I have been teaching community college courses in literature for over ten years now. That means that I have probably graded over a thousand essays by now. (A graveyard-chill just passed over me just now as I reflect on how many hours I must have spent grading all those papers!) One of the ways I maintain my sanity is by keeping the topics fresh. I don't want to read about the themes of Hamlet every single semester. Instead, I want students to explore ideas even I haven't considered before.
One essay prompt that has generated a lot of success focuses on character analysis. But not just character analysis from a single play. My literature students will study two play of their choice and then compare and contrast a character from each play. For example, two semesters ago I was very impressed with a student's essay topic. She analyzed the similarities between Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and Troy Maxson from August Wilson's Fences. Even though these two men have lead very different lives, they have both strove for their version of the American dream, a struggle that ultimately costs them dearly.
Sounds like an interesting assignment? Leave a comment and tell us which two characters would make an awesome compare/contrast essay.