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The Student’s Guide to Writing an Essay on Shakespeare

Shakespeare is one of the best-known names when it comes to English literature. Even though he wrote his literature hundreds of years ago, his name still comes up in popular culture. Every few years, there seems to be a new movie based upon one of his plays. In fact, Shakespeare is credited with having the most movies based on his work. In fact, there are over a dozen movies currently in production based on his work.

Even though his name is famous, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to write an essay on Shakespeare or his works. Let’s look into some of the best ways in which a student, either in high school or college, can write a great essay on Shakespeare.

What is a Shakespeare Essay?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, an essay is defined as an analytic or interpretive literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view. Using this definition, it is safe to assume that you are allowed to write about your opinion of Shakespeare or his works. Of course, with any high school or college essay, you are also going to want to back up your opinion with fact.

If you have any questions about specific ways to compose your essay (some of these ways will be discussed later in this article) make sure to ask your teacher or consult the assignment rubric. Assignment rubrics will usually have the guidelines for the essay written out in an easy-to-understand way. It is also in the rubric that you will likely find the length your paper needs to be and the general topic of your paper.

How to Choose Your Topic: Secrets of Our Academic Writers

Sometimes, topics are assigned to students in the rubric or directly by their teacher or professor. Sometimes the topics may be specific, other times there may only be a general topic. Some general topics that students may need to use in Shakespeare essays include Shakespeare biographical essays, essays on his plays, or essays on his sonnets.

Many essays are likely to focus on the character relationships, dialogue, and symbolism of elements in Shakespeare’s plays. This is because people are more likely to have a debatable opinion on these features of the play. There is little room for opinion in biographical essays or essays based on the themes of the play. However, when it comes to how characters interact with each other, there can be speculation between why the characters act a certain way of what the dialogue might be translated to if the play was performed in today’s time.

Since it can become difficult to pick a topic for writing a Shakespeare essay (since there are so many to pick from) we have provided a list of topics with examples of how they might be used. Feel free to use any of these topics in your own essay.

    1. Comparison and Contrast between the Leading Men in Romeo And Juliet: Romeo and Paris.
      Romeo and Paris are much different in age, with Romeo being much closer to Juliet’s age. Paris is a friend of the family, and Capulet approves of his seeking a relationship with Juliet. Romeo is a Montague, a member of the Capulet’s rival family. However, with all of their differences, they both want Juliet to love them.
    2. Many Older Versions of Othello Used Blackface, as African Actors Did Not Act on Stage. Would it be Good or Bad to Continue This Practice?
      When the plays were originally produced, blackface (a practice in which white actors cover their faces in brown paint to pretend to be African) was commonly used. However, blackface is frowned upon today for being racist. Would it be better to keep using blackface to keep with tradition or would it be better to hire African actors to act as African characters, like in Othello?
    3. Was the Fool In King Lear Actually Foolish or Was He Intelligent? How Would This Impact the Play?
      The fool in King Lear often talks to the king. The king likely assumes the fool is an idiot. However, is he actually an idiot? Who is more foolish: the king or the fool? Thinking about the play in this way, how does it affect its interpretation?
    4. The Original Hamlet Play Was Set in Denmark. However, in Recent Movies, the Story is not Always Set in Denmark. So, Does the Setting Matter to the Context of the Play?
      Hamlet is set in Denmark in the original play. New adaptations of the play aren’t always set in the same place. Does this make any real difference in the play’s impact? Why or why not?
    5. Who is More Influential in Macbeth: Macbeth or Lady Macbeth? Why?
      In MacBeth, Lady MacBeth is the mastermind behind everything, while MacBeth is more likely to take action. Because of this, who had more influence over the actions of the play? Why?

Pre-Writing Tips You Can’t Skip

Once you have a topic picked out, it is time to plan out your paper. There are a few steps that you should take before writing your paper. These steps will make you spend more time in planning, but if you do them correctly, they are sure to help you to save time when you are actually writing your paper. Let’s take a look at some tips that can help.

Find Sources

While parts of the essay will rely on the author’s opinion, these opinions need to be backed up with facts if they are to be reliable and believable. One of the first sources you should use if you are writing about Shakespeare’s life are Shakespeare biographies. If you are writing about the plays of sonnets, then using those writings (written in the original English) is best. To find a complete list (with links) of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, you can use this link.

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?

Shakespeare’s actual works would be primary sources for your paper. Primary sources, in the case of writing a Shakespeare essay, would be anything that Shakespeare wrote himself.

Other sources you might want to consider for your essay are secondary sources. These are sources that in some way discuss or interpret a primary source. Examples of secondary sources you could use for your paper include a biography written about Shakespeare, commentary made on his plays, or an interpretation of what certain words could mean in today’s English.

Take Notes

This tip is helpful whether you are writing an essay or a larger paper. Whenever you find something that you want to remember, make sure to write it down. Students tend to remember things more easily when they write on paper, rather than typing. You will also want to write down vital information, like the books or websites you used to find the notes, the page number of the information, and who wrote the information. This will be useful in finding the source again later.

When you take your notes, you do not need to write a complete first draft. Simply, write down the important interpretations and commentary you find in secondary sources and interesting quotes you find in your primary source. You may even want to add notes on your own opinion to these pages so you remember them when you begin writing your paper.

Outline

While this step is not necessary to writing a paper, some students may find it useful to begin their paper by writing an outline. Even this article was written beginning with an outline! This shows that knowing how to use an outline can be practical, not only in school but in a career.

There are several online outline makers that you can use to start you off with. One great outline maker is the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School Outline. Click on the link to go to their website. To use this tool, you can simply fill in the text boxes as labeled. Once you are done, click “Create Outline.”  Below is a sample outline we made with the website that could be used for a Shakespeare essay.

Romeo and Juliet: More Tragic than Romantic
Jane Doe
I.         Introduction
A.        Background
B.        When Romeo and Juliet was originally written, it was meant to be portrayed as a tragedy. Over the years, viewers have begun to see the play as more romantic. This essay will discuss what moments makes the play a tragedy.
II.        Young Love Gone Wrong
A.        Juliet was supposed to be with Paris, a much older man. However, she could not talk to her father about this, which may have prompted her to seek a relationship with the much younger Romeo.

Essay Formatting

Most essays are formatted in the same way. Below is a short list of the components usually included in an essay. Keep this list in mind as you are writing your paper. Once you have looked them over, skip down to the next paragraph to learn more about each section.

  • Title
  • Thesis statement/introduction
  • Body paragraphs
  • Conclusion
  • Reference Page

Title

Writing the title can be a daunting task. Some students get so caught up on writing a title that they don’t get started on their paper. To avoid having this happen to you, simply wait until you are finished writing your paper to make up a title. Once you have everything written, it should be much easier to think of a title. If all else fails, simply make the title the name of the play you are looking over, or even a quote from the play.

Thesis Statement/Introduction

Like the title, an introduction can also be hard to write at first. After all, how are you supposed to write a paragraph on what your essay is about when you haven’t even written your essay yet? Like the title, you can wait until you have finished the rest of your paper to write the introduction. Just go back and write it in. It’s as simple as that.

The thesis statement is always a part of the introduction. It is usually one of the last sentences in the introductory paragraph. Dictionary.com says it best when they write that a thesis statement is, “a short statement, usually one sentence, that summarizes the main point or claim of an essay, research paper, etc…” So, try to state the main point of your essay. It doesn’t need to be too long, just so long as the reader knows what the essay is about by reading your thesis statement.

Body Paragraphs

Body paragraphs will make up the bulk of your paper. This is where you will state your opinions, or main points, and back up your claims using either lines from the plays/sonnets or with information from a secondary source. The first sentence of each body paragraph (most essays have three) should contain the main point of the paragraph; the middle sentences should back up your main point with information; and the final sentence should summarize the paragraph.

Conclusion

Conclusions are usually easy enough to write. As the name implies, you will conclude your essay in this paragraph. In a way, it’s almost like your introductory paragraph. Restate the main point of your whole paper, as well as the main points of your body paragraphs, and that’s it!

Reference Pages

Depending on your teacher’s requirements, you are likely to need to have a reference page at the end of your paper. Most English classes will require you format your paper with the MLA (Modern Language Association) formatting. However, other teachers or classes may require you to use another style guide. For a list of all style guides, with links on how to use them, click here.

Post-Writing Tips

Once you are done writing your paper, there are a couple of things you can do to make sure your essay is great. The first thing to do is to go over a general edit of your paper. There are a few ways to do this. You may want to begin by reading over your essay or having someone else look over your essay, to see what mistakes you can catch. After that, you can use a grammar/spelling checker, like Grammarly, to catch and fix those kinds of mistakes.

The next thing you will want to do before you turn in your paper is to make sure that you have put in all of your references. Some classes may only require you to have a references page, while others will require you to also use internal citations. You can use this link to find the requirements for doing either of these tasks with whatever style guide your teacher requires you to use.

We hope that this guide on how to write a Shakespeare essay helps you to write your paper, whether it be for a college or high school class. Using our  Shakespeare essay tips and topic ideas above, you are sure to have a great start on your paper already. Good luck!