A Short Guide to Writing Shakespeare Essays

Paul Budra

     An essay is an argument. The introductory paragraph presents the thesis that you will argue, the subsequent paragraphs each introduce and elaborate on a point that supports that thesis, and the conclusion summarizes the thesis and points used to prove it. Please remember this when you are writing the essays for this course.

     What arguments are you going to put forward in your essays? In theory, you may argue anything about a Shakespeare play (or any other piece of literature) if you fulfill three requirements. First, everything that you argue about the content of the play must be supported by the entire play. Put another way, if you argue X about the play, no one should be able to point to another part of the play and say, "how do you account for this Y?" This is not as easy as it sounds. Shakespeare's plays are complicated works.

     Second, everything you argue must make historical sense. That is, you must understand the work in context. For example, it would be foolish to argue that Hamlet is an allegory of the Russian Revolution. This is historically impossible, and it is not the type of mistake that you are likely to make. It is quite easy, however, to read contemporary or personal values and assumptions back into historical literature without realizing that those ideas would have seemed strange, heretical, or opaque to a person in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to mount an argument about how a Shakespeare play works in the world today, as long as you make that clear. Therefore, you could argue that by today's standards The Taming of the Shrew is repugnantly sexist. On the other hand, you cannot so easily argue that the play was meant to be sexist. Would Shakespeare and his contemporaries have understood the idea of sexism? And it they did, how might their conception have differed from ours?

     Third, your argument must follow the rules of logic. One point should flow logically to the next. Inductive arguments should mount sufficient evidence to prove their conclusions; deductive arguments should have sound and clear premises. If you are unfamiliar with the rules of logical reasoning, you might consider buying a writing manual which contains a chapter on logic.

     In practice, what are you going to argue? Formulating an argument about a writer like Shakespeare can be intimidating. The chances of saying something entirely original about Hamlet are remote. The point of writing an essay on Shakespeare, then, is not to discover anything new about the play, but rather to hone your own ability to think critically about a rich piece literature. In arguing about Shakespeare you are forcing yourself to think about all aspects of the play and its context. In doing so, you are coming to a deeper understanding of Shakespeare and his age.

     Now, when you sit down to write your essays, the first and most important thing you will need is a thesis. This is the sentence that tells your reader what your essay will argue. It is the single most important sentence in the essay, and everything you write in the body of the essay must directly relate to that sentence. Here are some tips on writing a thesis: first, it must be an arguable statement. It cannot be a question. "Was Coriolanus's distain for the people the cause of his downfall?" is not a thesis. "Coriolanus's disdain for the people was the cause of his downfall" is a thesis. This does not mean that every thesis must offer a cut-and-dried, black-or-white position. You can forcefully argue a middle position: "Brutus is neither a good man or an evil one" needs proving just as surely as "Brutus is a hopeless idealist" does.

     Similarly, a thesis cannot be a statement of fact. "Iago plots Othello's destruction" is not arguable; it is a fact in the body of the play. "Iago is motivated by professional jealousy" is a thesis; it is arguable.

     Finally, your thesis must not be too narrow or too broad. You want to argue something that can be satisfactorily proven within the length of the assignment. In the shorter, early paper for this course you will mount a very specific argument. In the longer later paper, you will have more room to develop a broader, more complicated argument.

     The process of creating a thesis has been made easier for you by the essay topics. Each of these topics asks a question about the plays under study. Because these are questions, they cannot be used as your thesis. Rather, they are aids to help you begin to think about issues in the plays. Ponder the question that you find the most interesting or troubling and see if can form an opinion that answers the question. That opinion can be worked into a thesis. Then ask yourself, why do I have this opinion? The ideas you marshal in support of your opinion are the points that will be developed in your paragraphs. You may also create your own essay topic--that is, form your own thesis or argument--but you must get it approved by your seminar leader before you begin writing.

     The evidence that you will bring to bear in your essay to prove your points will, with a few possible exceptions, come from the Shakespeare play under study. Always try to be as specific as possible in your references to the play you are arguing about. When appropriate, quote directly from the play to support your point. Do not, on the other hand, quote huge passages; these take up too much space in a short essay and are better summarized. For example, there is no point in quoting all of Hamlet's "to be or not to be speech." Rather, your essay might contain a line like this:

Hamlet contemplates the implications of suicide in the "to or not to be" soliloquy (3.1.56-87).

Similarly, do not offer an extended plot synopsis of the play under study. The person marking your essay can be assumed to have read the play and know the story.

     As the above example makes clear, when you quote from, or refer directly to, Shakespeare's plays, you reference the citation by giving act, scene, and line number in parenthesis. Here's another example that might appear in a Shakespeare essay:

Hamlet returns to Elsinore with a new-found acceptance of his destiny. As he explains to Horatio, "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.213-14).

If you are confused about reference styles, note how the editors of your Shakespeare texts do it in their introductory essays.

     Remember, if you have any questions about your essay please see your seminar leader as soon as possible.