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Shakespeare Paper 1

Page history last edited by Eric Leonidas 4 years, 3 months ago

English 220 – Shakespeare – Paper 1



[Before you start writing, see the two separate pages on the class website, one on “ground rules” and one on citation.]  Due Monday, March 9.  (There will be a second opportunity to write your paper later in the term; you only have to write one paper for me.)


Length: at least 4 pages; these usually come in 4-6 pages (please note that 4 pages is not 3 1/2 pages).


Basically, this is a formulaic paper, but the formula is in the essay's form, not its content.  You’re going to pick one character from either Richard II or Henry IV and argue that (a) over the course of the play that character learns something, or we learn something about the character, and (b) the shape of that change (how exactly it occurs, the language and images through which it’s presented) conveys an idea. The character may have learned by being told something, or by observing or experiencing something. The important part, however, is that by looking at that process of learning we can see something: an idea about the process of change, or about or perception; or, perhaps the play reflects on whatever it is the character learned about: power, or authority, or speech, or the natural world, or God, or love, or about maleness or femaleness, or about desire, or any of the other million things these plays are about.


Occasionally characters reflect on what they learn (looking at you, Richard), sometimes not (I think Henry learns just as much as Richard, but obviously he’s a lot less reflective). Henry, Hal, and Hotspur unquestionably learn things as they go, though what, where, and how they learn are different. And of course we learn something about all of them, as well as Falstaff. Ultimately, your argument won’t be simply the fact that a character (or we) learn something so much as the meaning of that learning or insight.


The “formula” part comes in how I want you to pursue your argument.  I’d like you to choose 3-4 short passages—spoken by or about your character—and read these closely to make your point.  You will no doubt have to make reference to other parts of the play you use, but I expect you to spend most of your time explaining the meaning of—not just summarizing—your passages.  Look especially at imagery and vocabulary, in many senses the heart of Shakespeare’s language.  


But note: You should not programmatically move through your passages by beginning each paragraph with “Another place that shows Richard’s growth is….”  If you have offered a thesis in your introduction as to the meaning of a character’s learning, you should be able to organize your paper in roughly 3 sections:  1) what the character thought initially (or we thought about the character), 2) what events or forces lead to the character’s (or our) insight, 3) what we should understand about the process or what the character learned—whether what was learned is a challenge to an orthodoxy established earlier in the play; whether what was learned undercuts conventional assumptions (also established in the play), such as what a man or woman is, the source of political power, how to conduct oneself, how to persuade, the value of play or jokes, etc.


Here's an example of how such an argument might be set up.




Over the course of Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Queen learns the inevitability of human division, or “parting.” Early in the play, she is saddened to be separated from her husband, King Richard. She feels powerfully empty as a result of his absence, and this feeling “gives birth” to a premonition of permanent separateness. Later in the play, however, that sense of separation is heightened: not only does she recognize she must part with Richard, but also that Richard has already parted with himself, and that the impending separation from her husband will entail a separation of herself (Richard, she says, will take her heart, or she will kill it herself). What is significant here is not only the power of absence to produce a substantial something (a real feeling of grief). We learn with Isabella that our sense of ourselves as stable entities—queen, wife, lover—is built on social connectedness, a connectedness we become most aware of during rupture.  As those social links are inevitably forged and broken so “parts” of ourselves are assembled and separated, creating a real experience of weight and wholeness. The Queen’s story is one of giving birth to grief: a natural separation in which, as the king says, we both give away and keep at the same time, just as we feel most whole when we exist as parts.




Queen 2.2: Queen’s sense that separation from another produces grief

Queen 3.4: Sorrow as an integral part of herself

Queen 5.4: The process of parting

King 4.1: Grief as filling one up, “constituting” us


Let me again say that what really counts is that you show that what a character learns is not just a bit of personal enlightenment for him or her, but means something important to readers, that you interpret learning as showing us something about a larger issue.  Here, that issue is the extent to which one has to recognize the role of separation and grief as making us fully human.



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