Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   Assignments   >   Final Exam To the previous page

On this page:

The Final Examination


To be scheduled by the Records Office.
The final exam for this course will be three hours in duration, with an additional ten minutes at the start for you to read the paper over and decide which questions you will answer.

It is an "open book" exam. You will be allowed to bring your text and one page of notes into the exam room--no notes and no Course Guide. The intention is to reduce the tension of the exam experience by giving you a sense of being able to refer to the text if you have to. I do not expect you to refer to it in any detail in the exam itself, nor will I ask that you quote extensively or give act, scene, line references.

The exam will consist of a brief section of short answers then three essay questions all of the same value; you should budget 30 minutes for the short answers and 50 minutes for each essay answer. Thus the exam will be divided into four sections, each designed to give you an opportunity to show a different critical skill. Since the exam is 180 minutes long, it is marked out of a total of 180--one mark every minute.

  1. Section A: Short answers. From a total of four questions you will be asked to answer three questions about the background reading for the plays. Each answer will be a single short paragraph in length, and should take no more than ten minutes, since each is worth ten marks.
    Example: Give a brief example of the application of the doctrine of "humours" in the Renaissance.
  2. Section B: an explication. There will be a choice of three passages from the plays on the course for you to write an explication on. Look back at the description of the explication in the discussion of your second assignment, especially the list of items under the heading "What I Will Look for in This Assignment."
  3. Section C: an essay on a single play, relating the play to the background materials you have been reading. Again you will have a choice of three questions.
    Example: Tragedy. "Elizabethan tragedy inhabits a more relative, more contingent world than either medieval tragedy with its didactic providentialism, or classical Aristotelian tragedy with its normalizing chorus." Discuss, referring to ONE tragedy you have read this term. Be sure to refer in detail to the text in supporting your argument.
  4. Section D: an essay that requires a comparison between two plays. There will be a choice of three questions, each inviting you to compare two plays in some fashion. To prepare for this section, you should look at A Writer's Guide where the techniques for writing comparative essays are discussed (see pages 5 and 17).
    Example: "By the end of the play, Prospero is able to dispense justice in an almost godlike fashion, since, like Prince Hal, he has learned to control the Falstaffian, anarchic impulses of Caliban." Discuss, referring to either Prince Hal and Prospero or Falstaff and Caliban. Refer in detail to the text to justify your answer.

To the top

What I Will Look for in Your Exam Essays

I will look for a thesis.

You may have noticed that in both the example exam questions I have given above you are asked to "discuss" the quotation. The intention is to invite you to think critically about it, and to respond accordingly. You may on the whole agree with the opinion expressed in the quotation, you may thoroughly disagree, or you may feel that it is partly right, partly wrong. Your response to the quotation becomes the thesis for your answer.

I will look for signs of "active thought."

By "active thought" I mean that you will be thinking as you write, not regurgitating something you have read or specifically prepared before the exam. Don't go into the exam room hoping to write about a detailed topic on a given play--you will probably not be asked the precise question you have prepared, and the result is usually that you will answer the question you wish you had been asked, not the one you have been.

I will look for essays that are well constructed.

There is no requirement that you produce exactly a formulaic three (or four or five) paragraph essay, but your essay should be clearly planned, with paragraphs that make sense, and a conclusion that you are leading to. It is always a good strategy to return to some form of the wording of the original question in your conclusion. Especially in the essay that requires comparison between two plays, the structure of the answer and the effectiveness of the conclusion will be important.

I will look for support from the text for all your opinions.

Since there will be no "right" answer to the questions, and since different students will either agree or disagree with the quotations, the important thing to communicate is why you reach the conclusion you do. An opinion (even if I happen to share it) is without value unless it is supported from the text. This means that you must know the plays well if you are to be able to go beyond a vague sense of the subject to an effective citation of passages or incidents that support your position.

I will be looking for quality not quantity; strength not length.

Above all avoid giving answers that are garrulous; answers that gush or gabble; answers that try to convince by word count or by the number of books used.

To the top

Some Gentle Advice

The rhetoric of exams.

A symptom of active thought is that you may think of something you should have said earlier. Go back and say it. That's why you are asked to write on one side of the page only, and to double space--there is room for revision and re-thinking. Exams are never as tidy as take-home essays, and as I mark I will be less concerned about minor errors of expression (note that this comment does not amount to blanket permission to fracture sentences, however).

The use of open books.

You are permitted to bring your book to the exam room, but I recommend that you treat it more as a security blanket than as a resource. You will not have time to consult it extensively, and you should not try to quote extensive passages. It is there mainly to give you the sense that if you have forgotten a name or a detail you can locate it quickly. When you are under stress, a name like Old Siward may escape you.

The importance of sleep.

Part of the student culture is to stay up all night cramming for exams, and flaunting the unshaven cheeks or sockets under the eyes the next day. By all means go unshaven, or put extra eye shadow under your eyes to make yourself look exhausted, but get good sleep the night before the exam. And be awake enough to be capable of active thought.

To the top

How the Exams Will Be Graded

Marking an exam is less structured than a take-home assignment, because the answer is the result of 50 minutes' rapid thought rather than several days. (You may of course find the distinction I have made hilariously inaccurate so far as your regular assignments are concerned.) In general I will look for two main criteria: Marks will be deducted for egregious or repeated errors of expression and for undue wordiness.

[Return to the table of contents]

To the previous page Top  
This page last updated on 28 December 2002. © Michael Best, 2000.