"We can say of Shakespeare, that never has a man turned so little knowledge to such great account."

--T. S. Eliot

Westall Shakespeare

When writing about literature, you follow the same basic conventions required of any expository essay. That is, you

There are a few conventions in writing about literature, and particularly in writing about Shakespeare, of which you should be aware.

In the introduction to your essay, mention the title of the work and the author's full name:

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare presents a group of interchangable lovers.

The title of a story or poem is set off with quotation marks; the title of a play is underlined or italicized:

story: "The Storm"
poem: "Ballad of Birmingham"
play: Hamlet or Hamlet
novel: The English Patient or The English Patient

The first time you refer to an author, use his or her full name. Thereafter, use only his or her last name:

In Hamlet, William Shakespeare paints a portrait of a man who is losing his mind. As the play progresses, Shakespeare reveals a character who is slowly deteriorating.

Note that a comma or period is placed inside quotation marks; a semicolon or colon is placed after quotation marks:

Lysander and Hermia, followed by Demetrius and Helena, run away to a "wood near Athens."

The word "wood," as Stanley Wells points out, is a place; it is also a state of mind: "wood" was another word for "crazy."

"Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry--But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me": thus Richard woos Lady Anne.

"To be or not to be"; this is Hamlet's darkest moment.

Avoid using wordy or grammatically incorrect opening lines:

In William Shakespeare's Othello, he tells a fascinating story.

In this sentence, "he" doesn't refer to anyone; and if you use the author's name, you don't need "he," too. Try it this way:

In Othello, William Shakespeare tells a fascinating story.

But there's still a problem: This opening sentence doesn't tell your reader what your essay is about. It's filler, without real content. Get to your point quickly and directly, perhaps like this:

Contrary to popular belief, Iago, in Wlliam Shakespeare's Othello is not evil. He's just misunderstood.

Unless you have been asked to write a personal essay, avoid using the first person ("I") and the second person ("you") in your essays. Most college essays are supposed to preserve a formal tone, and using "I" and "you" gives the essay too casual a tone. Instead of saying,

I think Macbeth is overcome by his ambition, but is not evil


Macbeth is overcome by his ambition, but is not evil.

Note that this makes you sound more authoritative, as well.

And instead of saying

If you look closely at Hamlet, you will see that he is evil, rather than insane


A close reading reveals that Hamlet is evil, rather than insane.

When quoting passages from Shakespeare's plays, follow these guidelines:

When you quote 4 or more lines from a play, you should indent the quote and single space it, like this:
But Hippolyta argues that the power of the imagination is greater than that:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy. (V.i.24-7)

When you quote less than 4 lines from the play, you may just include the quote in the text of your sentence, but be sure to show line endings with a slash:

And after Theseus hears the lovers' account of their night in the woods, he dismisses it as a nightmare: "...in the night, imagining some fear, / how easy is a bush supposed a bear!"

When citing passages from Shakespeare's plays, give the act number, the scene number, and the line numbers, in the following form:


You may also use Arabic numerals to show the act and scene number, if you like:


Note that in each case, a period separates the act, scene, and line numbers.

You should cite Shakespeare plays in this way, rather than with page numbers, because there are so many different editions of the plays that page numbers are no help in finding specific lines.

For information on using MLA format to cite and document correctly, see The Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University or The Purdue University Online Writing Lab.

About Wikipedia

Avoid citing Wikipedia in academic essays. Since it is not edited by reputable experts, it often has errors and isn't reliable. It's okay to use it as a starting point for your own research, but go on and find other sources to verify the information, and cite those in your essay.

And if you need help getting started or with a rough draft, please feel free to see me in my office (my office location and hours are posted on the Schedule) or e-mail me at annw708@gmail.com.