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How To Structure An Essay On Shakespeare

When constructing a research paper on Shakespeare, students should begin by identifying an area to concentrate on (for example biographical information, historical time period, writings, literary devices) and then proceed to obtain suitable resources to conduct an investigation. One of the major differences that should be noted with literature research as opposed to scientific research, is that literature papers are theoretically based and more often than not, rely heavily on secondary resources such as books, essays, and discussions. Therefore not only will students need to read and comprehend the text that they will be analyzing (plays or poems) but also to understand and extract information from various discussions and discourses on the topic compiled by authors and writers throughout history.

Identifying a suitable topic

When identifying a suitable topic to examine its a good idea to remember the role of a research paper-to inform or explain. A quality research paper is one that presents a topic that is narrow enough to be thoroughly explored but expansive enough to be easily investigated. In addition to this, a topic and similarly a research question, should play the role of proving or arguing a point rather than merely stating a fact or observation.

The above requirements can easily be accomplished by first identifying an area of interest and then choosing a direction or angle to analyze it from. For instance, generally speaking, most literature papers will either discuss (a) the author, his/her time period and historical concerns or (b) the author's work and an analyses/evaluation of it. So to begin, you would select one of these broad categories to examine and then move on to further specify your topic by choosing an angle or direction. Some examples of this include; characters, plot development, literary devices (such as symbolism and imagery), and the role and representation of theory. These and other considerations will allow you to define your topic more precisely and therefore determine a realistic research question to pose. And to give you a better idea of the end result, some sample topics have been presented below.

Sample topics

  1. The absence of religion in Shakespeare's plays and its relationship to the Renaissance era
  2. A comparison of the perceptions of revenge in Hamlet and Othello
  3. Issues of obedience, reverence, and respect with parent-child relations in Shakespearean literature
  4. The influence of politics and government on Shakespeare's writings: An examination of the role of the aristocrat
  5. The image of marriage found in Shakespearean literature as compared to the time period in which the author lived

The next step in paper construction, after conducting comprehensive research and note taking, is to prepare a well-structured and helpful outline to follow. Depending on your own preference or instructor's recommendations, your actual paper may be structured differently, but the basic components are usually the same; a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

*In the sample provided below the body of the text would be the analysis and evaluation section.

Suggested research paper outline

I. Introduction

Due to the complexity of Shakespearean literature the introduction is a crucial bridge point in connecting the reader to the concepts and ideas to be discussed. In other words, your introduction should serve as an ample 'transition' to the topic and prepare the reader for an analytical discussion on Shakespeare. Things to include maybe;

  1. Introductory information on the author and the work(s) or topics that will be covered
  2. Thesis statement indicating the main purpose and objective in writing and any significant subpoints
  3. Information on the topic and its position in Shakespearean literature as compared to other pieces

II. Historical Context and Literature Review

In reviewing and analyzing works of literature a primary element of discussion is the historical context of the writing. Reviewers and examiners proficient in this area have categorized literary works considering the chronology of historical events and their impact on the literature written at the time. As seen in Shakespeare, as well as with other authors, much of the outside world, whether politics or culture, heavily influence the selection of topics and themes in writing.

Secondly, the literature review is also a significant component and comprises the task of reviewing secondary sources and examining the discourse and discussion on a topic. When constructing a literature research paper some consideration to theory should also be given to assist in placing observations and analyses in their proper context. Some examples of literary theories include postcolonialism, formalism, deconstruction and aestheticism. Structural considerations are as follows;

  1. Brief information on the history of Shakespeare, other significant writings, and accomplishments
  2. Review of the Elizabethan period and Renaissance era
  3. A clear connection to the literature and the historical time period
  4. Relevant discussions by other authors on the same topic as well as considerable theories

III. Analysis and Evaluation

The analysis of the literary selection involves carefully breaking down the text into several components and exploring various aspects previously discussed in the thesis statement. For instance, if examining a Shakespearean sonnet, this would entail separating the poem into recognizable parts (quatrains and couplets) and themes. The second portion, which is evaluating, involves making a statement or judgment of the literature based on your interpretation of it (backed and supported by decisive evidence such as quotations). Actions to take in this section are as follows;

  1. Define and discuss all integral parts of the thesis statement
  2. Further explore and develop the argument with illustrations and examples
  3. Provide clear evidence such as quotations and excerpts to defend the positions and stances taken

IV. Conclusion

Provide a comprehensive yet concise summary of the information presented focusing on the manifestation of the research question and its purpose being satisfied within the confines of the paper. Also acknowledge any shortcomings in your research as well as limitations in sourcing and what may have been done differently to improve results. Lastly, make a final statement on the topic and mention any issues to consider in future analysis.

Additional tips on preparing for your paper

A very important aspect in analyzing literature is having a strong and firm understanding of the information presented. A worthwhile suggestion is to first read the text for understanding (whether once or twice) and then refer back to it for evidence and support during the outlining and drafting stages of your paper. Its also permissible to take notes when writing to improve comprehension but avoid spending a lot of time developing ideas without properly understanding the text. This action may hinder any efforts of formulating a sound and logical position. Likewise, its advisable to read a wide range of material to effectively prove any arguments as well as verify the validity and credibility of writings (especially very old ones).

The critical essay paper

The introductory paragraph

The introduction should not be too long and detailed and it should focus on the question right from the start.

  • Identify the text and author
  • Use words from the beginning of the question and show why the text is an appropriate one
  • Refer to words from the second part of the question that set the task
  • Indicate the topics/aspects that the rest of the essay will discuss in depth

In a sense, the introduction should be a summary of the whole essay – later paragraphs should not change the direction of the argument or introduce new and unexpected topics.


Expanding the paragraphs

The PEER approach:

Ensure you make frequent links back to the key phrases from the question, not only in the introduction but in topic sentences at the start of paragraphs.

For example:

The main body of the essay should be developed with a combination of statements and evidence.

Many teachers recommend the PEER structure:

Point (topic sentence)

Example (often in the form of a quotation)

Explanation / analysis

Respond in a way that is Relevant to the task

Here is an example of how to use this in a poetry essay:

This question suits Seamus Heaney’s poem Blackberry Picking well, as Heaney uses the poem as a means to reflect on how growing up naturally changes how we see the world. His experience of childhood summers spent picking fruit - only for the vast amount of it to rot - serves as a metaphor for life in general, where optimism and the focus on immediate pleasure are replaced by a natural conservatism and pessimism. There is a clear theme of change in the poem, as Heaney looks back on his younger self through the eyes of an adult, to see how life has changed.

Here is an example paragraph using the PEER structure that deals with the imagery in the poem:

(P) Heaney is convincing in his use of the extended metaphor, which brings to life his observation that childhood innocence must give way to adult realism. Just as the berries inevitably rot when picked from the bushes, we cannot escape the changes we go through when growing up. (E) After wildly picking every berry in sight, the persona and his friends return to the byre the next day, only to find the "glossy purple" berries have been transformed by a "rat-grey fungus". It becomes apparent in that moment that the berries are rotting and that in the children’s "lust for picking" they have failed to consider what might happen to the fruit. (E) By his use of the word "lust", Heaney is suggesting that the children pick the berries with a wild sense of abandon and that their desire to collect them in as vast a quantity as possible is almost uncontrollable. The berries have been transformed from "glossy purple" - connoting life, vitality and freshness - to "rat-grey" – a colour associated ultimately with decay and death. In the context of the poem, this experience clearly highlights the human condition itself, which can be summed up as the passage from innocence to experience. (R) It is only when the children have seen what has happened as a result of their efforts that they accept life isn’t always fair. Heaney leaves the reader pondering the fact that change – whether in terms of the berries or life in general - is inevitable, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.