Part 4: How to Analyse Shakespeare in Year 10 | Themes and Context

What's the difference between analysing Shakespeare in Year 9 and Year 10 English? Read this article to find out more.

By now, you would have had your fair share of analysing Shakespeare. So, you’re probably wondering if the process for how to analyse Shakespeare in year 10 is any different from what has come before, right? So, is it? Yes! Let’s look at how!


Why do more Shakespeare?

Increasing complexity

As you move from Year 9 to Year 10 English, your analysis of Shakespeare needs to be more complex.

You need to take a deeper look at the themes and context and critically think about meaning.

This means identifying how Shakespeare’s textual decisions reflect his society’s values and perspectives and how it relates to our modern society’s context.

Read THEMES IN SHAKESPEARE to see how Shakespeare’s context is reflected in his work and how to analyse it.


Representing human experience

The reason why we still study Shakespeare today is because it is still relatable to us.

The human experience is the sequence of events and situations that we all go through and makes us human. This includes love, conflict, death, motivations etc.

We study Shakespeare to learn more about the human experience and how our understanding of it changed over time.

He has captured what we think, how we feel and why we act a certain way.

So, when you analyse Shakespeare, you need to see how he represents the human experience and how people behave or react to it. You must take note of similarities and differences to how we would react to these situations today.



Challenging context

Shakespeare is written over 400 years ago, so his context is vastly different from ours today.

When we study Shakespeare, we also need to look at social values.

Some social values and perspectives change over time whilst others are maintained. It is a good idea to take note of the values explored in Shakespeare’s plays and see how they reflect the society he lives in.

For example, acceptance of diversity was not a big deal in Shakespeare’s time. In fact, his society was openly racist. However, today, we value diversity and look down upon discrimination and racism.


Struggling to understand Shakespeare?

Learn how to analyse Shakespeare and sharpen your writing skills now. Learn more about our Year 10 English Course.


Themes in Shakespeare

When you look at all of Shakespeare’s dramas, we can see recurring themes running across them. It is important that you are comfortable with them, so you can easily identify and discuss it in your analysis.

Here is a list of Shakespeare’s most common themes that you must know:



Ambition is the strong desire, eagerness or determination to achieve something personally advantageous like power, fame or wealth.

Today, Western society values ambition because we live in an individualistic (idea of being independent and achieving your best) society. However, when we look at Shakespeare’s texts, we see that ambition is rejected in their society.

This is because they lived in a highly religious society. They worshiped God, and believed in fate. Click here to read more on FATE VS FREE WILL.

So, when someone is being ambitious, it is a sign that they are rejecting their destiny and subsequently, rejecting God’s power.

That’s why, all of Shakespeare’s ambitious characters suffer a great downfall.




Here are some examples:

  • Macbeth: Macbeth wants to become King. He kills a lot of people, manages to become King for a while but gets murdered.
  • King Richard III: Like Macbeth, Richard wants to become King. He brutally murders people, becomes King, then gets killed.
  • Hamlet: Claudius wants to become King, so he murders Hamlet’s father. Hamlet avenged his father and kills Claudius.
  • Julius Caesar: Caesar wants to overthrow Rome and become emperor. You guessed it. He also gets killed.


Appearance vs reality

Shakespeare commonly explores the idea of appearance and reality.

This refers to the way appearances appear to be something they are not.

We see evil, manipulative and cunning characters appear loyal, honourable and trustworthy to the other characters. These two-faced characters hide their true colours so well, that the other characters are oblivious to the reality.

We also see characters in disguise, pretending to be men, lawyers,

This is not all. Shakespeare also creates illusions and different realities.


Here are some of Shakespeare’s dramas that explore the themes of appearance vs reality:

  • Othello: Iago pretends to be Othello’s loyal friend and he believes it. However, in reality, Iago plans to ruin Othello’s life.
  • King Richard III: Richard holds a mask of being holy, religious and trustworthy. However, this is part of his plan to be crowned King.
  • Merchant of Venice: Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer to save Antonio in court, because women cannot be lawyers in Shakespeare’s time.
  • A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: Puck plays tricks on the lovers by using love potions, making them confuse appearance and realities.




However, most of these conflicts represent deeper issues within society like racial and gender conflicts and even good vs evil.Shakespeare explores many different types of conflicts. There are rivalries between families, friends, countries and so much more.

It is important that you identify these deeper social conflicts when you analyse Shakespeare to deepen your discussion.


Let’s take a look at some of Shakespeare’s plays that explore different types of conflicts:

  • Othello: There is conflict between Iago and Othello. However, this conflict represents the deeper racial conflicts in society.
  • Romeo and Juliet: There is conflict between the two families, Capulet and Montague. It represents social stereotypes and conflicts.
  • King Lear: There is conflict between King Lear and his daughter, and Gloucestor and his sons. This represents generational conflict.
  • Hamlet: Hamlet suffers from emotional inner conflict because he is unsure about killing Claudius.




Fate vs Free Will

Remember, Shakespeare’s society is highly religious.

They believed that everyone’s future is already determined by God and that people do not have free will.

This includes:

  • The Great Chain of Being is the hierarchy of life; God is on top, then angels, humans (king, then thane, bishops, farmers, servants, beggers etc) and animals.
  • And the Divine Rights of Kings where the King’s right to rule is determined by God.

So, when individuals try to challenge their destiny and enact their free will, they usually suffer from God’s retribution (punishment).


Here are a few plays:

  • Macbeth: Macbeth attempts to challenge both the Great Chain of Being and the Divine Rights of Kings, by trying to move from a Thane to a King. He ends up being killed.
  • King Richard III: Richard is also similar to Macbeth. He ends up murdered.
  • OthelloIago takes fate into his own hands when he attempts to take down Othello. However, like all Shakespearean plays, Iago suffers from God’s retribution.
  • King Lear: Edmund disrupts the natural order and try to maintain power. He ends up being killed and Lear realises that free will has consequences.




Order and disorder

Today, we live in an individualistic society. So, an individual’s actions will affect themselves and immediate people.

However, Shakespeare’s society believed that every individual’s actions affected the whole of society. This is because they believed in fate. So…

An individual’s decision to act on their free will will cause disorder in society.

In Shakespeare’s plays, there is always a restoration of order when things go out of hand. This solidifies their religious belief in God’s power and fate.

In tragedies, the ambitious individual suffers from His retribution and the rightful King takes the place.


Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Macbeth: Macbeth tries to unlawfully take the throne. He is killed by Macduff and Malcolm rightfully becomes King. This restores order in society.
  • King Richard III: Richard kills many people to become king and loses control, causing disorder. He is killed by Richmond, who restores order and becomes King.
  • Merchant of Venice: Antonio (Christian) defeats Shylock (Jewish) in court. This restores order and solidifies their Christian beliefs.
  • A Midsummer’s Night Dream: There is a lot of disorder in this play; The Fairy King and Queen’s dispute throws the seasons off track, and affects the human world. However, when they reconcile, order is restored.





Recapping how to analyse Shakespeare

In our How to Analyse Shakespeare in Year 9: The Basics, we went through how to understand and analyse Shakespeare texts.

Matrix students learn how to analyse texts using these simple steps:

Matrix Method For English Overview (2)


We will quickly summarise the steps now.

Let’s begin.

  1. Read the passage: Try to understand the gist of what is happening. Read it over a few times. Read it aloud if you are struggling.
  2. Paraphrase: Translate Shakespeare into modern day English. Summarise or annotate so you can easily refer back to it.
  3. Unpack the language: Find techniques. Shakespeare is known for his use of metaphors, double entendre, puns and other vivid descriptions.
  4. Understand the meaning: Analyse the technique by relate the techniques to the themes and find its purpose.
  5. Relate it to the structure of the text: Know the 5 Act Structure and where your passage lies in the story arc.
  6. Think about character development: Know your character’s development arc and identify where this passage lies on the development arc.
  7. Consider the passage as part of the whole text: Find the purpose of the passage in relation to the whole play. Also, think about how it relates to other parts of the text eg. overarching techniques.
  8. Synthesise meaning: Collate all your findings and gather what Shakespeare is trying to say.

Analysing Shakespeare might seem intimidating, but these steps break it down and make it so much easier.

If you want to see a detailed guide, then CLICK HERE.



How to analyse Shakespeare in year 10: Thinking about structure

Shakespeare’s dramas usually follow the 5 Act Structure:

  • Exposition: Sets out the story world and characters, and introduces the conflict.
  • Rising action: Events building up to the climax. Here, things accelerate and get more complicated. The characters begin to react to obstacles.
  • Climax: This is the most intense point of the story arc. Here, the complication is at its peak. Events can turn either way now.
  • Falling action: The consequences and reactions to the complication. This part is usually slow and tense.
  • Resolution: This is where the ‘problem gets resolved’. Usually, loose ends are ties up here, and we can see a future.

Each genre will have different ways of approaching these Acts.



Before we go into detail about their structures, we need to know what the genres are:

  • Tragedy: A drama where the hero’s downfall is caused by their own actions. It usually ends with death or suffering. It usually includes manipulation, revenge, murder, someone wanting to become King etc.
    eg. Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet
  • History: Works that are based on real historical events, but they are not 100% accurate. Shakespeare usually wrote histories as propaganda for Queen Elizabeth in response to the civil wars.
    eg. Richard II, Richard III, Henry V, Henry VI
  • Comedy: A play that focuses on situations more than characters. Comedy does not mean “funny” in this case. However, these plays are usually light hearted and has a happy ending and have a lot of weddings.
    eg. A Misummer’s Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night
  • Late Romance: Shakespeare’s plays weren’t originally categorised into romances, but modern critics have begun to do this. These are plays are harder to categorise because they use tragedy conventions and have a comedic resolution. Also, their plots are not always centred around a couple’s romance.
    eg. The Tempest, Cymbelline, The Winter’s Tale


Now that we know what the genres are, let’s see their similarities and differences

Tragedy / HistoryComedyLate Romances
ExpositionIntroduces characters story world and a social issue. These issues usually disrupt social order.Introduces characters, story world and a tragic event. This is usually a lovers’ complications or separation. Introduces characters, story world and a tragic event, like a conflict, seperation or jealousy.
Rising actionProtagonist strives to achieve their goal, driven by their hamartia (tragic flaw). They succeed but also begin to suffer from inner conflicts.Character’s go on a journey to overcome the issue. Things go downhill.The protagonist commits a bad deed in response to the issue. This is usually an act that harms / kills their wives.
ClimaxThere is no turning back for the protagonist. They usually realise the effects of their actions and are ridden with guilt.A point of change for the protagonist.  Events seem like they can turn positive or negative.This is a point of change for the protagonist. They realise the effects of their actions and are given a chance to redeem themself.
Falling actionThe protagonist’s suffers the consequences of his actions. His downfall seem inevitableEvents start to become positive. There is usually a reconciliation or reunification.Protagonist repents their ‘evil’ actions and becomes a new person.
ResolutionThe protagonist slightly redeems themselves but is killed. Social order is now restored.It is a happy ending. The protagonist is better than they were at the start of the play. People are coupled together.The protagonist is redeemed and lives. People reunify / coupled together. It is a happy ending but they are still affected by the tragic past.


How to analyse Shakespeare in year 10: Considering context

Why is context important?

Texts are a reflection of the context that they are written in. This includes society’s values and perspectives, society’s economic status, historical events and even the composer’s personal life.

These factors change depending on geographic location and time. For example, a person who lives in 21st century Australia will have a different context compared to someone living in 21st century China or 19th century Australia.

This is why it is important to look at context when we are analysing texts.

We not only see how context influence they way a text is written, but we can also learn about these different contexts and compare it to ours. It helps us see what the composer’s message in the text.



Important events

We know that context is very important when it comes to analysing texts. Let’s take a look at a few key events that influenced Shakespeare’s works.

  • 1455-1485 War of Roses: It was a battle for the crown between the families of Lancaster and Yorks. Henry Tudor (a Lancaster) defeats King Richard III (York) and wins the war. He then marries Elizabeth of York which unites the families and starts the Tudor dynasty.
    • King Richard III is based on the War of Roses.
  • 1485-1603 Tudor Dynasty: Founded by Henry VIII and ended at Elizabeth I.
    • Many of Shakespeare’s plays became propaganda to legitimise the Tudor’s ruling. eg. Henry V and Richard III
  • 1558-1603 Elizabeth I reign
    • Shakespeare is born in Elizabeth’s reign. This is beneficial for him because it was the ‘Golden Age’ where the arts were valued. Elizabeth was very fond of theatre.
    • Having Elizabeth as his Queen also influenced his works. Some of his plays became propaganda for Elizabeth’s reign
  • 1562-1598 European Wars of Religion: A series of wars between the Protestants and Catholics. Queen Elizabeth and England under her reign was Protestant.
    • This means that other religions (Catholics, Jews…) are ridiculed or suffered in Shakespeare’s plays. eg. The Merchant of Venice
  • 1584 Bond of Associations: A group created to execute people who tries to overthrow or kill Queen Elizabeth.
    • Shakespeare had to be careful about writing histories in case it misrepresented the reign.
  • 1601 Shakespeare’s father died
    • His writing shifted. It became darker, exploring themes like murder and betrayal.  eg. Macbeth, Othello, King Lear
  • 1603 Queen Elizabeth dies and James I becomes King (known as James VI of Scotland)
    • Shakespeare no longer write histories.


Contextual connections

When you learn about Shakespeare, you will usually be asked to compare the original with a remake or reimagined version of it. This is called a comparative study.

This means that you have to look at the similarities and differences between the two texts and draw contextual connections.

To do this, you have to be comfortable with both contexts.

Usually, the composer’s decision to change or keep certain aspects of Shakespeare’s work is influenced by their context.

It is up to you to figure out why. Think about social values, perspectives, cultures etc.




How to analyse Shakespeare in year 10: Today’s relevance

Why bother with Shakespeare?

There is no doubt that Shakespeare is difficult to read and study. But if you put in the effort, you will find it very worth it.

Shakespeare is known for the way he writes. He uses metaphors, puns, double entendre, and vivid imagery to describe feelings, actions, behaviours and the human experience.

This helps us better understand the human experience because we aren’t just told what it is, we are shown it through his language.


Shakespeare also made a major contribution to the English language.

Bubbles, addiction, bedazzled, assassination, eyeball, dishearten, uncomfortable“… just to name a few!

However, he didn’t just create around 1700 everyday English words, he also coined phrases.

Dead as a doornail“, “Good riddance“, “Wild goose chase“, “Heart of gold” and so much more!


How can Shakespeare represent us today?

Some may argue that Shakespeare is no longer relevant today. But this is just a superficial understanding of the text.

When we look deeply into Shakespeare, we can see an exploration of universal and timeless experiences. He shows us the truth about human experiences and human nature like love, corrupt politics, conflicts etc.

Everyone in any time and space can relate to these experiences. And this is why Shakespeare will always be relevant.




Bringing it all together

Synthesizing your analysis

When you discuss Shakespeare, it is not enough to just analyse the techniques.

You have to link your analysis with themes and context to bring it to the next level.

This means that you have to:

  • Be confident about Shakespeare’s context. Know any piece of information that might influence the way Shakespeare writes.
  • Identify key themes in Shakespeare’s plays and link it to the context. Figure out why Shakespeare chose to explore these themes by thinking about his context.
  • Figure out Shakespeare’s message considering his context. Remember, our reading of Shakespeare will always be influenced by our personal values and perspectives. So, when we are finding meaning in his work, we need to think about Shakespeare’s context and what his way of thinking would be like.


From drama to film

Now that you know how to analyse Shakespeare for Year 10 English, it’s time to look at the most common text form that is used to reimagine Shakespeare’s texts; film!

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