English Essay Assignment #1
Choose ONE of the following topics and craft a scintillating, well-written essay of six full pages in response. Your essay must include the following:
• a focused interpretive argument about the meaning of The Taming of the Shrew and/or I Henry IV. Keep plot summary to a minimum; assume that your reader has read the plays once, but may be unaware of deeper implications.
• a clearly-stated thesis statement early in the essay which articulates your argument. This statement should do more than just announce the topic of the paper, and it should avoid the “similarities and differences” formula. Underline your thesis statement.
• at least one passage from the script which you analyze closely. This section of your paper should demonstrate your attention to nuances of language and imagery, subtleties of characterization, and key ideas and issues; it should also demonstrate your ability to closely paraphrase the meaning of the passage correctly and place that passage in its proper dramatic context. You should use the Oxford English Dictionary to explain the meaning of at least one key word.
Narrow the scope of your thesis and argument to fit the page limit. You’ll need to choose examples from the text that best support your argument and to take account of counter-evidence. The key to success is not the number of points you make (fewer is actually better), but the extent to which you support and develop your analysis.
Strong essays will use sufficient, well-chosen textual evidence that is fully explained to support carefully narrowed conclusions; weak essays often have an overly broad thesis, base large conclusions on slim evidence, or do not closely analyze the evidence they cite. Choose your direct quotations carefully, and explain the meaning of any passages you choose to cite. Where you choose to quote directly, please cite the act, scene and line number(s) parenthetically after the quotation.
Example: When Hortensio tells the story of Katherine assaulting him with a lute, Petruccio’s odd response, “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench!” (The Taming of the Shrew 2.1.158), raises an interpretive problem: is he genuinely delighted with Katherine’s behavior, or is he just pretending?
For the correct conventions about citing passages from Shakespeare, please consult the “Guide for Essays” on Canvas, which I will expect you to follow closely. Remember that prose and verse are cited in very different ways.
The Taming of the Shrew Essay Question
I. Rather unusually for Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew includes an Induction which frames the main action of each play. Why did Shakespeare feel the Induction was necessary to the overall meaning of the play? Exactly and specifically how does the Induction reshape the way we understand or react to the main action? Isolate what you see as the single most important function of the Induction, and explain in some detail how it shapes the meaning of the play as a whole.
For this question, you will need to think about both the meaning of the Induction and the meaning of the main action. What specific themes do the Induction and the main plot share, and how and why might they also be significantly distinguished from each other? What elements of characterization do the Induction and the main plot share, and what differences, and why are those similarities and differences significant? What problems of interpretation or tone does the main action have that the Induction changes or helps clarify?
What problems are posed, for example, by shrew-taming, play-acting or social rebelliousness as topics? Does the frame provide key information, clarify or change the tone, redefine the meaning of the action, introduce certain forms of irony or ambiguity, distance or draw in the audience from the main action, or something else? It is very important to isolate one specific function that you will focus on, and to be as specific as possible (it will not be enough to say that the Induction and the main plot share themes).
Also, it may not be helpful to focus exclusively on parallels between the Induction and main plot; contrasts and differences may also be significant. If you wish, you can also address the fact that Shakespeare chose not to continue the Induction throughout the play, leaving it behind after the main play’s second scene. (The material in the Norton Shakespeare on The Taming of A Shrew may offer you interesting material for thought.) However, you are not required to address this issue.
The Taming of the Shrew is in fact a tragedy
II. “Though it is typically classed as a comedy, The Taming of the Shrew is in fact a tragedy, the tragedy of Katherine Minola. Petruccio’s taming regimen is psychologically brutalizing and humiliating in the extreme, and by the end it destroys Katherine’s feminine assertiveness and robs her of her identity. The play’s seemingly comic treatment of Petruccio as a ‘madcap’ only masks the his tyranny as a husband and justifies psychological abuse against outspoken women.” Discuss. Do you agree or disagree, in whole or in part?
What particular elements in Shakespeare’s script might help you take a strong position about this view of the play? For this question, you will need to take a definite stand regarding Petruccio’s rough treatment of Katherine, and to defend your position with specific reasons and textual support. You should focus your analysis on one or two well-defined issues or plot points, such as Petruccio’s violence, his seeming “kindness,” his “madcap” qualities, Katherine’s response(s) to Petruccio’s behavior, the play’s means for maintaining a comic tone, the specific kind of comedy (is it romantic? slapstick? misogynistic? black humored? ironic? something else?), your notion of what constitutes a “comedy” or “tragedy,” Katherine’s motives for her change of heart (if you think she has changed at all). A poorly-supported, overly general or wishy-washy position will not make for a successful essay.
“I know you not” speech
III. In his “I know you not” speech (I Henry IV, 1.2.173-95), Prince Hal reveals early on to the audience that he is not the merry fool he might seem to be, but rather a prince who is only playing a part and biding his time. Formulate a thesis that addresses the nature of Hal’s strategy and its ethics. What exactly is Hal seeking to accomplish by hanging out with Falstaff at the Boar’s Head Tavern? Is he successful, unsuccessful, or partly successful in achieving his goals?
How so? Should we take this speech at face value, or should we understand it as a form of special pleading or self-delusion? Is it ethical for Prince Hal not to reveal this strategy to his friends, particularly to his friend Falstaff? Is Hal wise and politically smart, or is he manipulative and unscrupulous? Where later in the play does Hal’s strategy become ethically complicated or perhaps entirely unethical? Are there elements of or events in the play that encourage us as audience members to reevaluate Hal’s strategy of royal self-presentation? The play offers us many moments in which Hal’s strategy of royal self-presentation is at work. A successful paper will discuss just a few such moments, those that are the most revealing or interesting.
Falstaff’s specific character traits
IV. Falstaff is among Shakespeare’s most enduring characters, and one of his most complex. Develop a thesis that addresses just one of Falstaff’s specific character traits: his penchant for lying, his cowardice, his love of sensual pleasures, his complicated affection for Hal, his fatness, his capacity for verbal wit and banter, his drunkenness, his treatment of women, his casual attitude toward crime, or something else. Isolate those passages where this character trait is most apparent, and analyze how Shakespeare portrays it in the play. Where and why does Falstaff engage behavior that springs from this trait?
What does this trait indicate about his psychology, his politics or his view of the world? How does this trait affect other characters or events in the play? Do other characters share this trait, and if so, how is that significant? As audience members, what is our first impression of this element of Falstaff’s character? Does our impression change in the course of the play? If so, how and why? If it remains the same, why? Is it possible to see this one character trait as indicative of larger themes or issues in the play? How might examining this one element of Falstaff’s character open up our understanding of the play or Falstaff’s complicated audience appeal?
The Taming of the Shrew and I Henry IV
V. Shakespeare often returns to plot points, characters and situations in later plays that he has addressed in earlier plays. Some scholars have even suggested that he reuses or revises his own work. The Taming of the Shrew and I Henry IV are cases in point. It is possible, for example, to see the relationship between Hotspur and his wife Katherine as a version of the relationship between Petruccio and Katherine; Falstaff as a version of Petruccio; Mortimer and his Welsh wife as a version of Lucentio and Bianca; or the Boar’s Head Tavern as a version of Petruccio’s country estate.
Identify one such example of “versioning” between The Taming of the Shrew and I Henry IV, and make the case for the significance of the parallel. What are the most telling similarities between these two examples, and what are the most telling differences? If we think of this element in I Henry IV as an adaptation or revision of a similar element from The Taming of the Shrew, how has Shakespeare adapted or revised the material, and most important, why?
VI. In our conversations about The Taming of the Shrew and I Henry IV, we’ve focused on the play’s main characters, Katherine and Petruccio, Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Hostpur. However, one of the qualities that distinguishes Shakespeare’s playwriting is that he populates his plays with minor characters who give the fictional world a sense of reality, characters who have distinct personalities and implied histories of their own.
Choose ONE of those minor characters, and analyze him or her: what specific qualities characterize his or her personality? What motivates him or her? Most important, what function does this character have within the play as a whole? Does he or she serve as a double, contrast or counterpoint to one of the main characters? Does his or her interaction with others illuminate or develop a particular issue or theme?
Does he or she voice a particular perspective on the action, or establish a tone? Does he or she play an important role in a key plot point? In short, what significant purpose does this character serve within the overarching concerns of the play? Why did Shakespeare include him or her? How might the play be different or impoverished if this character were cut?
For this question, choose a character like Grumio, Hortensio, Baptista, Tranio, Bianca, Worcester, Gadshill, Poins, Bardolph, Hostess, or Sir Walter Blunt, a character with enough stage time that you have sufficient material to analyze. Every character makes multiple contributions to the play’s texture, so focus on the one most important contribution this character makes to the play’s central concerns, and show the reader how that importance is established through careful analysis of examples. The more specific you are about the nature of the character’s contribution, the better your analysis will be.
For example, if you argue that the character provides “comic relief,” you’ll need to suggest the particular type of “comedy” the character engages in, what we are being relieved from, why we need “relief,” and how “comic relief” contributes to the overarching concerns of the play. VII. Plays often feature a scene or moment in which the audience’s perception of the action or characters definitively changes, a turning point in our perspective on the issues and personalities at hand. (The technical term for this moment is peripateia.) This need not be a moment where the characters change, though it can be; it might also be a moment where something is revealed that changes the audience’s understanding of characters, events, issues, or tone.
Isolate such a key scene or moment The Taming of the Shrew or I Henry IV, and discuss how and why that particular “turning point” is crucial to the audience’s developing understanding of the play’s issues, that is, how and why we suddenly see things differently. One could, for example, make the case that Petruccio’s speech at the end of 4.1 suddenly changes our previous perceptions of his behavior toward Kate, or that Falstaff’s “honor” speech at the Battle of Shrewsbury definitively changes our previous understanding of the implications of his rejection of military valor.
Make sure you choose a moment where the audience’s perspective on the action changes definitively and significantly–a “turning point” typically involves a large and sudden change in our perceptions, not a small, incremental one. To address this topic adequately, you’ll need to sketch out succinctly how and why we as an audience have understood a particular issue or set of motives up to a certain point, using textual evidence to support your case. Then, you will take up the question of how the “turning point” you’ve identified changes our perspective on the action.
The reader will expect your analysis of the “turning point” to be very detailed, attentive to psychological subtext, motives and poetic language, and clearly linked with significant earlier moments in the play.
EXTENSION POLICY I allow you one extension on a major paper in this class. (No extensions will be offered for short writing assignments or the final creative project.) To claim your one extension, you need only turn in a sheet of paper (make sure your name is on the paper!) or e-mail me by the due date saying “I’m taking my extension.” When I receive your request, I’ll automatically give you an extension. After that, however, I will not grant an extension on a late paper for any reason.
BASIC ESSAY CHECKLIST:
• Is your name and the class title on your essay?
• Does your essay have a title? (NOT “Essay #1”, but a real title.)
• Does your essay have page numbers?
• Is your thesis underlined?
• Are all direct quotations correctly cited and formatted? (Remember that prose and verse are cited differently.)
• Have you proofread your essay? (Misspelling of characters’ names is especially annoying.)
• Are the later paragraphs in your essay sufficiently developed?
• Is your essay at least 5 and a half pages long, and no longer than 7 pages long? (Please don’t use large fonts or wide margins.)
• Is your essay legible?