move through your texts just as you have for Text Response (except...instead of one text it's actually two) - from watching the film and/or reading the novel, participating in class discussions about similar and different themes and ideas, and finally, submitting one single essay based on the two texts. So yep, if you've only just gotten your head around Text Response, VCAA likes to throw a spanner in the works to keep you on your toes!
But, don't worry. The good news is all of your Text Response learning is applicable to VCE’s Comparative, and it's really not as hard as it might first appear. Here's a video I created introducing Comparative (I've time-stamped it to start at 0:55 - when the Comparative section starts - thank me later!).
2. What Are You Expected To Cover? (Comparative Criteria)
What are teachers and examiners expecting to see in your essays? Below are the VCE criteria for Comparative essays (sourced from the VCAA English examination page).
Note: Some schools may express the following points differently, however, they should all boil down to the same points - what is necessary in a Comparative essay.
a) Knowledge and understanding of both texts, and the ideas and issues they present
Society, history and culture all shape and influence us in our beliefs and opinions. Authors use much of what they’ve obtained from the world around them and employ this knowledge to their writing. Understanding their values embodied in texts can help us, as readers, identify and appreciate theme and character representations.
For example: Misogyny is widespread in both Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad, and both writers explore the ways in which females deal with such an environment. Photograph 51 is set in the 1950s when women begun to enter the workforce, whereas The Penelopiad is set in Ancient Greece, a period when women were less likely to speak out against discrimination.
b) Discussion of meaningful connections, similarities or differences between the texts, in response to the topic;
More about this later in4. How To Prepare for Your Comparative SAC and Exam, Step 2: Understand both your texts - as a pair (below).
c) Use of textual evidence to support the comparative analysis
While you should absolutely know how to embed quotes in your essay like a boss, you want to have other types of evidence in your Comparative essay. You must discuss how the author uses the form that he/she is writing in to develop their discussion. This encompasses a huge breadth of things from metaphors to structure to language.
For example: "The personification of Achilles as ‘wolf, a violator of every law of men and gods', illustrates his descent from human to animal..." or "Malouf’s constant use of the present voice and the chapter divisions allow the metaphor of time to demonstrate the futility and omnipresence of war..."
d) Control and effectiveness of language use, as appropriate to the task.
When examiners read essays, they are expected to get through about 12-15 essays in an hour! This results in approximately 5 minutes to read, get their head around, and grade your essay - not much time at all! It is so vital that you don’t give the examiner an opportunity to take away marks because they have to reread certain parts of your essay due to poor expression and grammar.
3. School Assessed Coursework (SAC), Exams and Allocated Marks
Comparative is the first Area of Study (AoS 1) in Unit 2 (Year 11) and Unit 4 (Year 12) - meaning that majority of students will tackle the Comparative SAC in Term 3. The number of allocated marks are:
Unit 2 – dependant on school
Unit 4 – 60 marks (whopper!)
The time allocated to your SAC is school-based. Schools often use one or more periods combined, depending on how long each of your periods last. Teachers can ask you to write anywhere from 900 to 1200 words for your essay (keep in mind that it’s about quality, not quantity!)
In your exam, you get a whopping total of 3 hours to write 3 essays (Text Response, Comparative, and Language Analysis). The general guide is 60 minutes on Comparative, however, it is up to you exactly how much time you decide to dedicate to this section of the exam. Your Comparative essay will be graded out of 10 by two different examiners. Your two unique marks from these examiners will be combined, with 20 as the highest possible mark.
4. How To Prepare for Your Comparative SAC and Exam
Preparation is a vital component in how you perform in your SACs and exam so it’s always a good idea to find out what is your best way to approach assessments. This is just to get you thinking about the different study methods you can try before a SAC. Here are my top strategies (ones I actually used in VCE) for Comparative preparation that can be done any time of year (including holidays - see How To Recharge Your Motivation Over the School Holidays for more tips):
Step 1: Understand each text - individually
This doesn’t mean reading/watching your texts a specific amount of times (though twice is usually a recommended minimum), but rather, coming to an understanding of your texts. Besides knowing important sections, quotes, themes and characters (which are still important and which you should definitely know), here are some other matters which are also necessary to consider:
Why has it been chosen by VCAA (out of literally millions of other books)?
Why are you reading it (especially if it’s an old text, and how it’s still important throughout the ages)?
Why did the author write it?
What kind of social commentary exists within the text (especially on specific issues and themes)?
These kinds of questions are important because quite often in this area of study, you’ll be defending and interpreting your own ideas alongside the author’s. When you find a solid interpretation of the text as a whole, then no essay topic will really throw you off - because you’ll know already what you think about it. Moreover, because you’re comparing two texts in this section, understanding a text and being specific (e.g. 'both texts argue that equality is important' vs. 'while both texts A and B agree with the notion of equality, A focuses on ____ whereas B highlights ____') will help your writing improve in sophistication and depth.
If you need any more tips on how to learn your texts in-depth, Susan's (English study score 50) Steps for Success in Text Study guide provides a clear pathway for how to approach your texts and is a must read for VCE English students!
Avoid simply drawing connections between the texts which are immediately obvious. When writing a Comparative, the key strategy that'll help you stand out from the crowd is the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy. I discuss this in more detail below, under 'eBooks'.
We'll use George Orwell's Animal Farm and Shakespeare's Macbeth as an example (don't worry if you haven't studied either of these texts, it's just to prove a point). The most obvious connection simply from reading the plot is that both Napoleon and Macbeth are powerful leaders. However, you want to start asking yourself more questions to develop an insightful comparison between the two men:
For example: In Macbeth and Animal Farm a common theme is power
Q: How do they achieve power?
A: In Animal Farm, Napoleon is sly about his intentions and slowly secures his power with clever manipulation and propaganda. However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth adopts very different methods as he uses violence and abuse to secure his power.
Q: How do they maintain power?
A: Both Napoleon and Macbeth are tyrants who go to great length to protect their power. They believe in killing or chasing away anyone who undermines their power.
Q: What is the effect of power on the two characters?
A: While Macbeth concentrates on Macbeth’s growing guilty conscience and his gradual deterioration to insanity, Animal Farm offers no insight into Napoleon’s stream of consciousness. Instead, George Orwell focuses on the pain and suffering of the animals under Napoleon’s reign. This highlights Shakespeare’s desire to focus on the inner conflict of a man, whereas Orwell depicted the repercussions of a totalitarian regime on those under its ruling.
Having a list of comparative words will help you understand your texts as a pair, and helps make your life easier when you start writing your essays. Here's a list we've compiled below:
As well as
At the same time
On the contrary
On the other hand
Feel free to download the PDF version of this list for your own studies as well!
Step 4: Understand the construction of your texts
Besides comparing ideas and themes, and having an understanding of what the text says, it’s also imperative that you understand HOW the texts say it. This type of analysis focuses on metalanguage (also known as literary devices or literary techniques). When you get technical with this and focus on metalanguage, it brings out more depth in your writing.
You could start asking yourself:
What kind of description is used?
What kind of sentences are used?
Are they long and winding or rather short and bare?
Are they dripping with adjectives or snappy?
What is the structure of the text?
Does one begin with a prologue/end with an epilogue?
Is the text continuous or divided e.g. through letters or days or parts?
Does the text end at a climax or end with a true finality?
What reoccurs throughout the text? (specific lines, symbols or images)
These kinds of understanding are important as they are evidentiary material for your arguments. What you say and believe the authors have said, as well as how you believe the texts differ, may rely heavily on these techniques. You'd then translate this analysis to develop your arguments further in your essay. For example:
His depiction of Chapel serves as a subversion of the conventional type of slave; he is 'half a slave, half the master' and belongs to 'another way of life'. His defiance and rebellion against the dictations of society is exemplified through his speech, which consists of rhythmic and poetic couplets, filled with flowery language; which ultimately challenges the idea of illiterate slaves.
Step 5: Read and watch Lisa's Study Guides' resources
Doing this study all by yourself can be rather daunting, so we've got your back. We specialise in supporting VCE English students by creating helpful videos, study guides and ebooks. Here are some just to get your started:
We create general study advice videos like this:
We also create Comparative pair-specific videos:
If you prefer learning through videos, check out our entire YouTube channel (and don't forget to subscribe for regular new videos!).
Our awesome team of English high-achievers have written up study guides based on popular VCE texts. Here's a compilation of all the ones we've covered so far including current and older text pairs:
Tip: You can download and save the study guides for your own study use! How good is that?
And if that isn't enough, I'd highly recommend my How To Write A Killer Comparative ebook. What's often the most difficult part of Comparative is finding the right examples and evidence to ensure that you're standing out against hundreds of other students studying VCE.
Unlike Text Response where there are over 30 texts for schools to choose from, Comparative only has 8 pairs of texts. This means that the likelihood of other students studying the same texts as you is much higher. And what does that mean?
It means that your competition is going to be even tougher. It's likely the character or quote you plan to use will also be used by other students. So, this means that there needs to be a way for you to differentiate yourself. Enter my golden CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy.
This strategy can be used for any example you wish to use, but by approaching your example with the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT mindset, you'll immediately be able to establish a unique perspective that should earn you some bonus marks.
If you've ever had a teacher tell you that you needed to ‘elaborate’, ‘go into more detail’, or ‘more analysis’ needed in your essays - this strategy will help eliminate all those criticisms. It will also show your teacher how you are comfortable writing an in-depth analysis using fewer examples, rather than trying to overload your essay with as many examples as possible because you barely have anything to say about each one.
To learn more about the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy, get a free preview of this study guide on the Shop page or at the bottom of this blog.
Step 6: Brainstorm and write plans
Once you've done some preliminary revision, it's time to write plans! Plans will help ensure you stick to your essay topic, and have a clear outline of what your essay will cover. This clarity is crucial to success in a Comparative essay.
Doing plans is also an extremely time-efficient way to approach SACs. Rather than slaving away hours upon hours over writing essays, writing plans will save you the burnout and get you feeling confident faster.
I've also curated essay topic breakdown videos based on specific VCE texts. In these videos, I explore keywords, ideas and how I'd plan an essay with corresponding examples/evidence.
Step 7: Get your hands on essay topics
Often, teachers will provide you with a list of prompts to practice before your SAC. Some teachers can be kind enough to nudge you in the direction of a particular prompt that may be on the SAC. If your teacher hasn’t distributed any, don’t be afraid to ask.
We have a number of free essay topics curated by our team at LSG, check some of them out:
Yes, sad but it’s a fact. Writers only get better by actually writing. Even if you just tackle a couple of essays then at least you will have started to develop a thinking process that will help you to set out arguments logically, utilise important quotes and time yourself against the clock. It will help you write faster as well – something that is a major problem for many students. With that said, let's get into how to write a Comparative next.
5. How To Write a Comparative Essay
Comparative Essay Structure
Here are a couple of resources to get your Comparative essay structure sorted. Firstly a video (time-stamped at 1:38):
The hopes and dreams of oppressed individuals can be fulfilled to a certain extent. This degree of fulfilment, however, can ultimately become restricted by the entrenched beliefs and dictations of society; and thus, this process of fulfilment is presented to be difficult and rare to achieve. In Fred D’Aguiar’s novella, The Longest Memory, the hopes and dreams for equality and racial acceptance is revealed to coerce oppressed individuals to subvert social norms, all in an attempt to gain liberty and fairness. Similarly, Tom Wright’s play, Black Diggers, explores the collective yearning of oppressed Indigenous Australians who seek to gain a sense of belonging and recognition in society. Both D’Aguiar and Wright expose how the obstacles of social inequality, deep-rooted prejudice and beliefs can essentially restrict the fulfilment of such desires and dreams.
Try to keep your introduction to the point. There's no need to prolong an introduction just to make a set number of sentences. It's always better to be concise and succinct, and move into your main body paragraphs where the juicy contents of your essay resides.
Most of you will be familiar with TEEL learnt in Text Response. TEEL can stand for:
If your teacher or school teaches you something slightly different that's okay too. At the end of the day, the foundations are the same.
In Comparative, you can still use TEEL, except that you'll be making comparisons between the two texts throughout your paragraph.
The below example adopts the 'Alternate' Comparative essay structure where the first part of the body paragraph focuses on Text 1 (The Longest Memory) and the second half of the body paragraph focuses on Text 2 (Black Diggers).
The ambitions of the oppressed are achieved to a certain extent. However, they are not maintained and thus become restricted due to the beliefs and conventions entrenched in society. D’Aguiar asserts that a sense of liberation can indeed be achieved in the unjust system of slavery, and this is demonstrated through his characterisation of Chapel. His depiction of Chapel serves as a subversion of the conventional type of slave; he is 'half a slave, half the master' and belongs to 'another way of life'. His defiance and rebellion against the dictations of society is exemplified through his speech, which consists of rhythmic and poetic couplets, filled with flowery language; which ultimately challenges the idea of illiterate slaves. D’Aguiar also associates the allusion of the 'two star-crossed lovers' in regards to the relationship between Lydia and Chapel; who were 'forbidden' to 'read together'. Despite this, the two characters take on a form of illicit, linguistic, sexual intercourse with each other, as they 'touch each other’s bodies in the dark' and 'memorise [their] lines throughout'. Here, D’Aguiar illustrates their close intimacy as a form of rebellion against the Eurocentric society, who believed such interrelation between blacks and whites was 'heinous' and 'wicked'. The individualistic nature of Chapel is also paralleled in Black Diggers, where Wright’s portrayal of Bertie expresses the yearning for a sense of belonging. Just like Chapel, Bertie desires free will, and he decides to 'fight for the country'. This aspiration of his however, is restrained by both his Mum and Grandad; who in a similar manner as Whitechapel, represent the voice of reality and reason. Wright employs the metaphor of the Narrandera Show to depict the marginalisation and exclusion of Aboriginal people, as they will never be 'allowed through the wire', or essentially, ever be accepted in Australia. This notion of exclusion is further reinforced through Bertie’s gradual loss of voice and mentality throughout Wright’s short vignettes, as he soon becomes desensitised and is 'unable to speak'. Here, Wright seems to suggest that the silenced voices of the Indigenous soldiers depict the eternal suffering they experienced; from both the horrors of war, but also the continual marginalisation and lack of recognition they faced back home. Consequently, D’Aguiar and Wright highlight how the ambitions of young individuals are limited by the truths and history of reality, and are essentially rarely achieved.
Conclusions should be short and sweet. Summarise your main points while comparing the two texts (just as you have throughout your entire essay).
D’Aguiar and Wright both illustrate oppressed individuals fighting against the beliefs and conventions of society; in order to gain their freedom and achieve their hopes and dreams. However, both reveal the harsh truths of reality that ultimately inhibit and restrict the capacity of people’s ambitions. D’Aguiar and Wright compel their readers to try and grasp an understanding of the past of slaves and Aboriginal soldiers, in order to seek remembrance and closure of this fundamental truth. They both convey the need for memories and the past to never be forgotten; and instead remembered and recognised in history.
If you're looking for more A+ Comparative essay examples, then you can also get your hands on any of our LSG study guide ebooks. Each study guide has 5 comparative essays, all fully annotated so you can see into the mind of a high achiever. These comparative essay examples also adopt different essay structures (block, alternating, and integrated) so you can see all three in action.
This blog guide is fantastic to get you started - there are certain strategies you can implement to ensure your Comparative essay wows your examiner and gives you an A-grade ranking. These strategies have been adopted by high-achievers in the past few years and have resulted in student achieving study scores of 45+. Make sure you don't miss out on these strategies by accessing a free sample of our How To Write A Killer Comparative ebook. In the meantime, good luck!
Get exclusive weekly advice from Lisa, only available via email.
Power-up your learning with free essay topics, downloadable word banks, and updates on the latest VCE strategies.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Check out our latest thought leadership on enterprise innovation.
Keep in touch
Have questions? Get in touch with us here - we usually reply in 24 business hours.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.