Some Matters of Form in Critical
about Shakespeare and His Contemporaries
by Fran Teague, based on a handout from John Velz
This document should help students write essays about Shakespeare's plays or other Renaissance drama. (If you want less specialized assistance, try the writing center resource page.) Some Matters of Form will explain Modes of Exposition, Rhetorical Strategy, Tense, Person and Tone, Documentation, Quotations, and Spelling and Italics. Whenever you want to return to the Shakespeare homepage, look for this icon: . When you want to return to this spot, look for this icon:
Modes of Exposition
The different modes are paraphrase (restatement of the original in your own words), plot summary (statement of what happens in a story), explication (explanation of meanings in a passage that are not obvious), and analysis (statements about how the play makes its impact, how it fits together, how it works). Prefer explication and analysis to paraphrase and plot summary. As a rule, always explicate a crucial or extended quotation; otherwise rely on analysis. Note that the first three kinds of exposition answer the question "What?" while analysis, your primary concern in an English course, answers the question "How?" Here is an example based on "To be, or not to be--that is the question" (Hamlet 3.1.56).(1)
Paraphrase: the issue is whether to live or die.
Plot Summary: Hamlet speculates about suicide, unaware that he is being overheard by Polonius and Claudius, who plan to use Ophelia as a means of drawing his secret from him.
Explication: Hamlet reveals his philosophical training at Wittenberg, for "to be or not to be" is indeed the question in the metaphysical science of ontology.
Analysis: the line is at the core of the play's meaning; Hamlet now thinks that the great question is whether to live or die, but by Act V he will have ripened in understanding to the point where he will care more about the action he is to undertake than about whether he will die as a result of it.
Avoid beginning with broad claims or noble generalizations about "art," "drama," or "Shakespeare" if your subject is tightly defined as an individual play or group of plays. You want to induce belief in your critical position; use an inductive method in which conclusions are made to proceed from carefully marshaled evidence. (You might think of yourself as a lawyer presenting a case step-by-step to a jury.) When you write well enough about the particular--the play and the bits of evidence in it--a reader will draw the right general conclusions about the play, and maybe even about "art," "drama," or "Shakespeare," even without your pointing them out.
Use historical present unless you specifically discuss the creative process instead of the finished product. Criticism is usually concerned with the artwork, not the creative process, and since the artwork has a continuing validity (it is "for all time," not "of an age," as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare's canon),(2) speak of it in the present tense: characters in plays do things. If you want to distinguish between present and past action in a play, a perfect form may help: "Portia, who has been in Venice and has participated in the trial, nevertheless feigns ignorance of Antonio's fate in the fifth act." You would say "Shakespeare puts bawdy language in Lucio's mouth"; but when you talk about how Shakespeare did things, past tense is appropriate: "Shakespeare did not find the bawdy language that animates Lucio's speeches in his source Promos and Cassandra." These are rules of thumb; judgment will tell you how to decide between tenses in a given case.
Person and Tone
Third person is generally most effective. First person can sound self-conscious, but if you decide it's appropriate in a particular case, use it without apology. First person plural may seem like a shyster's attempt to suck the reader into the vortex of your argument: "you and I, dear reader, we agree, don't we?" Avoid cuteness of any kind. If you write well enough about literature worth writing about, you'll hold your reader without chicanery. So colloquialisms, facetiousness, clichés dignified with quotation marks, clever euphemisms, rhetorical questions, puns: all these mark a writer who is unsure that an idea can stand alone. If you fear sounding stuffy, use occasional contractions, plenty of specific details, and short sentences.
Use a standard documentation style and use it consistently. English majors should prefer MLA style. Use parenthetical references within your text, reserve endnotes for commentary that does not fit in the body of the text, and provide a list of works cited with full bibliographical information. I've used a few endnotes in this handout to show you what I mean. You may also need to document electronic documents: there's a useful website that tells you how to do so.
Listing the works you've consulted suggests that you've done your homework. If you use one work heavily, say so in an endnote (as I have in my first note to this handout). Under no circumstances would I consider Cliff's Notes or other such works a work suitable for a college student to consult. If you have many sources for a paragraph, you can conclude it with an endnote like this: "The facts in this paragraph are taken from the following works: . . . ." If you use the actual phrases of a source, you must put them in quotation marks, or you are plagiarizing--even though you include the necessary parenthetical citation.
The current convention is to cite act, scene, and line numbers in Arabic numerals: "Portia shows in Act V that she has come to understand her own words, 'The quality of mercy is not strained' (MV 4.1.182)." Note that I have a quotation within a quotation, so I shift to single quotation marks for the embedded quotation. Note also that normal punctuation is omitted before the parenthetical reference; only ! or ? would be retained. If a reader would have no trouble figuring out which play you're quoting, you don't need to specify it. You can use abbreviations for play titles, provided that you give the title in full, followed by its abbreviated form, early in the essay.
Short quotations (fewer than three lines) can appear in your own paragraph in quotation marks. You indicate the end of a line of verse by a slash mark with a space on either side: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up . . . " (Son 30.1-2). Longer quotations are set off (and double spaced) from the body of your paper without quotation marks. Quotations must appear exactly as they appear in the original. If there is a good reason for tampering, you must indicate that you have tampered. Deletion (ellipsis) is indicated by three spaced dots: "He cannot live . . . and must not die / Till George be packed with posthorse up to heaven" (R3 1.1.145-46). If you omit a whole line or more of verse from a set-off quotation, use a line of dots and use the parenthetical reference to indicate how many lines you have omitted. To indicate substitution or addition, place your contribution inside square brackets: "The spirit [of Julius Caesar] aunswered him, I am thy evill spirit, Brutus: and thou shalt see me by the citie of Philippes" (note the retained spelling and capitalization).(3)
Playwright, performance, interpretation, tragedy, role: these are words often misspelled. Theater, judgment, honor: these are standard spellings in American usage. (If you prefer the British spellings, that's fine, but you should then use British spellings consistently throughout: programme, centre, and so on.) Finally, if a work takes longer than half an hour to experience, italicize or underline the title; otherwise, put it in quotation marks. If you're using a word processing system that supports a Times Roman typeface, then you should use italics; with a Courier typeface, use underlining. Play titles are italicized.
1. All citations are taken from the first Riverside edition of Shakespeare's Works.
2. The Jonson reference is taken from his elegy on Shakespeare in the 1623 Folio; a facsimile appears in the Riverside: 66.
3. This quotation is taken from Plutarch's Lives, a source Shakespeare used to write Julius Caesar; Bullough gives the relevant passage (Bullough 5: 116)
List of Works Cited
(Most word processing systems allow you to do a hanging indent; unfortunately html files don't!)
Bullough, Geoffrey. "Sources for Julius Caesar."
In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of
Columbia U P, 1964. 5: 3-211.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 1st edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.