Students who have written a number of essays may be lulled into a false sense of security when approaching a comparative essay. This is a very different kind of essay to one that focuses on a specific text that may ask for related material to strengthen its arguments.  With Module A: Comparative Study of Texts and Context, the Board of Studies is specifically asking you to compare and contrast your two texts.  You have to do this in every single sentence of your essay. You are looking at how the two are similar and how they differ.

Context, Audience and Purpose

1) context influences the composer’s presentation (both historical and social/cultural)

2) the perceived audience would potentially receive the text (would the composer be put on a pedestal by his peers or burned at the stake?)

3) the purpose of the composition (what could have inspired the person to put pen to paper?)

If you wish to do well in this particular module you must have multiple answers for each of these three questions and lots of quotes to back up your points. Of course, this is also the module where questions of timelessness and the human condition are the most relevant. When studying your texts, consider how much the outlook of the people have changed and most notably, what concerns seem to go on throughout time. As a case study, I’ve decided to compare William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.  You can get an audio version of Julius Caesar here and The Prince here. The time period in question is between  1513 and 1599. Before diving into the contextual analysis, first consider the time frame here. The people who were living in 1513 would be the great grandparents of those living in 1599. How much do you have in common with your grandparents? Add one more generation.  Machiavelli was living in Italy around the time when the Roman Catholic Church was deeply influential and the hypocrisy of portions of the clergy were very well known. This was also just over half a century after Johannes Gutenberg had the bright idea of turning a wine making press into a book printing press. Monks and scribes would rejoice! No more would they have to painstakingly copy books by hand, now they could send the books to the printer and have dozens of copies made. The price of books plummeted! As a consequence of this, more people across Europe started reading a greater variety of books. The best comparison we have for this sort of an information explosion is the modern internet.

Compare and Contrast

In your responses, a little bit of this information must be present. More specifically, it should be evident that you understand the ways in which the world in the two contexts shifted, and also remained the same. What are some of the timeless truths that become apparent with an analysis of the texts? An example of this is both ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘The Prince’ appear to value intelligence and deception as qualities that would assist a leader in gaining power.

Machiavelli specifically suggests that, “Outwitting opponents with their cunning… achieved more than leaders who behaved honestly” (p.93). The execution of this method of governance is demonstrated with Antony’s soliloquy which includes, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war” (A:III, S:I), a statement which occurs soon after the character publicly pronounces to Cassius, Brutus and the other conspirators that, “Friends am I with you all and love you all”, suggesting that Antony aims to use cunning in his attempt to gain power in Rome. In spite of The Prince being written as a personal compendium for developing a strengthened political base and Julius Caesar a commentary on the individuals who participate in these power plays, the truth of the very corruptible human character is highlighted in both texts.

Sample Introduction

Although every introduction is unique to your own specific line of reasoning and thus should carry the stamp of your own writing, a few simple key points should be noted for introductions in this module.

  • Introduce both texts and their dates
  • Usually mention the gap and the distinguishing feature of the gap
  • Identify similarities
  • Identify differences
  • Overview: context, audience, purpose

The following introduction has these elements:

Although the texts The Prince (1513) by Niccolo Machiavelli and William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) are close to 100 years apart, they share commonality in the timeless lust for power that leaders have felt throughout the ages. Both texts examine how governance shifts in different contexts and what elements remain static. Shakespeare reflects his context of a possibility of civil war through a historical play set in Rome, and Machiavelli provides the context of important power figures from history that can be used as parables to provide lessons on the nature of humans when dealing with power. Machiavelli and Shakespeare present various systems of governance where both favour monarchy as the most stable system despite Machiavelli being a staunch Republican. Power is ultimately seen as being gained through deception and violence and is kept through the different qualities of the leader, whether it be through the way they talk, or how they act and think. Both texts illustrate messages which not only apply to their times, but also to the modern lifestyle of power play, proving the texts to be of lasting relevance.

If you’re still stuck for what to do, please feel free to join us for an English tutoring lesson either online or in person.