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Shakespeare, Hamlet and Twelfth night

Topic: Shakespeare, Hamlet and Twelfth night
Order Description
Shakespeare Essay 3 – Absence in Hamlet and Twelfth Night
For our last essay, I ask that you write an essay comparing how the absent dead organize the drama and
the main characters’ actions. Both Hamlet and Twelfth Night (TN) spend considerable energy on
characters who are no longer living. Hamlet Senior’s ghost haunts the play, literally and metaphorically,
and places Hamlet in a plot he did not ask for. But there are also less obvious – and less haunting –
characters who are physically missing but who still manage to exert influence over the living characters.
This essay assignment asks you to think deeply about the
play’s dead, their relationship to the living and the choices they
make, and how much of life depends bizarrely on pleasing that
To begin, catalog all who are dead and still exerting influence
in these two plays. Don’t limit your focus to only the most
notorious; explore the “lesser” missing characters as well
(think of poor Yorick). Also consider those who are really not
dead, but for most characters are considered dead. Viola
assumes her twin brother did not survive the shipwreck, and
her character reacts accordingly. In that vein, you may also
pursue more metaphorical versions of death. If you are truly ambitious, you might even consider the dead
playwright who gave Shakespeare elements of his plot, the great Roman Plautus. Or you might remember
that the play takes place during The Feast of Epiphany, the day celebrating the arrival of the three wise
men to visit the newborn Jesus.
After you have detailed all the “missing” from both plays, the next step is to puzzle through what their
influence in death is. What do characters do with legacy and the notion of honoring the memory of those
now gone? Why do characters act in a manner they assume the dead would approve of? Besides the
baggage or demands of a dead family member, can you also find liberties or opportunities? Are characters
free in ways they were not previously? Or do loved ones still manage to operate as obstacles in life? And
if a character is in a sense free after someone close has died, is there a limit or a cost to that new-found
freedom? How does Shakespeare use the dead in these two plays? What demands do the dead make? Why
do the living need the dead; what kinds of thinking or fictions does devotion to the dead construct?
Now that you have begun to look carefully at how the dead are used in these two plays, and you have
begun to reason your way into these questions, the next step is to find out what else has been said about
these plays and this subject. You will be asked to use outside sources for this play, and managing the
substantial size of Shakespearean criticism can be overwhelming. I ask you to begin with your own
analyses to help you clarify your own thinking before turning to research; beginning with your own
analysis also helps you narrow down your search terms. If you go to the databases and enter “Hamlet”
and “death,” you will get a deluge of material. If you instead go to the databases and enter “Hamlet” with
“education” because you are interested in Yorick’s influence on the young Hamlet, and you want to
pursue the question of Hamlet’s teachers, you will have much more manageable results. The more specific
you are in the beginning with your questions and observations, the easier the subsequent research will be
to conduct.
I want everyone to use qualified academic sources. That means you cannot simply Google your search
terms. Rather, you shall go to the Library’s website (libweb.uml.edu) and find the database “MLA
International Bibliography.” From there you can enter different search terms, find larger conversations
about your subject, and even find links to the article itself. But, don’t limit yourself only to articles
available online: the interlibrary loan office is incredible; they will send pdf’s of articles or book chapters
within days. Expect to spend some time winnowing the research down, and let me know if I can help you
with this process.
Professor Petersen • Shakespeare I
I will ask all of you to provide an annotated bibliography half-way through the writing process before the
essay is due.
With your working argument of how Shakespeare uses the dead in these two plays,
incorporate how others have discussed the work and its intricacies. The articles or
chapters you consult need not deal directly with the dead: you may find an article on
Twelfth Night’s intimacy between Viola and Olivia. And you might connect that article’s
argument to your discussion on how each woman’s dead brother influences the surviving
sister, for example. The goal of using academic research is to put your reading of
Shakespeare into conversation with other serious conversations.
We will work throughout these next weeks on finding ways into the question, developing
a satisfying thesis statement, incorporating outside research, and drafting to strengthen
and deepen understanding of the plays. Completing each of the steps along the way will
not only help your grade, but it will also prepare you to write well, with originality and
intelligence, on this topic.
Some larger questions you may want to consider as you are working with this material:
• How are the dead still present; how do they challenge their absence? • Why do we need the dead? How does the concept of absence organize our lives? How do the
dead help shape the future? • What kinds of ghosts are in these two plays? Consider specters beyond the obvious King. We
know ghosts haunt – but what else do they do? • Can the absence felt ever be filled or fixed? Absence implies an empty space, and theoretically
that space can be filled. But do absences for these characters go away – if so, for which kinds of
characters, and why? • Does focus on what’s not there for these characters erase or distract from what is there? • What virtues or opportunities for the living come with death? For example, if we read Viola’s
decisions as directly influenced by her brother’s (seeming) death, what can we say about her
liberty? Is division from another the only way “forward” for some of these characters?
Consider these and more questions to find a way into this topic, to make it your own.
N.B.: The assignment does not ask you to account for every character and every death in both of these
plays. This is not a summary. Rather, the assignment asks you to produce a reading of how absent
characters influence the play’s characters or plot, and that you build your analysis out of close readings of
a few examples. You’re proving an argument on what Shakespeare does with some of these characters and
how it affects our reading of the play.
My recommendation in comparing these two plays is to focus your energy on one or two characters
from each. Analyzing two characters well will offer important broader understanding of the play at large
and will offer you an opportunity to craft an original response to the plays.
Vital Details:
The paper must be 6-8 pages; it needs to cite 4–5 sources; it must append a Works Cited page in MLA
Professor Petersen • Shakespeare I
The paper must attend to both plays equally. The essay is a comparison paper, and when done well it will
enlarger our understanding of the two plays as well as broader approaches to how Shakespeare uses
absent characters in his drama.
I will use the following rubric to assess your essays. Please be sure to consult this list as you draft and
revise your work.
• Thesis: does the paper offer a specific and original argument appropriate to the size of the essay;
does the thesis stem from a careful analysis of both plays? Does the thesis demonstrate serious
thinking about the topic?
• Organization: is the paper organized well with a clear beginning, middle, and end; does it open
with an adequate introduction and conclude without simply repeating the beginning; are the
paragraphs in proper sequence, and do they build to support the overall argument?
• Detail in language: does the paper examine carefully specific moments in each play; does the
paper present the student’s own reading of the play? Does the paper provide specific evidence of
how death works in each play?
• Research: does the paper make use of 4-5 academic sources? Does the paper integrate outside
research well to support the author’s argument or demonstrate points of debate? Does the writer
have an adequate understanding of outside research discussions and able to connect the essay to
those discussions?
• Style: is the essay without grammatical or stylistic errors; does the author cite correctly? Is the
essay insightful, original, and engaging for the audience; has the paper been sufficiently edited?
• Title: does the author introduce the essay with an informative and arresting title; does the title
adequately initiate the argument; does the title add to the complexity or nuance of the author’s
argument and approach to Shakespeare’s use of absence and death?

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