About the midterm exam
The midterm will consist of two parts, a "short answer" section where you explain the thematic significance of passages from the plays we've read thus far, and an essay section where you primarily explore thematic connections between the different works we've read to this point in the semester.
1) Short answers:
In this portion of the exam, you will be given ten passages from the plays we've read so far (excluding Hamlet): you will write a brief paragraph, 2-4 sentences, explaining the thematic significance of seven of the ten passages.
Note that short answers are not simple "identification." To explain the thematic significance of a passage, you will of course need to say which play it is taken from, but each short answer must also, and more importantly, explain how the passage is instrumental in conveying one of the work's larger themes or "messages." In other words, your task is to go beyond simply identifying the passages to explain how the passages are important not on the level of plot, or "what happens in the story," but in terms of the work's larger themes, or the work's essential "meaning" or significance as a whole.
To ensure that you understand the term "thematic significance," a specific definition of "theme" may be helpful.
Definition of theme: In the simplest, broadest terms, one quality that differentiates works of “literature” from other written texts (especially those intended primarily to entertain) is that literary works often or usually present a theme, or “message” that applies beyond the level of plot with continuing relevance for a wide audience. A literary work’s theme makes some commentary upon or offers insight into the human condition more generally. Think of a fable, for instance, where the universal theme is stated directly as the “moral of the story.” In the famous fable about the tortoise and the hare, the message is that focused, extended perseverance leads to a better outcome than dashing around in erratic bursts of frenzied high-speed activity. The theme isn't a matter limited to the two characters in the story, or even turtles and rabbits more generally: the fable's theme pertains to you and me, and all of humanity.
Some works’ themes are relatively limited in scope: among other themes, for instance, Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House points out the destructive nature of a legal system more intent on perpetuating its own processes than providing justice. On the other hand, the commentary on the destructive nature of guilt in the widest possible terms in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment clearly applies to all human beings. To a certain extent, literary works exploring the most universal themes tend to have the longest staying power.
Important tip: In your short answers on the exam, it may seem stylistically lame or awkward, but you would do very well to use the phrase "the passage is significant because" in each answer, or some very similar phrase; and as much as possible you would do well to use the key word "theme" in each answer. This tip won't guarantee that you get full credit for each item, but saying "the passage is significant because" and mentioning specific themes as themes can help ensure that you do indeed focus on thematic significance instead of simply identifying interpreting passages or focusing only on matters of plot.
Sample short answers, graded:
Identify and explain the thematic significance of the passage in 2-4 sentences.
1. They say he [the old Duke] is already in the Forest of Arden, and many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.
This passage comes from As You Like It. Here Shakespeare says that the Duke is in the forest with many others who are living the carefree country life.
This answer would get very little credit, only 1 or 2 points out of a possible 7, because it identifies the passage and restates its point without explaining the thematic significance, or the significance of the passage in terms of the play as a whole beyond simple matters of plot.
This passage in As You Like It is significant because it focuses on one of the play's central themes, Shakespeare's playful commentary upon the pastoral romance. Shakespeare compares and contrasts city and country life in the play, and the Forest of Arden is a magical sort of "green world" where characters are freed from the usual constraints of life at court, where women can dress as men, and the upper classes can mingle with shepherds, and love seems literally in the air: here the characters can "fleet the time carelessly." In the typical pastoral romance shepherds and shepherdesses live an idealized life where all are in perfect harmony with nature, and thus in Shakespeare's play Arden is the "golden world" referred to in the passage.
This answer would get full credit, 7/7 pts., because it goes beyond identifying the passage and explains how the passage relates to one of the play's central thematic concerns, the pastoral "green world."
2. If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet. I have misused the king's press damnably. I have got in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers three hundred and odd pounds.
This passage is from 1 Henry IV. Falstaff raises a company of soldiers and makes money from letting the able-bodied men bribe their way out of serving and then replaces them with the dregs of society, including criminals just released from jail.
Not much credit here either, only 2 or 3 points out of 7, because this answer identifies the passage and explains simply what is happening at this point of the play without explaining the passage's thematic significance—that is, this answer doesn't directly identify a theme that Shakespeare presents through Falstaff's being such a scoundrel.
The significance of this passage from 1 Henry IV lies in Falstaff's completely dishonorable behavior. His abuse of his position, making money by letting good fighting men bribe their way out of service and replacing them with a pathetic crew of rag-tag men who are pitiful excuses for soldiers, is disgraceful. This passage ties to two of the play's most important themes: 1) it relates to the father-son theme by showing how irresponsible Hal's companions are before he starts acting like the prince his father wants him to be, and 2) it relates to the play's commentary on honor by showing Falstaff's true colors—unlike Hotspur and Hal (eventually), Falstaff has no sense of honor whatsoever, and his freakin' selfishness and dishonorable behavior here could even be harmful to the prince and his father by making it easier for the rebels to defeat the "good guys" in battle.
Excellent answer, A+ 7/7 pts., because it ties the passage to major themes in the play, the father-son conflict and the matter of personal honor. Nearly extra credit, even, for effective use of the very nifty word "freakin'." :)
2) The essay:
As with the short answer section of the exam, you will have some choice in the essays, selecting two essay topics from three options taken randomly from a pool of five or six, meaning that here, too, your exam is likely to differ from most of your classmates' and may be more heavily weighted on some works than on others. Most essay topics will ask you to make thematic connections between two or more of the different plays we've covered thus far. Of necessity, the essay topics will tend to be fairly broad in nature, as some of the works differ from the others radically in their themes and major concerns (the comedies vs. the histories, e.g.), so you should be thinking of different obvious connections you might draw between different sets of the comedies and the two histories we’ve read.