Studying Shakespeare at Oxford

By Grace Walters

I’m currently in my final year studying English at Merton, completing my Shakespeare portfolio for submission. This is three two-thousand word essays compiled of the ones you wrote in term in second year, or you could write one in your own time if you were unhappy with them - and you spend Christmas vac of third year editing them until you’re happy. Below are some tips for second-years or anyone else preparing to study and write about Shakespeare, based on my experience so far.

  • When it comes to Shakespeare, you realise that 2,000 words is a very short space to cover such an incredible corpus. I would just preface initially that this is something to always keep at the front of your mind when choosing a topic: specific approaches can make planning easier. It helps me if I start specific and ground the essay in that idea, and then branch out from that, rather than thinking broadly and then narrowing in as I write.

  • Don’t underestimate what you already know about Shakespeare - whether it be what you studied at GCSE, or the random universal facts it might feel like the whole world knows, there is always room to interrogate a certain aspect until you look at it in a new light entirely. A common example of this is that so many A-Level syllabuses cover Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or Othello - and thus people feel like choosing these texts must be viewed less favourably by the examiners. You can even reuse your opinions from A-Level (or equivalent), in the sense that these can become a platform for more sophisticated opinions, using the knowledge you’ve acquired since then. In the end, it becomes very satisfying to see the progress you’ve made since previous study - which is the aim of a degree, at the end of the day!

  • Studying Shakespeare can be an exercise in reminding yourself of the finer details of referencing. You may be looking at a wider range of articles than for previous essays, and referencing very specific lines of both prose and verse. It’s always useful to have a style guide bookmarked on your desktop to constantly reference; and the most helpful system is to always use your physical edition of the Shakespeare corpus, so that all quotations come from the same format. If you have college mentors or college parents that can help, this is a good time to reach out!

  • Finally, be unafraid to look towards different mediums in your focus. The most ‘traditional’ approach - close or thematic analysis of the language of the prose - isn’t necessarily the most sophisticated. Thinking about the mediums involved, from film adaptations to the role of music in Shakespeare, can open up very complex thought.