How to Complete a Historical Reading of Literature
How to Complete a Historical Reading of Literature1.) Research the time period in which the play is set. a. Death of a Salesman debuted in 1949 and is set during this decade (in the United States). b. Hamlet was written during the Renaissance (in Europe). c. Remember to use your LibGuide for researching! If you are stuck, though, you might also try some historical databases—U.S. History in Context is a good place to start for Death of a Salesman because you can type in “1940s” and get an overview of different events during the time.2.) Read the play and see if you see any connections between the history and the events in the play. a. You may have to repeat these first two steps a couple of times, alternating between researching the time period and reading the play.3.) Develop a working thesis. Here are some examples; feel free to adapt these and/or use similar structures in creating your own: a. In Death of a Salesman, Biff and Willy both react to the ongoing events: Biff dreams of playing football because at this time, sports were popular enough that they could be a career; similarly, Willy dreams of being successful because a salesman was one of the most desired jobs at the time. b. The events in Death of a Salesman demonstrate that, despite the improving economy during the post-World War II era, times were still stressful for the middle-class citizens. c. Shakespeare’s Hamlet subtly critiques the patronage system that was popular in Renaissance England. d. Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates the concept of courtly love that dominated Renaissance England. e. Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, the two women in Hamlet, show that during the Renaissance, women were dominated by men.4.) Create an outline using your working thesis. Here are two examples, using thesis statements from above. a. Thesis Statement: The events in Death of a Salesman demonstrate that, despite the improving economy during the post-World War II era, times were still stressful for the middle-class citizens. i. Topic Sentence 1: Willy Loman, the father of the family, cannot keep up with the improving economy. 1. Examples from Text: He complains about how everything breaks before he can pay it off, they are still paying on the house, he isn’t making money at his job, they also buy stuff because they have the “Biggest ads” – the fridge and his car, for example 2. Historical Fact/Info: Use the source that explains how the 1940s showed the greatest economic expansion in history—actually, this might go before the example from the text. Anyway, while the world was expanding, Willy can’t keep up because his job doesn’t pay anymore ii. Topic Sentence 2: Biff can’t find a job. 1. Examples from Text: He used to work as shipping clerk, goes back to that boss who doesn’t even remember him
2. Historical Info: One source mentioned the unemployment rate during this time. b. Thesis Statement: Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, the two women in Hamlet, show that during the Renaissance, women were dominated by men. i. Topic Sentence 1: Queen Gertrude is dominated by King Claudius and Hamlet 1. Examples from Text: she does what he says, he controls her, etc. (find specific examples of this—perhaps the scene where she asks Hamlet what to do after Polonius dies?) 2. Historical Fact/Info: I read that the hierarchy was highly followed at this time, so it’s weird that Queen Gertrude—the freaking Queen—obeys her men. Of course, the King is “higher up” than she is, so maybe she has to listen to him for that reason, but what about Hamlet? I can’t find good info for this—look for it. ii. Topic Sentence 2: Ophelia is dominated by her father, Polonius, mainly. 1. Examples from Text: Polonius uses her as “bait” for Hamlet and other things to find out about the ongoing at the castle. She also listens to Hamlet. 2. Historical Fact/Info: One source discussed the importance of the family hierarchy, so does Ophelia listen to Polonius simply because he’s her father? What about Hamlet? Man, does he just have all the power?5.) Using your outline, return to your research (and the play itself). Notice that in these outlines, lots of questions are raised; the research will help tie everything together. a. Remember that your sources can be just on the plays or just on the historical time, or a combination of both. When searching, try searching both the play as well as the time period. It is your job to make the connections (between the history and the play) for your reader!6.) Remember to be specific—use very specific examples from the play, and use quotes as well as summaries from your historical sources.