English 201 critical response topics

Note that critical response essays have a 200 word minimum, and that they must be typed or submitted as attachments via email.  Avoid plot summary or straightforward retelling of "what happens" in the work (play, poem, novel, etc.)—see nugget 1.

Format your response according to MLA guidelines for margins, spacing, name, date, etc., headers, etc. as outlined on my "simple stuff" handout.

4.1 Due at the final exam: Review the complete list of our readings this semester, and in two or more well-developed paragraphs, explain which two writers or works you found least valuable to study and why, and also which two writers or works you found most valuable to study and why.

Next up: 4.2 Due by or before Tuesday, May 4th: follow the link and be as helpfully critical as you can: critical feedback.

Previous critical response topics—no longer valid for submission.

3.1 Due Tuesday, March 30: Whether or not we are Christian, whether or not we believe in hell, we are all quite familiar with the concepts of Lucifer/Satan and hell. How does Milton's opening description in Paradise Lost of Satan, hell, and its first occupants resemble and/or differ from your own conception of them (or from how you think Christian believers generally conceive them)? Quote from Book 1 at least twice to illustrate your claims.

3.2 Due Thursday, April 1: Discuss the primary arguments of the different speakers in the council debate in Book 2 on how the devils should proceed now against God. Include the views of at least three of the following: Moloch, Belial, Mammon, Beelzebub, and Satan. Offer at least one quote from each speaker you discuss.

3.3 Due Tuesday, April 6: Open assignment: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as interesting or noteworthy in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. Avoid plot summary, and quote from Book 9 at least three times in your discussion.

3.4 Due Tuesday, April 13: Respond to Pope's satire in The Rape of the Lock. First define satire, then explain how Pope is satirizing or ridiculing the behavior of upper class women in particular. Quote the poem at least three times in your discussion.

3.5 Due Thursday, April 15: From its first publication, Gulliver's Travels has delighted readers of all ages. Two things (address both):a) Explain why Part I of Gulliver might be so appealing to children, quoting the text at least twice in illustration of your claims; and b) Adult audiences have found Swift's satire of human behavior through the Lilliputians highly entertaining as well. Quoting the text at least twice to illustrate your claims, explain how Swift uses the Lilliputians to mock and criticize his own English society (or humankind more generally) in more sophisticated or "adult" fashion. For the second part especially, you might consider how the Lilliputians' size is important to Swift's satirical message.

3.6 Due Tuesday, April 20: In Part II of Gulliver's Travels, the Brobdingnag king says, after hearing Gulliver's description of various European customs, "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." Respond to the king's assessment of "enlightened" European life: how is Swift harshly critical of British and/or European nations and peoples in Part II of Gulliver? Include at least three quotations in your discussion.

3.7 Due Thursday, April 22: Open assignment: avoiding plot summary, respond in whatever analytical fashion you like to the excerpts of Part III of Gulliver's Travels included in our Norton text (pp. 1054-67). Include at least three quotations from the day's reading.

3.8 Due Tuesday, April 27: Discuss Swift's scathing commentary on the human race in Part IV of Gulliver's Travels: identify specific targets of Swift's disgust, and offer at least four quotes to illustrate your claims.

2.1 Due Thursday, February 26: Address one option only, not both:
a) Write a character analysis of both Hotspur and the prince, Prince Hal, as they are established in the day's reading from 1 Henry IV (Act 1, Scene 1 through Act 2, Scene 3). Give at least two quotes in illustration of your claims about each character—that is, offer two quotes in your discussion of Hotspur and two for the prince as well.

b) Give a close explication, a line-by-line analytical explanation, of the prince's speech in Act 1, Scene 2, lines 148-70. In effect, translate what Prince Hal says here into your own language and comment on the significance of the passage.

2.2 Due Tuesday, March 2: Three options—address only one:
a) Explore the father-son theme as it develops in both Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 3, Scene 2. Quote each scene at least twice in your discussion

b) Explore the depths of possible meaning in Falstaff's urging of the prince not to banish him when he says, "banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" (2.4.381). How in some ways does Falstaff represent "all the world" for Prince Hal? What would the prince be losing by turning his back on his friend, "plump Jack"?

c) Evaluate the king's contention in Act 3, Scene 2 on the importance of a ruler maintaining a certain distance from his or her subjects (see especially 3.2.36-91). The king suggests that in order to be effective leaders, those in power must seem "extraordinary," or "not part of the ordinary daily experience" of those being led. Do you agree? Is it important that leaders consciously, intentionally separate themselves from the "ordinary" people they lead? The saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt": if not contempt, does "familiarity" breed a loss of essential awe or respect for people in power? Quoting Act 3, Scene 2 at least twice, consider both sides of this issue: the pros and cons of leaders mingling with those they are charged with leading.

2.3 Due Tuesday, March 9: Three options—you may address two; if so, please submit the first one as an email attachment by Sunday:
a) Open assignment: respond to the conclusion of 1 Henry IV however you like so long as you avoid plot summary. What strikes you as interesting or important in the last two acts? Quote from Acts 4-5 at least three times.

b) Continue the comparison of Hotspur and Prince Hal that we have initiated in discussion: as the play winds down, how does Hotspur show himself less an admirable leader of men than the prince? Quote from Acts 4-5 at least three times to illustrate your claims.

c) Respond to Falstaff's speech on honor (5.1.127-37). Explain why you agree or disagree with Falstaff's sentiments on the nature of honor. Even if you don't agree with Falstaff's thinking, explain how there is obvious truth in what he says about the insubstantial nature of "honor." Quote this speech at least three times.

2.4 Due Thursday, March 11: Giving at least one quote from each of Acts 1, 2, and 3 of Henry V to illustrate your claims, discuss the evident maturation of King Henry V from the young man, Prince Hal, we meet in 1 Henry IV. How is the new king, Henry V, a much wiser man than he was in his youth? How is he now a thoughtful, worthy, and effective king?

2.5 Due Tuesday, March 16: Address one option only, not both:
a) Focusing specifically on Act 3, Scene 1 and Act 3, Scene 3, explore Shakespeare's commentary on the nature of war through Henry's speeches to his men (3.1) and the enemy (3.3). Probe these two speeches closely, and quote each scene at least twice in your discussion.

b) Explore Shakespeare's depiction of the burden of leadership in Act 4, Scene 1. Think of the "king vs. man" duality, and quote the scene at least three times in your response.

2.6 Due Thursday, March 18: Two parts: do both, in separate paragraphs, quoting from the text at least twice in each part: a) Respond to the king's speech urging his men to battle in Act 4, Scene 3, lines 18-67: how does he encourage them? If you were a soldier serving under such a leader, would you find his argument persuasive? Explain. b) Consider the king's wooing of Princess Katharine in Act 5, Scene 2: how does he show the mixture of "ruler" and "man" in this scene? Do you think he is personally sincere, as a man, in his "winning" of the French princess? Explain.

1.1 Due Tuesday, January 20: Discuss three or more specific qualities that establish Beowulf as heroic in the first 1250 lines of the poem. Go beyond focusing simply on events: concentrate on the personal qualities or attributes of the character that would be considered heroic in modern circumstances as well as in the time of the poem. For each of the three or more qualities you identify, cite specific lines of the text to support your claims. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see QD4.

1.2 Due Thursday, January 22: Open assignment. Respond to the second installment of Beowulf however you like, so long as your response is analytical and avoids straightforward plot summary (see nugget 1). Comment on any events or aspects of the poem in pp. 55-74 that strike you as interesting or worthy of note. Quote the poem at least twice in illustration of your claims. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see QD4.

If you want specific guidance, you might focus your response on particular passages that still hold especial relevance for you or for modern readers more generally, lo these many twelve-plus centuries after the poem was written.

1.3 Due Tuesday, January 27: Quoting from lines 2200-3182 twice or more to illustrate your claims, explore similarities and differences between the Beowulf we see in the final third of the poem and the much younger man we have seen in the first two days' reading. How is Beowulf "still Beowulf"? How does fifty years of aging seem to have changed Beowulf?

1.4 Due Thursday, January 29: The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf presents ideals of heroic tribal behavior as recalled and recorded in the 8th century. Consider how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval romance written in the late 14th century, suggests different ideals of noble (or chivalrous or knightly) behavior. If Beowulf presents the code of the "heroic pagan warrior," what code of behavior does the first half of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seem to recommend as admirable? Quote the poem at least twice in your response. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see QD4.

1.5 Due Tuesday, February 3: Open assignment: respond in whatever analytical fashion you like, so long as you avoid plot summary (see nugget 1). What strikes you as interesting or noteworthy in the last two parts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

If you prefer some more specific
approach, consider whether there may be some moral message for the reader in Gawain's performance on the "test" the Green Knight provides for him. Does Gawain live up to his chivalric, "courtly" ideals? Are his ideals responsible for his ultimate predicament (and/or fate) in different ways beyond the simple fact of his accepting the Green Knight's challenge?

1.6 Due Thursday, February 5: Purely open assignment. Respond with analytical commentary on anything you find important, interesting, or thought-provoking in the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales. Avoid plot summary, and quote the prologue at least three times.

1.7 Due Tuesday, February 10: What significance do you find in "The Miller's Tale" beyond its lewd and vulgar humor? Is Chaucer merely having fun in this story? Is there any serious social commentary about Chaucer's England in this funny, bawdy tale? What in this tale is universal? What statement(s) does this story make about the human condition? About the nature of men and women, together or separately? Explore any of these issues, and any others that suggest significance in the story beyond its obvious humor.

1.8 Due Thursday, February 12: Comment on Chaucer's depiction of women as suggested by the Wife of Bath's prologue and tale. Is the Wife of Bath something of a prototypical feminist? Is Chaucer's presentation of her "antifeminist"? Explore, quoting the story at least twice in your discussion.

1.9 Due Tuesday, February 17: In "The Pardoner's Tale" Chaucer delivers a fairly straightforward theme or "moral." Explain how this theme has particular relevance in American life today. Or as an alternative, you might broaden the discussion to include the Pardoner's prologue: how is there relevance today in the character of the Pardoner himself?

1.10 Due Thursday, February 19: Address one option only, not both:
Basing your response on quotations from three or more of the different sections of Morte Darthur excerpted in our Norton text, explain your interpretation of Malory's apparent attitude towards Lancelot. Does Malory seem to admire Sir Lancelot? Does he seem to condemn the knight? Does Malory seem saddened by Lancelot's plight or fate? Does his attitude towards Lancelot change or vary between different segments? Explore these questions and any aspects of the reading that strike you as indicating the author's attitude towards his character, Sir Lancelot. Note that the three quotes (at least three) must come from three (or more) different segments of the text (pp. 296-301, 301-4, 305-10, 310-13).

b) Compare and contrast the depiction of Arthur's kingdom in Malory's Morte Darthur and that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: identify both similarities and differences. Quote Morte Darthur at least three times.