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Writing Suggestions & Help With The Paper

The following are some guidelines for your paper, with some suggested subjects. These are only suggestions, and you should feel free to choose your own topic. Your paper should be a critical analysis that reflects your own point of view, argued by a specific thesis that is demonstrated by a focused, narrowly defined approach. A subject is only a beginning; you must then concentrate on finding a topic (your idea considerably narrowed down: whether Faustus is an "orthodox Christian" play, for example, is a subject, whereas a topic might be ["I intend to argue that"] since Hell is a state of mind, as Mephistophilis suggests, then the more rational one is the more the danger in "overreaching," thus endangering the mortal soul; the play is, therefore, based on the paradox that free-will enhances the chance of damnation. Your hypothesis (argument) would then argue that the play is less "orthodox" than a suggestion that there is an inherent contradiction in humanity's search for knowledge: any desire for secular wisdom posits damnation. You would then prove your hypothesis by focusing on one or two scenes that you can investigate in detail, thereby proving your contention.

To help narrow down your idea, concentrate on one scene or one event within a scene, or compare two scenes, two characters, or several events within one act--don't write on the entire play or everything a character does. Or you may wish to compare two scenes or characters from different plays.

Pick something that interests you--a work from the syllabus--and keep secondary sources to a minimum; remember, secondary sources are only a springboard to your own ideas. Avoid generalities and the obvious. A good paper should tell you, and the reader, we'll hope, something you didn't know before. Your paper should not summarize or retell the plot, nor should it merely reflect class notes or discussion.

You may want to check with me on your topic idea: write down your thesis--if it helps, phrase your sentence, "I intend to argue that ______, because _____." That way I have something specific with which to help you. (Note that the "because" of the above sentence adds the specific to your argument and keeps you from being too general or vague in your thesis.)

A word on citing quotations: poetry or prose that is more than four lines should be set off from the text (indent 10 spaces from the left margin), as in this passage from Faustus:

Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells

In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (1.3.75-79)

But keep large passages at a minimum and don't cite more than is germane to your discussion. Quotations should follow a developed argument as an illustration--they illustrate (argue) something that you have already established. Quotations that are set off from the text are by definition quotes, so they are not placed in quotation marks. Note too that the Act, Scene, and line numbers come after the period (skip two spaces). Cite in a note the edition of the play from which you take the quotation--use only one edition throughout the paper. The above quotation from Faustus is an example: as an endnote I might write, "This and all subsequent quotations are taken from the The Revels Plays, ed. John D. Jump." Or, I could merely add it parenthetically after my first quote: (1.3.75-79; Revels edition, ed. John D. Jump). If you use any of the editions that were recommended (those available at the bookstore), there is no need to cite the edition you are using--I will assume that is your text.

If you cite three lines or less, make the citation part of the sentence:

In asking whether Faustus's new-found magical powers had summoned Mephistophilis, the demon responds by assuring Faustus that his own rational decision had raised up evil, not mere chance or temptation: "For when we hear one rack the name of God, / Abjure the Scriptures and his savior Christ, / We fly in hope to get his glorious soul" (1.3.46-48).

Note here that the / mark indicates where the poetry line ends in your text. Add an ellipsis at the end of the quote only if you stop midway within a line of poetry or prose: but the quotation should fit your sentence, which means that while you quote the words exactly, the punctuation at the end of your sentence depends on whether the idea is a complete thought. In other words, don't use an ellipsis before a quote; nor should you use it at the end of your sentence if you have a completed thought--use a period. Also note that when you give a quote within a sentence, the parenthetical citation is part of your sentence; thus the period (or semicolon or colon) comes after the parenthesis while all other punctuation comes before.

Prose is cited differently:

The serious action of the play is mirrored by a secondary plot in which the uneducated servant Robin attempts also to summon evil, but for different purposes than those of Faustus: "I have gotten one of Doctor Faustus' conjuring books, and now we'll have such knavery as't passes" (2.3.2-4).

Be faithful to the edition of the text you are using when citing, break poetry or prose according to the editor's decisions. When quoting from a play or a secondary source, your guide should be the MLA Manual of Style, 1985--or later--edition, located in the reference section of the library, PR 3521. Also remember that no quotation should ever stand alone--it must be part of your sentence; that is, the citation illustrates a point you are making and is, therefore, part of your thought (as all of the above illustrations so demonstrate).

A last reminder: type your paper, 3 to 5 pages for each paper (graduate students: 5 to 8 each with secondary sources). Double space the paper, including off-set quotes. Please do not put your paper in a folder or add a cover sheet. Put your name and date in the upper right hand corner of the first page; put your last name and page number on all subsequent pages; give your paper a specific title, centered on your first page, which reflects your thesis idea; use a paper clip or staple your pages. All pages should have one-inch margins on all sides, with the exception of the first page which will have two to three inches from the top to your title. Use a standard-size font: 10 or 12 point.

Be Specific. Proofread your paper carefully, but do more than merely reread it: revise your work. Revision is a major part of writing--one of the easiest problems to spot in reading student papers is the lack of revision, which usually indicates haste, laziness, or indifference. Writing is a skill that takes effort, patience, and the willingness to improve it, so start early.

Please don't ask me what to write on; that decision is part of the assignment. You are not limited to any of these ideas, but you must restrict yourself to the works that we have--or will--study this semester. If you get stuck, spend time reading what others have said (introductions to different editions, collections of essays, or the essays included in your edition, or Drama of the English Renaissance ed., for example), which may give you an idea of your own or help you to narrow down your topic. But remember, your ideas are what I want to read. If you do two papers, please pick two different works. Feel free to ask me questions or even submit a draft before the paper is due--just the introduction to your paper is preferable, since I can tell where you're headed before you write the entire paper.

Remember: a paper both tests and develops your critical/analytical skills; it is a creative endeavor that demonstrates one's ability to think, organize, and communicate effectively. All creativity must be channeled within discipline; otherwise, the result is chaos, not art. Think of your paper in these terms--it reflects who you are, your capabilities, and your creative expression. Take pride in your effort.

Some suggested subjects (some of these suggestions will work equally well for several plays, not merely the ideas listed for a given work):


The Spanish Tragedy:

The effectiveness of Kyd's rhetoric

Bel-imperia in a patriarchal society

The representation of life as both beautiful and destructive

The purposes of excessive passions

The metatheatricality and self-consciousness of the play

The purposes of the "black humor" and "blacker mourning"

Conflicts between mind and body

Discordia concors and its effectiveness

Apollonian reason and courtliness vs. Dionysian passion and horror

Madness: the hesitant "modern" rational mind vs. the instinctual

The metamorphosis of the noble hero into Machiavellian villain

Biblical echoes and their importance

Doctor Faustus:

Faustus as a tragic figure

The importance of the "contract" with Lucifer

The tragic qualities of Mephistophilis

"Pride" and its importance in the fall of Faustus

Distinctions in what "knowledge" means

The purpose of the morality play structure

The purpose of the secondary plot (Robin, Dick, etc.)

Marlowe's implied "attitude" toward the action

The "fortunate fall": is Faustus a new Adam?

Faustus' internal conflict: is he the modern soul?

The effect of serious and foolish action intermingled

What difference does it make that Faustus presumes to be greater than other men, but not 

     greater than God?

Edward II:

Mortimer as machiavellian villain

Isabella’s character: faithful wife/adulterous foe

Edward’s physical deterioration vs. Mortimer’s moral deterioration

the question of Edward’s morality as "tragic flaw"

Gaveston, Edward’s favorite, as antagonist

Satisfaction with the end of the play: is there justice?

Compare with another play, such as Spanish Tragedy, for lack of action

Titus Andronicus:

Family relationships and pride

Imagery of death, burial, earth, etc.

Relationship between language and action (gesture)

Aaron’s evil—typical stage villain?

Compare Iago of Othello to Aaron

Compare to the Roman tragedy of Seneca (Thyestes, especially)

The failure of Titus—what is his "error"?

Why have some editors/scholars refused to accept the play as Shakespeare’s?

The Revenger's Tragedy:

The absence of supernatural forces

The noble hero turned into sadistic revenger and moral outcast

Characters as representatives of vices

Goodness corrupted by evil

The theme of lust

The court vs. the natural world

Vindice in comparison to his adversaries

The audience's sympathies--changing perspectives

The end of the play: is moral order restored?

Ironic symbolism in the play


The relevance of the bestiary play

The theme of avarice: how satisfying is that?

Who is "good" in the play, and what difference does it make?

The uses and importance of impersonation

Why is this satiric portraiture more effective than comedy?

The character of Celia: is she good or merely ignorant?

(Also see suggestions for The Alchemist)

The Alchemist:

The importance of "humours"

Jonson's "realism"

Compare Marlowe's heroic world with that of Jonson's comic one

Heroic knowledge seekers transformed into comic swindlers

The theme of metamorphosis, transformation, change

False change (sudden; devised) vs. true change (time; nature)

Animal imagery; military imagery

Change and rapidity vs. constancy and stasis

Satire as a "distancing effect" (compare to metatheatricality)

The merchant class as villains

The attitude toward "morality" in the play

`Tis Pity She's A Whore:

Comparison of a particular thematic, imagistic, or narrative difference with Romeo and Juliet, and 

     its effectiveness

Giovanni as a "noble" character

Ford's use of "abnormal psychology"

Is the play morally decadent?

The "rights" of a societal--and therefore immoral--outcast vs. the societal norms and conventions

The role of fate and Heaven's vengeance

The importance of subplots on the central narrative structure

Is this a revenge tragedy? how is revenge justified?

The White Devil:

Metaphors and images that suggest that no clear "goal" is set forth in the play; rather, the action

      derives from the pathology of the characters

The depravity of the heroine of the play and the audience's sympathy

A "nocturnal" tragedy: images suggesting night, darkness, shadows

Compare the heroine of this play with the Duchess of Malfi

Compare Flamineo with Shakespeare's Iago

In what ways do characters define themselves by their own words, as opposed to their actions

     and comments by others?

How are speeches in this play more "realistic" than others we have studied?

The effectiveness of surprises and reversals

The importance of "performance" in the play: how are roles used to define or to obfuscate?

Perspectives of death and what dying means: how do they differ among the characters?

How does the play go beyond the metatheatrical? in what ways does it call attention to its artifice

     and self-awareness?

The Duchess of Malfi:

Contrasts of metaphors of darks and lights--their effectiveness

Contrast scenes: those of hope or brilliance compared to later, imitative scenes of nightmare and


Pretended madness and possession vs. the "real"

The play centers on five areas: the Court, the bed-chamber, the world, the prison, and the grave: take

      one and show its relationship to the others and its importance to the dramatic narrative

Secular ritual that mocks religious ritual

Why does the heroine have no personal name? what does it say about her   private person?

How does the Duchess change and grow in the play?

Compare the thematic idea of incest in this play with that of `Tis Pity

How are sex, violence, and religion merged in the play?

Compare the scene of her death with that of Desdemona's in Othello--what is achieved by the scene(s)?

Compare the use of and the form taken of madness in this play with one other we have studied

Compare the play-within-a play in Duchess with that of The Spanish Tragedy:

What are the differences with regard to an audience's reactions?

The Changeling:

The relationship between Beatrice-Joanna and de Flores

The absurdity of tests and devices as commentary on the absurdity of social codes

The importance of the mad scene: compare to other plays we have studied

The hostility of fate on guilty and innocent alike

Madness and its relationship to female beauty and male lust

The "bizarre" nature of the subplot and its relationship to the main


This page maintained by Wayne Narey; suggestions and comments appreciated--please contact wnarey@astate.edu