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A Guide to Citing Shakespeare in Academic Writing

Shakespeare’s plays are so influential that many style guides have special rules for citing them. As a proofreader, then, you’ll need to look out for citations like these when working on academic writing. Here, we’ll set out the key rules for citing Shakespeare plays in some of the major referencing systems, including the APA, Chicago, MHRA, and MLA styles.

APA Style

APA referencing uses its author–date citations when citing Shakespeare. The main issue to look out for is the date, which should include two dates separated by a forward slash:

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare, 1597/2021) is the most famous love story ever written.

The first year here (1597) refers to the year the play was originally published. The second (2021) is the year of publication for the specific edition referenced. In this respect, Shakespeare plays follow the standard rules for reprinted works in APA referencing.

The other key point relates to quotations and paraphrases from Shakespeare plays, which should be cited with act, scene, and line numbers rather than page numbers:

It is at this point we encounter the famous line from the balcony scene: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Shakespeare, 1597/2021, 2.2.35).

This shows that the quote comes from act 2, scene 2, line 35 of Romeo and Juliet.

In an APA reference list, meanwhile, Shakespeare plays are typically cited as reprinted books (i.e., with an original date of publication at the end of the reference). Make sure to check your client includes the edition cited, as line numbers can vary between versions.

Chicago Style

Chicago style varies depending on the version of this system used (i.e., footnote citations or parenthetical author–date citations). However, there are two things that always apply:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style suggests using act, scene, and line numbers when citing classic English plays, including Shakespeare plays.
  • Writers should include the edition of the text used for clarity on line numbers.

In the footnote version of Chicago referencing, then, the first footnote might look like this:

1. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 1.1.20–26. References are to act, scene, and line.

Here, for example, the citation is for lines 20 to 26 in act 1, scene 1 of The Tempest. The full publication information and the sentence “References are to act, scene, and line” would be only required on the first reference, though: subsequent citations can typically be shortened.

A Chicago author–date citation of the same passage, meanwhile, would look like this:

We see this early on in The Tempest (Shakespeare 2011, 1.1.20–26).

Both versions of Chicago style also require the full publication details for the version cited in the bibliography/reference list, so make sure to check if this information is present.

MHRA Style

In the MHRA referencing system, Shakespeare’s plays should be cited using the guidelines for citing plays and other long works (i.e., classic works with established subdivisions such as scenes, books, cantos, and similar). In practice, this means:

  • The edition used should be included in the first footnote citation.
  • Citations should include act, scene, and line numbers (not page numbers).
  • Act numbers should be given in Roman numbers (small capitals).
  • Scenes and line numbers should be given in Arabic numerals.

In practice, then, the first citation of a Shakespeare play would look like this:

1. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Penguin Classics, 2015), ɪɪ. 3. 15.

For subsequent citations of the same play, MHRA suggests shortening the footnote to just the author’s name and the pinpoint citation (still given with act, scene, and line numbers):

2. Shakespeare, . 1. 18–25.

But if there could be doubt about the play in question (e.g., if your client is citing more than one Shakespeare play in a single document), footnotes should give the play name instead:

1. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. by Peter Holland (London: Penguin Classics, 2015), ɪɪ. 3. 15.

2. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), ɪ. 1. 20–26.

3. The Merchant of Venice, . 1. 18–25.

In the bibliography entry, meanwhile, your client should include the full publication details.

MLA Style

As with the other systems here, MLA style recommends citing Shakespeare plays using act, scene, and line numbers rather than standard page numbers. For example:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream addresses love early on (Shakespeare 1.1.234–235).

However, if your client has cited more than one Shakespeare play, they will need to replace the author’s name with the source title. This is because MLA referencing doesn’t use a date of publication in citations, so the title helps readers to tell sources by the same author apart.

In addition, for Shakespeare plays, MLA style suggests a series of standard abbreviations for use in citations. Your client should use these rather than shortening titles themselves:

Shakespeare touched on this theme many times (e.g., MND 1.1.234–235; TN 1.1.1; Rom. 1.1.181), suggesting the nature of love was a point of fascination for him.

The passage above, for example, cites A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MND), Twelfth Night (TN), and Romeo and Juliet (Rom.), with the abbreviations keeping citations succinct.

Meanwhile, the format for Shakespeare plays in an MLA “Works Cited” list will depend on how your client accessed the source (e.g., online, in a print anthology). However, entries should always include full publication details for the version cited in the document.

Reference Variations

We’ve offered some brief guidelines on how to present Shakespeare plays in reference lists for the systems above, but this can depend on how your client has accessed the source.

For example, a student using APA referencing might access a Shakespeare play online and reference it as a website. As long as all the relevant source information is given, this is usually fine. Your role will be to check references for clarity and consistency.

Nevertheless, if you’re not sure about the reference format for a Shakespeare play in a specific system, make sure to look it up (either online or in the relevant style guide).

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For more information about proofreading academic writing and referencing styles, try the Becoming A Proofreader course. Sign up for a free trial today to find out more.

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