As a rule, literary works are viewed as sources of information about the epoch when they are created. At the same time, it is an undeniable fact that literary works can have much broader influence on readers. In fact, literary works may reflect culture and traditions of a particular epoch or region, social and moral values, beliefs, etc. On the other hand, they also convey to readers the author’s views and serve to convey the author’s message to the audience. Also literary works may target at the concrete audience or, on the contrary, they may be focused on a wide range of readers.
In such a way, literary works provide ample opportunities for readers to receive objective information about the epoch, culture, values and beliefs of people depicted in these works. At the same time, the message readers receive from authors of these works is quite subjective and may be focused on a particular part of the audience. Nonetheless, it does not make the message less significant and valuable from artistic point of view. In order to prove this statement, it is just necessary to analyze some works, such as Hamlet by William Shakespeare and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Tom Stoppard, which may perfectly illustrate socio-cultural contexts of the era as well as the unique position and views of their authors.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet is one of the most outstanding works created by probably the greatest English speaking author. Naturally, Hamlet could hardly gain such popularity if it failed to be involving. The audience can perceive the life of the main characters and the epoch when the action of the play takes place as if it is real. Consequently, it would be logical to trace the author’s message along with the main cultural values and social context of the epoch.
In fact, this literary work reflects the basic social trends and cultural values of the epoch. Remarkably, the play is focused on the life of the royal family. The author creates the play full of the scheming of evil characters and attempts of revenge of noble and good ones. At the same time, this work also focuses on personal qualities of main characters which perfectly illustrate the epoch.
On analyzing Hamlet, first of all, it is necessary to dwell upon the main conflict which seems to be typical for that epoch. In fact, it is the conflict provoked by the struggle for power. The father of the main character is treacherously murdered and his brother, the murderer, inherits all the royal power. In fact, the royal power is the most valuable thing for that epoch since all means are used to achieve this desirable goal. Moreover, it is also obvious that the cultural values are perceived differently. On the one hand, there is a murder and treachery, on the other hand, there is a noble desire of revenge. As a result, a reader realizes that it is an opposition of good and evil. Remarkably this opposition is observed in the royal family which is supposed to be perfect, highly moral and serve as a sample for al citizens of the kingdom. In this respect, the problems in the royal family indicate at the existence of the significant problems in cultural and moral sphere of the whole society.
The main characters represent the upper classes of the society. At the same time, there are practically no characters that would represent lower or middle class. This is why it is possible to conclude that nobility, constituting the upper class, dominated in the society of that epoch. At the same time, William Shakespeare reveals that the nobility may be treacherous and full of vices. In such a situation it is quite symbolic that practically the only really noble, good man, Hamlet, has to pretend to be insane. He has to do it because surrounding people could not bear the truth. His honorable and justified desire of revenge for the murdered father should be hidden, otherwise, he would be murdered as his father was. Not surprisingly that he cannot find his place in this world and he does not really know what to do:
Oh that this too solid flash would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
Or, that Everlasting had not fixed
His canon gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2, lines 129-134
Obviously, the main character has lost the purpose of his life in this pragmatic, mercantile and treacherous world.
Nonetheless, Hamlet symbolizes noble principles and traditional ideals of that epoch. It is obvious that many cultural values of the noble epoch has vanished as the actions of negative characters of the play prove. However, there are some moral and ethical principles that cannot be violated, such as the principle of heredity, justice, noble revenge for committed crimes and injustice, etc. As a result, the main character realizes the changes that have already occurred in the world. But still he cannot betray the memory of his father, neither he cannot bear the injustice. This is why he has to solve the dilemma:
To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1, lines 58-62.
This is probably why he seems to be an exceptionally positive character devoted to traditional moral values and cultural norms.
On the other hand, it is possible to speak about the gradual degradation of the traditional cultural values in the society depicted by William Shakespeare. The main reason is that only Hamlet keeps traditional values. This is basically because of his beliefs he has to pretend to be insane since his surrounding have already forgotten what the nobility really means. In fact, the main character symbolizes the noble principles and values which have not fully degraded yet, regardless the dominance of pragmatic values which aim at gaining possibly higher social position.
In this respect, the author’s position seems to be quite definite. Obviously, Shakespeare rebels against such a situation and he assesses individuals’ status by their moral values and nobility. In contrast, the place of an individual in the social hierarchy is of little value for him if it is achieved by means of terrible and disgracing crimes. As a result, it does not really matter for Shakespeare what an individual is: a king or a jester. What really matters for the author is what a kind of person the king or the jester is: good or evil. This is why he is so critical about the values and norms of the epoch he depicts in his work. By this work he warns all those in power and those who strive for higher social status against the commitment of similar mistakes that main characters of Hamlet do. He underlines the vanity of this struggle for higher social position, wealth, and prosperity in the context of moral sufferings and constant remorse. In other words, power is nothing if a person has to commit crimes or violate moral and cultural norms.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard are to a certain extent similar to the previously discussed work by William Shakespeare. Nonetheless, this work is worthy to discuss separately from any other literary work.
First of all, the author basically attempts to depict the cultural value and social context of the epoch by means of the main characters’ behavior and personal characteristics. In this respect, it is possible to state that in this work two opposing positions are depicted. On the one hand, there is Guildenstern who is an optimist and, on the other hand, there is Rosencrantz who is a pessimist. At the same time his pessimism resembles the position of a realist.
In his work, the author depicts the transition from romantic epoch, where optimistic view dominated in the society, to the new epoch, where everything is subordinate to the rational power of human mind and science. As a result, a fatalist position of Rosencrantz What will happen, will happen seems to be a bit out of date. This position is supported by the position of Guildenstern who believes that in actuality people are weak and cannot really change their life for better.
However, the author obviously is very skeptical about the perspective of the power of humans to change the situation for better and he stands on the ground that we drift downtime, clutching at straws¦ but what good’s brick for a drowning man?. On the other hand, the author is very critical about the socio-cultural environment where there is no room for hope. At the same time he believes that hope is vital for the well being of people.
Moreover, Stoppard’s skepticism about the power of human mind is getting to be obvious in the words of his main character Guildenstern who states that people act on scraps of information¦ sifting half-remembered directions that we can hardly separate from instincts (p.75) and in such a way he argues about the importance of human feelings, emotions and instincts which may be stronger than the rational power of human minds. To a certain extent, the idea of the spiritual, no-rational power makes the audience hope for better. However, symbolic words of Rosencrantz, concerning the letter which commands Hamlet’s death, The sun’s going down. It will be dark soon (p.93) suggest that things are getting darker and there is still little hope for positive changes.
Finally, it should be said that the author attempts to convey the contradictions that exist between people within the society. To put it more precisely, he depicts a symbolic opposition between the main characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the opposition between illusion, idealistic, and romantic view of life and pragmatic and more realistic one. In this work the author tends to show that pragmatism and realism will eventually win while idealism and illusions will lose. The author emphasizes the extent of this cultural conflict between earthier, confused, and reactive Guildenstern, on the one hand, and intellectual, cultured, poetic, abstract, and philosophical Rosencrantz, on the other hand. At the same time, this conflict seems to reflect two aspects of one and the same personality. In such a way this conflict is not only external but internal as well.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that the author attempts to convey to the audience his skepticism concerning the real world deprived of any sort of illusions. This world eliminates the room for hope and makes the life of the society at large and each individual in particular practically deprived of any purpose. In fact, it is rather a kind of existence but not a real life full of emotions and strong feelings stimulated by hopes for better.
In such a way, both works reflect social and cultural values of their epoch and reveal the great problems of people who struggle for their ideals according to their traditions and moral norms. This struggle often leads to their conflicts with the surrounding reality. Nonetheless, both authors underline that this is the only possible way of actions for people to remain human since only traditional and universal human values and inner spiritual richness of the main characters help them cope with the problems they face.