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The critical essay workshop

plays of William Shakespeare have been
the subject of literary criticism since the 17th century
Some critics tried to
improve them
others
enthusiastically praised them
others
insisted that Shakespeare did not write them
ambiguity
quality of something having two / more possible meanings
ample
more than enough, adequate
discern
to recognize / to make out clearly
egomaniac
a person who is excessively self-centered
explicate
to make clear / explain
procrastination
act of putting something off until a future time
DEFINING THE CRITICAL ESSAY
Many people interpret the word ‘criticism’ to mean
fault-finding
Greek root of the word means to
to discern / to separate
Criticism is primarily
a process of interpreting, analyzing, evaluating
A common approach to criticism is to
write a critical essay that answers one / more of 3 questions :

1. What does the writer say?
2. How does he say it?
3. What is the worth of his saying it?

INTERPRETING
What does the writer say?
– used to explicate a work that is difficult to understand
– not only relies on what he reads but also on what the work says to him
– not all interpretation is the same
7 generally well-known interpretations of Hamlet :
– Hamlet is the portrayal of an evil and brutal egomaniac.
– Hamlet is the portrayal of a healthy Renaissance prince, who, given the opportunity, is cheerful and kind.
– Hamlet is the tragedy of a noble but weak-willed hero.
– Hamlet is the tragedy of a well-intentioned victim of over-intellectualizing.
– Hamlet is the tragedy of an educated prince who is a victim of melancholy.
– Hamlet is an artistic failure.
– Hamlet is a reflection on the religious mystery of existence.
Variety of interpreations
– does not imply that one interpretation is as good as another
– indicates that Hamlet truly reflects human life with its mystery and ambiguity
test of validity & value of interpretation of Hamlet
depends on the detailed evidence from the text itself the critic uses to support his opinion
critic gives
greater consideration to the evidence that supports his opinion
if critic overlooks evidence that undoubtedly contradicts / significantly alters his opinion
he weakens the reliability of his criticism
Students sometimes misinterpret interpretation to mean
summary
interpretive critical essay does not simply
repeat, retell, paraphrase
– instead it answers the question “What does the writer say— to me?”
In writing the essay, the critic must sometimes retell
some of the story to insure that the reader is familiar with the subject of his interpretation.
The focus of this essay, however, is on
what the work means.
ANALYZING
– How does the writer say it?
– concentrates on one / some of the techniques & devices the writer uses to structure & to communicate his meaning effectively
A critic could find
ample material in Hamlet to discuss Shakespeare’s use & development of any one of these :
– plot
– characterization
– imagery
– theme
– setting
– definition of tragedy
Plot, however, is
– too broad for a meaningful critical essay of moderate length
– may be narrowed to a more manageable topic by a concentration of specific part of the plot,
-> exposition, climax, elements related to the plot such as suspense & conflict
characterization
– like plot
– too broad a topic
– more manageable topics would include a certain aspect of Hamlet’s character such as his procrastination / melancholy,
– relationship of Hamlet to other characters
– contrast between Hamlet and others
not simply to repeat what the character said and did but instead
to illustrate how the writer created and developed the character
In analyzing a character in Hamlet, or any play,
the critic must rely heavily on dialogues (the conversations between two or more people), soliloquies, and asides.
The critic does learn some of the character’s actions through stage directions—the ones in Shakespeare’s plays are few and brief—but
he learns most of the actions and certainly all of the motivations for them from the words spoken.
EVALUATING
– What is the worth of his saying it?
– considers the comment on life / some aspect of it
-> writer makes & passes judgment on its value & significance
– critic must rely on evidence from the text to support his opinion
The three methods of approaching literary criticism are
not separated from each other by impassable boundaries.
The critic frequently needs to
interpret in order to analyze or to evaluate.
An ambitious critic may attempt to
answer all three questions.
The important point is that the critic must
establish his intention and stick to it.
The inexperienced writer does best to
limit himself to only one method.
WRITING THE CRITICAL ESSAY
KNOWING THE TEXT
– must be very familiar with the text you criticize
– need to review & reread the text
– take notes on anything that you believe might help you to dermine a topic
SELECTING THE TOPIC
– must limit the scope of the topic
– broad topic, “Character in Hamlet”
– decide which character & what limited aspect about that character wish to analyze
– formulate specifically what you want to say about that topic
– must state topic in single statement
-> narrows the topic to more manageable size
FINDING EVIDENCE
– rely only on proof offered by text
– should not consult Shakespeare scholars / critics
– must modify / change thesis if evidence found is sufficient to support / contradictory to original opinion
– take notes on any relevant material
– use quotations from Hamlet
OUTLINING
– organize thoughts & material
– follow the standard form
-> write thesis at the top of outline
-> standard numerals & letters for points made
WRITING
– use outline & notes
– attention to mechanics & grammar and composition
– make sure that you have clearly thesis & convincingly supported with evidence from the text