are not limited to the topics below, but this list provides numerous topics and
approaches that will work for the term paper assignment.
Please remember that you will need to find a focus within most of these
topics. Additional topics could be
generated by thinking about a play in terms of your favorite critical theory or
the content of your major if it is other than English (history, psychology,
religion, and philosophy are the ones that come most readily to mind; business
and biology would also work). I have marked with an * the topics
that I consider most challenging. An + indicates that the topic is
suitable for a conference. G indicates that a topic is especially suitable at
the graduate level. Many other good topics
are possible, and I would be very glad to discuss your interests with you.
Feel free to make an appointment.
Note that I have highlighted in red
the topics that I think are most accessible.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- +Using myth criticism,
evaluate Theseus’s choice of evening entertainment
in Act V.
Why does Pyramus and Thisbe suit him better than the other
in terms of Renaissance dream theory, biblical dreaming, and/or our own
modern psychology. An excellent way
to approach the character is to consider Michael Hoffman’s video version of
the play (Kevin Kline plays Bottom).
In terms of dreaming, what do you make of the fact that Hoffman gives Bottom
Do you agree or disagree that Bottom's experience is an example
of what one critic calls the "primal scene"? (Nándor Fodor's
New Approacyhes to Dream Interpretation: The Search for the Beloved and
Marjorie Garber's Dream in Shakespeare should be part of your
r talk about Bottom in terms of
Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
the Amazons in connection with Elizabeth and feminist politics.
*+What can you make of
the play's multiple allusions to Diana or to Diana and Venus? What is the
relationship between these allusions? Do you see a connection to Queen
- How is this play's take on
dreaming a corrective to what Mercutio says about dreams in Romeo and
Juliet? How is Titania a foil to Queen Mab?
- G* It is very possible to write a paper about Puck in
which you connect native British mythology with a New Historicist approach
to the Elizabethan supernatural.
- Bottom is a weaver. Do you find that fact to be
significant for an interpretation of him? For an interpretation of MSND
- G*The play and fairy tales (changeling motif): this topic
is very difficult.
- Consider Bottom's soujourn with the fairies as a mystical experience through the lens provided by the work of William James. His book The Varieties of Religious Experience should provide a starting point. How might Bottom's experience in the woods be a little allegory for a transpersonal experience?
Merchant of Venice
- Using numerology and
psychoanalysis, examine the casket scenes.
(Freud and Alastair Fowler's work on numerology would be good
places to start your research.)
- G+Examine Shylock in terms
of his historical antecedent, Dr. Roderigo Lopez.
In what way is his situation a gloss on Shylock’s?
In what way is Dr. Lopez a historical red herring?
this paper will have to incorporate Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.
- *+Look into Elizabethan law
and/or the Bible and argue that Portia either does or does not stand for the
mercy she espouses in Act IV. When
she advocates mercy, is she sincere, or is she setting Shylock up?
(This may be a fallacy of false dichotomy, but you get the idea.) You
will have to consider the book on Shakespeare and Elizabethan law in the
library, but be careful that it does not take over your paper.
- Consider Antonio’s
friendship with Bassanio in terms of Renaissance notions of friendship and
the attitude toward homosexuals under Elizabeth.
Do you think that Antonio is gay? Neo-Platonism may
provide a helpful framework. Eventually you will want to look at Rebecca
Ann Bach's Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature before Heterosexuality
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Thomas MacFaul's Male Friendship in
Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Cambridge, 2007). You will also
need to consider Alan Sinfield's essay, “How to Read The Merchant
of Venice without Being Heterosexist," in New Casebooks: The
Merchant of Venice and James O'Rourke's "Racism and Homophobia in The
Merchant of Venice." Some analogy to Shakespeare's sonnets to a young man
would be helpful. See also Claude Summers's edited book, Homosexuality
in Renaissance and Enlightenment England and Alan Bray's
Homosexuality in Renaissance England. A. L. Rowse also has a book on
homosexuality in the Renaissance.
Taming of the Shrew
Kate's final speech: is it ironic or straightforward, and how do you
know? (You may find it helpful to have a look at the relevant sections
in John D. Cox's Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith
and Margaret Jane Kidnie's The Taming of the Shrew, but do not
do so until the relevant stage in the writing process. Note also that
McDonald mentions this topic in The Bedford Companion 84-85.) An
interesting way to rig this paper would be to connect Kate's speech to the
opening about Christopher Sly. Is it possible that Kate is the conclusion of
the "frame tale"? See the reference to Boose in Bedford
G**+Write about Feste and Erasmus's Folly in The
Praise of Folly. If you are interested in philosophy, this would be a
particular good and challenging topic.
G+Malvolio is a Puritan: What is Shakespeare
trying to say regarding this character? [Note: This tends to be
a popular topic. For example, several students chose it during Fall
2010. I would prefer to have you steer clear of it during Spring
- G+An excellent paper could
be written by using Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a gloss on this play.
Look for sonnets that deal with reason, lust, and public appearance.
- +You might also do a
Freudian or Jungian analysis of psychology and sexuality in
- GYou could do a very cool reading of the play in terms of
Elizabethan and Jacobean laws against prostitution. King James's writing
may also be a helpful touchstone.
- Isabella's forced marriage.
- The role of the bawd.
As You Like It
down the theater references in Richard II and relate them to the theme of politics as
theater, with Queen Elizabeth as an ideal example.
one example of political theater (like the deposition scene) would help.
- *Evaluate the respective
roles of Gloucester’s widow and the Duchess of York in Richard II.
This topic lends itself to a feminist approach. To round things out, you
might also look at Lady Percy in 1H4.
- Write a paper on the
imagery in this play.
- G *Track down
says about Richard II in the Chronicles and then write a paper about
the meaning of Shakespeare's alterations of the historical record. One
student who did this topic focused on the fact that Holinshed includes three
IV, Part I
- G+Argue that the
myth of the Fisher King underlies Falstaff in the Henry plays (or, more
precisely, his banishment).
Note: One previous student wrote an excellent paper by approaching this
topic via Perceval.
- G+Discuss the
in Measure for Measure and Henry IV, Part II in terms of
feminist theory and politics. How do
these characters function in their respective plays? BTW,
Pericles also deals with prostitution, and Hamlet frequently alludes to
it. You may find chapter 5 of Fike's A Jungian Study of Shakespeare:
The Visionary Mode to be helpful.
- What is the significance of Falstaff's obesity? Do
research in the psychological literature about obesity and apply it to
- Especially if you are a history major, Bevington's comment in the
introduction to this play (the par. begins "Cardinal Wolsey is the most
interesting character") could launch a very interesting study:
"Shakespeare's appraisal of this controversial man is mixed, partly because
his chief source, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1578),
incorporated both anti-Wolseyan diatribes and George Cavendish's
appreciative accounts of Wolsey's last days."
- +What is the significance
of the classical references in Hamlet, II.2 (Dido, Aeneas, Priam,
Pyrrhus)? Evaluate this material in
much the same way you would evaluate Theseus’s decision not to select
certain plays for the evening entertainment at his wedding celebration in
MSND. Why did Hamlet single out the fall of Troy? Freudian
psychology can substantially enhance an approach to this topic. See
especially the notion of "acts of compromise."
- *+What is the significance
of the gravediggers in Hamlet?
An excellent comparison can be made to the porter in
It will be helpful to read Dr. Johnson’s essay on Shakespeare if you
choose this topic. This is a popular but very challenging topic. It appeals
because of its superficial ease, but properly addressing it requires some
songs in relation to feminist theory.
Other papers about Ophelia could be written about the loss of a loved
one in relation to madness, especially in light of contemporary psychology.
Apparently, drowning was young women's preferred means of suicide: can you
do anything with that fact?
- Was Ophelia pregnant?
Was her death an accident or a suicide?
Do you see any connection between these two issues?
No definitive answer is possible, but you can piece together a case that
transcends reasonable doubt.
- G**+How does the play use the
concept of words? Zero in on places where "word" is used and see if you can
figure out what Hamlet's attitude toward language is. The concordance will
help you find all of the uses of "word." A paper on this topic will need to
incorporate a connection to "logos." James Funk's essay on this topic
was recently published in The Oswald Review. Another
approach involves words-bodies-clothing. Clothing is a metaphor for language
in the play. (You may not use James Funk's article.)
- Apply the
personality inventory to Hamlet as a way of understanding his hesitation.
This this paper requires Jungian "typology."
- G*+Figure out how Shakespeare
is using Protestantism and Catholicism in the play. This is a very difficult
topic. It is more of an area of inquiry that you will have to narrow
- +Ophelia's flowers:
Construct a paper around how the visual appearance of O's flowers
contributes to the idea that she and Hamlet have had sexual relations. This
is an excellent topic for students interested in biology and/or art. The
topic requires visual analogies.
- G Apply Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia"
Hamlet. It may help to focus on one of Hamlet's soliloquies
such as "To be or not to be."
- Discuss the play's connection to Martin Luther.
- Is the ghost really a saved soul
is the significance of the blind Gloucester’s encounter with Edgar at the
supposed white cliffs of Dover in King Lear?
topic calls for close reading of the scene, of course; but you might also do
research on geography. What do you find about the white cliffs that might
illuminate G's experience? (You may not use Patrick Bryant's article.)
- +What do
you make of the remarkable similarities between Cordelia and the Fool? Were
they originally played by the same actor? See "doubling" in Bedford
123. This is an especially fine topic for a theater major.
- +In what
ways are the evil daughters masculine while Lear is feminine?
- +Do a
psychological reading of Lear, using Freudian and/or Jungian psychology.
- +What is
the relationship between the play and the movie A Thousand Acres?
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120323/. Bear in mind that the movie is
based on a novel by Jane Smiley; a respectable paper on the play-film
connection ought to tap into the book as well.
- G The physical body and the body politic: How do
these two things come together in the language of the play?
- Write a Jungian paper in which you argue that the
king's evil daughters are troubled by animus possession. (I am really tired
of reading this paper.)
- Edmund and Mordred from Arthurian tradition.
- Do Edgar and Lear share the same attitude
toward female sexuality?
- Gender bending: How does
Shakespeare's portrayal of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth challenge conventional
notions of gender roles and sexuality? This paper is best written in
connection with Jungian psychology. (Just so you know: I am sick of reading
papers on this topic.)
- G*+The witches
analysis in light of things that Shakespeare's contemporaries wrote about
the supernatural. For example, examine the play in connection with
I's work on witchcraft. One student who chose this topic did so in relation
to the Great Chain of Being. Another approached it by focusing on Hecate.
- Examine the relationship
between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in terms of Jung's theory of animus and
anima or the biblical archetypes of Adam and Eve.
- What is going on in this play
regarding sleep? The topic calls out for a psychological analysis. Jung's
idea of compensation may help you along, but more contemporary
psychologists' work could also surely be part of your research. This
topic is one of the best on the list.
- G**+A common truth about the
play is that it connects in interesting ways to the reign of King James.
Write a paper in which you argue instead that it is relevant to Queen
Elizabeth. This is a tricky topic, but students who have tried it got
- Why does Othello place such
great importance on Desdemona’s handkerchief? If you select this
topic, you will have to discuss not only the major description of it at
3.4.57 but also Iago's comment at 3.3.450. You should certainly consider
Fike, chapter 4 in A Jungian Study of Shakespeare: The Visionary Mode.
Be sure that you have something original to say about the topic. Your paper
cannot be a synthesis of others' work. You might, for instance, consider how
the provenance of the hanky ties in with reason, logos, fathers, and father
figures. In light of an emphasis on fathers rather than mothers, is one
origin more likely than the other?
- Discuss Othello in terms of
one or both of the following concepts from Jungian psychology: shadow,
anima. Note: There are several articles on these topics, so it is
important to work out your own analysis before you look at the criticism.
- Evaluate Desdemona's role as the wife of a military
officer. This topic requires doing research into the wives of Early
Modern military officers.
- Read Othello through the lens of W. E. B. Du Bois's
The Souls of Black Folk. Pay particular attention to the concept of
"double consciousness." This topic connects with postcolonial criticism,
and you may find the work of Ania Loomba to be especially helpful. Do not
pick this topic unless you want to work hard. I will expect you to read Du
Bois's book, not just the selection in the HMXP book.
- Othello, Desdemona, and the Middle Eastern practice of
honor killing. Remember that this topic requires that you show a
connection between Shakespeare and the Middle East. Criticism by Ruth Cowhig
and Eldred Jones will help, but don't look at it until you have written your
- Using the DSM-5, argue that Iago suffers from
antisocial personality disorder. This is an excellent topic for
someone with background or interest in psychology.
- Desdemona and conduct (or courtesy) books: how she compares to prescribed roles for wives. Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 is a good place to start your research.
Romeo and Juliet
- +This play and MSND
were written at about the same time. Consider the possibility that
Mab and Titania could yield a fruitful comparison. (I have had
a lot of really mediocre papers on this topic. I wish that someone would
write a paper that nails it shut.)
- +Another point of similarity
between the two plays is dreaming. You may be able to make very fruitful
connections to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet.
Marjorie Garber's book on dreams in Shakespeare should eventually be part of
- The introduction states:
"These women [in Julius Caesar] do what they can to offer their men
an alternative perspective on political ambition--one in which caution and
attentiveness to family values stand in opposition to the competitive mores
of the male-dominated world...." Write a paper that explains this statement
in connection with Plutarch's "The Life of Marcus Brutus" and Shakespeare's
portrait of Kate in 1 Henry IV. If you can, use Sir Thomas North's
translation of Plutarch.
- G*Evaluate the
theory that Caliban represents Native Americans or some other minority
group. Or consider Prospero as an
oppressive colonialist. Greenblatt’s
essay “Marvelous Possessions” may help you.
This is a tricky topic; please see me if you want to take it on.
A great way to focus it would be to discuss the role of alcohol in the play
and in North America. Note: It will not be sufficient just to list the
ways in which the play seems to refer to Native Americans. You may not
consult Sally Shader's article on this subject. Also note: You do not have to agree with Vaughan, and
others. You could actually disagree with their theses and claim, instead,
that the situation depicted in the play reflects contemporary events in
Ireland. [I would love to have a graduate student do the Ireland
- +Why do we get
of Iris and Ceres in The Tempest?
If you are into mythological
criticism, this is an excellent topic for you. You will need to
consider that some of the mythological characters figure prominently in
Virgil's Aeneid, book 4. How do you account for the difference?
Thinking about cave imagery will strengthen the connection. This is
one of the best topics on the whole list.
Gonzalo makes a famous statement in The Tempest about the ideal
commonwealth. Track down
Shakespeare’s sources for this statement and analyze the ways in which the
character changes them. See
especially Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.”
What do we ultimately make of Gonzalo’s statement? Note: We will
discuss this topic and the previous one in class, but that will be so late
in the semester that it should not undermine your work.
- +Compare and contrast
Prospero's masque of Iris and Ceres to Doctor Faustus's conjuring of Helen
in Marlowe's play. The topic will require thinking about magic and about
the close connections between Prospero and Faustus. Faust might
provide an alternative way of approaching Shakespeare's play.
Previous students have found chastity to be a helpful concept.
- Write a paper about Prospero as a father.
This would be a perfect topic for a psychology major.
- *The play is partly set in a
pastoral landscape. Based on what you know about the pastoral from our
study of As You Like It, figure out how Shakespeare is using this
convention in WT.
- G The play also invites a
discussion of art vs. nature, and this could yield a good paper in
connection with theories of representation.
- How can you explain Leontes's madness in modern psychological terms?