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Interpreting Works in Context

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  • 0:03 What is Context?
  • 1:00 Historical Context
  • 2:14 Biographical Context
  • 3:53 Context of Language and Form
  • 5:30 The Context of the Reader
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn how to interpret a written work in its context. We will explore the historical context, biographical context, context of language and form, and context of the reader.

What Is Context?

Texts are not created in a vacuum. Every piece of writing comes from a particular time, place, and author. Every piece of writing exhibits, at least in part, the language and form of its day. Every piece of writing is approached by readers with their own set of experiences and beliefs. Together, these aspects form a text's context.

A text's context is the situation in which it is written and read. Again, it includes the historical era in which the work is created; the experiences, culture, and beliefs of the author; the language and forms popular at the time of the text's creation; and the experiences, culture, and beliefs of the reader who approaches the text in his or her own era. In this lesson, we will explore all of these aspects of context and see how they affect the interpretation of a text.

Historical Context

Every author lives in a historical moment, surrounded by events and ideas that help shape his or her writing. When a reader is familiar with these events and ideas, which form the text's historical context, he or she will better understand the message and details of a piece of writing.

Let's look at an example. Dante's Divine Comedy was written in the early 1300s in Italy. This was a time of great political conflict between various Italian city states, which were constantly striving for dominance and independence. Dante often found himself right in the middle of this strife, which often turned violent, and early in the century, he chose to support the losing side and ended up in exile from his native Florence.

Dante's writing reflects this historical situation. For instance, Dante populates the regions of hell and purgatory with his political rivals. Further, Dante's entire outlook, and the structure of his work (the inferno, purgatory, and heaven), is shaped by the strong Catholicism of his era. Knowing all of this historical context helps us to better understand the meaning and details of Dante's greatest work.

Biographical Context

Writers also tend to put a great deal of themselves into their texts. Even if they try to avoid it, their beliefs, education, culture, and experiences usually shine through their words. Knowing something about an author's life and perspective, namely, a work's biographical context, can help readers better understand and interpret a text.

Let's say we were going to read two books about the American Civil War. One of them was written by a southerner and the other by a northerner. These books, even though they cover the same historical events and characters, could be quite different. The southerner, for instance, might ascribe to the 'Lost Cause' idea that the South was simply overwhelmed by the North's superior numbers and industrial capacity. He may also be more likely to glorify southern leaders and criticize northern ones, perhaps giving more pages to Confederate General Robert E. Lee than to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Further, a southern author might talk more about states' rights than slavery when discussing the cause of the war.

A northerner, on the other hand, will probably reject the 'Lost Cause' theory, even if he also focuses on the North's advantages. He may also emphasize slavery as the cause of the war and might spend more time describing northern leaders. Further, he may tend to be more forthright about the South's lack of political leadership and internal struggles. In any case, the two authors' backgrounds could significantly affect the arguments and descriptions they include in their books, and knowing this biographical context would certainly help readers evaluate these arguments and descriptions.

Context of Language and Form

Readers should also understand that language changes over time. The English that we write and speak today is quite different from the English written and spoken in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or even the 19th century. Knowing something about the context of the language an author uses in a text can help a reader better understand and appreciate that text. Readers should make a strong effort to identify and look up unfamiliar vocabulary, work through unfamiliar sentence structures, and identify rhetorical devices and figures of speech.

Reading Shakespeare, for example, can be quite a challenge because the Bard's language can be daunting to readers not used to 16th century vocabulary and structures. Readers should approach Shakespeare's works in editions that include explanatory footnotes or make good use of online resources like Shakespeare glossaries.

Literary forms also change over time. Modern readers often find themselves uncomfortable with forms that were popular in the past, like lyric poetry, epic narratives, plays, and allegorical works. Knowing something about a text's particular literary form helps readers better understand what they read.

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