Matthew Chow ’18 is an English and economics double major. His thesis examines the intersection of the Christian gospel and Shakespeare’s tragedies. His advisor is Professor Anston Bosman in the English Department.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: I’ll start with the Christian gospel aspect of it. I’ve been Christian almost all my life, and I think a big part of my college experience has been getting to know what the gospel is. At the same time, what’s been really cool is taking a lot of Shakespeare classes and seeing how in tragedy there’s a lot of elements that mirror the gospel, but also a lot of elements that challenge and conflict with the gospel. Notions of sacrifice, scapegoating, catharsis and purging a community of evil are the questions that I’m really interested in. In my thesis, I’m hoping to look where in Shakespeare we see that type of tragic scapegoating, self-annihilation that you also see in the Bible with Jesus and the different characters in the Bible as well. I want to see how they shine a light on each other.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your thesis?
A: The idea came up in a Shakespeare class that I took my sophomore year. For that class, I wrote a paper about how in Richard III, Shakespeare uses rhetorical forms in a way that advances the plot. I focused on this rhetorical device called chiasmus. If you think of the way Shakespeare plays with words, he’ll flip a sentence on itself, so I was looking at how Shakespeare does that rhetorically but also how that reflects the genre of tragedy — where a person goes from being good to being bad, or a community goes from being evil to being good. Also, I was looking at how that reflects the Christian gospel. That idea really stuck with me and I really enjoyed writing it, so when it came down to think of a potential thesis, that was one that jumped out at me. Since then, I’ve learned so much more about Shakespeare and the genre of drama as a whole.
Q: What kind of research have you done so far?
A: There’s been two fronts to the research. One is just reading the primary texts because Shakespeare has so many different plays. I want to focus more on tragedy, but of course there’s a lot of other plays that can speak to that topic of Christianity. I think the one thing that I need to do is read through as many of those plays as possible. Through taking a couple Shakespeare classes here, I’ve probably read six or seven Shakespeare plays, but even now I’m reading through some new ones that I haven’t read before. The other front is the secondary sources that give me historical context. In general, it’s just a lot of reading and looking for new things to read. It’s very different from STEM research because there’s no lab work you have to do. You have to figure out what questions you have and find a way to address those questions and see what new questions come up.
Q: How has your thesis changed from when you started?
A: I think the driving idea behind the thesis hasn’t changed a lot, but through reading more plays, I’ve kind of expanded the scope of what I’m looking at. There have been a lot more questions that I’ve had to ask, especially because a lot of those plays I read were in the context of the class that I took them in. So now being able to read and write in a more free-form way has allowed me to ask different questions instead of just thinking about the curriculum. These new questions kind of complicate things because it’s hard to know what to focus on.
Q: What is the best part about writing a thesis?
A: The best part about writing a thesis is that I feel like I’m creating something that has originated from and is inspired and motivated by myself. This entire process is really mine to succeed in or mine to fail in – I don’t know how it’ll end up turning out. I think just having a lot of agency over this is really important to me. I’ve done a bit of research work for professors in the past, and while that helped me learn a lot about the research process, it’s different when you have to do something that someone else assigns to you or if you have to read books that a professor wants you to read for their projects. There’s a lot you can learn from that, but it’s also different because you don’t feel like you have the same ownership over that project. But with a thesis, for the first time, I have ownership over all of it. My advisor helps me a lot and gives me suggestions, but in the end it’s up to me to decide whether I want to follow them or go in a different direction. It’s also a really cool way of validating all of the things I’ve learned at Amherst. There’s so many things that we learn in our classes that we don’t necessarily see until maybe we are working or like farther down in our careers, but I think a thesis is one physical way you can see all of the ways I’ve developed as a thinker, reader and writer.
Q: What’s the hardest part about writing a thesis?
A: It’s kind of complicated with Shakespeare because there’s so much that’s been written about it, so it’s hard to find an original viewpoint or even to dig through the thousands of books that have been written about Shakespeare. Even with Shakespeare and Christianity – there’s so much that’s been written about it. One challenge that I have right now is where to start looking because there’s just so much that I could look at. Another difficult thing for me has been reconciling my academic interests and my personal beliefs and convictions. I believe in the gospel and that’s my driving motivation for this project, but I don’t want that belief to influence the way I look at academic writing. I also don’t want my academic writing and reading to distort my original motivation behind finding these intersections between Christianity and literature. For me, that’s been one of my worries — trying to stay loyal to both.
Q: Has working on your thesis changed your relationship with Christianity at all?
A: I would say not in a way that I can see yet. If you asked me again in a few months, I don’t know what I might say.
Q: Do you have any advice for other students interested in writing a thesis in the future?
A: If you have any inkling of a desire to do it, go for it. As far as I know, in most departments you can basically take it as far as you want to. Even right now, I’m not exactly sure where my thesis will go and the one anxiety is: what if I spent a year and nothing comes out of it? But just being able to read and think and talk to my advisor and other people about this idea that I’ve been able to create that I’m passionate about has been great. This whole process is really worth it. I’d say if you have an idea that you’re passionate about, even if you’re worried about the end result, I’d say go for it. You can always decide later on in the process to let it go if you want to.