First Undergraduate Essay, Shakespeare Class, Summer 2010
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I. Your Assignment
Below are the prompts for your full-length essay, which should be 1-2 double-spaced, typed pages in a normal-sized font (10-12-point) with one-inch margins. Do not give me a title page; just put your name, the date, my name, and the class in at the upper right corner of the first page, with your title centered just below that. Please number and staple your pages.
Choose one of the following prompts and write an original essay. The phrase “original essay” means that your essay as a whole should center upon an argument that comes out of your own head and that each of your paragraphs should also center upon an original sub-argument to develop your central argument. Your arguments should not come from my lectures or from anything else you’ve read or heard. You will of course use some ideas and background information from class and from other sources outside your own head, but these unoriginal ideas and information should be merely stepping stones to whatever argument you’re making at the moment--and of course, as Section V below explains in detail, you must scrupulously cite any phrase that contains ideas that did not originate with you.
You need not refer to the entire play, but if you concentrate on one passage, character, or theme, keep in mind the function of the passage, character, or theme in the context of what you believe the entire work is trying to accomplish.
Prompt A: what is MND suggesting about the acting profession?
Prompt B: what is MND suggesting about humankind’s relationship to animals?
Prompt C: what is MND suggesting about Europe’s relationship to the New World?
Prompt D: what is MND suggesting about humanism?
Prompt E: what is MND suggesting about service?"that is, about serving someone else (which most Elizabethans did)?
II. The Job of the Literary Critic
At every step of the way, ask yourself (silently; you needn’t write the question down) how the text that you are analyzing constructs its meaning. That is, how does it use its materials to create a certain effect? How does it make us feel happy or sad or ambivalent, for example? Look always at specific words, phrases, and patterns in the work. Imagine that your readers are always asking you to convince them of whatever you’ve just said by showing them where it’s happening in the work. You can do this without having quotations at every third word in the sentence if you also develop each of your arguments. Remember that short quotations of less than a sentence long are often more effective than long, indented ones (especially in an essay under ten pages). Use quotations to support your argument rather than to summarize the plot.
Remember that the author may or may not be asking us to agree with what a particular character says about an issue. Look for evidence as to whether the author wants us to trust or admire that particular character.
Your job as a literary critic is to discover something about what the author is suggesting without saying outright. This is not a mysterious or elite task; in fact, we humans do it almost every day in other contexts: think about your job as a supporter of your closest friends. Imagine that your friend Helvetica is clearly distressed about something but won’t talk to you about it directly. She is so distressed that it worries you. Your job is not to spin a fantasy about what Helvetica might conceivably be thinking; instead, your job is to pay attention to her facial expressions, conversation about other matters, personal history, milieu, etcetera, to look for clues about what the disturbance might be, in order to be able to help her. That’s pretty much what your job as a literary critic is: to look at the text and its surroundings in order to figure out something about what it is saying on a particular subject that it doesn’t spell out. The main difference is that in addition to inadvertently not spelling out many ways in which they interact with their social environments, authors also often purposely avoid spelling out everything?"not (if the author is any good) in order to obfuscate meaning but in order to convey some meanings better. For example, an author can represent the emotional magic of a kiss far better by writing broken, confused dialogue after the kiss than by having the characters sit down and analyze the kiss. In addition, authors know that much of the pleasure?"and yes, much of the intellectual profit?"of reading a work of literature or watching a play lies in our doing some of the work of interpretation rather than being told everything outright.
Undergraduates often get confused about their literary task when they address social topics. I’ll use sci-ence as an example of a social topic. A literary essay does not benefit from the author’s explanation that women in Shakespeare’s plays are nurturers because women’s brains are wired to be nurturing (whether or not we now know that to be the case?"and I’ve purposely chosen an example that is currently under much scientific debate). With reference to social issues, your job as a literary critic is to look at what the text is saying about that social issue, not to use the text in order to try to persuade your reader to believe something about the social issue directly.
From my lectures and from the assigned readings, you will learn some useful bits of information about what scientific beliefs Elizabethans held. For example, most Elizabethans believed that women’s uteruses wandered around their bodies, that women’s humors were cold and moist, that women’s bodies were leaky, that God had ordained that women be nurturers, and that social order was maintained by the differ-ences between the sexes. In a literary essay about the subject of nurturing in one or more plays, you could adduce some or all of this material, and that would be fine.
Yet that alone would not constitute a literary essay. After showing what many people in the Renaissance believed about these issues (with citations to your sources), you would need to delve into the question of how Shakespeare apparently internalized, or commented upon, some of these beliefs in his own particular way, different enough from the norm to be interesting. To convince your readers that this is true, you would need to give evidence from the texts.
If you find that Shakespeare simply reflects his social norm in some way without commenting on it or internalizing it in an interesting way, then you need to pick a different social topic. It’s fine to mention along the way that like other people of his day, Shakespeare did not know that blood circulated, that he thought Europeans were superior to other peoples, or that he imagined most of his characters wearing Re-naissance clothing, but none of these observations are useful as arguments in a literary essay, because they are simply saying, “This author reflects his society.” Ho hum. As an analogy, imagine that a twenty-first-century scientist tried to publish an article in which his or her argument was that watermel-ons, like everything else on earth, obey the laws of gravity. No journal would accept that article for pub-lication, because no one would learn from it or be remotely interested in it. It would be very different, of course, if the scientist had discovered through experimentation that watermelons do not obey the laws of gravity?"or, to put this analogy more nearly in the realm of possibility?"that matter near black holes
be-yond the Milky Way responds to what evidence suggests is a slightly altered set of gravitational laws. Similarly, a literary critic writing in the twenty-first century would have something interesting to say if he or she had found a novel published in 2008 that sets itself up as a realistic novel but consistently uses the word “gravity” as a metaphor for light-heartedness rather than for weighty thoughts.
There are, by the way, legitimate, useful, and interesting ways in which to incorporate modern ideas of neurology into literary essays on Renaissance plays. One of these would be to argue, with evidence from the text, that startlingly enough, Shakespeare frequently uses phrases indicating that he believes women and men are born with brains (not merely thoughts) that determine their gendered characteristics. That would be startling because although people in the Renaissance considered men and women as having na-turally different sorts of thoughts, they didn’t understand that thoughts were a function of permanent structures in the makeup of the brain.
III. Your Central Argument
Remember that a good thesis statement doesn’t say the things that occurred to you the moment you read the literary works for the first time. Concentrate on some aspect of the work that at first confuses you, worries you, or makes you uncomfortable. Try to figure out what the author is doing and why.
If you feel the urge to write a thesis statement that incorporates a list of sub-arguments (e.g., “In this play, Shakespeare is doing A, B, and C”), remember that it must also give an umbrella argument, not just an umbrella topic, that joins these sub-arguments--and that the umbrella argument must be at least as interesting as your sub-arguments rather than itself being something obvious or too general to be thought-provoking. So, for example, the umbrella argument that “Shakespeare was interested in many types of love” would be pretty lame.
Eschew arguments that such-and-such in the literary work is realistic or unrealistic. Realism isn’t what most authors in the history of world literature have been after, nor is it what most listeners and readers have wanted. Think of music videos; realism isn’t what they’re after, either, so it’s not fair to judge them on that basis. And yet music videos deal with emotions, politics, and situations that are very real in our lives.
Avoid the term “true love” altogether, because just about any type of love is considered “true love” by somebody. Instead, just define what sort of love you’re talking about. Then use evidence from the texts to convince your readers that the definition you’ve given is implied by Shakespeare’s works rather than simply by your twenty-first-century assumptions.
Do not write about fate. It’s extremely difficult to write a scholarly essay about fate without ending up resorting to clichés.
You may well end up with a ho-hum paper if your central argument is that such-and-such a literary device helps the author to emphasize points, keep us interested, stress the characters’ emotions, dig more deeply into the obvious, or make us remember the work later. The problem is that many, if not most, literary devices serve these purposes. You need to figure out what this particular author is doing in this particular work with the particular literary device that you’ve decided to discuss.
IV. Consider Your Opposition
Especially toward the first of your essay, consider your opposition. That is, consider how you, yourself, can argue intelligently against your central argument and how your mind first persuaded itself to espouse that central argument despite the logical, intelligent opposing arguments. Often this means you’ll need to revise your argument to take complexity into account?"not by wavering back and forth but by figuring out what pattern can account for some of the complexity that you see when you think up counter-arguments. Think of your opposition as coming from your consideration of various alternatives rather than as coming from outside yourself. Certainly do not make up fictional groups of critics who have argued XYZ.
V. READ THIS SECTION on Research, Documentation, and Plagiarism CAREFULLY.
I strongly recommend against your using outside sources for this paper, given that it’s more difficult to come up with your own original argument if you’ve read one or two persuasive articles (as opposed to ten or twenty persuasive articles, after which you begin synthesizing, choosing, questioning, adding). But if you have already taken a course?"or acted in a play?"during the course of which you have encountered one of the texts about which you are writing, it may be difficult to avoid bringing in some information you’ve already gotten from outside sources. In any case, you will probably want to bring in some of the information that you have learned from lectures and readings in this class. If you do use any source outside your own brain--whether it be a standard reference such as a book, article, or internet page or whether it be a less standard source such as a previous class, a conversation with someone, the editor’s footnotes in an edition of another author’s work, or even something that you yourself have formally or informally published, e.g. by having it posted on the web--you must include a bibliography at the end and full citations throughout your essay. “Full citations” means that in addition to the bibliography, you must provide a MLA-formatted parenthetical citation for each and every sentence in your essay that contains even one tiny idea borrowed from someone else, whether or not you borrow the other author’s actual words. Ideas are valuable academic property and must not be silently represented as your own when they belong to someone else. (You need not put a full citation after every quotation from Shakespeare; simply put a footnote or endnote after your first citation, saying that all Shakespearean quotations in your essay will be from the Norton edition edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Include a bibliographical entry for the anthology. Then every subsequent time you quote from one of the plays, simply give a parenthetical citation with the standard abbreviation for the play--which is in your syllabus--and the act, scene, and line numbers.)
Learn correct MLA style for bibliographies, for notes, and for parenthetical citations. Your bibliography should not be formatted like endnotes. This seems arbitrary and silly when you’re an undergraduate, but later, as you deal with very long bibliographies and pages of endnotes for one article, you’ll see the wisdom of the system. It allows quick searches when the reader wants certain information.
Responsible scholarship also requires that you use words and punctuation marks in the body of your text to let your reader know which words you’re quoting and where you’re merely summarizing. Indicate summarized ideas with phrases such as “Lou Reed argues that . . .,” “Reed further demonstrates that . . .,” or “As Reed persuasively writes . . .,” and so on. If quoting, you must also provide a page number or, in the case of poetry or drama, a line number, after every quotation at the end of the sentence in which it appears. You may use either the MLA or Chicago style of documentation.
You must always make sure that you use the outside sources only as springboards for your own argument; neither your central argument nor your major argument for each paragraph can be anywhere near the same as arguments in the outside sources.
Online sources can be tricky, since impressive-looking websites can be full of errors. Evaluate any sites you use: ask yourself whether each site seems carefully documented or whether it makes extreme statements without proof. Find out what organization sponsors the site; obviously, a site maintained by, say, the New York Times or the Shakespeare Association of America will be more reliable than one maintained by Newsweek, by a narrowly politicized group (either conservative or liberal) or by any individual person. If you use any online sources for this class, you are responsible for including them in your bibliography and citations and for including a note after each such bibliography entry ?' explaining to me what evidence you have that this is a reliable, scholarly website.
According to university policy, failing to observe the above guidelines--that is, representing someone else’s ideas or phrases as one’s own without documenting them both in the text and in a bibliography or notes--should result at the very least in failing the essay or class, but possibly in expulsion from the university. You will fail this course if you cheat, so please don’t put yourself through this. You care too much about your education.
Avoid phrases such as “I think” or “it seems to me.” Everything in your essay is presumed yours unless you specifically indicate otherwise, so such phrases sound wimpy, as though you don’t believe that little ol’ you could say anything worthwhile. You can, however, use the first-person pronoun in other sorts of phrases, as for example, “Although Baylor writes that Sir Gawain is an idealist, I would argue that. . . .” Here, you need to distinguish your ideas from Baylor’s in the same sentence.
VI. Your Title
Make it interesting. Make it consistent with the tone and argument of your paper, though the title itself should be a topic rather than an argument. Don’t underline or italicize it. When a title is actually physically on the work that it’s titling, it’s not italicized, underlined, or quoted, though its first, last, and major words are capitalized.
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