Some Musings on Writing a Research Paper on Shakespeare

A research paper is a major project which allows you to do a number of things. First, it allows you to sink your teeth into a topic and learn about it in depth.  It also allows you to discover what resources are available for the study of Shakespeare and to see what others have said about your subject. In other words, doing research enables you to discover the many conversations taking place about literatue and to participate in those conversations.  Also, the research paper enables you to practice a type of writing many of you will do for your other classes, either here or, perhaps, in graduate school. Or you may teach students to write research papers in high school or elsewhere.

But perhaps most importantly, writing a paper of this sort allows you to demonstrate that you can put together a sustained argument on a specific topic related to the course that is both gracefully written and appropriately supported with documentation.  In other words, it shows that you learned something, that you can think clearly and that you can express yourself effectively.  The research paper  serves as an important capstone assignment for an upper-level course. I take this assignment seriously--you should, too.

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Reading Sources

Most students are overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a research paper, especially one on Shakespeare, and, although they have a number of questions about how do it, two questions stand out: how can they fill up 12-15 pages and how can they find enough sources?

Regarding the second question, how can students find enough sources, I think students are actually asking two questions: how can they use the library effectively in order to find the best sources and how do they use the sources once they have found them? To be sure, many students will ask the teacher what is the minimum number of required sources so that they can do the bare minimum of research. The logic here is faulty. Professors tend to have good noses for discerning "bare minimum" and “average” in someone's work, so unless you’re willing to receive an average grade, you should be willing to do the research necessary to write an effective argument.

Some students will use their sources incorrectly. They will read the book or article, or parts of them, and write down quotations that sound impressive. Often they will take down lots of these. Then they will look at these quotations, see if a pattern emerges with certain recurring themes, group them accordingly, then start writing while adding a liberal sprinkling of quotations. This method is faulty, because the student has written a paper that is generated by other people, rather than from his or her own ideas.

Rather, there are two ways to read sources. First is reading to learn. When we are first given a topic, we may know nothing about it, and this scares a lot of students. How can they write on something they know nothing about? But that is exactly the point of the research paper: to learn about and work in depth on a new topic. Therefore it is essential that the student begin the research project by reading to learn.

Keep in mind that there are two types of criticism: general discussions of the play and in-depth discussions of a certain issue. You should begin your research by reading these general discussions so that you know generally what Shakespeare was trying to do in his plays. You can find general discussions in certain editions of the plays (Arden, Oxford, Cambridge) and in some books (Twayne series, for example). You should then move to the more in-depth works.

Next, turn to more specific sources. Even so, cast your net widely. Find out what is out there, what various people have said about the topic, discover the opposing conversations about the topic. You read to learn to discover what you think about the subject. Who do you agree with, who disagree? As you can see, it is important to read broadly. That is why it is absurd to read only one or two sources. How can you sufficiently learn about the various sides of a subject if you have only gotten one or two opinions? Your goal is to try to be as thorough in your search as possible given the amount of time you have and the resources available. At this point, as you can see, you become something of a mini-expert on the subject and are capable of presenting your own argument on the subject.

It is at this point, after you have developed your own working argument, that you read sources for support, the second reason for reading sources. This way you can read much more selectively and with a purpose. No longer are you reading out of desperation.

Using sources

Sometimes, a student will write the research paper as a string of quotations. As a result, the paper is a hodge-podge of critical voices. Think of these various critics as engaging in an ongoing conversation about a topic.. As with all conversations, some will take one side, some another, and some still another. Your goal—and it is a difficult one—is to recognize the various conversations and to see your paper as a contribution to that conversation. Some of these critics will agree with your argument. Use them as support. Some will disagree with your side; use them to show opposing viewpoints to be countered.

It is important to think of your paper as a sustained argument: you are methodically building a case for a knowledgeable, yet skeptical jury. As a lawyer uses previous law cases to build his/her own case, so do you use sources (both from the original works and from other critics) to build your case. But you rarely see a lawyer stand and read from these cases: never does the case consist solely of the lawyer reading from previous law cases. Likewise, your argument should not be a string of quotations that you have gotten from books and articles. You must instead develop your argument and use sources only as support—but be sure to use them. For the beginning writer of research papers, knowing when to use sources is one of the most difficult aspects of the process and it requires a lot of practice. One thing that you can do is pay close attention to how your sources do it. Read their books and articles and see how often and where and how they cite sources.

Another good trick is, after you have done your reading and are feeling ready to write, write your paper without using ANY sources at all.  Doing so compels you to formulate your own argument in your own words.  Once you have written your paper, then go back and insert whatever necessary sources you think fit.  Using this method will prevent your paper from being a string of quotations and will restrict the sources you use to only those that are necessary for supporting your argument.

Finally, whenever you provide background information, about the period for example, or about the original sources of the plays (i.e., Robert Greene's Pandosto is the source for The Winter's Tale), be sure to give the source(s) for this information.

Remember that the main reason for citing sources—and this is true for both background information and for aspects of your argument—is so that your reader can trace the reliability of your information. Can we trust your information? Have other knowledgeable people said the same thing? Citing sources shows your reader that you are not just making your argument up as you go along.

Writing the Paper

Now what about that other question that students ask: “how can they fill up 12-15 pages?” The answer should by now be obvious. After having done your homework and thought about your topic, you will probably have no trouble filling up the required number of pages. Even so, here are some strategies for filling up so many pages.

I am a firm believer in visualizaing.  That is, try to visualize the number of pages your paper is supposed to be and then imagine these pages spread out upon the table.   Next, ask yourself, given my topic, what sections should my paper have?  For example, should I include the history of the clown figure, assuming your paper is about the clown in, say, King Lear?  How long should that section be?  One paragraph?  Two?  Two pages?  Three?  I assume, by the way, that, given a good, meaty paragraph, it would take about two and a half paragraphs to fill up a page.  Next, should I have a section on Robert Armin, the actor who would have played Lear's fool?  If so, how many paragraphs would it take: two? three?  Next, maybe I would want a section on the fool's developing interaction with Lear.  This would probably take several pages and involve a generous selection of quoting from the play.   But my goal in this section would to have a purpose to this section: namely, how does the presentation of the fool develop?

How many quotations from my sources should I have in my paper?  Again, visualization might help.  One per paragraph?  Two?  What have I said that might need some support?  Should I have several pages that cite only one source?   Or should I have a healthy?

The Uses of Theory

Some of your sources will discuss their topic from a theoretical viewpoint (feminist, psychoanalytic, new historical, post-structuralist, etc.). In fact, since the late 1970s nearly all criticism of Shakespeare acknowledges a theoretical bias. Although this might suggest that critics weren’t using theory until recently, the opposite is true. It is impossible to speak critically about a work of art without employing some kind of method. It has only been in the last few decades that critics have been careful to acknowledge this fact and to say so in their own work.

Having said this, though, there is no question that a more formal and diverse body of theoretical approaches to literature has appeared since the sixties. Therefore, it might be helpful to recognize when this happens. A book’s or article’s introduction will usually make this explicit, or you can see what kinds of sources your source uses. My handout “How to do Research on Shakespeare” contains a brief overview of some of the major theoretical approaches, but if you would like to know more about a particular method, you should consult some books devoted to the subject.

Being aware of a theoretical approach is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, it will help you be more conscious of what method you are using. That’s right! Everytime you write a paper, you are using a theoretical approach. For instance, if you are talking about women in the comedies employing a male disguise as a means of acting within a male-dominated society, you are writing a feminist paper. Or if you are exploring how Hamlet’s attitudes about his mother and father influence his behavior, you are writing a psychoanalytic paper. Or if you are writing about how Richard II contrasts a feudal system of politics with a Machiavellian one, and that Shakespeare is doing so in order to say things about politics during his own time, then you are writing a New Historicist paper. Or if you are writing about how Shakespeare uses language in the sonnets so that the reader finds there what she or he wants to find there, then you are using a method employing reader response.

Obviously you want to be careful in using these sources. What you don’t want to do is mix and match various theories. This shows that you aren’t conscious of the “conversation” they are engaging in and it can sound pretty bizarre when you are writing a paper on the classical sources of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you suddenly find yourself talking about Theseus’ sword as a phallus (which it is, by the way).

Final words on the subject: By no means am I trying to scare you away from using sources that have a theoretical bent.  You'll find that, regardless of the source's approach, it will probably have some useful things to say on your subject; alternately, don't be surprised if the source seems entirely too preoccupied on belaboring a point that seems pointless.  In that case, it's time to move on to the next source.

Writing a stage history

If you are doing a stage history of a play, scene, or character, your goal is two-fold. First, provide a sense of continuity. If you are tracing production from 1600 to today, don’t leave out the eighteenth century. If you are tracing only 20th century productions, don’t leave out important decades. Second, you need to answer the “so what?” question. That is, why are you describing this particular production? Your answer can show how they do something new with Shakespeare, or show how that production reflects the issues of the time of its production. You should probably begin your paper with a paragraph or two identifying the cruxes of the play/scene/character. That is, what problems are there that are open to various interpretation and that determine how that play/scene/character is read? For instance, Bassanio’s choosing the lead casket offers a crux: does Portia give him hints that he responds to, or not? Or, why doesn’t Claudius respond to the dumb show? One of the things your paper will then do is describe how various productions have treated that crux. You shouldn’t just be repeating what the various reviews have said about the whole production. Your paper can then be organized either chronologically or by crux.

Last Words

Finally, how will your teacher read your research paper? If your instructor is human(e) (and I like to think I am), he or she will not expect a paper like one published in Shakespeare Quarterly. It does not need to be original and brilliant. Rather, what your instructor will look for is evidence that you worked on this. That you gave thought to your subject: there is a single argument that is sustained throughout the paper. That you tried to use sources intelligently. That you correctly used MLA documentation. That you bothered to proofread your paper so that it is not full of careless errors. Your teacher will be forgiving. But only if there is evidence that you took the assignment seriously and worked on it. On the other hand, your instructor will not be forgiving if it is clear that you have no idea what you are doing: why didn’t you come and ask, why didn’t you pick up a copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or some other such guide and try to learn from it, why are you taking an advanced literature course in the first place if you aren’t willing to commit to some serious work? In this case, if your instructor is kind, your paper may get a C.


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