Thematic Essay

Grade Breakdown

25% of the Total Grade. If you earn an average C+ on this essay and solid Bs on every other portion of the total grade, you would have a B- at the end of the term.

Assignment Overview

For this essay assignment, I ask you to craft a 6-8 page formal essay, for a college-level audience familiar with the subject, identifying a motif and describing how that motif contributes to the development of an important theme in an assigned play of your choice. We will be modeling reading practices that will help you understand motif and theme, so you might find it helpful to take good notes about ideas that interest you. You may choose this project or the performance project.

Sample Motifs, Themes

A motif is a concrete, identifiable, repeated element - often an image, a situation, or a formula - in a literary piece. Because repetition creates pattern and pattern creates meaning, motifs help you identify the larger ideas or themes of a text, which are typically abstract. To identify a motif, look for repeated and apparently significant words, repeated images, repeated actions, or repeated results of actions. As you reread the play you've chosen, highlight as many instances of your motif as possible, and remember that a motif may not look exactly the same each time it appears. For instance, in Everyman, Everyman repeatedly asks for companionship and is denied - a motif - but he does not necessarily ask the same characters in the same ways. You should also look for ways to tie apparently dissimilar instances of a motif together. Are there any other kinds of "asking for companionship" enacted in the play? And what happens in each instance, what are the particulars of each instance? Another example of a motif, in Behn's The Rover, is the language of "business" or the formula of attempted rape. These images, words, and situations appear repeatedly, and it's our job as close, critical readers to notice these elements.

We should notice them not only because they're repeated, but because in repetition, they create a sense of theme. A theme is a general or abstract idea that emerges from a literary text. While motifs are concrete - you can put your finger on them - themes are not. We get at theme by way of motif. In order to understand theme effectively, we need to seat motifs in the real content of the play; therefore, we also need to know what the play is literally about, before we can understand what it is figuratively about. So, using an example above, and given the play's content, we could say that in Behn's The Rover the theme of entertainment as business emerges through the development of the related motifs of business and pleasurable exchange. The play seems to suggest that - in different ways, for different kinds of characters - the business of entertainment can be a way to assert social power.

Sample Thesis

A thesis for this essay will assert the relationship between motif and theme you see in the play; for instance, "The Rover is a play about the different kinds of power that individual classes of people in 17th century England can assert. Behn's play suggests that - in different ways, for different kinds of characters - the business of entertainment can be a way to assert social power. However, the play does not suggest that all forms of social power are equally desirable, in the end."


Create a two-page proposal for your essay in which you outline what you'd like to work on and why you'd like to work on it. What themes or motifs interest you in the plays we've read thus far? You should consider this proposal as a way to get my feedback on your ideas, so I can help point you in the right direction.

Grading Rubric

I will be grading according to the following rubric guide:

  1. Has the author succinctly summarized the plot for the purposes of the thesis?
  2. Has the author identified, located, and described a clear motif in the play, using direct and indirect quotes?
  3. Has the author clearly identified a significant, appropriate theme?
  4. Has the author described or analyzed each instance of the identified motif to show how it helps create the theme?
  5. Is the essay organized in a logical fashion, with clear transitions moving the essay forward in support of the thesis?
  6. Is the essay clearly written and carefully proofread?
  7. Does the essay conform to all aspects of correct MLA formatting?

Approved Sources

This essay may use only the following sources:

  1. The playtext ordered for class
  2. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre
  3. The Oxford English Dictionary
  4. One secondary scholarly source of your choice
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