English 105A: Close Reading Exercise

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English 105A: Shakespeare: Poems and Early Plays

TA: Stephen Deng

Summer 2003


Close Reading Assignments (Due July 2, July 8, and July 14)


Choose one passage (no longer than four lines) from this week’s play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titus Andronicus, or Richard II) and write at least 1 page (double-spaced, 12-point font, no Courier, 1-inch margins) analyzing the significance of its characterization, tone, rhythm, symbolism, metaphors, similes, descriptive phrases, etc. for some element of the play.


The purpose of this assignment is to help you develop the most important skill in literary analysis: close reading. Close reading is the practice of analyzing passages of text, word by word, in order to draw implications from the particular passages. As you read Shakespeare’s plays, it is a good idea to underline passages that seem important and to write brief notes in the margins explaining why this passage might be important. In addition to helping you understand key elements in the play, this is the first step in developing a paper topic.

When you look back over the text, you can find those passages that seemed to have been important to you in the first reading, and by closer analysis of several such passages, you can draw inferences about some element of the play as a whole. For example, you may come across several references to gardens, which may lead you to question why the play has a particular fascination with this image. Looking back over the passages, you might find that some refer specifically to the Garden of Eden while others portray England as a garden. By inference then, you might come up with the idea that the play compares the current state of England to the world after the Fall of Man within the Garden of Eden. Images of corruption and decay among plants would help support such a reading.

But the first step in this process is to identify important passages and to analyze them. Analysis of passages involves drawing implications about particular words or phrases within the passage that seem to be especially important. The assignment, therefore, is to choose one passage (no longer than four lines) from the play and to write at least 1 page analyzing the significance of this passage for the play. Discuss the specific language (including particular words) of the passage.

For example, in the garden example, you might discuss the significance of the word "unweeded" in a passage from Hamlet (Hamlet calls Denmark an "unweeded garden"), which suggests natural processes of corruption (though weeds are harmful to gardens, they grow naturally, not by some form of human artificial production), the need for a gardener (Hamlet himself) to weed the garden, and the suggestion that what is normative is a garden without weeds, since the "un" is a prefix attached to the root "weeded." We will go over several examples of close reading in class. You might also consult the Oxford English Dictionary (which I will introduce in class) to see how particular words were used during the time of Shakespeare. You need not have a formal, unifying thesis statement about the passage. I am looking more for the ability to draw a variety of implications from it.

Other Sources

You might also consult John Edward Martin’s webpage on "How to do a Close Reading":


He also has a useful page on "Constructing a Critical Essay":


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