Social and historical context

Home learning focus

To understand how context impacts on meaning in all text types.

This lesson includes:

  • two video clips to help you understand historical and social context and their impact on texts

  • three activities


Watch this clip of John Boyega explaining what life was like when Shakespeare was writing.

John Boyega explores social attitudes in the time of Shakespeare.

The world that Shakespeare wrote plays for was very different to the world that watches his plays today. Why does this matter?

At GCSE, it is important that you understand that every text is constructed. In other words, every text has been created by a writer at a certain time, in a certain place and often for a certain reason. These three factors influence our analysis of a text.

A good example of this is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We’ve just seen how, at the time of writing the play, women were not allowed to act on stage as women were not allowed to work. However, for those of us who know the character of Lady Macbeth, she takes a leading role in everything that happens between her and her husband in the play. In today’s society, it is normal for women in fiction to be treated as equal to men. However, in the Elizabethan era, the relationship between Lady Macbeth and her husband, Macbeth, would have been shocking to an audience because she does not follow their expectations for women.

Always remember to think about how themes, characters and even plots may have meant something different in the time period in which they were created than they do today.


Activity 1

The next video will explain a little about the time period of 1914 (the historical context) and the events that were happening in that time period (the social context). As you watch, write down notes on how Britain was different in 1914 to how it is today.

An exploration of how Britain was in 1914

Now have a go at this activity. Which of these statements are true and which of them are false?

Activity 2

In the previous film, Orwell tells us a little about how, in the early 1900s, the rich might have viewed the working classes as lesser human beings.

A play set in this time period is An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley. You may be studying this play for GCSE English Literature, so you may already know it - but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.

An Inspector Calls was written in 1945, but set in 1912, and Priestley wanted to highlight the plight of the working classes just before the First World War. Priestley was a socialist and he believed that we should all look after one another, regardless of the class system that was part of the social context. He felt that those with wealth should share it with the less fortunate. As the events of the play unfold we find out that that the wealthy characters, all part of the same family, have all played a part in the horrible death of Eva Smith, a working class woman.

Work your way through this plot guide for An Inspector Calls.

Thinking about what you have just learnt about Britain in the 1910s, see if this helps you to understand the themes and the ideas in the play and, more importantly, why Priestley felt that he had to highlight them to people in the late 1940s. How do you think the Birling family would come across to a modern audience?

Write down your thoughts.

Activity 3

We’ve considered how historical context informed the fiction writing of Priestley and Shakespeare. But what about writers looking at today?

Take a look at today’s BBC Newsbeat homepage.

What does looking at today’s news tell us about the current social context? Write down your ideas on what future generations will write texts about if they were to look back at this period in history.

Top tip!

Always research the time period that a text was written in so that you can fully understand and apply the social and the historical time period to your analysis

Where next?

In this lesson you have learnt how texts are always influenced by historical and social contexts.

There are other useful articles on Bitesize to help you to understand context.

Please note: Bitesize revision guides are split by exam board - to check if there is a specific version of a guide for your board, choose your subject and then exam board here.

There's more to learn

Bitesize Daily lessons
GCSE English
Upstart Crow
English Language 14-16
Test yourself on the context of Macbeth
Learn more about life in the time of William Shakespeare