21L.421 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate



For all your essays, be sure to focus your reading, preferably on a single character, scene, or even passage in the work(s), and to support your point with a close reading of the text. Do not generalize. Make sure your essay has a thesis, a point against which someone might argue, using the evidence of the text.

If you wish to write about a film for one of your essays, you are welcome to do so but must cover the requisite number of written texts, as suggested below.

Examples of student essays are presented courtesy of the students and used with permission.

Essay 1 — Classical Comedy (Aristophanes, Plautus, Shakespeare as Interpreter of the Classical World)

Due five days after Ses #5 (3 pages—10%)

In the comedies you’ve read so far, errors drive the plot, and multiple characters appear to be in error. What does one of the plays you have read say about error? Focus on a single speech as a way of narrowing the field of your analysis. Look closely at language and details in your passage and use them to show how the author deals with the theme through uses of words, gestures, and staging. These questions may help you think about the topic.

  1. Which senses or faculties seem most affected by error? What does this speech seem to be saying about the way the mind (or the body) works? How does error affect the character’s use of language?
  2. Who is responsible for the errors in the play? Are figures of authority in error? What is the relationship between authority and error in the play?
  3. Do the characters seem happy or reluctant to give up their errors? What does the conclusion of the play, the restoration of sense, say about the play’s values?
  4. How does error relate to fantasy, dream, superstition, or other aberrations of the mind?

Essay 2 — Comic Love (Shakespeare, Molière, or Behn)

Due two days after Ses #11 (7 pages—15%)

Choose one work to discuss in terms developed from a question below. As with the first essay, your close reading of language and details will develop and support your argument. Keep your focus narrow.

  1. Much classical comedy depends on physical action and props, on the use of masks, or performance elements like song, chorus, dance, and slapstick. What physical elements do you find being used in Shakespeare’s, Molière’s, or Behn’s plays? How do the uses of masks or performance, the visual, choreographic, or other special effects, work to heighten meaning?
  2. Choose a couple from Twelfth Night, The Misanthrope, or The Rover to analyze. How does each member of the couple define his or her limits in the relationship? Do they violate these limits? How do they reconcile differences? Do they respect each other’s rights and boundaries? What do this couple’s interactions show about the author’s attitudes to love and sex? Choose one element of the relationship to develop and discuss.
  3. Each work includes reasonable characters, who contrast with the central figure, whom many consider deviant or mad. How does Shakespeare, Molière, or Behn represent the figure of moderation? Use details from the text to support your study of one character or comparison of two (one reasonable, one unreasonable) in the same play.
  4. Examine one ending closely to determine how comic endings resolve conflict and to what degree they restore order: social order, personal authority, justice, or the truth. Or discuss how marriage works in a comic ending to create or challenge closure.

Essay 2 — Revision

Due two days after Ses #14 (7 pages—20%)

You will receive feedback on specific aspects of your essay to consider in your revision: ideas and argument, organization, mechanics and style. Your revision should show that you have addressed the most salient issues carefully. It should also develop the original paper in some visible way: by refining the thesis, considering new evidence, substantiating the argument, expanding the conclusion. The revision is a new, not simply improved, paper: hence the added weight given to its grade. Please submit your original essay with its comments when you hand in the revision.

Example Essays

“Gender Role Reversal in Twelfth Night and The Rover” by Ashley Perko (PDF)

“Cheer Up, Emo Kid: Molière’s Commentary on Human Nature in The Misanthrope” by Emily Pittore (PDF)

“We’ll Strive to Please You Every Day: An Examination of Feste as Fool and Performer in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night” by Catherine Redfield (PDF)

Essay 3 — Satire and Wit (Austen, Twain, Wilde, Calvino)

Due in Ses #24 (10 pages—25%)

For this essay you have the option of a close reading of one work or a comparison between two of these authors or between one of these and an earlier author about whom you have not written before.

  1. Defend a character or characters whom you think the author has neglected or represented unfairly: for example, Lydia Bennett or Wickham, Pudd’nhead Wilson or Tom Driscoll, Lady Catherine De Bourgh or Lady Bracknell. Many of these characters are seen at various times as obstacles, villains, or fools. What does a closer reading reveal?
  2. Tricksters: many characters in these works try to fool or deceive others. Examine how one or more of these authors use the trickster to develop conflicts, challenge social order, or create comedy.
  3. Witty ladies: what possibilities or limits does wit create for women in these works? What is wit and how does it work to empower women or put them at risk? You may draw on our discussions of witty ladies in earlier works if you like.
  4. In a number of the works you’ve read, love grows out of obstacles between the lovers—misunderstandings, quarrels and dislikes, jokes and insults—as much as from external obstacles—the blocking figures and villains of classical and Shakespearean comedy. Sometimes, we even see characters struggling with themselves, with their own internal difficulties or resistances to social convention, including marriage. Yet most marry happily in the end. How does one or more of these works resolve the conflicts between lovers to produce the comic ending? What does it say about the value of love and marriage? Does the marriage ending achieve festive closure, and if so, how?
  5. These works contain characters with strong appetites and desires, to which they abandon themselves with more or less freedom. How are these appetites viewed in the world of the fiction, and how are they restrained? What does the outcome of a character’s transgressive desire say about the social order of the work in question?
  6. Several of these works comment on tragedy or come close to becoming tragic. What is the relationship between comedy and tragedy in one or more of these works? How does it complicate the work in question? A related issue is that of satire. How does satire change the typical patterns and energies of comedy?
  7. Many of these authors are satirizing not only social norms but the forms of literature itself. Choose one or two that seem to make fun of literary genres—comedy, melodrama, natural history, the detective story—or even authorship. What do your authors appear to be saying about the work of making literature?

Example Essays

“The Art of the Tragicomicbook: How Bechdel uses comics to her advantage in creating Fun Home” by Emily Pittore (PDF)

“The Ascendance of the Trivial: The Importance of Being Earnest as Seen through the Lens of Festival Comedy” by Catherine Redfield (PDF)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples