M.A. Comprehensive Exam: Sample Exam Questions

Sample Period Questions:

Renaissance and Seventeenth Century:

In a famous passage, Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” In his Religio Medici, Sir Thomas Browne similarly describes humanity’s divided nature in terms of “that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in diverse elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.” Using this passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and two other relevant Renaissance texts from the shortened list, analyze the tension in Renaissance culture between the seemingly divine and the entirely mortal aspects of humankind. What is this nature of this tension, as Hamlet and other Renaissance voices articulate it, and why is it so prominent in the period?



The Restoration and Eighteenth Century:

Though the eighteenth century was rich in literary accomplishment, satire stands out as one of the period’s greatest contributions. Writers like Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Johnson used satire to expose abuses, hypocrisy, and folly while reminding their audience of the values that needed to be reformed or asserted. In your essay, choose three satires from the shortened list and explain what the targets are of the satires, why satire seems like the best means of dealing with these subjects, how the satire is conducted, and what the writers propose as alternatives to the problems they see.


American Literature Prior to 1860:

Distinctions between “higher law” (or divine law) and human-made laws are common in   literature of this period. Transcendentalists and abolitionists alike tended to invoke higher law. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatizes this distinction in a conversation between Mary Bird and John, her husband and a US senator, about the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Appalled that her husband would support it, Mary says, “Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow.” Select writings by three different authors from this period (drawing from the shortened list), and discuss the meaning and significance of their appeals to “higher law.”



Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, said that of all the kinds of suffering to which humans are subject the worst is not to know the meaning or purpose of the suffering. Humans, he said, can endure a lot if they have a reason for their suffering. One reason people write literary works is to find reasons for the suffering that makes up so big a part of human life, or, at least, to bear witness to that suffering. The certainty and inevitability of suffering in human life may, for example, lead to the affirmation of certain values, but it may also challenge others. In your essay, choose six texts from the full list of works in accordance with the rules listed below and write an essay comparing or contrasting the ways the works consider suffering. Be sure to take into account historical and cultural contexts to inform your discussion of the texts. Whenever possible, draw connections among the texts.

  • You are not limited to the shortened list in this essay but rather are encouraged to bring in texts from the entire reading list in your responses.
  • You must use at least six (6) texts in your response.
  • You must use at least two (2) British works and at least two (2) American works in your response.
  • You must use at last two (2) texts from before 1800 and two (2) texts from after 1800.