Shakespeare and the theme of monsters

Topic
For your second paper, I’d like you to write about the topic of monsters and the monstrous in Shakespeare’s plays Othello and The Tempest. Before you write your paper, I would like you to familiarize yourself with the etymology of the word monster and with Shakespeare’s use of the word throughout the two plays. Your job will then be to propose and attempt to prove a specific claim (your thesis) about how and why Shakespeare depicts monsters in these two plays.

The Etymology of Monster
Each week I’ve been asking you to pay careful attention to the way Shakespeare uses words, and I ask that you start the process of writing your second paper by considering the etymology of the word monster:

monster (n.)

early 14c., “malformed animal or human, creature afflicted with a birth defect,” from Old French monstre, mostre “monster, monstrosity” (12c.), and directly from Latin monstrum “divine omen, portent, sign; abnormal shape; monster, monstrosity,” figuratively “repulsive character, object of dread, awful deed, abomination,” from root of monere “to admonish, warn, advice,” from PIE *moneyo-, suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.”

Abnormal or prodigious animals were regarded as signs or omens of impending evil. Extended by late 14c. to imaginary animals composed of parts of creatures (centaur, griffin, etc.). Meaning “animal of vast size” is from 1520s; sense of “person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness” is from 1550s.

We can see in this etymology the associations of the word monster that Shakespeare would have known. The modern word monster derives from the Latin verb monere, which means “to admonish” or “to warn,” and the Latin noun monstrum, which is an “omen” or “sign” or can mean the “abnormal shape” or “abnormality” that would have served as an ominous sign.

During Shakespeare’s time “monsters”—defined as abnormal or deformed creatures—were believed to be omens of impending evil. Of course, any time we are dealing with “omens” we are also talking about one of Shakespeare’s favorite themes—interpretation—because an omen always has to be interpreted (and there is always a chance that it can be misinterpreted).

A Shakespeare Concordance: Look at Each Use of the Word Monster
Having looked at the etymology of the word monster I also ask that you familiarize yourself with when and how Shakespeare uses the words monster and monstrous in these two plays. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find all of Shakespeare’s uses of the word, and that’s by consulting a Shakespeare concordance.

A concordance is an alphabetical list of all the words present in a text. A Shakespeare concordance lists alphabetically all the words Shakespeare used in his plays and poetry. When we look in the concordance we see that Shakespeare used the word monster 70 times in his work, and 40 of those appearances come in his two plays Othello and The Tempest (34 of them in The Tempest alone).

Take a look at each time Shakespeare uses the word monster or monstrous in these two plays. You’ll see that different characters say the word and, in some cases, use it in different ways. In The Tempest the word monster is used exclusively by Stephano or Trinculo (though other characters use the word monstrous). Stephano and Trinculo often use the word monster when directly addressing Caliban; they call him “Monster.” This direct address doesn’t tell us much more than they put him in that category. But they also use the word to describe Caliban, which tells us more, and there are other more interesting uses of the word in the play as well. In Othello the words monster and monstrous are often spoken at key moments in the play.

Structure Your Paper
After you familiarize yourself with all of the instances when the words monster and monstrous are used in Othello and The Tempest, come up with a theory about how and why Shakespeare depicts monsters or the monstrous in the two plays.

As with your first paper, be sure to carefully structure this paper. Open with a brief introduction in which you quickly and efficiently let me know your topic (monsters/the monstrous in Shakespeare) and the plays you’ll be analyzing (Othello and The Tempest). End your intro with your thesis sentence: your specific claim about how and why you believe Shakespeare depicts monsters in these plays.

Then, in the body of your essay, trace your theory through Othello. In a separate section, consider what Shakespeare has to say about monsters and the monstrous in The Tempest. Along the way be sure to use transitions to keep me from getting lost. Wrap up your paper by offering a conclusion that attempts to assess the distance you’ve come over the course of the essay. You may wish to look at key similarities or differences you noted about how and why Shakespeare depicts monsters or the monstrous in the two plays. Regardless, try to write a conclusion in which you indicate what it is you learned as a result of writing the paper.

And then, when you’ve finished writing your paper, go back and give it a title that makes me want to read it even as it suggests to me the topic of your paper.

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