How to Write a Paper on Shakespeare or any other Difficult Work of Literature by Focusing Your Topic.

The plays of Shakespeare can be the most difficult works on which to write an interpretive paper. But you can make your task a lot less onerous by conducting a lot of pre-writing. And you may actually discover that composing an essay on any difficult piece of literature can be enjoyable. Additionally, if you can find a way to focus your writing concerning Shakespeare, I believe you have made a big step toward writing about any other piece of literature.

  1. Before you start writing a paper on Shakespeare, you need to make sure that you have narrowed your topic or idea. I always emphasize to my students the importance of narrowing their ideas in such a way that they are looking at specific things upon which they can focus and expand upon in their writing. By coming up with a focused idea or thesis, you avoid several pitfalls that occur when writing a paper on Shakespeare, or any other difficult piece of literature: plot summary, writing about the entire play or book without a central thesis, needlessly digressing, and wasting a great deal of time and energy. You also avoid becoming overwhelmed and loathing the writing experience. Even if a teacher or professor supplies you with topics from which to choose, you will always need to come up with a way in which to focus your ideas and develop a thesis or focused argument.
  1. Spend some time making a list of all the issues, problems or ideas in the play that interest, bother, fascinate or confuse you. At this point, you do not need to think in terms of a thesis or a focused topic. You are just brainstorming. Write down a list of things that fascinate you in the play. I will use Hamlet as an example. In your brainstorming about Hamlet, you might come up with things like, Hamlet’s indecisiveness; Hamlet’s relationship with his mother; the play-within-a-play; Ophelia’s madness; the corruption of power; the fear of death; the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, etc, etc.
  1. After you have come up with a list of things that interest you in the play, choose the one that you know, without a doubt, will sustain your interest, and on which you could write passionately. When you have to interpret something as complex as a play by Shakespeare, never choose to write about something that does not interest you. Even if Shakespeare does not interest you in the least—even if you hate reading Shakespeare—there is always something in one of his plays about which you could be passionate. This is because Shakespeare was a genius at writing plays that had specific ideas and actions, but which could also always represent universal ideas and problems with which we can all identify.
  1. Now that you have chosen a general issue or idea on which you want to write, you need to focus it down into something specific and manageable. I believe that a great deal of students have a difficult time writing about Shakespeare—and get bad grades—because they fail to take this next step in the pre-writing, brainstorming process. For example, suppose you decided you are most fascinated with Hamlet’s indecisiveness. This is a gigantic topic. If you just went ahead to write about Hamlet’s indecisiveness, you would end up covering the entire play. You would become overwhelmed, and resort to plot summary. Since your topic is so general, you would end up writing a very general and vague paper. And this is death for an academic paper. I always know I am in for a bad read when I get a paper from a student with a title like Hamlet, the Moody Dane.

Once you have a general issue that interests you, you need to conduct more brainstorming. Start to write down another list of all the specific aspects you can think of concerning the issue you have chosen. To return to our example, Hamlet’s indecisiveness. You might write down: Hamlet cannot act upon revenge because he feels ambivalent about his father; Hamlet hesitates for so long because he wrestles with moral issues concerning revenge; Hamlet takes revenge too personally, and his selfish desires impede his progress; Hamlet unconsciously resents his father . . . whatever it might be, you must find some sort of angle or perspective that is more narrow and specific than your general idea. Write down every specific aspect of your general issue that you can. I hate to say it, but such brainstorming will probably require you to re-read parts or all of the play.

  1. Narrow the scope of the text with which you will work. Once you have narrowed your general issue to a specific aspect, you should find between one and four places in the play that you can focus on. Go through the play, and find a few passages or scenes that you can interpret in the context of your focused idea. Too many students become overwhelmed because they think they have to write about the entire play, expressing everything they know about it. A professor does not want this in your paper. He or she wants to see that you can take a specific argument, and develop and support it cogently within the limitations of a specified amount of written pages. When you narrow the focus of your topic, you can look at specific places in the play as opposed to dealing with the entire play.

When you are writing an interpretive paper, it is not your job to write about the entire piece of literature. It is your job to support your thesis and to offer specific evidence concerning that aspect of the play that you have chosen to interpret. You should have a mantra running through your head: “I do not need to write about the entire play. I need to write about those places that support the subject of my paper.

If you look at any five, ten, or even twenty page paper by a scholar of Shakespeare, or any other literary critic, you will see that they focus only on that which helps them to drive home their point. In fact, a good paper on Shakespeare could easily focus on one passage, one soliloquy, even one line. Consider how much interpretive material you could write concerning the simple line, “To be or not to be” alone. A famous Shakespeare scholar wrote an entire book about Hamlet by focusing on the first line of the play: “Who’s there?”

  1. Consider writing on a topic concerning one of the minor characters in a play. In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is a gigantic character. He is the subject of more scholarship than any other character in literature. Like King Lear, Macbeth or Falstaff, Hamlet dominates the play. Focusing on a major character in a play by Shakespeare can be daunting. Perhaps write about Ophelia, or Claudius, or Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Students often feel relieved when they choose to write about a minor character. A minor character has a more focused presence in a play, and can serve many different functions toward varying themes. Students often discover that by losing the burden of focusing on a major literary character, they feel free to explore an issue with more breathing room.
  1. Consider writing about a motif, symbol, metaphor or conceit that runs through a play. There are many motifs that run through a single play by Shakespeare, like the image and reference to poison in Hamlet, the references to cupid in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the word “honor” in Henry IV, or the conceit that life is like a stage that runs through many of his plays. You can focus on one symbol or image in a play, perhaps showing up in one passage, and expand your discussion greatly. For instance, in Hamlet’s first soliloquy, he uses many images of decay, as in his comparison of the world to an “unweeded garden.” Consider how much you could discuss focusing on this one image in this one passage alone.
  1. Explore a meta-theatrical or meta-fictional issue. By this, I mean look at an issue concerning literature as a whole in a specific context of the play you are writing about. For instance, perhaps you are interested in the genre, tragedy, in the context of Hamlet. List all of the issues concerning tragedy as a genre you could write about: tragic flaw, the protagonist’s fall, the tragic climax, catharsis, etc. Then, write down specific aspects of the issue concerning tragedy you have chosen. Then, once again, go through all of the options to find specific places in the play to focus upon. Or perhaps you are interested in structure, such as how a play reaches an ending; or how a play begins, as in my example of the guard asking in the very first line, “Who’s there?” There are almost an endless amount of issues and ideas you could come up with. But again, once you have a general idea, you must narrow your focus down to something specific, and one or a few particular places in the play that you will look at.

By spending some time brainstorming your ideas and narrowing your focus, you will have a far less overwhelming experience writing an interpretive paper. Further, since you have spent some time thinking about what interests you the most, you will probably enjoy writing your paper. It might sound like intense work before you even start writing the paper, but I guarantee it pays off in the end.


Preliminary Work. A List of Things To Do Before Writing Your Paper.

Below is a step by step list of things you ought to consider doing before you start to write the actual paper. It might seem labor intensive, but I assure you and I promise you it will make your life writing this paper much easier and fulfilling, and it will make your writing better and get you a better grade.

1. Make a List of Issues, Topics, Characters, Conflicts (Etc Etc) that INTEREST YOU the Most.

If you do not have a definite idea about your topic yet (which is fine), start by looking through the questions for reading and writing I have given so far, some of the background material I have posted. On a piece of paper, write a list of things / issues in what we have read that interests or fascinates or beguiles you. Maybe even something that makes you angry.

My feeling is that you should write your paper on either something in the literature that interests you or that inspires powerful feelings.

2. Thesis Statement: to Use or Not to Use.

I do not require you to give me a thesis statement. If it helps you to form one, that’s fine. I have never been a big fan of thesis statements. A central idea, focus or arguments evolves out of the writing process in my opinion. I have always felt that starting a paper by laboring over a thesis statement adds an odd and extra wall to the writing process, which is hard enough.

Instead, I believe that you should design some sort of focused idea, topic or argument that you develop and draw through your paper and your interpretations.

3. Narrow Your Topic  / Create a Focus.

This step is crucial. In my experience, this is the step that gets skipped or not worked on enough that leads to problems and difficulties in writing about literature.

Once you have an idea or topic that you are interested in, you need to spend time doing some things to narrow your scope and sharpen your focus. What I mean is that many students have difficulties with papers because their topic is way to broad and general. If you have a broad and general topic, you will more than likely write a broad and general paper. Even worse, you will probably have a miserable time doing it.

I am going to use the play Hamlet, a very big and complex piece of literature as an example. There are a lot of issues in the play, but if you do not focus and narrow your work on an issue, they are all too big. For instance, suppose your topic is Hamlet’s reluctance to seek revenge. Or Hamlet, an indecisive prince. Or, How power corrupts individuals. I could keep going, but you get my drift. Each of these topics is gigantic, and would force you to examine the entire play. Scholars have written books on just one of these isses. You would be overwheled and miserable if you tried to write on one of these. Another example, using Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you topic was Christian Symbolism in Sir Gawain, you would be overwhelemed and end up writiing a general paper, or, which usually happens in this case, five pages of plot summary. All of Sir Gawain is a Christian symbol.

You do not want this to happen, particularly since you would find the writing experience miserable.

So how do you narrow your topic and focus your effort?  You want to write your general topic down, and then brainstorm (either on paper or in your head) particulars concerning your topic–sub-topics–examples–particular moments in the piece of literature. You want to make your topic something that speaks specifically about an issue.

With Hamlet, perhaps you are interested in his reluctance to seek revenge. You would want to narrow down to some particular aspect, or cauese and effect, or something about Hamlet’s personality, or his relationship with someons . . . whatever it would be, something that gets you away from writing about something gigantic and monolithic. Perhaps it would be how Hamlet wrestles with moral issues concerning his actions in Act I; or perhaps it might be how Hamlet is uncertain about the validity of the Ghost, and what this means and does concerning his actions.

4. Narrow Your Focus in the Text: Selecting Places to Use / Interpret / Quote.

Now that you’ve narrowed your focus, the next thing you would want to do is to find one, two, three, maybe four places in the text that you will look at, quote from and interpret in your paper. This is a big and important step. Too many times we go right to our writing, and even if we have narrowed our topic, we still deal with the entire play. Worse, we might introduce our topic, and then proceed to write about almost everything else except for the topic.

Too often we feel like we need to tell the professor everything we know about a piece of literature in a paper, as if this will prove our intelligence, etc. This is, in fact, the last thing a professor wants in a paper (also, plot summary).

What you want to do is to peruse the text, and find a few key spots that are central to your topic / issue, and use those few spots to expand your argument. It can even be just one place, one passage in a text. Think of all the things one could develop in a paper interpreting the ten or so line passage from The Canterbury Tales in which the Wife of Bath tells us that she has had “her world enough and time.”  There have been great essays and books on just one passage or one line in Shakespeare. I have had some students work on just the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet, and discover that it is overwhelming.

The big thing that you want to avoid is writing about the entire piece of literature. When you find a couple of spots, or a passage, or a few places, focus on that and keep saying to yourself, “This is what I am using to expand my writing and interpretation. I do not need to tell the professor everything I know about _______.”

5. Consider the Types of Places in a Text you Would Look At.

Obviously, there are a lot of different types of moments / passages in a text when you are choosing those you will focus on in  your paper. Consider various different things:

A key description of an event, an action or a place.

A key piece of dialogue, like a speach, or an exchange, or a prayer, etc.

The key place in which a symbol, or an image, or a metaphor appears and is most clear.

A crucial moment, like a plot twist, the climax to the conflict and action, the opening, the ending, and aside.

A word or phrase that repeats and has significance (known as a motif), like The Wife of Bath and “sovereignty,” or The Pardoner and “greed is the root of all evil,” or “avarice.”  Sir Gawain and “courtesy,” or “pact,” or “honor.”

An odd or confusing moment, one that is difficult to interpret, doesn’t make sense, seems out of place, can’t get your mind around, seems inexplicable. These are known as aporias in text, places in text that undermine or define meaning or interpretation. Often, they are great places to write about.

A  minor character, and a significant role, moment, dialogue or function.

A moment in which there is dramatic irony: where we know more than the protagonist.

A digression: when the author goes off into a different tone, or describes / narrates something that jumps out of the sustained order and action of the narrative, or when there is a passage or a speech or dialogue that seemingly has nothing to do with anything important in the literary work. Often times digressions surprise us, and turn out to be more important or interesting than we thought.

6. Re-Reading the Text. Ugghh!

I know it sounds  onerous, but one of the best things you can do when you have to write a paper about a work is to reread it. In fact, it is generally essential for a scholarly paper. But if you are doing something on, say, The Pardoner, it would suffice to just reread his Prologue and his Tale. You can, of course, skim through certain areas, and pay more attention to places that are important for your paper.

Bottom Line: The best thing you can do before writing an English paper is to do this pre-planning, brainstorming and preparing before you begin to construct the essay. It might sound labor intensive, but I can assure you that if you list and choose from all of the issues / topics that interest you, make that topic / issue more focused and narrow, reread parts of the piece and choose 1, 2, 3 or 4 places in the text that you will use, focus on and quote, you will write a better paper, and have a much better writing experience, and one that is much less overwhelming and unnerving.

I know that writing is hard work. In my experience, these things have helped me out a lot in the past twenty years, and my students too.


Here are some tips if you are feeling overwhelmed with your writing.

1. By now you should have some focused topic / issue / problem you want to write about concerning a piece of literature. If you are having difficulty narrowing down your topic, please e-mail me what you are interested to write about, and I assure you I can help you.

2. As I have advocated, spend some time looking over the piece of literature on which you are writing. If it is Sir Gawain or The Canterbury Tales, you want to find a few spots (maybe even one) on which you will focus your efforts. Find one, two, three (maybe four) passages, spots, events in the text that you can focus on. Use this spot or spots to quote in your paper, and curl your interpretation around them.

3. By focusing on an issue, problem, event, character, etc. you can expand your interpretation instead of being overwhelemed by material. For instance, suppose you were interested in the nature of SYMBOL in Sir Gawain, and you narrowed down your interest to a few moments in the text where Gawain does not recognize the symbolic significance of things around him. You could expand / digress on the nature of symbolic langauge / significance in our world today, and the dangers of ignoring or misinterpreting symbolism.

I’ll give you an example. I always write my own essays at the same time that you all are writing your essays–it’s my way of trying to stay on the same page with you all. Last week I wrote a five page essay on Sir Gawain’s symbolic ignorance–how he does not recognize the greenery around the Baron’s Castle that suddenly appears after he prays, and how he does not recognize the similarity of the game of exchange in the castle to the beheading game. After interpreting the consequences of symbolic ignorance, and how it tests the reader (in the funtion of dramatic irony) to perceive the world symbolically, I digressed on a contemporary example. Bankers and financiers in the past few months who have been blind to the symbolic nature of their actions. They were so surprised at the outrage of Americans when they bought private jets, or used TARP money to redecorate their offices, etc. It showed a lack of symbolic perception on their part, and I argued how such symbolic gestures today carry a great deal of weight in a manner not too disimilar to the symbolic nature of the world around Gawain.

Bottom line: by narrowing your focus, you give yourself room (breathing room) to expand in other areas in your paper.

4. When you are writing about a large piece, like Gawain, or the Canterbury Tales, it can become easy to start writing plot summary. We feel it incumbent upon ourselves to tell the professor what happens in a piece. We also feel like we’re proving that we’ve read and understood something if we write plot summary. The last thing a professor wants to read in a paper is plot summary. Seriously. Unless the assignment is to give a book report, plot summary is no good.

If you find yourself writing more than half a page of plot summary–giving a blow by blow of action–become self-conscious. Recognize that, for some reason, you are evading interpretation. Usually it is because you are encountering writer’s block, or you have hit a wall in where to go.

A handy way to get out of plot summary is to turn the plot summary you have written into interpretation. I’ll give an example using Gawain and the topic of symbolic language / ignorance again. Plot summary would be something like, “Gawain rides Gringolet in search of the Green Chapel. He encounters great hardship and bad weather along the way. At one point a blizzard stops him in his path and he nearly freezes to death. As he is dying, Gawain prays to Mother Mary to deliver him from death. After he prays, he discovers, to his surprise, that a castle has suddenly appeared, surrounded by greenery. He approaches the castle, and as he does so, the gatekeeper welcomes him warmly. He lowers the drawbridge, and Gawain enters the castle where the Baron greets him warmly, and he is hailed by everyone as a great and famous knight.”

Now, obviously this is plot summary, and you can find it anywhere–Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, the introduction in your own book. It does not lead to any interpretation. BUT, you could step back, and say to yourself, how can I turn this into analysis in the context of my argument? Here is what you might try to do, rewriting the plot summary to turn it into plot analysis.

“On Gawain’s perilous journey to find the Green Chapel, the many hardships he faces challenge him to understand the world on a symbolic level. Unfortunately, after Gawain prays to Mother Mary for deliverance, he fails to make the connection between the Green Knight and the evidently magical way in which a castle appears surrounded by that familiar color green. Additionally, Gawain fails to notice how warmly the inhabitants of the castle greet him despite the fact that he is dressed in full armor and bearing weapons. It should be clear to Gawain that his welcome is both unusual, and in a great contrast to the way in which the Green Knight was greeted at Camelot.”

Notice how instead of just giving a blow by blow of the action in the poem, I used the action and events to develop my argument.

5. If you do not feel like tackling a large piece, like Sir Gawain, and would like to write about something more focused, write a paper on one of the sonnets. A sonnet has a built-in focus because of its size and structure. As I lectured online, the poet explores within a focused and cosy space a metaphor in each sonnet that he develops from beginning in line one to line fourteen. By choosing to write about a sonnet, you could interpret how the poet develops a metaphor, how he uses language and imagery to develop and change the metaphor, what situation / issue the metaphor signifies, and you can expand on the issue that the poem explores.

The sonnet, I think, is a wonderful place in which to explore how to write an interpretive paper in English. In all the sonnets I assigned the poets use figurative language to the max. They are highly keen on creating metaphors, and using images and words to drive that metaphor toward an end. Also, each sonnet is like a little story, in a sense. A sonnet has an opening, usually the first four or so lines in which the metaphor/issue/problem/etc is introduced, the middle of the sonnet takes the metaphor into the “muddle” of the issue, and the last lines, usually a final couplet, brings it to a conclusion, one that is often surprising, or gives a “plot twist,” so to speak, to the subject matter, or affirms the feeling the poet raises.

For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, his famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare develops the metaphor of the summer in comparison to his lover. He even opens the sonnet asking how he will compare her to the summer. You could explore how the metaphor / image of “summer” develops in the sonnet. How his lover is always superior to the summer. And then how the comparisons become too hyperbolic: the poet claims that his lover outlasts the summer, that she and her beauty is immortal, in effect. But, of course, this is impossible. You would notice, however, that he changes the summer from a season to something else when he says 3/4 of way into the sonnet, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Obviously, summer comes to mean something more metaphysical and spiritual. Then, in the last few lines comes the “plot twist.” He is able to immortalize his lover with the poem itself. The eternal summer becomes poetry. He turns his lover into poetry.

So you could take one sonnet and interpret the complex ways in which the poet uses language, words and figurative language to “pain a picture” of concepts he tries to express. It is a nice and focused way to hone your skills as an iterpreter.

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