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The Explication

Due date:
Friday October 10
The assignment should be approximately 800 words in length;
it should on no account exceed 950 words.
On this page:
See also some sample explications

The Passages for Explication

You have a choice of two passages from Marowe's Dr. Faustus: either Scene 5, 196-212, or Scene 12, 79-100.

What is an Explication?

An explication is a very specific kind of exercise, designed to help you read and understand a text fully; it is a kind of training in literary perception where you are asked to consider a single passage in detail. The explication of a passage from a play is rather different from the explication of a poem, however; in a play you will want not only to consider patterns of language and meaning within the passage, but to relate it fully to its dramatic context. In looking intensively at the chosen passage, you will be equipping yourself to discuss and share your response to the play as a whole by understanding and communicating your reasons for feeling the way you do about a specific part of it. In the process you will inevitably find yourself exploring the play's plot, its characters, its language, and so on.

Thus the explication is a close reading of the kind often associated with "New Criticism" -- a critical approach which is now not new at all. The text is where it all starts, and is ultimately more important than any specific interpretation. Of course, as you read more of the plays and of their historical context, your sense of what constitutes the "text" will change.

It is important to realize from the beginning that an explication is not like other kinds of essays you will have written. It is not a biographical study; it is not a historical study; it is not a study of sources; and it is not an exploration of analogies and parallels to be found in other parts of the play or in different plays. All these approaches to the text may be useful for your explication, for they all contribute to our understanding of a given passage, but they must be used sparingly and with caution: the knowledge you have gained of the author, the period, and the plays should remain like an iceberg, nine-tenths submerged, and surfacing only when it can serve the specific purpose of explaining some implication of the passage.

The explication is a detailed analysis of the set passage. You will want to discuss what you learn from the passage about the character who speaks it, the images in it which echo elsewhere in the play, the language it uses, its dramatic impact, and so on. The passage will sometimes be a speech by a single character, sometimes a dialogue; in every case you will find that it involves major characters, important themes, and key situations in the development of the action--so it will not be difficult to write about.

  1. A good place to start preparing for the explication is by writing a prose paraphrase of the passage you have chosen. There are two good reasons for starting this way: you will quickly discover whether you really understand the language as you try to find your own words for the author's; and you will be guided away from an error that some students make the first time they write an explication--assuming that the exercise is really just a careful paraphrase and nothing more. As you write your paraphrase, make sure that you understand any allusions, puns, or images that the author employs. By this stage you should have read the whole play thoroughly, and you will have a firm grasp of the meaning of the passage to be explicated.
  2. Now it would be useful to make some notes about the context of the passage. Why does this speech come where it does? What has just happened, and what is about to happen? Do we in the audience know more than the character(s) who are speaking? Are there passages elsewhere in the play which echo the same concerns, images, or happenings?
  3. Finally you must turn the pile of notes and the paraphrase into an organized whole. First you should be clear who you are writing for. You do not assume an ignorant reader who needs to be told "the story so far" before understanding what you have to say about the passage. You are writing for me, and I know the play very well already.

The actual plan of your explication can vary according to the nature of the passage and the things you find most important. You will probably want to begin with a brief paragraph putting the passage in context, and indicating the importance of that context. The simplest organization of the heart of the explication is to discuss the passage systematically from beginning to end--it will usually have a consistent rhetorical unity in any case, which will give your analysis its own unity. Note, however, that the result should not be simply a rewording of your paraphrase; it must focus on discussing, not translating the passage.

Exploring Language

One obvious and effective way of ensuring that you understand the language of the passage is to look up words in the dictionary, and if you use the big Oxford English Dictionary (either the online version or the one in twenty volumes) you can find out what words meant in different periods as their meaning changed. In addition, the digital age has created some powerful new resources.
LIterature On Line (Chadwyck-Healey), from Chadwyck-Healey, available from the Library Gateway. Look for electronic texts that the Library subscribes to. LION will allow you to look up any word as it was used in drama or poetry before and during the Early Modern period--there is a database of hundreds of early works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. When you make a search on LION, be sure to enter dates near your author's time so that you don't get too many irrelevant references. Be sure to use the advanced search to narrow your search criteria.

You should look up at least two words in the passage to be explicated, one fairly common one, and one you find difficult or unusual, and I will expect you to use what you find as a part of your discussion (you may wish to put additional details in an Appendix to your explication). You can, of course, explore more fully.

When you discuss the language, you should make clear your understanding of the role played by such things as rhythm, metaphor, paradox, understatement--or its opposite, hyperbole--irony, symbol, and so on.

One difference between the explication and the essay is that the explication does not require you to develop a particular thesis. You may wish to conclude with some statement about the importance of the character and the particular passage in the development of the play, or your judgment may be clear from the points you have already developed. It is not necessary, however, to claim that the chosen passage is somehow the most important in the play; rather it is more important to show how it fits organically into the larger scheme.

In general, the explication will be a direct preparation for your final exam, for one of the questions on it will be a choice of passages for you to explicate.

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What I Will Look for in This Assignment

I will be looking to see You will be graded on these specific points, and (as in all English courses) on your general command of written English. Marks will be deducted for major or continuing problems in expression.

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The percentages here are intended to give you a clear sense of the emphasis I will put on the various components of your work. I will not actually break the mark down mechanically by each category, but will consider the assignment as a whole, with these categories in mind.
Component Weight
  • Sense of context
  • Comprehension of text
  • Support for your generalizations
  • Exploration of language
  • Exploration of character and meaning
  • Interconnections with other passages

Some Sample Explications

You can view some paragraphs from sample explications to get an idea of how to go about writing your own. The examples are not complete explications, but are paragraphs taken from different explications by students who have taken this course; all of them received high grades for the complete explication.

Go to the samples...

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This page last updated on 11 September 2003. © Michael Best, 2003.