English University Interviews - Shakespeare

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You should expect a range of questions on Shakespeare, although of course to some extent in line with what you’ve studied. Here we look at a small range of the many questions asked about Shakespeare in Oxbridge interviews.

Did Shakespeare write his plays? Additionally, how would you respond if you found out that he didn’t?

You should link this question to authorship and history. The most sensible argument to make might be that Shakespeare is essentially defined through his works – one’s perception of Shakespeare is as the playwright that produced those works. If, in fact, someone else was Shakespeare, then you might simply see them as Shakespeare. You can separate the biographical/historical entity from the cultural figure. The works are much larger than any one individual now, and therefore dwarf the rest of the context of the author. Try to avoid becoming too embedded in a discussion over whether it was Shakespeare that wrote the plays, or de Vere, or Marlow, etc, and instead find interesting points on authorship and how we understand an author. Remember that in general the evidence does point to Shakespeare as the author of his plays, and thus you would be safer to assume that this is true than argue a counterpoint. If you found out that he didn’t write his plays, then you would question both – how does it alter our perception of Shakespeare, and how does it alter our perception of his works? We might see different meanings to particular works in light of the new author and perhaps the new context that surrounds that author. However, this is entirely dependent on the extent to which one believes that the author is present within their work.

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Was Shakespeare a rebel? To what extent do you think that Romeo is a rebel?

Firstly we need to consider what a rebel is. We can see them as someone that rebels against convention, or against the very state itself. Let’s take the first meaning. Shakespeare made use of blank verse, which was a new form that he was largely responsible for popularising. As such, he could be said to have rebelled against the typical forms of verse of the time. He also made new words as he needed, through using words from other languages or simply creating his own, and also is responsible for creating many of the English language idioms. All these actions could make him a rebel of sorts. Considering Romeo, the question really is whether his love for Juliet makes him a rebel. Clearly, his love for her is against what he ‘ought to do’ but is this enough for him to be a rebel? Tybalt might be better seen as the true rebel of the piece, or even Juliet instead of Romeo – after all, she too goes against her parents, and does so through a level of rebellion that we do not see in Romeo, refusing to marry Paris and actively seeking help from the friar to pursue a life with Romeo.

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Is Hamlet too long?

There are many questions on Hamlet that have been asked at Oxbridge interviews, and you should take the time to look through each. However, this is perhaps the most accessible. If posed with this question – or one like it on Shakespeare’s works – you should ensure that your argument centres on the work and how the length is justified, or not, through the quality of the narrative or its needs. Don’t focus on your own personal reading habits. Regarding Hamlet in particular, you could focus on the fact that there are numerous developments that fail to progress the storyline, like Hamlet being sent to England. He never reaches the country, and this aborted journey could be bypassed in the interests of a more efficient story. Be cautious when arguing that a work is too long, as you must avoid coming across as someone who struggles with longer works or automatically rallies against them. In a work that has had such a huge impact on popular culture – and which is a core part of the English syllabus at school – you should do your utmost to rationalise how the length of the work is beneficial and allows for the themes to shine through, before you allow yourself to argue the counterpoint.

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