How to plan and write a Shakespeare Essay
The Shakespeare Challenge
William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest, most ubiquitously studied author in the history of Western literature, supplying the main literature for English classrooms the world over. Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago and his plays of comedy, tragedy and history have tended to be the particular focus. They have been resurrected over the centuries as the most popular course literature requiring numerous essays to provide interpretations of his work. Writing a Shakespeare essay presents a number of challenges due to the difficulties of comprehending the language and interpreting the context of Shakespeare literature itself, so I am going to explain how to achieve writing a Shakespeare essay specifically by focussing on these aspects.
Planning and Resources
The first steps involve planning the essay. A Shakespeare essay would generally involve a particular focus on a Shakespeare play, so you will need to identify resources for being able to read the play. As with writing any literature essay, A Shakespeare essay about a play requires great understanding of the literature. You should read the play several times and on the first read you should ensure you learn the meanings of any words you do not understand so that you can read it with greater comprehension in the next time. It is helpful to watch a film of the play if you can, with the BBC in particular providing quality productions, bringing the dialogs to life. If possible actually attend a live theatre performance, in particular if your Shakespeare essay requires more theatrical insight, as this unveils more of the emotion key to Shakespeare’s style.
There are several background considerations in general with Shakespeare’s literature, as much about Shakespeare himself, as with the time and settings in which the plays were written. As important as it to read the play(s) about which the essay is concerned, before entering Shakespeare’s world of Old English, you should try read one of many available synopses of the play(s), seeking one that at least covers the play act by act, but better to have more detailed scene by scene. This will give you a good understanding of the story before facing any challenges of Shakespeare’s language. It is important to understand Shakespeare’s writing approach and certain general characteristics of his plays. Far rarer for literature before the Elizabethan age than for that in which he lived, Shakespeare wrote plays with several plots, at times dozens of characters and upwards of three different parties (families, courts, etc.) central to the storyline. Prepare yourself for this vast content when reading the play, making notes of which plot, party and/or combination of characters particular events pertain to (can be several). Shakespeare didn’t live in an age where the act of retelling stories from others was questioned as unoriginal, and his sub plots, plot and scenes can be traced to several sources that are well documented for each play, so you should refer to them in order to understand better what was important to Shakespeare; in particular what he stressed, what he left out and therefore be better prepared to make the all important interpretative judgement in your Shakespeare essay of what the his intention was for those particular texts.
Incorporating into writing
If your Shakespeare essay question requires a special amount of contextual interpretation, you should read the history around any events that were taking place leading up to the time of Shakespeare’s writing that he may have incorporated, aside from gaining understanding of the social classes and general movements of the time. Also important are features of the location and audiences that Shakespeare intended the play for at the time. Shakespeare plays were generally performed in an Elizabethan theatre, with a large stage in which several people could enact a large scene with several important characters present and thus enabling a number of different interpretations of the event’s impact for each character. Alternatively, less people on stage could enact a scene at large distances to act out distinct events taking place simultaneously or to portray actions such as eavesdropping. These settings should be recognised when interpreting the passages in your Shakespeare essay. In addition, despite having a large audience capacity, the members were were seated close to the stage, with a sharp rising vertical gradient, in contrast to modern audiences; meaning it should be kept in mind that several of Shakespeare’s dialogs could be theatrically whispered and still heard by all attending, such as his typical soliloquies. Similarly, pay attention for the emotions of the characters, if you have only the play in written form and do not get to see a performance, always keep in mind that the characters would have many expressions and feelings portrayed more strongly that what you have read.
A Shakespeare essay should include passages from the play(s) as examples of a broad interpretation or specifically for a point. When using a passage, read the previous and subsequent passages that involve the character(s) involved in main passage in question, in order to refresh your context before finalising the significance of your inclusion. The meaning of passages included should a least have some bearing on the question of the essay and not just be arbitrarily inserted with an interpretation. When including a passage, you should cite the acts, scene and lines so that it can easily be located by the reader.
Ultimately, your Shakespeare essay should draw a conclusion that is highly contextual by including many considerations of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan age, settings and influences rather than a sole focus of reading the play(s) in question. Shakespeare was a playwright a long time ago and many things have changed the context of what you read before you from when he wrote it, so due diligence should be paid to incorporate the meanings from how it once was. Finally your Shakespeare essay should express your ultimate impressions of the play(s) in question and bring together feelings you were left with, as it was a key intention of the great author to have an emotive impact on you.
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