Department of English
Choate Rosemary Hall
Shakespeare and the Death of Kings
Spring 2012 term
Some Thoughts On Critical Essay Assignments
A good Shakespeare paper should be concerned primarily with a careful and detailed analysis of a particular character, speech, exchange, scene, or theme in a play or across two or more plays that we have studied. Your paper should also pose a clearly defined argument about your topic, in the sense that it advances an idea with which someone might disagree. You are not expected to consult secondary literature in these essay assignments. Your primary aim should be construct a meaningful, imaginative reading of some aspect of Shakespeare's work that stays close to the text as it develops. You should support your claims with quotations, but you also should analyze those quotations carefully. And remember, all the normal rules of good composition still apply: focused thesis statement, strong topic sentences, unified paragraphs, and thorough analysis.
If you don't know how to quote verse and cite plays, see the MLA Style Manual (which includes a list of common abbreviations for Shakespeare's works) in the Andrew Mellon Library. When Shakespeare writes in verse, it is essential that you quote him writing in verse; do not turn Shakespeare's verse into prose when you quote it! You must indicate line endings in your quotations by using slashes in short quotations embedded in your text, or by using a block quotation format for longer quotations that precisely imitates the published form of the verse.
If you decide to use secondary literature, do not use it as a replacement for your own analysis. Criticism by literary scholars is best used as a point of departure for amplifying a particular point, or for introducing an idea against which you plan to argue. As always, you must give credit for any ideas not your own that you incorporate into your paper. Your essays must include a bibliography and should employ footnotes whenever you quote or paraphrase an author's original idea.
In the case of some plays, such as King Lear, there is considerable scholarly disagreement about which version--folio or quarto--is "authoritative." You might want to develop a paper that argues for a particular preference for the play as a whole, or for a particular scene. This will take some extra effort on your part, but you may find it well worth it.
If your paper deals with religious aspects of Shakespeare's work, be sure to use the Geneva Bible (1560) as your source for quotations from Scripture; references to the King James Bible or later translations would be anachronistic.
If you decide to allude to film or stage versions (or adaptations) of Shakespeare's plays, make sure you integrate them into a focused analysis of a particular play that carefully considers the ways in which the stage or film production alters or amplifies Shakespeare's text. A paper of this sort should go beyond a simple "compare and contrast" essay; try to make a solid argument about the merits or shortcomings of a particular version or adaptation that is rooted in Shakespeare's text. But for the most part, you are well advised to stick with the texts of the plays themselves unless you are writing one of the extra credit assignments on Shakespearean cinema.
If you are interested in writing about Shakespeare's plays in relation to the social and cultural context of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Russ McDonald's The Bedford Companion To Shakespeare is a good place to start looking for primary texts and contexts. But remember, Shakespeare's text is your primary concern.
Suggested Paper Topics
The following questions for each of the four assigned critical essays are intended to be starting points. Whatever topic you choose, you need to narrow your argument down into a concise thesis appropriate for a relatively short paper. Your analysis should be firmly rooted in a close reading of the texts and you should draw primarily on the plays for evidence to bolster your points.
14. Paper #1.
A. The predominantly Christian audience of Elizabethan times would have been familiar with the concept of the "fortunate fall" from the Biblical stories of Jesus and of Adam and Eve (as they fall, they rise). To what extent does King Richard's fate in the play echo this pattern?
B. The Duke of York seems to recognize the theatrical nature of Richard's kingship--he describes it as "so fair a show" at one point (III.iii.77). Assess the extent to which Richard II and other characters--Bolingbroke, especially--are presented as actors playing roles in the course of the play.
C. The imagery of "the garden" recurs repeatedly throughout the play. Why did Shakespeare return to this metaphor again and again? How does the playwright establish, maintain, and manipulate the metaphor in Richard II?
25. Paper #2.
A. At this point in our study, you are in a position to evaluate the leadership offered by three kings of England: Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. How does Shakespeare establish these characters as models--positively or negatively--for kingship? How do the plays reflect the transition from medieval to Renaissance (or early modern) notions of leadership and politics?
B. The story arc of Sir John Falstaff takes place across three plays (both parts of Henry IV and Henry V). Some critics, such as Harold Bloom, regard Falstaff as the greatest of all Shakespeare's creations. Others agree with Samuel Johnson, who said, "The fat knight . . . has nothing in him that can be esteemed.'' Which view do you think is correct? Is the story of Falstaff a tragedy? Why or why not?
C. Prince Hal's speech in I.ii of Henry IV, Part One ("I know you all . . .") and his rejection of Falstaff ("I know thee not, old man") at the end of Henry IV, Part Two function as bookends of a sort. Discuss the significance of these speeches and consider how they reflect the character arc of Hal/Harry/Henry V through all three plays in which he is featured.
D. Discuss the ways in which the four plays of the Henriad present a changing England. What sort of patterns in the political and/or social order are evident in the events of the cycle? How is the nation described in Richard II different by the end of Henry V? (Consider the dramatis personae in each of the plays. Also look at the nature of the language itself through the cycle.)
31. Paper #3.
A. Throughout his history plays, Shakespeare explores the relationship between the body natural and the body politic: how the king's physical existence is a literal embodiment of the state, reflecting its health as well as its afflictions. Show how this is true in any three plays we have studied.
B. In Richard III, Shakespeare is said to depict the title character as a Machiavel. What does it mean for a leader to act in a Machiavellian manner? How would an Elizabethan audience have viewed this approach to governance? Are Richard's actions a fair representation of Machiavelli's ideas? Did any of the other kings we have studied also have Machiavellian qualities?
C. The scholar Robert Ornstein writes, "The geometry of Richard's career has a superb logic as well as an artful symmetry. His fall is the mirror image of his rise because the very techniques which carry him to the throne ensure that he will not keep it long." Assess the extent to which Richard's strengths and weaknesses may be one and the same.
36. Paper #4.
A. Shakespeare's plays often involve conflicts between parents and children. How does King Lear echo themes raised in the Henry IV plays? What is similar? Different?
B. How does the Gloucester subplot compound the tragedy at the heart of King Lear? Why does Shakespeare present a double plot (Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and his sons) in this play? What are the critical similarities and differences between the two stories?
C. In III.iv, Lear calls Edgar "unaccommodated man." How does this reflect the "nothing" motif of the play? Why does Edgar refashion himself as Tom O'Bedlam? What does his transformation signify beyond the simple plot device of hiding while under the weight of false accusations? Isn't it cruel of him to deceive his father this way? How is Edgar's story an essential element of this play?
D. Through much of the performance history of King Lear, Shakespeare's ending was rewritten such that Cordelia survived and married Edgar and Lear also survived and was restored to power. How does this change the ultimate meaning of the play? Can you defend the shift to a "happy ending"?
Picky Rules For Writing Critical Essays About Shakespeare
1. Care about the paper you write. Imagine it in a book entitled The Works of [Your Name].
2. Your essays should be written on 8.5"x11" white paper using just one side of the leaf. The text should be 10- or 12-point font, double spaced, with reasonable margins on all sides ("reasonable" means there is room for me to write constructive comments). Please hit the space bar just once between sentences, please!
3. Number your pages after the first page (at the top right-hand corner).
4. Give your paper a title that is informative, not cute. The name of the work you are dealing with should NOT be the title of your paper. Hamlet is by William Shakespeare. "Shakespeare’s Use of Time in Hamlet" is by a thoughtful person; "It Takes a Broken Egghead To Make A Hamlet" is by a jerk. Do NOT underline, italicize, or put in quotes your own title.
5. Italicize all full-length films, plays, and books. Italicize magazines and newspapers. "Short stories," "film shorts," "one-act plays," and "articles" go inside quotation marks. Do NOT underline, italicize, or put in quotes your own title.
6. Establish the context of your paper in the first sentence: "The Clown in the last scene of Antony and Cleopatra brings only one asp to Cleopatra." NOT: "There's only one snake."
7. Give your paper a clear thesis sentence in the first paragraph. (This rule is the one most important one.)
8. Do NOT use one or two sentences as a paragraph.
9. Each paragraph must stick to the subject introduced by the first sentence in that paragraph.
10. Do NOT misspell words. Misspelled words look dumb; do not look dumb. Use a dictionary or a literate friend to check your spelling. Be warned: checking your spelling electronically will not catch all the mistakes that I will.
11. A possessive without an apostrophe is a misspelled word.
12. One exception to rule #11: "Its" is the possessive of "it." "It's" is the contraction for "it is." Since you should not be writing formal papers with contractions, you will never need to write "it's" on a paper.
13. Make the transition between your sentences and your paragraphs clear and logical. This task is the most difficult in writing, but out of difficulty we find invention.
14. Do not use the first or second person—I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours; you, your, yours—unless I say you may.
15. Do not use the passive voice ("Careless students are failed by Mr. Gallagher."); use the active voice ("Mr. Gallagher fails careless students."). Because the active voice is honest and clear, this rule is the most important rule of style; and, like it or not, style affects meaning. If you will take the time to master the voice of your verb, you will find yourself a better writer in all ways. I may be a bear on this one, but I'm a bear for your sake.
16. Do not begin sentences in any of the following ways: "There are/is..." "This is..." "It is..."
17. Do not use "this," "these," "that," "those," "which," or "it" unless the word has a clear and unmistakable antecedent nearby. Never begin a sentence with "this" unless you follow it immediately with a noun that re-identifies the idea to which you are referring.
18. Never publicly dangle a participle or misplace a modifier. Write "Showing unmistakable signs of stupidity, the student did not persuade his teacher." NOT: "The student did not persuade his teacher, showing unmistakable signs of stupidity."
19. NEVER write an incomplete sentence (participles—"ing" words—cannot stand as verbs).
20. DO NOT hedge. Words like "maybe," "perhaps," and "might" do not keep you from being wrong; they merely alert the reader to the fact that you are worried about it.
21. NEVER JUST SUMMARIZE OR PARAPHRASE. Remember that I have read it or seen it. I do not want to know what happened. I want to know your ideas about what happened.
22. Support your assertions and ideas with concrete examples or brief quotes from the essay, poem, play, or film you are discussing or with a short citation from some reliable authority.
23. NEVER use someone else's ideas (even in paraphrase) or words without giving proper credit.
a. When the quote is from the Bible, put the book, chapter, and verse in parenthesis after the quotation (Psalms, 12.6).
b. When the quote is from Shakespeare, put the play (unless you've mentioned it), the act, scene, and line number in parenthesis after the quotation (King Lear, III.i.25).
c. When the quote or paraphrase is from someone else, put his or her last name and the page number of the quote in parentheses following the quotation (Cole, p. 27) and list the book in good bibliographical form in a works cited list at the end of your paper.
24. On those rare occasions when you quote more than two lines of text, indent and single space the quotation and leave off the quotation marks. In American usage, the final quotation mark always goes after the comma and the period and before the semi-colon and the colon [," / ." / "; / ":].
25. Do not split infinitives (keep the "to" next to the verb): Write "I wanted quickly to drop the course" or "I wanted to drop the course quickly," NOT "I wanted to quickly drop the course." Hiding the adverb between the "to" and the verb, is a default position that frequently robs the adverb of its precision and power. True, you will hear that modern usage permits the split infinitive, but as long as well-educated and powerful people do notice and dislike split infinitives, you might as well avoid looking less well-educated and powerful.
26. Know these three rules about commas:
a. Join independent clauses (clauses with a subject and a verb) either by using (1) a comma with a conjunction
("Readers have extraordinary sex lives, but non-readers tend toward impotence and frigidity.") or (2) a semicolon without a conjunction ("Readers have extraordinary sex lives ; non-readers tend toward impotence and frigidity.")
b. Separate items in a series by using a comma after every item before the conjunction ("The English teacher was arbitrary, arrogant, and nasty.").
c. Never use a comma between the subject and the verb or between the verb and its object (except for interrupting clauses which use 2 commas). Remember that when a single subject has two verbs no comma is necessary before the "and" ("Shakespeare authored sonnets as an individual and wrote plays as a collaborator" is correct without a comma).
27. Bury words like "however," "furthermore," "moreover," "indeed," and soon (conjunctive adverbs) in the clause or sentence ("The students, however, failed."); do not put them at the beginning.
28. Write about works of art in the present tense, since Hamlet will be stabbing Polonius and the asp will be nibbling on Cleopatra’s breast long after your grandchildren have forgotten your name.
29. Be consistent when you have two or more parallel structures in a sentence. With adjectives: "He was pompous and terrorized freshmen" is wrong. "He was pompous and fond of terrorizing freshmen" is right. With prepositions: "A student could count on his bad temper and arbitrariness" is wrong. "A student could count on his bad temper and on his arbitrariness" is right. With correlatives: "He graded not only for content but for style" is wrong. "He graded not only for content but also for style" is right.
30. Avoid jargon (say "library"; do not say "instructional media center"), cliche ́(say "the teacher is a liberal grouch"; do not say "the teacher is an old fogey"), slang (say "the teacher is foolish"; do not say "the teacher is a dork"), and hyperbole (say "this man has too high a regard for himself"; do not say "this man is the most arrogant bastard who ever lived").
31. Use your smallest ,most Anglo-Saxon, most comfortable words; big words impress only the insecure and the ghost of William F. Buckley. Write "use" not "utilization" or "utilize."
32. Lose the word "very" from your written vocabulary, avoid the word "effective," eschew the words "transition" and "impact" as verbs, and only use an exclamation mark after the happy face you scrawl on the bill you give to diners.
33. Avoid rhetorical questions. That approach is fine for Brutus at Caesar’s funeral, but too manipulative for a good essay. If you have an answer, write it. If not, your job, not mine, is to find one.
34. Conclude your paper with a paragraph that explains the importance of your ideas to some larger understanding. Do not allow me to ask "so what?"
35. ALWAYS WRITE A ROUGH DRAFT. Even Shakespeare revised.
36. Proofread out loud and also find a good proof reader. Before writing your final copy, have an intelligent friend read your paper to you, and then fix the things you don't like.
37. Staple your paper at the top left-hand corner. An unstapled paper requires a 25¢ stapling fee. (NB: In a courageous stand against inflation, I have kept the stapling fee at 25¢ for 24 years.)
38. Regardless of who loses your paper you’re the one who will have to rewrite it or get an F. So be safe: keep a duplicate of your final version, either in hardcopy or on a backup disk.
39. Never write more than the assignment specifies. Remember what Donne can say in a sonnet (14 lines).
Copyright © 2010-2012 Ned Gallagher. All rights reserved.
Last revised: May 16, 2012