(Some of you may find this handout obvious to the point of insult. Please do not take offense. As Dr. Johnson once observed, people require more often to be reminded than to be instructed. This is a general reminder of what makes a good essay, at least in this course.)
1) When writing an academic essay, get to your topic swiftly you don't usually need more than a couple of introductory sentences. Opening passages of fine writing ("Once, in another galaxy, far, far away" or "Throughout the history of humankind, blah blah blah") are boring and waste space. You may need to draft such a passage to get your mental wheels turning, but it can usually be condensed or cut altogether once you know what you are really writing about.
2) Somewhere in the opening paragraph, there should be a thesis statement. A thesis statement not only announces your topic but also makes a significant statement about that topic. Some examples:
a) "York is the most interesting character in Richard II."Both of these are poor: they make no statement. They give me no idea what I'm going to be persuaded to believe. Probably not much; it'll just be random chatter decorated with quotations, perhaps with a bright idea popping up occasionally.
"Political issues are important in Richard II."
b) "York embodies the values of the old nobility."These are better theses: they make definite statements. They are, however, rather simple ideas. In fact, in my judgment, each is a half-truth. Each will produce, at best, a B/B- paper, OK so far as it goes but not plumbing the character or the play very deeply.
"In Richard II, Shakespeare upholds the idea of the divine right of kings."
c) "In York, Shakespeare combines earnest nobility with ludicrous comedy."Now these are interesting theses: each has some tension, some resistance, some internal pull and contrast. The reader can foresee not only the substance but also the structure of the paper: it will (in some proportion or other) be divided between two lines of argument that will qualify each other and pose a significant problem about how to conclude the paper.
"In Richard II, the theory of divine right collides with the practical facts about a misguided king to produce an insoluble political dilemma."
3) There should be a conclusion that is not just a restatement of the opening thesis. (Forget what they told you in high school. They merely wanted to make sure your flighty young mind stayed on the same subject throughout the whole essay.) A paper should get somewhere, should conclude by placing the matter discussed into some larger context, e.g. some major issue raised by the play, or the power or design of the play as a whole, or the artistry or interests of the playwright, or an aspect of Elizabethan thought, or art in general, or life.
4) Avoid plot summary. Assume your readers have read the play: they doesn't need to be told the story. If you find yourself writing several sentences that merely summarize events, you are going astray. We may need to be reminded of a plot detail at a moment when that detail is important for your case, when, for example, you jump from generalizations to a specific moment in the action, or from the middle of Act 1 to the middle of Act 4. In such cases it helps if you make such reminders grammatically subordinate: e.g. not "Richard hands the crown to Bolingbroke in the deposition scene," but "When Richard hands the crown to Bolingbroke, he turns what could have been a simple gesture of surrender into an elaborate ceremony of decoronation." The main clause is your analytic statement the plot reminder lurks in adverbial subordination.
5) The main thread of a good paper is analytic: try not to let description or summary usurp the place of analysis. Such usurpation often happens in papers about ideas and themes: the student says that the play is about X, and then merely summarizes the scenes and paraphrases the speeches in which the characters discuss X. To analyze you must ask questions. Why did the playwright give a certain personality to a character, arrange for a particular incident, put one scene right next to another or make one scene late in the play echo one early in the play, use these particular words or metaphors, write a very long (or very short) speech at this moment? How do these playwriting choices give fuller expression to idea X? The elements of a play not only have particular natures that the critic must point out; they also have particular functions in the design, economy, and effect of the scene or the play as a whole.
6) Try to use your quotations thoroughly. A good critic quotes, not just for decoration or factual support, but because there is something about those particular words some word choice, metaphor, rhythm, placement, implication, allusion, echo or contradiction of a previous line some quality that you proceed to point out that develops and refines the analysis you are making. Let me stress this again: as more and more of you are intelligently interested in big subjects like values and gender and power and representation, you tend to forget about the words. The words are not mere transparent signifiers. Their choice and placement in relation to each other are, with good writers, the result of conscious thought and have effects both powerful and subtle. A good critic asks why these words and arrangements were chosen, what effect they have. The first exercise in this course was designed to increase your awareness of the local texture of the writing. Now you can put your developed awareness to use.
7) Quotations from the plays should be acknowledged by the parenthetical use of the act, scene and line numbers (not the page numbers) of the Norton edition. The older practice was to use Roman numerals: Arabic is now customary. If you quote the tenth and eleventh lines of act five, scene two, you put (5.2.10-11) after the quotation. It's easier for you and for the reader if you put this parenthetical acknowledgement in your main text not in a footnote, after the quotation or at the end of your sentence containing the quoted words. If you are not using Norton, tell the reader what edition you are using in a footnote to your first quotation. (Line numbers vary from one edition to another, especially in prose scenes, and editors make different decisions about the exact wording of the text in places where the earliest editions have mistakes or conflicts.) The point is to make it easy for the reader to check the lines, to reread them in context.
8) Other borrowings (whether word-for-word quotations or paraphrases or summaries) from outside sources, the reserve books, etc. should be acknowledged in accordance with the standard rules about plagiarism. You must acknowledge your indebtedness, whether it is strictly verbal or a matter of a general idea. If you are uncertain how to do this, see the Dartmouth publication, Sources: Their Use and Acknowledgment. If you have lost your copy, get one from the dean's office.
Dartmouth courses differ as to whether collaboration among students is permitted. This course encourages students to talk with one another, to discuss Shakespeare on their own time and help each other develop ideas, even to read over a classmate's paper to help him/her know whether the ideas are clear. One of the good things about Shakespeare is that he provokes discussion. But there are no collaborative projects in this course. Each paper is expected to be the student's own work, except where acknowledged by footnotes, which can include the acknowledgement that "My roommate George Spelvin '00 helped me develop this idea in this paragraph." When student papers reduplicate one another, the reader naturally suspects some form of dishonesty. (This is one of the troubles with papers partly or wholly reproduced from disks in fraternity files. In a recent term two students turned in Shakespeare papers that were 80% identical: it was eventually demonstrated that neither student had written the paper, though neither had known that the other was using the same source. Both left Dartmouth for a very lengthy time.)
9) Number your own pages, either on the processor or by hand. You have no idea how frequently papers come in with pages out of order.
10) When mentioning the title of a play, underline it, put it in bold, or put it in italics. Don't put it in quotation marks.