WRTR/ENGL 2306H Spring 2021
Essay 1 Topics
Write a paper of 1200-1400 words on one of the topics below. Your paper needs an introduction that does not begin with boring generalizations but immediately sets out the topic you are addressing, offers an explicit thesis, and gives the reader a sense of the basic structure of the argument. The thesis must be arguable—that is, a non-self-evident claim open to disagreement among thoughtful people. Keep in mind the framework for setting up an argument from They Say / I Say. And the argument must be analytical, rooted in interpretation of the language of The Merchant of Venice, plot, and/or characterization. Finally, your introduction and argument needs to convey what’s at stake—that is, what difference it makes for how we think about the topic. The body paragraphs (and there really can be more than four of them) need topic sentences that relate to the thesis, and there needs to be a logic to their organization. The concluding paragraph, which must not begin with the phrase “In conclusion,” should not just summarize the argument or repeat your thesis. Rather, it should explain how your argument contributes to our understanding of the play in some larger way and the issues it deals with. You are not required to do any research, and I’d rather you think through the topic without consulting outside sources beyond what we’ve explored in the course, or last fall in 2305. But if your paper does use other sources, you must document them properly, with in-text citations and on your Works Cited page, following MLA format.
Format. The paper should be double-spaced in an adult-sized font in MS-Word, and you should provide a paper title that points towards your topic or argument somehow, and draws the reader in without being too cute. The Little Seagull Handbook provides a guide to MLA format. Check all quotations against the text for accuracy, and use MLA parenthetical citation and a Works Cited page. Number your pages. Proofread your paper by reading it aloud, and use spell-check.
Note that each of these topics raises many more questions and points for exploration than you have room for in a paper this short. So you will need to narrow your focus enough to allow you to look at particular passages and aspects of the play in detail, but in so doing to advance an argument with larger implications for our understanding of the play and the issues it raises about ethics, good and evil, and/or human responsibility.
1. Write an essay in which you use ideas from Bauman’s “The Dream of Purity” to make an argument about The Merchant of Venice. You might look, for example, at Shakespeare’s Venice as a place that attempts to allow for Shylock, a “stranger” because he is a Jew, to live; to him, of course, the Christians are strangers. (Remember, though, that Shakespeare knew nothing about the Jewish ghetto.) Questions to consider: how does the play explore their mutual sense of each other as unclean? How might characters’ words and actions be understood in light of Bauman’s argument about purity, filth, and matter out of place?
2. Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice like Antonio and Bassanio like to think of themselves as motivated by the Christian values of love and charity; Shylock, on the other hand, is ridiculed for his materialism and obsession with money. And yet, throughout the play we see that the concerns with love and money are strangely mixed. Bassanio seems to truly love Portia, but the first thing he mentions about her is that she is “richly left.” Shylock is equally furious about the disappearance of his daughter and his ducats. And in the resolution of Shylock’s claim for a pound of flesh from Antonio, it’s rather hard to sort out the Christians’ motives: are they charitable or punitive and selfishly materialistic? What does the play suggest about the relationship between love and money, and how does that challenge the characters’ own definitions of what makes someone good or evil?
3. Two critical arguments are often made regarding antisemitism in The Merchant of Venice. One of these, broadly, is that the play reflects and endorses the antisemitism that pervaded Elizabethan culture. On the other hand some critics argue the play implies a humanist perspective that subverts or transcends Elizabethan antisemitism. The fact that both views of the play have been thoughtfully advanced suggests that there is merit to each, and that the portrayals and actions of Shylock and the Christian characters are complex and open to interpretation. Focusing on either Shylock or some of the Christian characters, make your own argument about antisemitism in the play.