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GCSE English: Tips for ‘Macbeth’ Revision

Updated: Apr 24

Does revising ‘Macbeth’ feel like a whole lot of “hubble bubble, toil and trouble?” Don’t fret! I’ve collated some top tips to help you thrive on your GCSE English journey: quite the opposite of our tragic hero’s infamous downfall. So, without further ado – let’s open that GCSE Macbeth revision book together!

Macbeth's crown and dagger

Look Like Th’ Innocent Flower, But (Analyse) the Serpent Under’t

First things first, many students draw a blank with Shakespeare simply due to the language barrier. The English language has evolved over the centuries, and Shakespeare is certainly a blast from the past! When revising Shakespeare – or any historical fiction – it is important to get to the heart of its meaning, before being phased by the wording. You’ll find that, beneath all the ‘thou arts’ and ‘wherefores’, Shakespeare is actually incredibly relatable and relevant to today. There’s a reason why there are so many modern adaptations of his work!

So, the first stage of GCSE Macbeth revision is ensuring that you understand the text. Some pupils find it helpful to directly ‘translate’ key quotes into modern day language, which then helps them to analyse the text’s deeper meaning. For example, as referenced above, Lady Macbeth’s iconic quote: “look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” is the infamous femme fatale telling her husband to appear good and innocent, whilst being secretly conniving. In this case, she’s asking Macbeth to be obsequious to King Duncan; meanwhile, they’re both plotting to kill him (the ultimate frenemy!).

Look Into the Seeds Of Time

To access the top grades in GCSE English Literature, you need to tackle all of the AOs. One particularly important one – which many students gloss over – is historical context. As we mentioned, ‘Macbeth’ is a piece of historical fiction, so it is crucial that we reference the time that it was written in – in comparison with audience reactions today. First, consider how the time period influenced the play’s themes, secondly, how a Jacobean audience would have reacted, and thirdly, compare this to a modern audience’s perspective.

When embarking upon your GCSE Macbeth revision, take some time to research the Jacobean era. The key elements to focus on are religion, gender and power. I’ll give you a head start: in ‘Macbeth’, religion plays a significant role, which was heavily influenced by the Catholic and Protestant divide in Jacobean England. Regardless of the variation of specific beliefs, all Jacobean audience members would have been extremely religious. King James I, who was ruling at the time, was a Protestant, and strongly advocated for the Divine Right of Kings. There is, therefore, much to be said about King Duncan being valued as God’s representative on Earth, which thus made Macbeth’s regicide the ultimate sin. Macbeth’s downfall is also often perceived as the progressive damnation of his soul, with many allusions to immorality and hell throughout the play.

Also – we can’t forget about the witches! A modern audience’s reaction to the infamous unholy trinity would be very different to a Jacobean audience. A Jacobean audience would have been very fearful of the three witches, as in contrast to ‘holier than thou’ King Duncan, witchcraft was seen to be the work of the Devil. Oo-er!

Moving swiftly on to gender dynamics, it is important to note that the Jacobean era was the height of patriarchal society. This means that men were perceived as being superior to women, and women were restricted to traditional societal roles. This is what makes the power imbalance between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth so interesting; Lady Macbeth, whilst a controversial character, utterly subverts the gender stereotypes in their relationship (literally: “unsex me here!”). She epitomises the ‘femme fatale’ Gothic archetype, manipulating Macbeth into submission.

In addition to researching the Jacobean era, we would also recommend that you get some Greek Tragedy terminology under your belt. ‘Macbeth’ famously utilises Greek Tragedy tropes: Macbeth is one of the most notable tragic heroes, whose hamartia (fatal flaw) is his “vaulting ambition” – ultimately leading to his downfall at the end of the play. Poor guy... although, tragic heroes are ‘tragic’ for a reason!

Shakespeare's Globe

Life’s but a Poor Player

Now, don’t forget: ‘Macbeth’ is a play, so we’re always referring to an audience, not a reader! As Macbeth himself declares, the characters “strut and fret their hour upon the stage” – and this is something to constantly consider when revising. For example, elements such as stage directions and ‘aside’ monologues are pivotal parts of the plot.

Additionally, you may find it useful to watch a staged adaptation of ‘Macbeth’. Whilst you may not have time to see one in the flesh, there are many online resources available. We’re also not knocking the numerous esteemed film adaptations (shout out to Michael Fassbender and Denzel Washington!). Regardless of which version you choose to watch, it will help you to realise that ‘Macbeth’ was not written to be read, but to be performed – so seeing a live or cinematic version of the play will certainly elevate your understanding and appreciation of the text.

Is This a Mind Map Which I See Before Me?

Now, once you’ve got a clear understanding of language, form, structure and historical context, you need to start memorising those all-important quotes! Everyone has different learning styles, but a great starting point is creating a visual aid of your choice. Many students like mind maps, whilst others prefer flashcards – and feel free to colour code to your heart’s content! For my own English Lit A Level, my revision method of choice was coloured post-it notes mounted onto large pieces of paper, which I stuck on my bedroom wall. This allowed me to memorise quotes simply through enforced repetition: every morning, and before I went to sleep each night!

I would advise categorising quotes into both character and theme (where there will naturally be some overlap!) so you’ll be prepared for either a character-centric question, or one which revolves around one of the play’s key themes. For example, ‘Macbeth’ has themes of power, ambition, good vs. evil, the supernatural, religion, gender and relationships. Then, use the revision resource of your choice to memorise these quotes in whichever method feels most effective! Some people find it helpful to recite quotes out loud – and perhaps even teach a lesson to their family on the character or theme in question – whilst others find reading or writing the quotes more helpful. However, one thing I’ll tell you for free: repetition is key!

GCSE English student revising quotes

Once More Unto the Practice Paper

Finally, we all know that practice makes perfect. I’ve taught students who had never actually seen the GCSE English Literature paper before – until we started our lessons, that is! It is imperative that you go into the exam without any unnecessary surprises; whilst it is important that you’ve revised the content, you should also be well-versed on the exam structure, so that sitting the exam will feel like second nature to you. So, what are you waiting for? Find practice papers either online, or via your teacher/tutor, and get cracking!

If you’re still panicking about your upcoming GCSE English exams, don’t let your seated heart knock at your ribs! Get in touch with Titanium Tutors today to get the extra help you need. But first, give these revision tips a go – and we wish you the best of luck!


Blog Post Crafted by Lizzie

Lizzie is one of our experienced English tutors. She is also an actress, singer and composer. After graduating from the University of Birmingham with a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature and Drama, she went on to teach secondary school English for a year, and has been tutoring alongside her other passions ever since.


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