Revising quotations: One Quote Fits All

One Quote Fits All: Jill Carter

Jill Carter shares her advice for making the most out of quotations during this revision period. 

Students, teachers and parents worry about quotations or as they are now acceptably known quotes (in my day that was a verb…). ‘Eek – Macbeth – how can I learn a quote for every possible essay scenario?’ I hear. Our students are being asked to learn quotations from Shakespeare, 19th century prose, 20th century prose and poetry. It’s a tall order.

Essay scenarios

One of the tricks is to think about just how many different essay scenarios one quotation can be used to support.

So, let’s take a few areas typical to an essay question on Macbeth and how one quotation could be used in the response:

‘Let not light see my black and deep desires’ A1, Sc4

Character: This implies that Macbeth knows that his deepest desires about power and kingship are very wrong.

Theme: The theme of light and darkness recurs throughout the play and represents the battle between good and evil.

Intention: Shakespeare presents Macbeth as aware of his guilt and responsibility; he knows what he is doing is wrong but cannot control his desire for power.

Context: When the play was written, light was symbolic of God; Macbeth may be saying that he does not want his actions to be witnessed by his god. The word ‘black’ was closely associated with evil emphasising for the Jacobean audience that Macbeth’s intentions are very dark indeed.

Language: The use of alliteration in the phrase ‘deep desires’ adds weight to Macbeth’s words about his new-found ambitions.

Plot and structure: Macbeth delivers this line at the point where Duncan has announced his successor to the throne and so it has a real significance; Macbeth will have to take action if he wants to fulfill the witches’ predictions and this line suggests that what he wants is both deep-seated and malicious. The audience begins to wonder what he might do next.

Suggest that students apply this approach with a series of quotations:
  • “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (Act I, Scene I)
  • “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.” (Act I, Scene III)
  • “Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” (Act I, Scene V)
  • “Come you spirits … unsex me here” (Act I Scene V)
  • “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty” (Act I Scene V)
  • “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” (Act I, Scene V)
  • “I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none.” (Act I, Scene VII)
  • “Screw your courage to the sticking-place.” (Act I, Scene VII)
  • “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition (Act I, Scene VII)
  • “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? (Act II, Scene II)
  • “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” (Act II, Scene III)
  • “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” (Act III, Scene II)
  • “Blood will have blood” (Act III, Scene IV)
  • “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” (Act V, Scene I).
  • ‘Life’s but a walking shadow’ (Act V, Scene V)
  • “I bear a charmed life.” (Act V, Scene VIII)

There are one-word quotations which fit any task: ‘tyrant’, ‘devil’, ‘blood’, ‘murder’, ‘ambition’ and so on. These can be useful for students who experience genuine struggle or panic when it comes to learning longer quotations.

Close reference to text and own response

You can also encourage students to make close reference to the text and reassure them that this too is acceptable. For example:

Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to give her the daggers so that she can smear the grooms with blood.

Lady Macbeth repeatedly refers to the blood she believes is on her hands.

Macbeth believes he has waded so far into his crimes that he might as well continue.

Adopting this approach may help them to feel more confident and less ‘defeated before they have even started’.

Above all, keep reminding students quotations are important but, their response to a studied text plays the main part in their exam response. A series of quotations will not necessarily earn them those desired grades. They need to show engagement with the text and an ability to explore and interpret it. Textual references, including quotations, are a powerful means of supporting and illustrating a point of view or developing an argument.* To me this is about developing a sense of the text’s ‘place’ in the world and in life itself. Macbeth’s mind is ‘full of scorpions’ – and we all know how that feels.

*AO1: Read, understand and respond to texts. Students should be able to: • maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response • use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations.

More from Jill Carter
Oxford Literature Companions: Macbeth, includes key quotations

For further set-text support, Oxford Literature Companions study guides and workbooks help students to build a deeper understanding of the text, and are applicable to all exam boards.