Shakespeare/Research Paper


Hi, I'm not necessarily asking something that would finish my homework but I was wondering if you could help me out. For English class, we are supposed to find a research topic that has to do with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. Many in my class are doing the use of love and the use of words in his play, and I want to do something different, but I have no clue where to start researching or what subject to start with to find the right topic. I was wondering if you could give me some suggestions on topics that could start me off on finding out my own research topic.

Hi, Andrea!   Well, as it turns out, this is right down my alley!  

I’ll toss you some broad categories, some strategies for finding a topic, and then I’ll give you some actual links to websites full of interesting things about this play that should spark a flame in your mind.  I don’t know that there will be a “list of research paper topics” anywhere in these links I’ll send to you, but that’s a good thing:  your paper will be best if you (1) settle on a topic that really interests you (because that will give you momentum to sail through the project, with pleasure), and (2) create your own topic, rather than plug yourself into somebody else’s topic.

Of course, on the other hand, a topic is just that-- a “topic.”  It’s a subject, narrowed as much as possible, so that you can create your own argument or thesis, which is where you really make the paper your own.

So, here are some broad category-topics that you will have to narrow greatly before you can even begin to decide upon your thesis or argument.  I’m giving you the basic list that can be used for any Shakespearean play (or any play, for that matter):

1.  the play’s genre:  is it a comedy? a tragedy?  What exactly qualifies it for the genre? Are there problems with the genre labels that we’re used to placing on this work?  (The answer to this last question, always, is YES.  But it is particularly so with this play. Scholars and critics have argued for over a century as to whether it actually qualifies for a tragedy.)   Even within those broad genres, there are sub-genres, usually, that can be discussed and that the play can be evaluated against.  For example, Shakespeare used a lot of Roman comedy in his comedies.  His tragedies represent a wide spectrum of sub-genres, such as revenge tragedy (Hamlet ), domestic tragedy (guess which one? wink, wink), and so on.  But this one, in particular, doesn’t seem to want to conform to any one label!

2.    the play’s characters:  there is a kind of paper called a “character study,” where you choose one character and decide on the major controversy about this character and then decide what you want to debate, specifically, about this character.  Just because it is a “character study,” this does not mean that you are relieved of the burden of fashioning a thesis, or arguable central point.  Each of the major characters in this play have some major arguments going on about them (not only R and J but also the Nurse, the Friar, Mercutio, and Tybalt).  One major argument among critics has been whether Romeo or Juliet best fulfills the requirements of the protagonist of a tragedy.

(By the way, one good organizing principle to a research paper in literary studies is to present the “critics at war”-- what those who are on this side of the argument have to say versus the ideas of those on the other side of the controversy-- and then, afterward, to discuss what you find convincing in the material you’ve just presented.  Take a side.  Now, you *can* structure the paper so that you admit where you stand at the very start, and then you present each of the bits of research in terms of whether it is part of your war machine or part of the enemy you are fighting against.  But it is also effective-- and sometimes more effective, depending on the kind of writer you are-- to present all the information before you ever let on to your reader where you take your own stand.)

3.  the play’s themes:  generally, a student chooses one of the themes and figures out an arguable statement about it, then assembles critics and scholars and sometimes historical facts if that helps around that argument.  Those of your classmates who are writing about “love in R & J” and “words in R & J” are taking this approach.  But there are dozens of other themes that are just as good, if not better.

4.   since it is Shakespeare, another topic might be this play’s relationship to its source material.  In this case, there is really mostly one source, a poem named The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke.  Those who don’t know much about Shakespeare are always a bit disappointed to hear that he used sources for almost all his plays, but that was what was expected of him in that time period, first of all, but more important, what he did with the source material (what he cut out, what he kept, what he kept but changed) is actually what shows his genius as a writer.  Brooke’s poem isn’t tragedy; in fact, the poem doesn’t sympathize with the two young people at all!  So, HOW did Shakespeare turn that into one of the most beloved tragedies in English literature?  And, maybe more interesting, why?

5.  Shakespeare’s plays also lend themselves well to historical research, where you would research and write about how Shakespeare’s own audience would likely have responded differently to specific moments or characters or plot twists.  Truly, we can present his plays onstage from ANY point of view, whether from Shakespeare’s own culture (where the characters are dressed in Elizabethan costumes) or from our own modern values’ point of view (in which case, one would likely costume the characters in clothing like what we wear today)-- and, actually, any time period in between.  But sometimes a play like R&J really comes alive with some historical discussion, because we take for granted that families have always been like ours today, for example.  One of the most surprising areas students can research is how women were regarded in Shakespeare’s day.  Knowing more about this makes the play deeper and richer.

There are more of these basic kinds of questions that can lead to a topic and then to a thesis, but I will stop with these I’ve mentioned.

Next, I will give you some cluster websites where you may find a surprising amount of information, analysis, and links to further research.  I’ll also give you my advice about the best kinds of strategies for using these kinds of pages at this particular stage of your paper development.  Later, after you have settled on a strong thesis, you will also have a better idea of where to turn to in these pages for specific research, just by virtue of having done a quick run through them early on.

The best “full service” websites on Shakespeare for students and teachers are probably: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource at

The Folger Shakespeare Library sites, such as “Teach and Learn” at
or “Discover Shakespeare” at

“A Selected Guide to Shakespeare on the Internet” at Shaksper Online Resource:

The following websites are pretty much alike, though that’s not a bad thing; they have articles, full summaries and textx of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, trivia, fun quizzes, photos from productions, and so on. (And I didn’t mean to imply that they duplicate one another in the content they offer; they generally don’t.)


Absolute Shakespeare


The Shakespeare Resource Center at


Don’t try to read everything on the pages I’m sending you to-- just glance through and stop and notice what catches your eye, as you would a magazine.

Jot down notes, especially a list of topics as they come to mind or “pre-topics,” which would be unformed ideas that need more poking at but that may yield something you will find fascinating.  

Keeping a list as you do this is most crucial!  Otherwise, you will find yourself having finished glancing through material, with a mind full of racing thoughts but nothing firm enough to send you in any specirfic directions.

Don’t demand of yourself that your list be refined or ready to be used as research.  It’s YOUR list, meant to help you remember what your spark or idea was when you saw this or that and (maybe most important) meant to help you keep a trail of WHERE you came across these ideas.  Trust me, there’s nothing worse than having to sort back through 47 different webpages to find the one thing you really really really want to follow up on now.  THAT will take the wind out of your sails faster than anything.

Momentum right now is everything!  Keep moving!

The longer the list, the better.  You won’t be able to judge anything until you have at least a page of thoughts and maybes.  

I hope all this stuff helps, rather than overwhelms, you!  If you feel overwhelmed looking at all this, then just pick one thing and start with just  one webpage.  You know, you ultimately need only one paper topic if it’s the right one--  it’s like looking for a parking space:  you really don’t need more than one, if it's the right one!

Good luck!
Dr. T.  


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Dr. T.


I can answer questions about Shakespeare's life and times, his plays and poems, the history of criticism and critics' responses to Shakespeare's works, other authors of the time period, the audiences of the time period, Queen Elizabeth I, women of the Renaissance or Early Modern age, history of rhetoric, British drama, etc.


I have taught Shakespeare, Early Modern literature, Early Modern women's literature, the history of rhetoric, Arthurian literature, and related general literary subjects and many others in university classrooms for more than 25 years.

Renaissance Society of America, South-Central Renaissance Society, John Donne Society

3 books with University Presses, 1 book with HarperCollins Press; articles with: Continuum Press, DLB, Gale Research Shakespearean Criticism and Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook, College English journal, Studies in English Literature journal, CEA Critic journal, Renascence journal, Texas Papers on Language and Literature journal, several others.

Ph.D. in British Renaissance Literature and Rhetoric; M.A. in English; B.A. English and Theatre

Awards and Honors
I was editor of a scholarly journal for 10 years; Recipient of my university's Recognition Awards for Research, Teaching, and Service; two Sabbatical awards; graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude

Past/Present Clients
Panelist/Reviewer for National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, 2001, 1997, and 1993; Referee for College Literature, Yale University Press (numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays), College English, Harper/Collins (1992 to 1995: full-length book manuscripts, including the complete manuscript of The HarperCollins World Reader, Volume I.); Dramaturg for local Little Theatre, 2001–03 (including productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Dangerous Liaisons); Dramaturg for various productions in Theatre/Dance Dept at my University (including As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, The Tempest)

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