Shakespeare in focus: Finding themes in unseen extracts

To write about an unseen extract and connect it to the themes of the play as a whole.

This lesson will feature examples from Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.

It includes:

  • three videos
  • two activities

Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company


Watch this video to find out the main themes of Macbeth.

A summary of the main themes in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Some key themes to keep in mind when approaching an unseen extract from Macbeth include:

  • Time: It is the prophecy of the future that causes such chaos in the present. There are more than 40 references to time throughout the play.
  • Conscience: Macbeth spends a long time debating whether or not to kill the king. Once he has done so, his conscience and Lady Macbeth’s become troubled in different ways.
  • Sleep: Duncan is killed while sleeping; Macbeth shall ‘sleep no more’; Lady Macbeth reveals her ‘slumb’ry agitation’ as she sleepwalks in her final scene.

Top tip!

It can be helpful to think how themes work in pairs, or in opposition to each other – such as light vs dark, appearance vs reality or order vs disorder.

Watch this video to learn about the themes of Romeo and Juliet.

A summary of the main themes in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

Unseen extracts

When faced with an unseen extract, it is helpful to ask a series of questions to enable you to write effectively about it, such as:

  • How does this extract connect with the major themes of the play?
  • What do the characters say, how much do they speak and what might they be hiding?
  • How is their behaviour and language consistent with their other scenes in the play and how does it contrast?
  • What is the status between the characters and is there a turning point?

To help you tackle these, you can start by asking:

  • Where is your eye drawn as you look at the text on the page?
  • Is it in prose or verse?
  • What words and images recur?
  • Are irregular verse lines drawing attention to a character’s preoccupation and/or themes?

Top tip!

Try to remember a key quote for each key theme that you might be asked to write about, and you can apply at least one of them when writing about the unseen extract.

Learn more about the themes of Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet.


Activity 1

Read the following extract from Act 2 Scene 1, which takes place just before Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger?’ speech.

How goes the night, boy?
The moon is down: I have not heard the clock.
And she goes down at twelve.
I take't, 'tis later, sir.
Hold, take my sword. There's husbandry in heaven:
Their candles are all out. Take thee that too.
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose.

Enter Macbeth, and a Servant with a torch.

Give me my sword - Who's there?
A friend.
What, sir, not yet at rest? The king's a-bed:
He hath been in unusual pleasure, and
Sent forth great largess to your offices.
This diamond he greets your wife withal,
By the name of most kind hostess; and shut up
In measureless content.

Being unprepared,
Our will became the servant to defect;
Which else should free have wrought.

All's well.
I dreamt last night of the three weyard sisters:
To you they have show'd some truth.

I think not of them:
Yet, when we can entreat an hour to serve,
We would spend it in some words upon that business,
If you would grant the time.

At your kind'st leisure.
If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis,
It shall make honour for you.

So I lose none
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
I shall be counsell'd.

Good repose the while!
Thanks, sir: the like to you!

Exeunt Banquo and Fleance

Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,
She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed.

Exit Servant

Now answer these questions on the extract you have just read. You can reread the text as many times as you need to help you answer.

  1. Underline all references to light and dark, sleep and time in the section between Banquo and Fleance, before Macbeth’s entrance
  2. Write two or three sentences about how Shakespeare draws on these themes and imagery to create atmosphere in the scene and reveal how Banquo is feeling
  3. When Macbeth last saw Banquo he addressed him as ‘friend’; Banquo called Macbeth ‘worthy’. Write two or three sentences to describe their relationship here.
  4. The verse line ‘Which else should free have wrought. / All’s well’ is an irregular one. It is two syllables short. Perhaps this suggests doubt on the part of Banquo, or the moment of him deciding to ask Macbeth about the Witches? Can you identify other moments where Shakespeare plays with the rhythm and form to draw our attention to theme and character?

Activity 2

Watch the following clip to hear how the actors approach themes and character in Act 3 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet becomes increasingly isolated from her mother, her father, and finally her nurse.

Read the following speech, which is taken from the same scene, and occurs moments before the action you have just watched. Capulet is talking to Juliet.

God's bread! it makes me mad:
Day, night, hour, tide, time, work, play,
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her match'd: and having now provided
A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly train'd,
Stuff'd, as they say, with honourable parts,
Proportion'd as one's thought would wish a man;
And then to have a wretched puling fool,
A whining mammet, in her fortune's tender,
To answer 'I'll not wed; I cannot love,
I am too young; I pray you, pardon me.'
But, as you will not wed, I'll pardon you:
Graze where you will you shall not house with me:
Look to't, think on't, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:
An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good:
Trust to't, bethink you; I'll not be forsworn.


Now answer these questions on the extract you have just read. You can reread the text as many times as you need to help you answer.

  1. Read aloud the first and last words of each verse line in sequence, e.g. ‘God’s mad: Day, play…’
  2. Which themes of the play are brought out through this?
  3. What does Capulet want? In your own words, say what is the ultimatum he gives Juliet?
  4. How does the speech reflect the wider themes of the play and what language choices does Shakespeare make to accentuate this?

Where next?

In this lesson you have explored different ways of approaching an unseen extract from a text, identifying the key themes in a section of text and applying discussion to the text as a whole.

There are other useful resources that will help you to explore Shakespeare's work.

Please note: Bitesize revision guides are split by exam board - to check if there is a specific version of a guide for your board, choose your subject and then exam board here.

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