Western Literature: History & Canon

Ben Nickol
Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

This lesson offers an overview of the major movements and authors of Western Literature, starting with William Shakespeare and proceeding to 20th-century authors, such as Virginia Woolf and Thomas Pynchon.


As with all broad movements, Western Literature did not begin at one instant, with a single event, like the flipping of a light switch. Instead, as the cultures of Western nations (defined in this sense as European and North American countries) gradually evolved, so their Literatures gradually evolved to meet the questions and concerns of the time.

Still, to study literary movements, a starting point must be assigned. Scholars have disagreed on what constitutes the appropriate starting point - some believe Western Literature begins with the Bible (never mind that the Bible is not even a truly Western text, at least not originally), while others believe a better place to start is Beowulf, an epic poem written in England sometime between 700 - 1100 A.D. For this lesson, however, we will start with William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is in no absolute way the father of Western Literature, he is perhaps the best known and most studied writer not only of Western but of all Literature. Also, so great was his influence on writers to follow that at the very least we can study his work as the single most important turning point in Western Literature, if not its perfect 'beginning.'

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, William Shakespeare went on to write some of the most enduring works in the history of Western Literature. Primarily a playwright (though also accomplished as a poet), Shakespeare wrote dramas that succeeded on every level, from their depictions of character to their engagement with the broader questions of the day - politics, history, religion, etc. While it is impossible to isolate one quality that made his work so successful, it is this ability to deal simultaneously with both 'high' and 'low' material that critics have most admired. Shakespeare's characters, especially in his most famous works, spoke like regular people, and made regular-people observations and jokes (Shakespeare is famous for his bawdy sexual humor), while also alluding to historical figures, debating abstract philosophical questions, etc. In other words, his work fired on all cylinders. No bit of humor was too crass, nor theme too complex, for his powerful imagination.

While Shakespeare's dramas included comedies and histories, he is best known for his tragedies. Here is a quick summary of some of his most famous tragedies:

  • Romeo and Juliet (circa 1592) - In this play, a boy and girl from two rival households fall in love, and while they try desperately to be together, it in the end is unsuccessful. After a tragic miscommunication, they commit suicide. The play ends with a government official condemning the two households for the situation they put these young people in.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (circa 1603) - Perhaps Shakespeare's single best-known character, Hamlet is a young prince whose father has been slayed by his uncle, and who must now avenge that death. While he has several opportunities, Hamlet is beset by indecision and cowardice, and only at the end of the play overcomes those obstacles and kills his uncle (though he forfeits his own life in the process). It is in this play that we find the famous Shakespearean line, 'To be, or not to be, that is the question.'
  • Othello, the Moor of Venice (circa 1603) - While race is a theme in many Shakespearian works, it is in Othello that Shakespeare offers his most direct study of the subject. Othello, the play's main character, is a black general in the Venetian army. While he's well-respected in Venice, many of his peers harbor racial prejudice, and when it's revealed that Othello has married a Senator's daughter, those racial tensions come to the front. Manipulating those tensions, along with Othello's own jealousies, is Othello's treacherous assistant, Iago. By play's end, Iago has tricked Othello into killing his wife, and also committing suicide.
  • King Lear (circa 1606) - In this play, we find an old king dealing with the problem of dividing his kingdom between his three daughters and their husbands. Complicating that problem is the king's inability to deal with his own aging and impending dementia. What results is a family feud that leaves all the daughters, and their father, dead.


After Shakespeare (who belonged to what we call the Elizabethan Era), the next major movement in Western Literature was Romanticism. This period stretched from the 18th to the mid 19th centuries, and was defined by writers (and specifically poets), who championed nature and wildness, and spiritual impulses over more structured ideas and behavior. While it's impossible to isolate a specific cause for any literary movement, Romanticism often is viewed as a rejection of the dehumanizing influence of the Industrial Revolution, a time in Europe when the workplace and society itself had adopted a more mathematical, unfeeling structure.

While Romanticism was a golden age of Literature, and has left us many works by many authors still read today (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to name a few) we'll take as our example of Romanticist Literature a poem by George Gordon Byron (better known as Lord Byron), a poet who in both his work and his extravagant lifestyle typified Romanticist values. The poem is called, She Walks in Beauty:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o'er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

Notice in this poem the emphasis on natural imagery (night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies…heaven…raven tress), and on the subject's pure and innocent character. These are Romanticism's chief ideals - the purity of man's untainted state and a closeness to the natural world.



After Romanticism, the next major movement of Western Literature was Victorianism, which lasted for much of the 19th century. Whereas Romanticism emphasized spiritual liberation and closeness with nature, and found its form in poetry, Victorianism was a period marked by long novels wherein characters struggled with societal expectations, and eventually (in most cases) overcame their challenges to lead enlightened lives.

Writing in the Victorian era were many writers whose work has endured (the Brontë Sisters, William Thackeray, George Eliot, etc.), but the era's best-known writer was Charles Dickens, whose novels are read to this day for school and for pleasure, and have been adapted (in some cases repeatedly) for film. His best known titles include: The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield(1849), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860). In particular, Dickens was sympathetic to the challenges of poverty and to the difficulties of overcoming poverty.


With the dawn of the 20th century came advancements in technology, and in particular the technology of warfare, which shocked the world and changed forever the way Western writers thought of that world. In particular, writers were affected by the widespread carnage of World War I. In the aftermath of that war, novelists and poets saw a world that was not as clean and coherent as previous generations may have thought, and saw as well a world wherein political and religious traditions carried little or no meaning. Adding to this impression was the recent work of Sigmund Freud (a psychologist who saw beneath the level of consciousness a wild and untamed set of impulses that drove human behavior) and Charles Darwin (author of the theory of evolution), which changed forever not just the way we thought of the world, but of our own selves within it. This was the dawn of Modernism.

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Additional Activities

Western Literary Canon: Further Exploration

This lesson introduced you to the concept of the western literary canon, which is an important concept that comes up constantly in the study of literature. Use the following prompts to explore this idea further.

Who Is Included?

A major issue with any attempt at creating a canon is that it will exclude important writers simply because there are too many to include and because all people have biases. Look at the authors included in this particular canon (which is just a brief example). Can you think of other major writers that should be included? Who are they? For example, consider women, writers of colour, writers in languages other than English who nonetheless are from Europe or North America, indigenous writers, and more. Write your own canon that includes writers that you think are important. Consider what each writer brings to literature.

Critical Reflection

What does a literary canon tell us about a particular culture's values and ideas? Think about the people you chose for the above prompt. Why do you think they may have been left out of this canon or other canons? How does the shaping of a canon contribute to forms of oppression, the maintenance of the status quo, and the perpetuation of some ideas at the expense of others? Write a critical essay answering one or more of these questions.

Positive Impact

Despite the potential problems with a literary canon, codifying literature can have positive impacts on a culture's understanding of their own place in the world and the perpetuation of important historical documents. Write a list of the positive effects of a literary canon and write a paragraph defending the concept of a canon and explaining why it is an important or necessary part of literary study.

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