Historical Contextualization

The historical contextualization essay holds my favorite skill of the semester. I bet you can guess what it is…that’s right—historical contextualization! Integrating secondary and tertiary sources into an essay to ground a text in its historical context is immensely satisfying to me. While I loved writing an essay based solely on my own close-reading of the text, I had the most fun writing this essay as history has always been an interest of mine. I am a firm believer that to understand a text you must at least partially understand the world that it was born from because no piece of literature was created in a vacuum. A text has its own cultural, historical, social, political—you name it—influences and discovering those feels like an investigation. The more that you uncover about the world the text was created in, the more you can understand the text itself.

My starting point for this essay looks quite a bit different from my first essay. Originally I was going to write an essay that revolved around Caliban, but the ideas just weren’t really meshing with me. What I ended up writing on actually stemmed from a process assignment of a peer. What she ended up hating, I ended up loving.

This exercise in literary criticism taught me something entirely new about history—the existence of masques, which were a type of performative art specific to English aristocracy meant to flatter the royal family. After doing some reading on the art form, and reading an actual masque by Ben Johnson—a contemporary to Shakespeare—I wrote what I will loosely call an outline focusing on the interrupted masque in The Tempest that, upon a close inspection, critiques the members of the aristocracy who engage in the practice of masques. It’s really more of a dumping ground for quotes I pulled from sources, first attempts at paragraphs, and emphatic epiphanies highlighted in yellow.

Normally the first draft I write would go into a peer workshop for feedback, but I ended up having to deal with a particularly bad day of health and ended up personally revising the draft, fixing things stylistically at sentence level.

From there I handed in the draft to my professor for feedback, and even obtained feedback from the Writing Center on campus for good measure. I received some great reactions from both sets of feedback, but knew I had some work to do, the largest possible revision having to do with incorporating the role of Caliban into my argument, a character who I glossed over in this incarnation of the essay.

While a great success in terms of source integration and close-reading, I did not include this essay in my presentation portfolio because it served as the base of my third essay; the Dr. Evil to this essay’s Mini-Me. To read about how I revised this essay into a more complex argument focusing on the oppression of cultural minorities through the use of masques, visit my section on Entering the Critical Conversation. If you want to see the final product, head on over to my presentation portfolio to read the award-winning essay.