How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Shakespeare Studies: A Full Guide for Students

Writing guide
Posted on August 9, 2019

At a glance, a compare and contrast essay seems to be a simple task – after all, you just have to analyze two entities and point out their similarities and differences. However, even this seemingly unassuming type of academic work has its peculiarities and specifics that may cause difficulties for inexperienced students.

For example, you cannot just randomly take two things and start comparing them. The entities you analyze should have enough in common to be compared meaningfully – i.e., you cannot compare things that belong to completely different categories. Within the boundaries of Shakespeare studies, you can choose two of the poet’s plays from the same period, or compare his comedies and tragedies in general, or analyze two sonnets written at different periods of his life and compare in what ways their language, themes and imagery is different. In other words, when it comes to compare and contrast essays, the choice of subject matter defines to a large degree the future success of your writing.

How to Choose a Suitable Topic for a Compare and Contrast Essay in Shakespeare Studies

The main problem with writing on Shakespeare studies in general and writing compare and contrast essays in particular is that it is extremely hard to find anything remotely original to work with. Shakespeare’s works have been a subject of the most meticulous and organized research over the last few centuries. Although Shakespeare was a relatively prolific writer, the body of his work is still limited, and all possible comparative analyses have already been carried out multiple times. Of course, an essay does not require the same degree of originality as a thesis or a dissertation, but you still should avoid trite and commonplace topics like ‘Comparison between the characters of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia from Hamlet’. Here are some suggestions on how you can come up with topics that are a little more creative.

1. Go Beyond Shakespeare

It is very easy to get locked in writing about Shakespeare and his works per se, but it does not have to be so. There are plenty of ways to run comparisons between Shakespeare-related subjects and other things. For example, you can compare Shakespeare (his literary works, role in the development of Elizabethan theatre, language, etc.) with other writers of the time. Or you can compare classic and contemporary productions of his plays, etc. The fact that the authorship of many Shakespeare’s plays is still contested makes this type of topic even more interesting.

2. Compare Shakespeare’s Works with the Sources of His Plots

Shakespeare lived in the age when retelling existing stories has been a normal practice that did not raise any eyebrows. In fact, most if not all of his plays are dramatizations of the plots from well-known sources, such as Plutarch and Holinshed. For example, Romeo and Juliet originates from and closely follows Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet, which in turn is based on a sequence of very similar stories whose earliest iteration can be found in the Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Comparison of various versions of stories told by Shakespeare opens up a broad venue for potential research.

3. Compare Shakespeare’s Works with Later Interpretations

Alternatively, you can turn to the ever-growing number of reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plots created after his death. Unlike his predecessors, these works usually clearly refer to Shakespeare as their inspiration, but the alterations introduced in them are often quite dramatic.

4. Compare Unrelated Characters from Different Shakespeare’s Plays

Characters originating from the same play are a natural choice for a compare and contrast essay, which is exactly why you should avoid such topics – you can be sure that the majority of your peers will choose something along these lines. It is much better to compare characters that are rarely mentioned together. Ideally, they should come from different plays and have few characteristics that would make them obviously relatable to each other (e.g., Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Caliban from The Tempest). Be inventive, find ways to draw parallels between them, and you will be able to write an interesting paper.

5. Pay Attention to the Language

Shakespeare was a master of reflecting the nature of his characters through the language they used. Focus on the way characters talk, pick several of them that are notably similar or different in both their identity and the way they express themselves, and analyze the connections between these two factors.
As you can see, there are many more promising approaches to writing a compare and contrast essay on Shakespeare studies than to simply compare characters from his plays. Here are just some examples of what you can come up with if you think a little:

  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet: Parallels and Differences;
  • King Henry V from the Eponymous Shakespeare’s Play: What Makes Him an Outstanding Leader and How He Compares with Famous Real-Life Leaders;
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Contrasting Views on Love among Humans and Fairies;
  • Similarities and Differences between Caesar’s assassination from Julius Caesar and other famous political assassinations;
  • Macbeth and Malcolm: What Makes These Men Different and Similar to Each Other?

Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay on Shakespeare: Pre-Writing Tips

Preparation is a huge part of work on a compare and contrast essay. Do it right, and the actual writing will boil down to putting on paper the arguments you have already formulated.

1. Define Similarities and Differences

Do a bit of brainstorming and jot down all traits that make the subjects under analysis different and similar to each other. You can simply write down all these traits in two columns or, if you are more visually-oriented, draw a Venn diagram – these can be very useful for organizing your thoughts. Make the characteristics opposing each other in different lists similar so that their opposition makes sense (e.g., Iago is cowardly and treacherous while Othello is brave and naïve).

2. Define Your Main Argument

A proper compare and contrast essay is much more than a simple enumeration of similarities and differences. It should use them as nothing more than building blocks for an overarching argument, showing the parallels and contrasts as parts of a bigger picture. Look through the lists you have made and ask yourself:

  • Which points are significant and relevant?
  • Are there any patterns?
  • How are the points you have listed relevant for your course?
  • Which similarities and differences run deep and which are superficial and can be dismissed?
  • In general, what is more significant: the similarities or the differences?

Differentiate between what is relevant and what is important. For example, if you analyze parallels between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, you can notice that the theme of nature plays a role in both of them. However, the same can be said about any number of other Shakespeare’s plays, so this fact, being relevant, is not important.

3. Formulate Your Thesis

A thesis is an extremely important element of a compare and contrast essay because the rest of your paper is going to revolve around it. It will show the reader that you have a focused argument from the outset, preventing them from getting lost in different lines of argumentations. By pointing out your main idea from the very beginning, you indicate what the reader should pay attention to in your writing.

A thesis statement should be:

  • Short (no longer than a single complex sentence);
  • To the point (it should express your point without extra preliminaries);
  • Unambiguous (it should make clear what you want to say, without any vagueness).

You can use this as an example: “Although Shylock is obviously the villain of The Merchant of Venice, when compared to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta it becomes obvious that Shakespeare made his character much more human, sympathetic and realistic”.

Compare and Contrast Essay on Shakespeare Studies: The Writing Phase

Step 1. Choose the Type of Structure

There are two common ways of structuring a compare and contrast essay:

Point by Point

With this approach, you pick a single important point of comparison at a time and compare the subjects you discuss in relation to it. For example, if you compare Julius Caesar and Henry V, you can focus on their personal courage, ability to inspire other people, speechcraft abilities etc., and discuss each of these characteristics separately. Either dedicate a single paragraph to cover both characters or, if you want a more in-depth approach, spend an entire paragraph to analyze a character from the perspective of a chosen characteristic. Pay attention to the placement of your points and remember that the point you mention the last will make the greatest impression on the reader. Thus, if you want the reader to draw a specific conclusion from your paper, make a point supporting it the last one.

Subject by Subject

With this approach, you take one subject and tell everything there is to tell about it, then move on to the next one and do the same. E.g., you describe the character of Julius Caesar in its entirety, then do the same for Henry V.

Usually, this approach is better for shorter essays – sometimes you can fit your entire description of a subject into a single paragraph. If you need multiple paragraphs to do so, try keeping their structure parallel: e.g., use a paragraph apiece to describe Julius Caesar’s character, relations with other people and qualities as a ruler, than use three similar paragraphs for Henry V.

The problem with this approach is that it is very easy to turn your essay into a mere list of points, while your instructors are likely to expect something more in-depth. Therefore, if you use this approach you need a very definite analytical thesis as a basis, plus at least a paragraph or two to bring all your conclusions together.

Step 2. Write an Outline

An outline is akin to a short plan of your essay: you jot down what you want to write in each paragraph, what quotations you intend to use, how you connect your arguments and so on. If you prepare a detailed enough outline, you will be able to use it as a frame and simply flesh it out, adding more arguments and making sure it all looks well together.

1. Add Supporting Evidence

Your opinion is not enough to prove a point – you have to back up your statements with additional evidence: quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, other authors and scholars who studied Shakespeare before you, historical data, linguistic analysis of the poet’s works, etc. Don’t forget to point out why the information you introduce is relevant and important.

2. Use Cue Words

This will make your essay easier to read and comprehend. You can make parallels and differences clearer with the help of words like these:

  • Unlike, like, similarly, compared to, despite, contrasted with, however, likewise.

Proofreading and Editing Your Compare and Contrast Essay on Shakespeare

After you have finished writing, your still have work to do. How much time and effort you put into proofreading and editing can be just as important for the overall result as the writing per se.

1. Set Your Essay Aside

If you organized yourself properly, you should have enough time to leave your essay alone for a couple of days. Do this and don’t look at it – this will help you forget it a little bit, and when you see it next time, your perception will be fresh.

2. Reread the Essay Multiple Times

Many things can go wrong: spelling, punctuation, formatting, grammar, etc. Take your time to reread your essay multiple times, focusing on one aspect at a time. An essay is not a very large paper, so you can afford it even if the deadline is close.

3. Make a List of Your Common Mistakes

Every person has drawbacks that are characteristic of him or her: a specific spelling error, two similar words that one constantly mixes up, etc. Make a list of the mistakes you know you should look out for, and keep it nearby every time you proofread a paper.

4. Use a Proofreading Tool

There are plenty of online proofreading tools like Grammarly. They can be a lot of help, especially if your own grasp of grammar and syntax is a bit shaky. However, do not rely on them too much – they miss many mistakes and often flag correct structures as incorrect.

As you can see, there is a lot more to writing compare and contrast essays on Shakespeare studies than meets the eye. We hope that with the help of this guide you will be able to write assignments of this type without any problems in future.

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