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Leaving Cert English Poetry FAQ

Cultural Context - Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, Macbeth, The Fault in Our Stars for Leaving Cert English #625Lab

“The cultural context within a text often dictates the crises or difficulties faced by characters and their responses to these difficulties.” 

(a) Discuss to what extent this statement applies to at least one central character in one of the texts you have studied for your comparative course. 

This is an interesting question because it asks you to talk about the three texts in an almost single text type fashion. The author did quite well in that sense, but he made a few significant mistakes:

- he talked about Shakespeare's cultural context, not so much the cultural context of "Macbeth". If you write a detailed answer, you will inevitably have to mention the significance of what Shakespeare wrote in terms of his own culture as his writing was very much under royal scrutiny, it's political and allegorical. All the same, the focus should be on the cultural context of the text, not of the author.

- he compared the cultural context of "Macbeth"/ Shakespeare to today's culture making a lot of potentially inflammatory judgements that don't really add anything to the essay

- he sometimes writes in messy long sentences

- he repeats himself a lot and his paragraphs are very watery. A paragraph should state its main argument in the first sentence. The body of the paragraph should give 2-3 reasons that support the opening statement. The paragraph should finish off with a summarising remark that reiterates the opening statement. That's the life blood of any essay. If you are to derive just one thing from all my essay writing advice, this is it

- his comparisons with "The Fault in Our Stars" are weak - they really need a rethink!


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"I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked! Give me my armour". Macbeth's ruthless thrilling rise to the top of the hierarchy was enthralling to say the least. He simply ignored every single social attitude during the Elizabethan time (well you bet he did, as Queenie was around in the late 16th/early 17th century and "Macbeth" was set in the 11th century! Or, the author means that "Macbeth" was written during the Elizabethan era and it's setting conflicted with the contemporary attitudes. In any case, the author needs to be very clear about this.) and for this reason his time at the top was short lived as society's attitudes towards religious subjects and monarchy were never not going to change. I have nothing but admiration for Macbeth's desire for power, but he took it way too far over the line, and unfortunately in this case despite his will to go down fighting until every last bit of flesh is hacked from his body, tradition says "if you are bad, you will be rightfully punished". (The bright chap who wrote this, wrote this in the comfort of a non-exam setting, on a device with a backspace button, with no time pressure. And it's a holy mess of a sentence. Imagine how much worse it will be in the exam setting with nerves, time pressure and no way to edit!? Moral of the story once again is do not write very long sentences.)

Leaving Cert English Comparative - Cultural Context - Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, Macbeth, The Fault in Our Stars

Shakespeare along with his family were proud Catholics. (This is debatable. Rather than debate it though, the author should focus on the text.) Religious divisions were a major topic during Macbeth's time (which time? 11th century of 17th?). In my view the play was written based on Shakespeare's thoughts of the reformation at the time. James the first was strongly against the Catholic Church and being the king of Scotland there was a major conspiracy by Catholics against the King which was an attempt to overthrow him. (This isn't common knowledge and I'm not clear that this is correct even after researching it. I wouldn't go down this path anyway. Focus on the play, not on the historical intricacies. Plus, another long sentence and another set of syntax errors. Efficiency of language use marks melting away.) In fact the murder of King Duncan is portrayed as "most sacrilegious murder had broke up the lords appointed temple and stole thence the life 'o the building". This has strong overtones of the destruction of the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. (This is an interesting interpretation, but it's probably more to do with the divine rights of kings.)

Macbeth was a "gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust". Macbeth was seen as a loyal, noble person. No one expected to commit such awful acts against God. People believed to attack the King is to attack God's representative on Earth. These strong, wild religious beliefs were the consequences Macbeth knew he may have to face. Religion dominated the Elizabethan world, people deemed worthy to be burned at the stake or publicly executed were often non-believers of God. To mess with religious beliefs such as killing the King (God's representative) is like running through a forest with a pack of bloodthirsty wolves on your tail. Macbeth was never the rightful King and when he was discovered to be a fraud, Macduff presented his severed head to the victorious crowd and hailed Malcolm as the new rightful King. (This long passage about the divine rights of kings would have been better if it had more quotations.) 

Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, Macbeth, The Fault in Our Stars

Macbeth and his contemporaries lived in a much harsher environment than we do today. Widespread dangers were presented by extremely poor sanitation and infectious diseases such as the plague and smallpox. (The plague wasn't really around until the 14th century. More importantly, it's not mentioned in "Macbeth", so why talk about it? The cultural context of the era is only important if it comes up in the text itself.) Medical treatments were often gruelling, such as using leeches to suck the patient's blood. (There are ample examples of imagery of disease - and they would have been a much better fit to illustrate the author's point.) The life expectancy was just thirty-fives years. (The author would be better off focusing on the imagery of violence and imagery of disease in the play rather than giving us historical facts.) Suffering and violence posed just as much as a threat to Macbeth as religion and the completely brainwashed attitudes towards Gods, Kings and faith. During that time there was an enormous threat by a violent, corrupt state system. (Avoid stating things that are politically charged because you just don't know who is going to be reading your essay. If they disagree with you, you're asking them to make an effort to be objective. ) Torture was used routinely, as was public execution which included decapitations and hanging. These gruelling spectacles would attract large crowds and another worry for Macbeth was that bloody scenes were very popular and theatre audiences expected and demanded them. He was never going to die a peaceful death the moment he stepped up to the throne. He was just going to have to overcome the fact that his death will not be so pleasant after all. In fact sacrifices were going to have to be made when he was appointed the new King. Under the influence of his wife, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth was ruthless in his ambition to stay at the top. He murdered children which is just not acceptable and would be disgusting if presented in today's theatre. (Game of Thrones, anyone?) Macbeth took the decision to kill his best friend Banquo because his truth was beginning to unfold. Lady Macbeth did not know anything about this decision and we know Macbeth was as determined as ever to stay at the top. "If good, why do I yield to that suggestion, whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs". Macbeth was already thinking about killing the King when he thought about his wife's words, "look like the innocent flower but be serpent under it". This gruelling generation (what does this mean?) was surrounded by suffering and violence which was a major factor Macbeth had to overcome. Like captaining your county out on Croke Park to making the school debating team, Macbeth had an ambition to get to the top and during those horrific gruesome times Macbeth had to make sacrifices by committing unforgivable acts that come back to take his life which his head displayed to a joyful, eager crowd. (The simile seems out of place.)

The marking scheme directs the examiners to reward:
- social attitudes/values cause difficulties for characters and shape their responses 
- constricting/violent “worlds” affect the experiences and reactions of individuals 
- family, class, gender, money, race, etc. determine the choices and decisions of characters 
- social structures/distribution of power enhance/inhibit character development/fulfilment 
- desire to challenge/transcend cultural conventions may result in serious consequences

(The author did a good job of addressing the above issues, but instead of just discussing the play, he did a somewhat moralising comparison of today's world versus a confusing cocktail of 17th/11th century settings.)

(b) Compare the extent to which the above statement is applicable to at least one central character in each of two other texts you have studied on your comparative course.

Hazel Grace from the cancertastic novel "The Fault in Our Stars" was an extremely self conscious person straight from the first page in the book. Her condition left her wheeling around an oxygen tank everywhere she went as her lungs were pretty much "useless". She knew she wasn't normal. She knew she was never going to have normal relationships with normal people. I find her very similar to "The Weyard Sisters" in the play "Macbeth". There was uncertainty during the Elizabethan times about the existence of witchcraft and witches. Shakespeare presents the witches as "the Weyard Sisters" because they were wayward. They were not normal. They weren't natural. Similar to Hazel, "any attempts to feign normal social interactions were just depressing because it was so glaringly obvious that everyone I spoke to for the rest of my would feel awkward and self conscious about me". Cancer patients like Hazel or witches like the Weyard Sisters will never be seen as normal. (I don't think you can make this comparison, or at least dwell on it so much. The witches are grotesque, essentially fairy tale characters and aren't to be taken entirely seriously. They are certainly not central characters.) They will never get to have positive social relationships. Social attitudes, although in different time periods were quite similar towards Hazel and the witches. Hazel liked "being a person. She wanted to keep at it". Hazel wants to be seen as an equal to her companions. She wants to have fun, she wants to be like every other teenager, going out to parties, studying for exams or playing sport. Unfortunately, she can't do these things as the unfair attitudes society has towards her are just too much for her to do anything about them. This in turn leads to her depression and her negative thoughts such as "there is no use wasting good lungs on a hopeless case". Hazel believes she is worthless even though she has a far fetched ambition of "outlasting four of these bastards" as only one in five cancer patients survive. Her ambition for survival is similar to "Macbeth" in his ambition to become King and is also similar to Lance Armstrong in his quest to get to the top. Unfortunately, modern day society has different ideas and it is just impossible for Hazel to get to that status of being normal and having fun successful relationships.

Leaving Cert Comparative study Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story

Lance Armstrong is a well known retired cyclist for all the wrong reasons. (I assume this relates to "Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story", the film by Alex Holmes. It's better to state the title.) A convincing, ruthless liar that cheated his way to seven world titles as a cycling champion. Lance was a poor kid growing up in Texas and he had that ambition to get to the top just like Macbeth "as great fortunes can be made from professional road racing". Wealth and poverty played a significant role in Lance's cycling career and maybe it was because "il est sur le jus"(he is on the juice) because of the financial reward that comes from professional cycling. Lance had a poor social status growing up as a kid and he did everything in his power to change that social status. When the accusations against him started "he called in every single political favour he could". Lance had the power to drop a feds case against him which is beyond amazing. Those risks he took came with severe consequences such as testicular cancer and his financial rewards were shattered. "That was a seventy-five million dollar day". Lance had received a telephone call from President Bush announcing the twenty ninth of July as Lance Armstrong day. Exactly like Macbeth, Lance knew it was too late to go back now. Lance had a crisis on his hands and he was being investigated by the Feds and the secret service. When we finish the story of Lance Armstrong we understand that politics played a huge role in his secret staying hidden. Stopping a Feds case really does show how much power Lance had, but a drive for wealth by committing horrible acts is never the answer. Lance similar to Macbeth were found out in the end. Both were idolised icons around the globe but society's attitudes towards cheating religion and monarchy were never going to change and Lance had the power to get away with it but like the rest of his society he could not live being a cheat and ended up admitting some of the accusations. (Another calamitous long sentence.) The ambition for wealth and personal pride by Lance and Macbeth was always going to be a lost cause by the way they went about it. (Missing a conclusion.)

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