The Research Essay
The research essay is basically a literary analysis essay supported by research. Usually, this research takes the form of literary criticism. For more on literary criticism, check out the literary criticism chapter.
Finding a Topic
Often times, instructors will assign a research topic. Be sure to consult with your instructor and/or the assignment prompt given by the instructor. If, however, the assignment is open-ended, then that is exciting news! You can write an essay about your interests in literature. It is like an adventure! However, too much choice can be debilitating. You want an essay that is large enough in scope that you can write an entire essay about it, but you don't want too large of a topic as you may not be able to feasibly cover it in the short amount of time you have. Therefore, a good way to find a "Goldilocks" topic—not too big and not too small—is to start with a simple formula and adjust as you go.
- Find the literary text you want to write about. For example, "Bajadas" by Francisco Cantu or Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
- Find an aspect or angle about that text which interests you. For example, when writing about "Bajadas," you might want to write about the ecology of the border desert, the use of animal symbolism, or the history of border politics and how it may have informed the story. When writing about Hamlet, you might be interested in the way female characters like Ophelia and Gertrude are treated, about the symbolism behind Ophelia's flowers, or about espionage on the part of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Topic = angle + text
Topic = Espionage + Hamlet
Working thesis statement: In this essay, I will be exploring espionage in Hamlet
Once you come up with a topic, start brainstorming. Yes, brainstorm before you perform research. The reason for this is because your instructor is interested in your original ideas about the text, not the ideas of scholars. Secondary sources should only be used to support your own original ideas. If you start with research, it is much more difficult to come up with your own ideas, because all of your ideas are going to sound a lot like the articles you read. So start with your initial impressions of your topic.
Espionage in Hamlet is interesting to me because it seems like everyone in Elsinore is spying on each other. For example, Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. Polonius dies because he is spying on Hamlet. In turn, Hamlet spies on Claudius during the play within the play. Spying seems to play a huge part in the play, and I wonder why. Was there espionage in Shakespeare's London? Might it have influenced or inspired his writing?
Once you get some of your basic ideas down, you might start outlining the "big ideas" of your essay. This will help when it comes to writing the essay and organizing your ideas. It will also help you when it comes time to research.
- Background of espionage in Hamlet
- Espionage in Shakespeare's Time
- Analysis of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Spying scene
- Analysis of Ophelia spying scene
- Analysis of Polonius spying scene
- Analysis of Claudius/Hamlet spying scene
- Analysis of Hamlet conducting counter-espionage against Claudius
- How might these scenes have been influenced by espionage in Shakespeare's time?
Before you begin researching, write what you can on your own. For example, write a literary analysis essay where you simply examine and analyze the literature without input from outside sources. This will allow you to solidify your ideas. It will also make it easier to find search terms when you are ready to research.
Once you have a solid topic and writing, it's time to research your essay topic. Starting with some questions about your topic is a great way to start. See the chapter on navigating scholarly sources for a more detailed look at how to find research material.
As you read, keep track of your sources using an Annotated Bibliography or Research Log. Basically, an Annotated Bibliography is just like a regular Works Cited page, except every source is summarized after the bibliographical entry. Because you will be reading a lot of different sources, some 20+ pages in length, it can be difficult to keep track of the ideas of each source. An Annotated Bibliography is a tool to help you keep track of your research. This also can help you avoid plagiarism! When taking notes on your sources, be sure to clearly mark summary, paraphrase, and quotation so that you ethically attribute words and ideas to their author.
Annotated Bibliography Example
Student first name Last name
30 March 2019
Annotated Bibliography: Espionage in Hamlet
Working title: Elizabethan Spy Culture Reflected in Hamlet
Working thesis: for this essay I will explore how Elizabethan spy culture might have influenced Hamlet. For example, I will look at how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used to spy on Hamlet, and how it seems like everyone is watching everyone in Elsinore: perhaps Claudius is a stand-in for the English monarchy, a critique of its corruption?
Honan, Park. Christopher Marlowe : Poet & Spy. OUP Oxford, 2005. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.solano.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.as...&site=eds-live.
Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare. He was also his competitor as a fellow playwright and poet. This text is a scholarly biography of Marlowe’s life as a spy and poet. This source gives a picture of the cultural context of Shakespeare: of particular relevance to my research is the chapter describing Marlowe and Shakespeare’s relationship (187-196). Though this gives interesting background information, it might solely be useful to note that Shakespeare regularly rubbed elbows with a spy, Marlowe, so he was at least somewhat familiar with Elizabethan spy culture, though how much he knew is a mystery. Otherwise, this text may not be very useful because it only briefly mentions Shakespeare.
Sample Student Research Essay
Text: "The Hunting of the Hare" by Margaret Cavendish
Topic: Symbol & Theme: Humanity's Attraction to Destruction and Violence
Rebekah’s research essay on Margaret Cavendish’s poem “The Hunting of the Hare” illustrates several of the principles discussed in this chapter:
- How to integrate scholarly secondary sources without relinquishing control of the argument
- How to make it clear whose ideas are whose through use of tag words and phrases
- How to employ parenthetical in-text citations according to MLA guidelines
- How to construct a Works Cited page according to MLA guidelines
Human Nature in Margaret Cavendish’s “The Hunting of the Hare”
Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 poem “The Hunting of the Hare” relates the cruel fate of a hare that has fallen prey to a group of hunters. A study of this poem suggests that Cavendish can be viewed as one of the first supporters for animal rights as she criticizes the cruelty of men who kill animals for sport. On a more personal level, Cavendish could have closely identified with the hare, which is ostensibly humanlike, and also with its fear. She might have even intended to parallel her critics to the dogs and the hunters within the poem. On a grander scale, Cavendish might be making the critical judgment that humankind seeks enjoyment through violent competition with others. Through a study of the many different thematic levels of the poem, Margaret Cavendish’s “The Hunting of the Hare” seems to have an overarching theme of humanity’s destructive attraction to violence in order to achieve supremacy.
It is evident through the poet’s portrayal of the hare that it is meant to be seen as a significant and even a symbolic figure, beginning in the first line of the poem where the hare is granted the name “Wat.” He is humanlike, “glaring” across the landscape as his “Haires blew up behind” him in the wind instead of his fur (4 and 6). The hare is also described as “wise” instead of merely being a sentient creature, and Cavendish makes its humanlike features even more evident as the hare “walks about” rather than hopping or crawling (Cavendish 7 and 11). Another way the rabbit is seemingly anthropomorphized is through the continual use of the personal pronoun “him” in the poem, which is used instead of “it.” To indicate her disapproval of the unethical treatment of all animals, near the very end of the poem Cavendish grants all creatures the same humanlike quality as the hare by saying that creatures are being “murdered” (100) by men instead of “killed.” The word “murder” connotes unlawfulness and makes a connection between that illicitness and the killing of animals, indicating that all sentient life, that of humans and animals, is important and worthy of being preserved. Some may even argue that Cavendish was trying to make a point that humankind should not express dominant authority over other creatures through the use of violence, because, within the last lines of the poem, man is portrayed not only as murderous but also as an oppressive tyrant that rules over all other living creatures.
Cavendish’s humanlike portrayal of the hare might raise concerns for some readers. Bruce Thomas Boehrer discusses some critics’ objection to an author’s anthropomorphizing nonhuman characters. To anthropomorphize is to project one’s own tendencies and traits onto another species. Some critics argue that this act ignores a nonhuman species’ real behaviors and traits and illustrates humans’ feeling of dominance over nature. However, as Boehrer explains, many animal characters in literature “challenge the human-animal divide” (5) and force people to examine their values, especially those related to nature. Donna Landry supports the view that “The Hunting of the Hare” raises these issues. She argues that in Cavendish’s work, she promotes the “democratizing of relations between humans and other species” (471). Rather than emphasizing the superiority of human emotions by anthropomorphizing the hare, Cavendish humanizes him in order to bridge the gap between the reader and the hare. Paul Salzman states that Cavendish’s main goal as a writer was “to enter into an empathetic relationship with the world around her” (142). In “The Hunting of the Hare,” Cavendish portrays the hare with empathy in order to persuade the reader that committing unnecessary violence on animals is cruel and terrible.
In addition, the description of the hare is used to form and emphasize the strong connection between the hare and Cavendish, who was similarly being pursued by her critics as a female writer. This criticism is clearly shown through the description of Cavendish by Mary Evelyn, who portrayed her as extravagant and vain and said that her discourse was “as airy, empty, whimsical, and rambling as her books” (Qtd. in Damrosch and Dettmar 2058-9). Many people of Cavendish’s time viewed her as outrageous, partly because publicly recognized women writers were rare during the seventeenth century. Although scholars seriously study Cavendish’s work now, Emma L.E. Rees says that because of the harsh critics of her time, “The impression which lasted for many years was of an eccentric, disturbed and arrogant woman” (11). “The Hunting of the Hare” could be interpreted as a response to this criticism. Her critics, paralleled by both the “cruel dogs” (16) and the men in the poem, are often referred to as merciless. The critics are described as nosy through common references to the dogs and how they always “thrust [their] snuffling nose[s]” into things (64). They are also described as loudmouths through the image of dogs who cry out with their “wide mouths” (19). While at times, Cavendish seems to be uncaring as to what the critics say about her, at other times, she seems terrified of the public’s opinion of her life and writing, much like the hare’s terror of being pursued. She suggests that, in public, she hides her fear of the critics, similarly to the hare when, “Licking his feet, he wiped his ears so clean / That none could tell that Wat had hunted been” (41-2). Although critics continued to pursue her, Cavendish emphasizes through the poem that she will continue to maintain her composure until the very end, like the hare does until his death. Yet, this continual pursuing and killing of hares, which parallels Cavendish’s experience, critiques human nature’s desire for supremacy over all living things—even each other.
Not only can Cavendish’s poem be seen as a response to animal cruelty and the cruelty of critics, but it can also be seen as an assessment of how humankind treats its brethren. In the poem, the men are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters that thrive off cruelty to others. The men in Cavendish’s poem, who “destroy those lives that God did make” (98) solely for “sport or recreation’s sake” (97), seek to kill the rabbit, the symbol, through heavy personification, of a fellow human (Cavendish 2062).
Margaret Cavendish’s “The Hunting of the Hare” is a comment on human nature and the desire for obtaining dominion over others by any means necessary. Through her extensive use of pathos throughout the poem, her audience at the time was meant to feel a sense of culpability and a desire to change. Despite her portrayal of human nature as inherently evil, the guilt the audience is supposed to feel offers a sense of hope, as it indicates that human nature is capable of being altered and even changed.
Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature, U of Pennsylvania P, 2010.
Cavendish, Margaret. “The Hunting of the Hare.” 1653. UC Press E-books Collection, publishing.cdlib. org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=kt7q2nc9xn&chunk. id=ss1.55&toc.depth=100&toc.id=ch09&brand=eschol. Accessed 3 October 2013.
Damrosch, David and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. “Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.” The Longman Anthology: British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Longman, 2010, pp. 2060-63.
Landry, Donna. “Green Languages? Women Poets as Naturalists in 1653 and 1807.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 63, no.4, 2000, pp. 467-89. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/3817613. Accessed 2 Oct. 2013.
Rees, Emma L.E. Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. Manchester UP, 2003. EBSCOHost, libproxy. ung.edu/login?url=search.ebscohost.com/login. aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004581244&site=e ds-live&scope=site. Accessed 8 Nov. 2013.
Salzman, Paul. Reading Early Modern Women’s Writing. Oxford UP, 2006.
Contributors and Attributions
- Sample Student Essay reproduced from Writing and Literature: Composition as Inquiry, Learning, Thinking, and Communication by Tanya Long Bennett Professor (English) at University of North Georgia, Sourced from GALILEO Open Learning Materials, CC BY-SA