After studying this section, you should be able to:
• appreciate the importance of context in which a play was written
• make use of relevant contextual information when studying your play
The Importance of Context
It is important that you understand exactly what context is and why it is important in terms of the texts that you are studying, as it is one of the assessment objectives that you will be tested on. Assessment Objective 4 (AO4) requires you to ‘demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received’.
As you will have seen earlier, contextual influences cover a range of aspects that can influence the ways in which a text was written, and the ways in which it is received by an audience.
Contextual influences can include aspects such as:
• the historical period the play was written in
• the kind of society the dramatist lived in
• the political climate prevalent at the time
• the cultural influences the writer was subject to
• the way the language of the play reflects a particular time or place
• how the play has been influenced by the events of the dramatist’s life
• how our reading of the text might be influenced by our own contextual factors, ideas and beliefs.
As an example, to fully understand Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we need to appreciate that it was written towards the end of the sixteenth century, and that it is the product of the kind of drama that preceded it and which has links with it, and the beliefs and ideas that were current in sixteenth-century Britain. It is also important to understand that different audiences at different times would respond differently to the play and hold different views on it.
Using Relevant Contextual Information and Ideas
Part of your study of literature, both at AS and A2 level, will involve you being familiar with the contexts within which the play or plays you are studying were written. This means that you will need to be familiar with the historical period, events and also the ideas, beliefs and other influences that have helped to shape the dramatist’s work and creation of characters, exploration of themes, and use of language.
A starting point is to read about the life of the dramatist you are studying, the kind of society he or she lived in, and the kind of ideas and beliefs he/she held. This will help you form an idea of the background against which the work you are studying was written. It is important to remember, though – particularly when thinking about the biography of a dramatist – that although this information can help you to understand the play and its ideas, the text should always be at the centre of your study. Your response – whether in the form of an exam answer or piece of coursework – should focus on the play itself, and you should avoid being side-tracked into writing about the dramatist’s life.
Do not write about the dramatist’s life – the play is at the centre of your study. Biography can help you understand it more fully, but a critical analysis of the literature should be your key focus.
Knowledge of the historical context is very important in fully understanding the literature you are studying. Different times use language in different ways (sometimes even common words can have a different meaning from the meaning that we place on them), and you need to be aware of these language variations. Different times also have different beliefs and ideas, conventions, manners, attitudes and styles to our own time, and it is important that you appreciate these in order to gain a full understanding of the text.
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