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Shakespeare/L.T.S. on Shakespeare

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Question
Hello Dr. T,
I am in need of a list thesis statement on Shakespeare. It doesn't have to be anything in particular, just a list thesis. I am going crazy- my paper is due next Monday, 25 pages, 22 sources. I can't even think of a thesis. Once I have one, I can start. The problem is I kept changing my ideas and now i'm in trouble. Can you please help me come up with a list thesis statement? Thank you.

Nicole

Answer
Hello, Nicole,

I am so sorry, but I cannot answer your question as you have phrased it--that is, to give you a thesis statement-- because we are not allowed to answer any homework questions or to do any of your homework for you.

I will try to help you, though, as much as I can within that rule, and you can always write back with more questions, if you want, and I can try to keep talking with you, until you figure this out as quickly as possible.  This way, you will get the most learning out of the experience, I hope, so that in the future you’ll have a better bag of tools to go to whenever you need to complete a similar assignment.

I’m not going to lecture you about letting time go by :), because you already know your mistakes.  I’ll try, instead, to help you get back to the task at hand and jump-start your thinking cap (a little mixed metaphor there!) by asking you the same kinds of things I ask my own students when they are stuck.

The first thing I ask a student who is in this predicament is this:  is there a character or a play or that you liked more than others, if even a little bit?  It is always best to go with a topic that interests you, even if it seems to you that it is so popular an idea that everybody else would be doing it, because your interest is going to give you that extra energy to keep you going when you're tired.  Keep in mind here that a “topic” is not the same as a thesis.  You may be trying to do it all at once and come up with the thesis as the first thing out of your mind.  Instead, try allowing yourself first to come up with a TOPIC that appeals to you.  A topic is going to be vague-- something like “a character study of Katherina Minola,” which is not yet a thesis statement because it does not offer an argument (nor, in the case of your assignment, does it list the points that will be argued).  Or, if you’d like to bring together several characters or several plays, a topic could be as vague as “Shakespeare’s women characters” or perhaps a question, such as, “Do Shakespeare’s plays support conventional beliefs of the time period?”  Then, you would go about exploring research material to see if what you find, in this preliminary run, helps you to see the argument that you might formulate.

Second, I would say to you, in particular, to go back through the ideas that you initially explored and kept changing/rejecting.  There is likely a reason these ideas came to mind when they did, and often we reject ideas prematurely when we're casting about for a topic for a paper.

I would advise you to jot down at least three viable topics that appeal to you, and keep yourself from thinking of reasons NOT to proceed with them.

At this point, the key is to look into some secondary sources (articles or books by critics) NOW, before you have formed your thesis. This may seem to you a waste of time, but I promise that it’s not.  This is the period in which your mind can start to let these topics sink in and become comfortable, while you also take a look at what is out there in the research and get ideas from what you see.  

Remember that, as far as sources go, there are two kinds of sources that can be useful in a research paper:  (1) a critic or scholar who has been there before you and has already established an argument that either backs up your argument or is close enough to yours to help you make your argument, and (2) a critic or scholar who argues the opposite of your thesis, whom you can use as a set-up to show how wrong the critics can be, by demonstrating your argument against that person’s ideas (we call this the "straw man"-- you set this author's work up so that you can knock it down).  If you find that you think of an argument that nobody has argued before you, that is NOT bad news!  Many students tend to think that theirs is not a good thesis if they can’t find any critics who have already argued the point-- it is just the opposite!  In such a case, you will find scholars (historical evidence of some sort) and critics (those who write literary interpretations) who argue small points that you can add up to make your own larger argument, or perhaps you will use sources simply to prove how everybody else has been wrong.

Now, at this early stage of selecting the topic, I tell my students to go to the library and just to browse the shelves, pulling down books on the topics they’ve chosen for a preliminary look. At this point, some of the most useful sources may be individual editions of specific plays that you have in mind, because there will be “Introductions” by prominent scholar/critics that will cover a broad range of the play’s aspects, so you may in fact find yourself getting much stronger ideas or getting an argument that is becoming clearer in your mind, just by glancing through some potential sources.  You may also find that if you do select your topic during this phase (it would be good if you can do so), you can jot down additional possible sources by looking through the footnotes and works cited/bibliographies of the books and articles that you survey at this time, because those who are writing on the same topic as you can often lead you to new sources.  

In other words, there is actually a LOT you can accomplish at this stage, before you've written your thesis:  you can (I hope) determine the topic you want to pursue; you can start to form ideas about the general argument you’re going to put together; you can start putting together a list of sources to consult.

I believe that quite often, the thesis itself is not going to emerge until after you have gathered some sources and have begun to write a bit.  In fact, I have experienced having to write a first draft of a paper completely before I can see the thesis emerging, and then I can go back and reshape the paper to work well with the thesis that I now see was there all along.

I think that the mistake we all make is thinking that we MUST devise the thesis-- complete and perfect-- before we begin any research or begin any writing, when the fact is that research shows that real-life writers most of the time use a much less organized way of producing a paper.  It may LOOK disorganized as a procedure, the way I’ve described it here, but it allows the mind to work on all these ideas while you are doing other things, and you may well be surprised when you get bursts of inspiration that you didn’t realize you were even thinking about.  There are several little tricks like this to use your subconscious mind in a more fruitful way.  For example, when you've done some reading and found a topic, try this: just before going to sleep, tell yourself that you will know your thesis (or some other thing you're stuck on, perhaps) the next day, then just trust your mind to solve it while you sleep, and let go of it!  I was once in a writing workshop with the legendary professor Donald M. Murray, and that was one of his favorite ways to get past a block, he said. It really works!

The main thing is to get to work on something-- even if it isn’t what you eventually end up turning in-- because the act of working through a process will produce the argument or thesis, not the other way around.  

See, you’ve been torturing yourself by believing that the thesis has to come to you before you can proceed, and this just isn’t how it happens for most writers.

It’s the same thing with outlines-- I used to think I couldn’t proceed without an outline, and I couldn’t write a paper without writing the first paragraph first, and the second one second, and so on.  My writing became a lot better when I took an approach that views the whole thing more as a process, which means that I can do any part of the process any time I feel ready. You can write any paragraph that is ready to come out, in whatever order they happen to come.  But what is mandatory is that you have to keep going back over and back over what you have written, so that you can reshape it as you get the argument more refined.   

And once you have a viable draft, sometimes it is helpful to read it carefully and write an outline of what you have in the draft-- this can help you see the structure that you have at that point, and the ways you need to rearrange the information to make the structure stronger.

The main point is to free yourself from thinking you have to have the thesis first.  Then get busy and let the thesis come to you!  There is still time to do it this way, but you’ve got to get busy NOW.

Feel free to write back to me with more questions or to bounce ideas off me as you go along.

Good luck!
Dr. T.

Shakespeare

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Dr. T.

Expertise

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.

Experience

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.

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

Publications
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.

Education/Credentials
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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