English Literature

Sample question

Your teacher will decide what task you must complete for your Romeo and Juliet GCSE coursework. Some tasks are written, and some are part of speaking and listening. However, the basic approach to the play, the skills you need, and even the basic topics, can be very similar.

Preparation

There are two important points to remember:

Your teacher will decide your title. Perhaps you will be able to alter it, or even agree a new topic, but the title that is finally chosen is the one you must answer. This is the one you will be marked on, so make sure it is the one you write or talk about.

Secondly, concentrate on what is relevant. You do not have to include lots of background information or details about the life of Shakespeare to write a brilliant essay. All you need to do is focus on the question and include information about the plot, characters, themes, dramatic effects and language. Let's have a look at a few typical Romeo and Juliet questions:

Sample questions

Typical questions ask you to show how a character develops during the play, or how a theme is presented, or to look closely at a scene in the play. So we might have tasks like:

  1. How does Juliet change during the course of the play?
  2. How is the theme of love dealt with in Romeo and Juliet?
  3. How is drama created in Act 3, Scene 1?
  4. What is the role of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet?

Each of these tasks mentions one main topic. For example, the first is about Juliet, so it is about character. However, you will also have to deal with a number of other topics in your answer. For instance, you should look at how Juliet speaks, so you are looking at language. You could also examine Juliet's part in the plot - how she is used for dramatic effect, and the themes she talks about. We could look at each question in the same way.

For example, 'How is drama created in Act 3, Scene 1?' This should cover what Act 3, Scene 1 adds to the overall plot, the characters in the scene, the dramatic effects (that is the main part of the question!), plus the themes in the scene and the language the characters use.

In other words, try to look at a range of topics in your answer. Markers are always pleased to see answers which cover plot, character, dramatic effect, theme and language.

Writing the first draft

Once you have planned your answer, you can start to write the first draft. Remember, this is coursework, so you might be able to write a number of drafts, making each one better as you develop your answer. However, many people worry about starting their answer - they are not sure where to start - so they include a lot of information which is not asked for or needed. For instance, you might know a lot about the background to the play or Shakespeare's life, but is it really relevant? Let's compare two ways of starting to answer the question: 'What is the role of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet?'

Version one

Romeo and Juliet is a play by Shakespeare. It is set in Verona, Italy, and is about two families, the Capulets and the Montagues, who are constantly feuding, and what happens when Romeo, a Montague, and Juliet, a Capulet, fall in love. The play was probably first performed at the Globe Theatre in London in 1595. The theatre was very different then because no females were allowed to act, so all of the female roles, including Juliet, were played by males.

At first sight this looks OK. It is all correct and about Romeo and Juliet. However, the person marking the essay already knows the play and all the background details, and this introduction could be for any title. In fact, most markers would not give any marks so far, because nothing about the question has been given. We think there is a much better way to start your essay or talk, so let's look at version two.

Sample answer

It is best way to start answering your question straight away. It will help you to focus on what is really important, and to decide what extra ideas you need as you develop your answer. So let's look at version two of 'What is the role of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet?' and see if we can tackle the question directly, without any waffle.

Version two

We first meet the Nurse in Act 1, Scene 3, as she talks to Lady Capulet and Juliet. The Nurse is quite different to the other characters: she seems very talkative and appears to ramble on. Her first topic of conversation is really Juliet's age - the Nurse explains in several different ways that Juliet is not quite 14 years old. Perhaps Shakespeare uses the Nurse here to show the audience just how innocent and young Juliet is. We also learn how close the Nurse is to Juliet. She remembers everything about Juliet's childhood and compares her to her dead daughter, Susan, who was born at the same time.

This might be your first attempt at starting the answer, but already it has a good focus on the question. The only time Shakespeare is mentioned is when we guess what he uses the character of the Nurse for, and this is an important point. Working like this allows you to plan your answer around the question, which is far better than just writing everything you know about the play.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with including extra detail, but you only get marks for what is relevant.

Different approaches

The final thing to remember is that there are lots of ways to answer the same question. You do not have to follow a set plan, or include things in a fixed order. It helps if you have a range of ideas, especially if they are connected to the plot, characters, dramatic effects, themes and language. Stick to what is relevant, and do not be afraid to put a personal reaction in as well - it shows you have engaged with the text and not just copied ideas you have heard.

So imagine our title is: 'How is the theme of love used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet?' One sample answer might start with different aspects of love, another with the language of love, and yet another with the dramatic effects created around the theme of love. However, try to plan the start of an answer using Juliet's character as the introduction. Once you have done that, compare your ideas with the answer below:

'How is the theme of love used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet?'

One of the main themes in Romeo and Juliet is love, and perhaps the best example of this concerns Juliet. We first meet her when love is far from her mind. She is very quiet and innocent, with both her mother and the Nurse reminding the audience she is still 13 years old. However, within minutes of meeting Romeo she has been kissed twice, and even tells him he kisses 'by th'book', meaning he is either an expert or lacks passion. My first impression of her, then, is not very romantic, especially as she seems to be telling Romeo off for the way he kisses. However, as soon as Romeo leaves, she lets the audience know he is her 'only love'. As the play progresses, we can see that this is completely true - she commits herself totally to him and even kills herself because of him.

This is only the start of the task. There is a lot more you could add. But it is a fine introduction, because it keeps to the point as well as using a range of relevant details combined with personal thoughts.

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