how to use literary criticism in literature essays

How to use literary criticism in your own essays

I recently asked my YouTube subscribers about the topics they’d like to see from the channel, and the one that came out top was ‘how to use literary criticism in your own essays’. 

Being able to incorporate literary criticism in literature essays is a skill that any top grade lit students should master.

In this post, then, I’ll explain what literary criticism is, why we should care, and suggest 3 steps to using lit crit in an essay. I’ll also demonstrate how I’d use two sets of critical views in an essay on Macbeth.

Primary text vs secondary text – what’s the difference?

Let’s start by clarifying the difference between ‘primary texts’ and ‘secondary texts’. 

In literature, ‘primary texts’ refer to the original creative works, like novels, short stories, poems, plays, personal essays etc.

In most cases, they should be the focus of a lit course, which is why we tend to regard dramatists like William Shakespeare, novelists like Jane Austen, poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley, or even essayists like Joan Didion as primary text authors. 

When it comes to ‘secondary texts’, as the name itself would suggest, these are the critical responses to original creative works, otherwise known as ‘literary criticism’. 

Often, we refer to people who write ‘literary criticism’ as ‘literary critics’, but that’s not to say they are always ‘critical’ about literature in a negative, detractive way. Remember, criticism in literature simply means a professional evaluation and appreciation of written works. 

English professors are by default also literary critics, and in fact, you – as an English lit student – are also a literary critic everytime you write an essay analysing a literary text. Professional literary critics are often categorised according to different literary theories or approaches, such as femininst, postcolonial, historicist, structuralist, psychoanalytical, Marxist etc.

primary text secondary text literature examples

Okay… but why bother with lit crit at all?

Literary criticism can be a divisive topic in literary studies – it’s kind of like marmite: you either love it and see criticism as its own field of literary genre, or you hate it and can’t see the point of reading dense, academic prose that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. 

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But love it or hate it, being able to incorporate critical views in your own analysis can help you gain higher marks, as it shows sophisticated engagement with texts, and if you’re planning on studying literature at a higher level, literary criticism will be a regular presence on your course. 

In general, literary criticism carries great value in that it preserves the intellectual tradition of a culture, and it also helps us appreciate how language transcends time and space to communicate universal ideas about human nature and existence. 

To use a travel analogy, creative works are like beautiful exotic cities steeped in history, culture and their own unique customs, while critical works are like the tour guides, who curate for us the local highlights, uncover the hidden alleyways, and decipher the mystique of the sites and attractions for a more enlightened experience. 

Technically, this is what a lit crit should do, and indeed, what good lit crits do do. But of course, there are such literary critics who confuse more than clarify with obfuscating and convoluted prose. 

Judith Butler - ArtReview
Ahem Judith Butler Ahem

How to use literary criticism in your own essay – 3 steps

Step 1: Find different views and evaluate where you stand between them

They say that the first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club. Well, I say the first rule of using literary criticism is that you don’t focus on the literary criticism. Because at the end of the day, it’s your analysis and your essay, so your view on the novel, play, or poem is the point – not the critic’s. 

Once upon a time when I first came to know about lit crit, I was so enchanted with the seeming sophistication of it all I would turn my essays into an echo chamber of everyone else’s opinions on a text, in the process completely neglecting to express my own thoughts. 

Instead, I’ve learnt through the hard way that the right thing to do is to read a good amount of quality secondary criticism around a topic or text, then identify opposing critical viewpoints, and finally, evaluate where you stand between them. 

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Step 2: Understanding the critics’ angle and approach

This brings us to the next step – how do we go about finding ‘opposing’ views in the wild west of literary criticism? 

The way to do this is to understand the critic’s angle and approach – which usually stems from their theoretical or ideological agenda. 

Is the critic a historicist (someone who reads literature as a product of historical developments)? A feminist (someone who reads literature for gender tensions and power dynamics)? A structuralist (someone who reads literature as a compendium of codes, signs and structures)? A psychoanalyst (someone who reads literature through the lens of psychoanalysis and psychiatric ideas)? Or a Marxist (someone who reads literature for systems of class struggle between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, or the exploiters versus the proletariats. 

Even for critics who don’t come from a specific theoretical discipline, they still have an agenda – for instance, if a critic focuses only on what’s presented in the text – the language, form, devices – ignoring whatever contextual influences that may have gone into the writing of the text, then that makes them a textualist or formalist. In literary scholarship, this is referred to as Practical Criticism, otherwise known as close reading, which is the approach that most schools tend to teach. 

Once you figure out where a certain critic is coming from, you should be able to discern what other types of critics are likely to disagree with this critic, and most importantly, decide whether or not you agree with their respective views vis-a-vis the text you’re analysing. 

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For a deeper understanding of critical approaches and theoretical angles, I recommend Mary Klages’ Key Terms in Literary Theory, which is a comprehensive glossary of advanced literary concepts. 

Step 3: Challenge over concur; interpret over parrot

It may sound counterintuitive, but often, the best way of using lit crit is to disagree with it. Because most of the time, it’s only by challenging someone’s view do we really get to consider our own stance. Agreeing with a critic’s view is much less interesting – and there’s only so much we can say if we agree. 

Of course, that’s not to say we must always seek to be contrarian, but a good approach is to conduct an imaginary discussion with multiple critics who hold different viewpoints, and to consider that if we disagree with a critic’s view, why that is and make our case, and if we do happen to agree with another critic’s view, what else we can add to it based on our own interpretation of the text. 

In general, if all we do is say ‘this is what I think and prominent critic so-and-so also says this’, we run the risk of coming across insipid and uninspired in our arguments, or worse, that we’re just parroting the critic’s ideas and repurposing it as our own. 

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Example – Stephen Greenblatt and Emma Smith on Macbeth

Now, I’m going to demonstrate how we can write a paragraph incorporating opposing critical viewpoints. 

For my primary text, I’ll be using Macbeth; and for my secondary texts, I’ll be citing from Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Shakespeare Bewitched’ and Emma Smith’s This is Shakespeare, largely because they present rather different views on the presentation of witchcraft in the play.

stephen greenblatt emma smith shakespeare macbeth literary criticism

In addressing an essay topic like ‘How are the witches presented in Macbeth’, I’ll first consider what I think about this prompt. 

Well, I see the witches as playing various roles: on the one hand, they function as a theatrical device for the effect of sensationalist spectacle, which would have appealed to superstitious playgoers back in Shakespeare’s time. 

But on a deeper level, the witches are a magnifier of human flaws – it isn’t so much their curses and temptations that are the point, as it is how Macbeth reacts to these ‘supernatural solicitings’ that’s central to the message of the play. 

So you’ll notice that I’m adopting a hybrid approach that looks at Macbeth from both performative and humanistic angles. 

But for someone like Stephen Greenblatt, who I believe is one of the best Shakespearean critics alive, he sees the witches as playing a more metaphysical function, and argues that Shakespeare uses these Weird Sisters to interrogate the limits of theatre: by presenting on stage in concrete form what’s supposedly taboo, supernatural and therefore, unreal, the bard confuses the line between truth and imagination, and in a way, doesn’t so much suggest witchcraft and potions as a great source of danger, as it is perhaps that drama and language are a great source of power, having the capacity to make ‘real’ what’s not – like magic. 

As Greenblatt writes:

… Shakespeare is staging the epistemological and ontological dilemmas that in the deeply contradictory ideological situation of his time haunted virtually all attempts to determine the status of witchcraft beliefs and practices. And he is at the same time and by the same means staging the insistent, unresolved questions that haunt the practice of the theatre. For Macbeth manifests a deep, intuitive recognition that the theatre and witchcraft are both constructed on the boundary between fantasy and reality, the border or membrane where the imagination and the corporeal world, figure and actuality, psychic disturbance and objective truth meet. The means normally used to secure that border are speech and sight, but it is exactly these that are uncertain; the witches, as Macbeth exclaims, are “imperfect speakers,” and at the moment he insists that they account for themselves, they vanish.

(‘Shakespeare Bewitched’) 

Let’s now bring in an alternative critical view, this time, by Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, who often takes a broad, diverse approach to reading Shakespeare, but on the whole leans towards the historicist camp. 

Unlike Greenblatt, she posits that the witches don’t actually serve such a serious role in the play, and are less “active agents than passive predictors of how things will turn out”. 

She also argues that Shakespeare, in writing Macbeth, was to a large extent stroking King James’ ego buttons and establishing himself as a staunch Jacobean loyalist, being “a mouthpiece for Jacobean hereditary monarchy, for his new king James, and for the Stuart dynasty safely cushioned by two young princes” (Ch. 16, This is Shakespeare). 

However, this strong royal consciousness underlying Macbeth isn’t something Greenblatt agrees with, as he writes in his analysis that “no one in the [Jacobean] period, least of all [Shakespeare’s] players themselves, understood the designation ‘King’s Men’ to imply an official, prescriptive function, […] Neither Shakespeare nor his company were speaking dogmatically or even indirectly on behalf of any institution except the marginal, somewhat disreputable institution of the theatre, disreputable precisely because it was the acknowledged house of fantasies”. 

So – if I were to write up a paragraph triangulating Greenblatt, Smith and my own views, then it could look something like this:

In This is Shakespeare, Emma Smith argues that Shakespeare wrote the play with a strong political consciousness in mind, and in writing Macbeth, was to a large extent stroking King James’ ego buttons and establishing himself as a staunch Jacobean loyalist, being “a “a mouthpiece for Jacobean hereditary monarchy, for his new king James, and for the Stuart dynasty safely cushioned by two young princes”. As such, the witches are not meant to play a key role in the play, least of all be associated with the human realm, as they are less “active agents than passive predictors of how things will turn out”. 

Yet this strong royal consciousness underlying Macbeth isn’t something Greenblatt agrees with, as he writes in his analysis that “no one in the [Jacobean] period, least of all [Shakespeare’s] players themselves, understood the designation ‘King’s Men’ to imply an official, prescriptive function, […] Neither Shakespeare nor his company were speaking dogmatically or even indirectly on behalf of any institution except the marginal, somewhat disreputable institution of the theatre, disreputable precisely because it was the acknowledged house of fantasies”. Rather, his view of the witches is that they carry metaphysical currency, being these theatrical devices which help Shakespeare interrogate the limits of theatre. By presenting on stage in concrete form what’s supposedly taboo, supernatural and therefore, imaginary, the bard confuses the line between the real and the imaginary, and in a way, doesn’t so much suggest witchcraft and potions as a great source of danger, as it is perhaps that drama and language as a great source of power, having the capacity to make ‘real’ what’s not – like magic. 

Notwithstanding the political and epistemological concerns that may have been at the back of Shakespeare’s mind, it is perhaps undeniable that the witches hold a central function in the play as a theatrical device for the effect of sensationalist – if not entertaining – spectacle, which would have appealed to superstitious playgoers back in Shakespeare’s time and contributed to the company’s professional success. On a deeper level, the witches serve as a magnifier of human flaws, with prophecy and temptation eliciting a definitive response from Macbeth that exposes the depths of his troubled psychology. So, while the witches aren’t as ancillary a character as Smith suggests, nor as solemn a motif as Greenblatt posits, they occupy a singular, important position in the play as a concave mirror for the tragic hero’s flaws, on which every reaction Macbeth gives to their “supernatural soliciting” eventually compose a map of his own demise. 

Want more study tips on English Lit? Check out my other blog posts below:

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