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Due Dates. See syllabus for due dates of the two papers. I would prefer emailed attachments in MS Word or Corel Word Perfect because it's easier to comment on drafts and maintain records. A rough draft is suggested, but not required.

General Prompt. Choose one or two assigned texts and, focusing on issues you find relevant and manageable, write two 5-7 page essays specific in initial thesis, easy to follow in structure, and clear and consistent in style. (Graduates should write two 10-15 page proseminar essays that engage with both primary and secondary material; they may also choose to write one approx. 20-page paper to be due at the end of the semester.)

Developing a Topic: You may want to develop a paper topic by refining or adapting one of the study questions on our plays. If so, send me the question or questions that interest you, and I will gladly help you "spin" a good topic. But here are some you may find worthwhile; they are only suggestions, not prescriptive or unchangeable topics:

1. Concentrate on the female characters in any one or two plays. (For example, Anne Neville or Queen Elizabeth, etc. from Richard III, Ophelia or Gertrude from Hamlet, Cressida in Troilus, Jessica or Portia from Merchant, Desdemona or Emilia from Othello, Cordelia or Regan and Goneril from Lear.) What complications in action and theme does the gender of these characters introduce? What limitations do Shakespeare's women come up against that the men don't seem to face?

2. Our two broadly acknowledged “problem comedies” are The Merchant of Venice and Troilus and Cressida. In one of them (or perhaps both if you're doing one of two graduate proseminar papers), what exactly makes them problematic? In what sense don't they fit the generic definition of a comedy, and why? What advantages flow from Shakespeare's dismissal of strict generic expectations?

3. In King Lear, Macbeth, and some other plays, there seems to be an inverse relation between the ability to act and the gaining of what we might call “tragic insight” into the nature of people and events. Explore how this process works.

4. Concentrating on a carefully chosen selection of characters and scenes, consider the troubled relationship between words and deeds in any one or two assigned plays. Which characters do what they say they will do? Which don't, and why not? Why don't they adhere to the value systems they set forth in their own rhetoric, and what complications ensue when they don't (or, for that matter, when they do)?

5. What constitutes the “tragedy” in a given play – one prominent (if older) school of thought has it that much of Shakespearean tragedy revolves around the basic Augustinian premise that sin destroys itself; classical tragedy seems to flow more from a sense that the gods make no promises of peace or justice to us, even though we ourselves are quite capable of demanding those things.

6. In any of the assigned plays, explore Shakespeare's handling of his source material. Since Shakespeare is rather free in his treatment of sources, your emphasis will probably be on how they serve him as a point of departure rather than as a restrictive pattern. This is probably more of a graduate question since it would involve doing some research.

Formatting. Follow MLA (Modern Language Association) style -- this means, mainly, that you must observe the following formatting rules:

1. Observe 1-inch margins (MS Word uses 1 ¼"; change with Word's file menu Page Setup feature).

2. Double-space text and indented quotations alike -- i.e. don't single-space quotations.

3. Avoid extra paragraphing spaces or extra spaces anywhere (after title, etc.). Therefore, tab-indent the first line of regular paragraphs 1/2 inch rather than block-styling them, which would require extra spaces.

4. Indent long quotations of more than four lines from the left; there's no need to indent from the right.

5. Number your essay's pages in header at top right -- use Word's insert menu Page Numbers feature to do that. Then input your last name with Word's view menu "header and footer" feature -- the command "control/letter r" will right-justify the header text you type.

6. Include at top left on separate double-spaced lines your name, the instructor's name, bare course title, and date. Then add your centered title. A typical paper would begin like this:

                                                                               Simpson 1

Bart Simpson

Professor Burns

English 101

25 December 2005

But I'm Never Going to England!

7. Introduce and cite sources properly within your essay. See my Grammar Guide for the relevant conventions.

8. Offer a "works cited" list on the last page of your document even if an anthology is your only text. Again, see Grammar Guide for the relevant conventions, or refer to a book every humanities major should have: The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th. edition. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 2003.

Rough Drafts (Optional). If you give me a rough draft or some portion of one, I will read it carefully and offer substantive comments. With regard to stylistic matters, I have a detailed online Grammar Guide, portions of which I include as "autotexts" with the MS Word Track Changes feature as I go through a draft. I will not simply "fix" rough drafts since that discourages students from doing their own editing. Self-expression and the desire to say something important are good reasons to write, but they alone do not make a person a good writer -- that takes time and respect for the medium itself, including its formal conventions.

Research and "Works Cited" For undergraduates, research is optional -- the main thing is to attend closely to the assigned texts. If you like to do outside reading and work with theoretical approaches, that's good, but this assignment is not technically a research paper. Even if you don't incorporate outside research, you still need to include a separate Works Cited page at the end of the essay--that is because you will, of course, be citing at least one of the assigned texts. Use MLA guidelines for citing sources. As for graduates, your longer paper should incorporate at least some secondary material, but I leave the relative balance between primary and secondary material to your discretion.

Additional Guides. I have written many guides to help students with composing, editing, and polishing their essays. Please look over some of this site's materials on writing -- see the Resources/Guides section of your course menu, and click on "Writing Guides" to view the list. Here are links to the main ones: MLA, Grammar, Deductive, Citing, Analyzing, and Editing.

Advance Draft Comments

Your essay doesn't need to offer exhaustive commentary about the work or author chosen, and it doesn't need to provide huge amounts of background information about history, the author's life, and so forth. Instead, examine your text/s on the specific things (problems, issues, themes, etc.) you want to write about, and be willing to grapple directly and in some detail with the actual language of your chosen work. Try to write a paper that leads your readers towards genuine insights based on a patient, well-structured analysis of particular passages (and flexible points of comparison, for comparative essays). If your essay makes a reader feel like re-reading all or some of the literary work in question, you will have done your job well.

1) Thesis presentation in your first paragraph

The paper should go well beyond summarizing, though a little summarizing may be necessary as context for quotations and (in your first paragraph) just to explain what kind of story you are dealing with. The last several sentences of your first paragraph should explain what specific, manageable section of the text you will write about and why you are going to write about it. The "why" part should be more specific than "I want to explore certain characters' actions and relationships, and later on I'll tell you what the point of doing that was." Your reader wants to know what you have already discovered and what you will, therefore, be explaining in detail later. That's deductive structure, as illustrated in the sample paper: here's my argument / now I'm citing and analyzing key passages to show how I arrived at it / now I am wrapping up the argument and reflecting on it.

Thesis Development. In the drafting stages of a deductive essay, the thesis in the first paragraph is often vague -- more like a general topic than a specific argument. In a Deductive essay, one states claims at the outset and then explores them; however, insights tend to develop inductively. That is, what the writer wants to say emerges only gradually, and becomes sharpest towards the end of the paper. The most efficient way to sharpen your first paragraph is to look over what you write in the middle and conclusion of your essay, and tie it all together into a few sentences that will serve as your thesis. That way, you can turn an inductive rough draft into a deductive final draft, and avoid allowing initially vague claims to get the better of you: unless handled with care, ideas quickly become traps.

Avoiding Generalities. Do not begin your first paragraph with filler such as, "Throughout history, man has fallen in love and written poetry." That is an irrecoverable sign that the writer has little of substance to say. Also avoid literary appreciation filler such as "Ben Jonson's plays are immortal.''

2) Argument structure and handling of quotations in the main essay

The aim here is to offer sustained analysis of substantive quotations for which you have provided adequate context, and a conclusion that develops logically from the middle section without simply repeating your thesis. Ideally, there should not be only extremely brief quotations; showcasing a few longer passages and staying with them improves emphasis and structure. In a comparative paper, it's usually best to deal with the texts in two solid blocks rather than to go back and forth between them several times.

3) Grammar and Style

Grammar and style. Key things are consistent verb tense use (present tense is usually best), active voice, and straightforward (not wordy or contorted) sentence structure. A Works Cited page should be included even if you only cite the assigned text/s, and MLA quotation formatting should be correct -- see the sample paper available in Writing Guides. Failure to proofread and edit carefully in the final stages is a major factor in poor grades.

More thoughts on style. Avoid vague introductory language or empty praise of the author in question. A statement like "Throughout history so-and-so has been considered a great author" is padding. Get rid of sentences that function only as warm-up for specific analysis, somewhat like filler. Read your paper out loud, and you will get rid of many filler phrases and awkward constructions. We make mistakes in everyday speech, but at least we don't say things like "objective consideration of contemporary phenomena necessitates the inevitable conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity."


If you earn a B+, an A-, or an A, that's great. The A range grades mean that I really didn't see major problems in your thesis, your handling of quotations and organization of the essay, or your grammar and style. I found your paper sophisticated and well written. If you earn a B+ or A-, that generally means your thesis was good but that the grammar and style issues kept the paper from being an outright "A." I have marked up a few pages of your essay to indicate any problems with grammar and style, and possibly with minor thesis/content issues if I found any.

If you get a B, that's good, too. A "B" is solid work, with some room for improvement both in terms of content (i.e. thesis presentation and inclusion/handling of quotations), and style/grammar. The paper markup should indicate some areas in need of work.

If you earn a B- or C+, that's no catastrophe, but you can do better. Invariably this range of grades means that grammar/style problems slowed me down when I was reading your paper, even if they didn't keep me from understanding the basic argument. Often additional problems were that the thesis remained somewhat general and that the paper didn't make its case mainly through analysis of specific quotations.

If you do not get at least a C, the grade means that I saw some serious problems with both content/organization and with grammar/style, or that you simply didn't meet the requirements for the paper -- i.e. you turned in a one-pager with no textual analysis, or some such thing.