How to Write a Dissertation in Shakespeare Studies: the Only Guide You Need for Success

Writing guide
Posted on August 8, 2019

A dissertation is an academic paper that details your research and findings on a particular topic and is the result of the work you carried out as a part of your efforts to earn an academic degree. In fact, the quality of your dissertation accounts for 90 percent of how your candidature is going to be evaluated, which means that you should spare no effort in gathering information, doing research and writing it up.

A dissertation is an extremely time-consuming, complex and just plain difficult assignment to write, as it requires you to choose a sufficiently original venue of research, comprehensively study the existing body of literature on the subject, carry out your research following a carefully established methodology and provide plenty of proof for your hypothesis. There can be no half-measures: dissertation committees are always extremely strict and attentive to details in their evaluations, and even mild mistakes or flaws can mean rewriting the entire work from scratch or even having to choose another subject and start over.

When it comes to Shakespeare studies, things are even more complicated. It is a narrow field that has a rather firmly delineated research methods and principles, and it is quite easy to make an error that will force you to, at the very least, rewrite huge swathes of your work.

How to Choose an Original Topic for Your Shakespeare Studies Dissertation

One of the main problems you are going to encounter when selecting a topic for your dissertation is that Shakespeare studies is a fairly narrow field that has been meticulously and systematically studied for centuries. It is limited to the works of a single author, and it is only very rarely that something genuinely new is discovered about them. In effect, you have to find a new topic in a field that has been picked clean of any original research questions – ultimately it can turn out to be a greater challenge than the writing per se. However, there are ways to streamline the process of selection and make sure you find a reasonably creative topic.

1. Focus on a Particular Work

With about 40 plays, over 150 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a few other smaller works attributed to William Shakespeare, you have a lot to choose from. Focus on a specific work is a viable option. However, each of them has already been the subject of its fair share of research, which means that generic topics like “The Image of Caliban in The Tempest” are not a very good idea. Try looking for an unusual angle to study the work of your choice, for example:

  • Comparison with another of Shakespeare’s writings;
  • Specific element of imagery or symbolism in the play;
  • Its relation to other Shakespeare’s works of the period;
  • Shakespeare’s interpretation of the historical setting he uses;
  • Popular scholarly arguments related to the play;
  • Peculiarities of language and rhetorical devices used in this particular writing.

2. Focus on the Authorship of the Writing

For the most prominent playwright in the English literature, surprisingly little is known about Shakespeare, his life and work. Even now scholars are not 100 percent sure that he wrote all the texts attributed to him by general consensus, and different authorities have different opinions on the provenance of some of these works. Some texts, like Arden of Faversham, have possibly been written by Shakespeare, with no comprehensive evidence for or against it. Others, like Edward III, have been printed anonymously and have strong indications of at least partial authorship by Shakespeare. Still others, like Henry VIII, were collaborations between Shakespeare and other authors, but nobody knows for sure which parts were written by whom. Other, less popular theories, claim that Shakespeare did not even write the plays commonly attributed by him, and even that Shakespeare himself was no more than a collaborative pseudonym of a group of writers. All this opens a rich venue for research.

3. Focus on Historical Background and How It Is Reflected in Shakespeare’s Work

The theatre of the Elizabethan age was quite different from what we are used to now, and it is important to take into account that Shakespeare wrote his plays with contemporary realia in mind. It is commonly known that women were not allowed on stage during this period; there are, however, many more peculiarities that influenced the way Shakespeare constructed his plays. For example, Elizabethan theatre typically used large stages that could accommodate many people at once, which allowed for large scenes, sometimes divided into several individual smaller scenes indicating events happening simultaneously. At the same time, the audience was seated far closer to the scene than today, with a sharp vertical gradient – this means that actors could talk in stage whispers and still be heard by all attending. These are just two examples of how the medium influenced the plays – you can dig further and find other factors.

4. Focus on a Specific Theme across Multiple Works

Like any other writer, Shakespeare had a number of themes that dominated more than one of this works. You can choose one of them and analyze its importance across several texts. The themes can range from something simple and self-evident, like love, friendship or politics, to complex ideas of your own creation.

5. Focus on Shakespeare’s Language

The English used by Shakespeare was very different from the English we all are used to today, to the point that his unadapted texts are almost unintelligible for a modern English speaker without a hefty dose of references. Not only did the language go through many changes since then, but it also was far less standardized at the time, which leads to further confusion. Naturally, all this opens up great possibilities for research, aimed at such things as:

  • Alternative translations of words and phrases;
  • Alternative interpretations of the more obscure fragments of the original texts;
  • Deeper analysis of meaning based on better understanding of particular words and phrases;
  • And so on.

All in all, despite Shakespeare’s work having been thoroughly studied for generations, there are still topics to be researched. Here are some ideas you may find useful:

  • The Role of Structure in Expression of the Meaning in Shakespearean Sonnets;
  • Parent-Children Relations in Shakespearean Plays and Their Connection to the Poet’s Family;
  • Shakespearean Fool as the Voice of Reason at the Center of Insane World;
  • Edward III and Its Authors: Shakespeare’s Role in the Play’s Creation;
  • The Influence of the Principles of Elizabethan Theatre on the Structure of Julius Caesar.

How to Properly Structure Your Dissertation in Shakespeare Studies

A dissertation is a highly complex piece of work, with different colleges and other educational institutions having their own ideas of how exactly one should structure it. This means that the plan we offer here is just a recommendation – if your supervisor gives you instructions that differ or contradict what you see here, you should naturally follow the guidelines provided by your university. For example, a dissertation may be structured as a long essay, with a main thesis, an argument supporting it flowing through the entire body of the paper and chapters covering individual points or themes.

However, what you will find here can help you better understand what you should write in different parts of your paper if they are present in the structure you are offered.

Title Page

The requirements for a title page differ from college to college and professor to professor, but normally you put all identifying information about your paper here: its title, your name and department, your college, degree program you write your dissertation for, submission date, etc. Ask your supervisor what exactly and in what order you should write.


An optional part to list everybody you want to thank for their help in writing the dissertation.


Here you provide a short summary of your research. Although it usually goes as the first meaningful part of a dissertation, it should be that last part of it you write, because by the time you work on it you should already know how your research went and what results you achieved. A typical abstract is about 200-300 words long and contains:

  • The main topic and purpose of your research;
  • Your methodology;
  • The most important results;
  • Conclusions you have come to.

Despite its negligible size, an abstract is probably the most important part of a dissertation, as it is the first (and often the only) part of it that the audience reads. So make sure it is short, clear and to the point.

Table of Contents

This part contains all the headings and subheadings of your dissertation along with the accompanying page numbers. Make sure you include all parts here, including the appendices.


This part should be included if you used many obscure terms and expressions that some of the readers may not know. Put them in alphabetical order and give short definitions.


Introduction leads up to the main part of your research, and should delineate your dissertation’s topic, define your research goals and explain why your work is important and relevant. It performs the following functions:

  • Names the topic and provides basic background data;
  • Defines the focus of your research and separates it from irrelevant information;
  • Provides a short overview of the existing research on the subject matter, mentioning how your work refers to it, why it is necessary and what new information you hope to uncover;
  • Defines the questions you want to answer and sets your goals;
  • Gives a short overview of the paper’s structure.

The introduction should answer three questions: what, why and how you intend to research. Answer them in as few words and as directly as you can.

Literature Review

No academic work exists in isolation, especially in such a heavily researched field as Shakespeare studies. In this part, you show that you have sufficient knowledge of the existing literature on the subject. This means that by the time you write this part you should:

  • Gather relevant sources. The majority of them should come from peer-reviewed academic journals and books by recognized authorities on Shakespeare, although other sources should be used as well. The best approach is to maintain balance: use some high-authority sources and other types, such as websites, bestselling books and so on, to show the breadth of your research. You can find most sources you need using online academic search engines and databases like Google Scholar, EBSCO Academic Search or JSTOR;
  • Evaluate and sift through them. Some sources are biased or affiliated with organizations that may be the source of tendentious conclusions. Before using a source, try to define if it is to be trusted;
  • Make conclusions based on the bigger picture. You should not just summarize everything that was written on the subject so far, but also show the existing books and articles in relation to each other. For example, you can identify gaps in the research that your work will fill in, conflicts between the existing points of view that you aim to resolve, patterns that can be drawn further, to cover additional works by Shakespeare and so on.


A dissertation is not a freeform assignment; it has to be carried out following a particular set of methods, and in this section, you have to enumerate and explain them. What exactly this section should include depends on the nature of your research, but most often this is:

  • Research type (e.g., qualitative or quantitative);
  • Data collection methods (archives, linguistic analysis, etc.);
  • Information on where and how you have obtained your data;
  • Analysis methods;
  • Equipment and tools you used (e.g., software);
  • Problems you have encountered and how you have dealt with them.

This section should carefully describe what and how you did and persuade the reader that your choice of methods was optimal for the chosen research.

Results and Discussion

Sometimes these constitute a single section, sometimes they are separated – refer to your professor and college guidelines to know for sure.
In Results, you enumerate all your findings that are relevant to your original research questions.

In Discussion, you analyze what the results of your research mean in relation to research questions and the existing body of research on the topic. Did you expect these results? How can your findings be interpreted alternatively? What are the limitations of your research? What could have influenced the outcome of your work?


Here you give the answer to your main research question, reflect on your work in its entirety, how you approached your task and point out promising potential venues for further research based on your findings. This section should make it clear how your dissertation added to the existing knowledge on Shakespeare’s work and why it was worth doing.

How to Edit Your Dissertation on Shakespeare to Achieve Optimal Results

With its complicated structure and numerous sources it is based on, your average dissertation can go wrong in dozens of different ways. Therefore, it is wrong to think that the work on it is finished once you have written the final line. If you want it to be accepted, you have to spend a lot of time editing and perfecting it. Here are a few things you should pay attention to.

1. Review the Guidelines

Dissertation committees are extremely strict about the rules. Mistakes in formatting or suchlike can be just as disastrous for the overall result as wrong choice of methodology. Study the formatting style you have been told to use, the guidelines of the college and personal instructions of your professor and make sure you have followed them correctly.

2. Do not Do It in One Sitting

You have not written your dissertation in one sitting, and you should not try to do the editing this way. Whether you read it multiple times in search for different types of mistakes or make a single slow sweep correcting all types of mistakes as you go along, break your work into segments and take breaks. When you leave off, mark the place where you finished to continue from it later.

3. Know Your Weaknesses

Each person has typical mistakes to look out for. Make a list of mistakes you know you have been making in the past, and check with it as you proofread.

4. Check for Missing and Superfluous Parts

As you read your dissertation, analyze it one paragraph at a time and evaluate every detail, asking yourself whether you truly need it to make your point. If not, delete it. When you have finished a paragraph, check if anything is missing and add any information you need to prove its point.

5. Use Proofreading Tools

Proofreading tools like Grammarly and Readable are limited in their functionality and cannot replace a determined proofreader, but they can help you notice mistakes and flaws. Just don’t take everything they tell at face value, and you will be alright.

Now you are ready to handle your own dissertation without asking anybody for help. Check with our manual as you write, and even the most difficult topic will not give you any trouble!

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