Student sample exam essays

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The Benefits of the Bard

Terminology for studying Shakespeare

fatal flaw: a hero is undone by a tragic flaw (Aristotle's term) in his character. The hero suffers either moral weakness, error or ignorance or even virtue.

He then has an awareness, and his recognition minimises the pain, enlarges our pity or fear, and brings catharsis (purgation, a cleansing of the emotions through their expression and resolution) of the emotions of the spectators in the audience; it drains pent-up emotions, thus drama and tragedy is socially useful.

tragedy: the spectacle of a man not absolutely or eminently good or wise who is brought to disaster not by sheer depravity but by some error or frailty. It needs to be a highly renowned or prosperous personage. He must engage our sympathy - be a man like us.

"The tragedy must be irreversible. The tragic personage is broken by forces which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence. This is crucial. Where the causes of disaster are temporary, where the conflict can be resolved through technical or social means, we may have serious drama but not tragedy. "George Steiner The Death of Tragedy London: Faber 1961 p. 8.

When the bad bleed, the tragedy is good.

Aristotle: The best tragedy concerns a man who does a deed of horror in ignorance: Macbeth knowingly kills Duncan his king but Oedipus unknowingly kills his father, Othello kills Desdemona, Lear banishes his only loving daughter Cordelia.

comic relief : humorous episodes designed to alleviate, lighten up or relieve the tragic effect, e.g., the entrance of the drunken porter to urinate in Macbeth. Comic scenes enlarge the canvas of tragedy. Sometimes in fact, the comic scenes deepen the tragic effect.

soliloquy: a speech most often in drama when a character speaks his thoughts aloud while alone. An aside is a sharing with the audience but supposedly not to be heard by the other characters on stage. These are two important conventions in Elizabethan drama revived in the 20th century.

dramatic irony: refers to a state of affairs which is the tragic reverse of what the participants think, e.g., Eve eats the fruit of happiness but it leads to sorrow, Macbeth kills Duncan and so loses all that makes life worth living. This device contrasts what the character says and thinks and the true circumstances known only to the audience; it is not an irony between what he says and means. Adapted from Barnet, Berman and Burto A Dictionary of Literary Terms pp. 82-3.

drama is literature (read privately) or theatre (performed openly). It involves a theme (conflict and its outcome) in a plot with conflict, climax and resolution. Dramatic plots are economical so they 'flow'. Characters shown in dialogue, action and appearance. Settings and atmosphere are presented in sound, costume and decor. Staging crafts what the audience sees and understands. Stage dialogue must bear much of the above and differs from everyday speech in its length, depth and significance. From Graham Little Approach to Literature Sydney: Science Press 1978.

Some references for further reading:

Barnet, Berman and Burto A Dictionary of Literary Terms pp. 82-3.
Knight Some Shakespearean Themes pp. 84-119.
Harrison G. B. (1951) Shakespeare's Tragedies Routledge Kegan Paul.
George Steiner The Death of Tragedy London: Faber 1961.
John Peck & Martin Coyle How to Study a Shakespearean Play Macmillan Education 1987.
Downer, A. S. Shakespeare's Tragedies Penguin p. 215.
Wayne C. Booth Shakespeare's Tragic Villain, The Rhetoric of Fiction.

King Lear Sample Essays

Remember when writing essays on set plays, you must (a) use as much material (including quotations) from the play as possible, and (b) ensure that you answer the set question.

Question 1: Briefly outline the subplot in King Lear and show how it is related to the main plot of the play.


Paragraph 1: outline subplot
Paragraph 2: Gloucester and the main plot
Paragraph 3: Edgar and the main plot
Paragraph 4: Edmund and the main plot.

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Written by G. Smith Brisbane Australia 21/3/99.