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A Good Thesis Statement On Macbeth

A Good Paper Starts With A Good Thesis
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A good thesis is:

  • Argumentative. It makes an argument or claim. That is the biggest difference between a thesis and a topic -- a topic is something like "Slavery in Huck Finn." This is not a claim or an argument, it is only a general area. A thesis, on the other hand, makes a specific claim or argument; it tries to prove something. One way to tell a thesis from a topic: if it does not have an active verb, it is almost certainly still a topic.
  • Controversial. That does not mean something like "Abortionists should be shot" or "George W. Bush's election was illegitimate" -- it means that it has to be possible for an intelligent person to disagree with your thesis. If everyone agrees on first sight, your thesis is too obvious and not worth writing about.
  • Analytical, not evaluative. A college English paper is not the place to evaluate works of literature: theses like "Paradise Lost is an enduring expression of the human spirit" or "The Sound and the Fury is not successful in its choice of narrative techniques" are making evaluative claims. Evaluation papers are not research papers. Evaluations are the business of book reviewers.
  • Specific. It is not enough to deal in vague generalities (for an example of generalizations and why they are bad, read below). Some students want to write their paper on man and God, or on the black experience in the twentieth century. Both are far too nebulous to produce a good paper.  The topic is way too large to handle.
  • Well supported. This is the key to the rest of the paper after the introductory paragraph.


"Since the beginning of time, man has wrestled with the great questions of the universe. Humans have always sought to understand their place in creation. There is no society on earth that has not attempted to reckon with the human condition."

Generalizations like this are sure to sink your writing.

For starters, how do you know what has happened since the beginning of time?  Do you know what the great questions of the universe have been since the beginning of time?  Do you know how all humans, since the beginning of time, have tried to understand their place in creation?  Do you know about all societies on earth to make the claim that they all have tried to reckon with the human condition?  And just what is the human condition?

Good Theses:

Showing that a book claims to do one thing while actually doing another -- that's English-paper gold, because such theses are almost always specific and controversial. For example:

  • "Many critics have called the novel misogynistic, but the last chapter suggests it is more feminist than usually assumed." (Be careful, though, about saying what "many critics" have "usually" said: you can't make these things up. Back it up with research into what real critics have actually said about it.)
  • "Although the religious tone in the poem suggests a devout belief in God, the speaker is in fact experiencing a crisis of faith."

Note that I said the speaker, not the poet: avoid making claims about real-life authors, whose opinions you may or may not be able to guess from their work. Never assume any writing is autobiographical.

Another thing that makes English professors jump for joy: close attention to language. Do not be content with plot summary, especially since I have already read the literature you are writing about and do not need to have the plot summarized for me.  Look instead at the exact words the author uses, and try to base your argument on them. Some good models:

  • "When the work turns to questions of sexuality, the diction becomes much more Latinate and scientific, suggesting the character is uncomfortable with more blunt descriptions of sex."
  • "In the last stanza, the poem suddenly switches from the third person to the first, signaling more personal involvement."
  • "Where we would expect verbs of being and the passive voice, the author gives us a series of powerful active verbs, and assigns agency to the inanimate objects she describes, making the rocks and trees not mere background but active characters in the story."

Try to pay attention to things like verb tense (past, present) and voice (active, passive), diction (the choice of words), words that are repeated or pointedly avoided, word order, etc.

Bad Theses:

"Fate versus free will in Macbeth."

This one isn't even a thesis -- it's still a topic. Remember, a thesis should say something specific, and it should be a full sentence (with a verb) not a sentence fragment.

"Money is important in Moll Flanders's life."

This one fails for two reasons. First, although it is a sentence and has a verb, it does not say much -- just some vague indication that a topic (money) is worth attention.  This thesis is also weak because it is not controversial -- who in his or her right mind would argue with it? Moll is obsessed with money, and it is obvious to anyone who opens the book. You have to say something that is not obvious.

"In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens presents a realistic picture of social interaction in Victorian London."

How do you know? -- what makes you think Victorian London was really like what Dickens describes? Be careful of circular reasoning: it appears in a book, so it must have been part of real life; therefore I can discuss how the book is like real life. Unless you have done research on actual social conditions in the nineteenth century, do not presume to talk about the world outside the book. All your attention should be on interpreting the text itself, without regard to things you do not (and sometimes cannot) know.

"Hamlet is an enduring testimony to the genius of William Shakespeare."

Good English papers are analytical, not evaluative -- your thesis should never be that a work is good or bad. (Again, that is the business of book reviewers.) Take it for granted that Hamlet deserves two thumbs up: there is no need for you to say it, and certainly no reason to make it the center of your argument.

"In its departure from the familiar metrical forms of its day, Whitman's Leaves of Grass is ahead of its time."

A good thesis should at least nod in the direction of historicism. Evaluating old works by modern standards does them no justice.

Work Toward Turning Bad Theses into Good Ones:

Here is a way to turn some bad theses into good ones, albeit, they are still far from perfect.

"Fate versus free will in Macbeth."

There is not much we can do with this, since there is no argument of any sort. To make it worthwhile, we need to say something specific. Here is a possibility: "Lady Macbeth works to manipulate her husband into believing in the possibility of free will, but Shakespeare puts them in a world controlled by fate."  A better thesis might be produced by trying to answer the question, "Why does Lady Macbeth want her husband to believe in the possibility of free will?  What does he believe in now?  Will believing in free will threaten his present worldview?"

"Money is important in Moll Flanders's life."

Like the previous example, this one does not say anything specific. But try this: "As her use of language shows, Moll Flanders imagines every aspect of life, including love and family life, in economic terms."  A bit better, but still boring.  It leaves me asking, "So what?  Who cares if Moll Flanders imagines everything in economic terms?"  The thesis is better than the first example, but try making it better by asking yourself the "so what?" question.

"In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens presents a realistic picture of social interaction in Victorian London."

Unless you are prepared to do research to back it up, steer clear of things that depend on facts outside the books you are reading. But you can discuss the ways the author describes his world. Something like this might work: "Dickens's attention to circumstantial detail makes the squalor of Oliver Twist seem much more convincing."  Still, this thesis does not make for a very exciting paper.  Why should we care if the squalor depicted is more convincing? More convincing than what? Who cares?  So what?  This idea needs a little more work to make a stronger argument or claim.

"Hamlet is an enduring testimony to the genius of William Shakespeare."

Nothing you can do with this, because it is not the sort of thing a college English paper should do. Toss it out and start over.

"In its departure from the familiar metrical forms of its day, Whitman's Leaves of Grass is ahead of its time."

The problem is "ahead of its time," which evaluates Whitman by standards that came after him. You can, however, evaluate him by standards that came before him: "Whitman's content appears more experimental, even radical, because his form is also revolutionary; the form and content work together to challenge conventional wisdom."  This revision is the best example of working toward making a strong thesis.  The way to make it even stronger would be to carry out the final idea a bit more.  " challenge conventional wisdom, which stated that......."  What was the conventional wisdom that Whitman's work challenged?

Other websites to help you formulate your thesis:

These analytical papers are designed to review your knowledge of the drama and apply that knowledge to a critical paper. The topics may request that you examine the conflicts, themes, or question a standard theory about the play.

Topic #1
The term tragic hero refers to a central character who has a authoritative status in the drama, but through a flaw in his or her character brings about his or her demise. The flaw may consist of a poor decision that is made and creates a situation the character cannot change or control. The tragic hero recognizes his or her flaw, however there is nothing that can be done to avert tragedy. Macbeth is seen as a tragic hero. Write a paper tracing the sequence of events that contribute to Macbeth’s demise and tragic end.

I. Thesis Statement: Macbeth is seen as a tragic hero. He compromises his honor and negates moral responsibility to attain power and position which result in his tragic end.

II. Definition and characteristics of a tragic hero
1. Fate
2. Weakness
3. Poor decision making resulting in a catastrophe
4. Realization of flaw but unable to prevent tragedy

III. The Witches
A. Plan to meet Macbeth
B. Statement that fair is foul, and foul is fair

IV. Allegiance to Scotland and Duncan
A. Battle with Macdonwald
B. Battle with the King of Norway
C. Duncan’s Response
1. Honor bestowed on Macbeth
2. Duncan’s opinion of Macbeth

V. Witches on the battlefield
A. The prophecy
B. Macbeth’s Response
C. Banquo’s Response

VI. Macbeth’s meeting with Duncan
A. Duncan greets Macbeth with respect
B. Macbeth’s reaction to Duncan naming Malcolm as his successor

VII. Decisions made before Macbeth is king
A. Lady Macbeth’s plan
1. Macbeth’s response
2. Lady Macbeth’s Influence on Macbeth
3. Macbeth’s decision
B. Eve of the Murder
1. Floating Dagger
2. Macbeth’s reaction
C. Duncan’s Murder
1. Murder of the guards
2. Response
D. Discovery of Duncan’s body
1. Macbeth’s reaction
2. Duncan’s sons
3. Macbeth named as king

VIII. Decisions made as King
A. Banquo
1. Fear of prophecy
2. Hires Murderers
B. Banquet
1. Reaction to Murderers
2. Ghost
C. Meeting with the Witches
1. Response to Prophecy
2. Macduff and family
3. Leaving for Dunsinane in England
D. Battle with Malcolm’s forces
1. Dunsinane prophecy
2. Young Siward
3. False sense of security
E. Reactions to Lady Macbeth’s illness and death
F. Meeting Macduff
1. Guilt
2. Revealing prophecy to Macduff
3. Macbeth’s realization that the Witches told him half-truths

IX. Macbeth’s tragic end
A. Macduff’s victory
B. Malcolm’s speech

Topic #2
Lady Macbeth is seen as a controlling factor in Macbeth’s life. She is able to control his actions and events. However, she loses control of Macbeth. Write a paper describing what control she has in Macbeth’s life and how the loss of that power contributes to her demise.

I. Thesis Statement: Lady Macbeth’s desire for power prompts her interest in controlling Macbeth’s actions. However, she loses control which contributes to her tragedy.

II. Introduction of Lady Macbeth
A. Reading Macbeth’s letter
B. Witches prophecy fulfilled
C. Opinion of Macbeth
D. Desire for Power
1. Strength needed
2. Her plan
III. Meeting with Macbeth
A. Affection towards each other
B. Lady Macbeth’s plan

IV. Power over Macbeth
A. Macbeth’s Decision about Lady Macbeth’s plan
1. Lady Macbeth’s response to Macbeth
a. Attacks...

(The entire section is 1614 words.)