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Research Essay Prompt: Reading Shakespeare and Primary Sources

For this assignment, you will write 2,500 or more words for a research essay. You will build off of the work you conducted for your close-reading of a play. The research will consist of using primary sources to discuss a Shakespearean play. Through the online resource Early English Books Online, you will find a genre that is in dialogue with the plays we have been reading. Your task is to understand the genre and use it as evidence to support a new reading of Shakespeare. This type of work is typically referred to in literary studies as New Historicism, and it seeks to convey how works of literature are not universal or static objects, but rather participants in ongoing debates and dialogue about a particular issue. The goal is not to read secondary sources (i.e., contemporary scholars), but rather to deepen your understanding of the early modern period by reading first-hand some of the texts that Shakespeare and his audiences would have been familiar with.  


To get started, you need to narrow down your topic early in the semester and identify the genre you’d like to explore. I’ve included a list of suggested genres below, but you should also feel free to explore a different one. As with any assignment, I’m more than happy to talk to you about your choices. I am suggesting shorter genres, and if you select a longer type of text we can work together to choose extracts for you to read.


You then need to conduct research on the genre itself and find exactly three texts in the genre to cover alongside the play you aim to discuss. You need to become familiar with the genre itself, asking such questions as:

  1. What’s the format of the genre?

  2. Who might its intended readership be?

  3. What aims does the author/compiler have for the text?

  4. What is the tone/style of the text?


Assignment Requirements:

  1. 2,500 words or longer, in Times New Roman font, with 1-inch margins.

  2. A full heading with name, date, and assignment title.

  3. An original essay title, not simply “Essay #1.”

  4. Incorporation of three primary sources of the same genre. These need to be cited both within the text and in a short Works Cited page at the end of the essay. Works Cited do not count towards your word count.

  5. Discussion of the genre in conversation with one Shakespearean play.

  6. Upload a digital copy to the Dropbox folder.


Suggested Genres:

  1. Witchcraft pamphlets

  2. Ballads

  3. Recipe Collections

  4. Almanacs

  5. Crime narratives

  6. Ars Morendi (handbooks on how to properly die)

  7. Medical tracts

  8. Satire on contemporary gender or politics

  9. Anti-theatrical texts

  10. Emblem books

  11. Sermons

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