How can I successfully incorporate critical opinions into my essays?

It can feel a bit intimidating offering your own evaluation of a text alongside the critical work of renowned scholars and writers! While you won't be expected to come up with an entirely original doctoral level thesis on a text, the examiner is looking for your own response to the work, rather than just a regurgitation of what a critic thinks or their view tacked onto the end of a paragraph. 

When offering the critic's point as part of your argument, set out your argument for that particular paragraph with your own idea, and then use the critic to support and add something. This doesn't have to be a specific person; a school of thought can work just as well. For example, you would not be offering much by saying of Shakespeare's Hamlet that: 

"Many of the deaths in the play seem to be unfair, such as the accidents and misunderstandings that lead to the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. This suggests that the tragic world is a bleak place. Critic X makes the point that many innocents suffer in Hamlet and that not all of this seems to be the protagonist's fault, suggesting the idea that bad things can happen to good people for no reason at all in the tragic world." 

In this example, the critic's opinion is pretty much the same as that expressed by the author of the essay. This is not really engaging with the critic or offering any new response to the text. Instead, you can, by all means, agree with the critic, but use their opinion to build your own argument. A better way of using critics to make this point might be something like:

"I would agree with Critic X that the tragic world seems a bleak place. They make the point that many innocents suffer in Hamlet and that not all of this seems to be the protagonist's fault, suggesting the idea that bad things can happen to good people for no reason at all in the tragic world. I believe that Shakespeare could use the seemingly unjust deaths of Polonius and Ophelia to imply the idea of predestination and Providence; that God has predetermined our fate and that that fate is inescapable. The Calvinist model of religion, which was a popular school of thought in Shakespeare's England, would correspond with this idea and contemporary critics would therefore likely respond to the play with these views."

In this example, Critic X's opinion is used as a platform for the author's own argument, the premise being that bad things happen to good characters, but the idea of predestination is their own, prompted by but not the same as Critic X's view.

Another way to engage a critical opinion is to disagree with it, which shows that you have not just read the critical opinions surrounding a text, but that you have evaluated them and thought for yourself. Staying on Shakespeare, you could explain the influence of a certain school of thought but offer your own contrasting reading of the text. For example, when talking about The Tempest you could say that:

"Prospero’s poor treatment of Caliban, such as his unjustified threats in Act 1 Scene 2 that “I’ll rack thee with old cramps”, has been interpreted by many post-colonial critics in a negative way. These critics would argue that Prospero, as a high status European ‘immigrant’ to the island, assumes that he is superior to the native Caliban and treats him as such both in his attempts to “civilize” Caliban and teach him Italian, and his later enslavement of him. This depiction of the relationship between the two was common in early productions of the play, but can also be seen in Julie Taymore’s more recent film, where Caliban is dressed in a traditionally tribal costume and his appearances are accompanied by tribal drumming. Post colonialists may therefore argue that Prospero represents the cruelty and ignorance of the European “civilizing mission” in the 16th century. However, I would disagree with this interpretation of Prospero. It can be argued that rather than simply representing cruelty, Prospero and Caliban’s relationship is an essential plot device, used by Shakespeare to allow Prospero to learn how to rule and therefore allow him to return to Milan by the end of the play. In addition, we must bear in mind context; while post colonial interpretations of the play may label Prospero as a racist, in 16th century England when this play was first performed, there was no concept of racism and this treatment would have been typical of early explorers at the time.”

This example outlines a point made by critics, and uses it to build on the author’s argument, showing that they have not only read around the subject but referred to other interpretations of the play, such as film. However, it shows that the opinion of the critics has been evaluated by disagreeing with it, and so engages rather than simply regurgitates the critical views.

I hope this is a useful guide to successfully engaging critical views in your essays.

Jess F. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature tut...

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