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Does Literature Reflect Society or Is Society Shaped by Literature?

2854 words (11 pages) Essay in English Literature

08/02/20 English Literature Reference this

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  Writers most commonly reflect what they see around themselves in terms of wrongs to be righted, personality types, or even psychoanalysis of those they encounter through daily interactions.

To that end, an assessment of several sources, including Beowulf, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, present a solid portrayal of how greed, social values, classicism, misogyny, nationalism, and racism can all factor into how people interact with one another, and these tales serve as a means of highlighting these differences accordingly and demonstrate how literature reflects what is presently taking place within a given author’s society. For example, Macbeth is set on a course to achieve to which he is not entitled; his story exemplifies this action and its consequences along with the impact that such a drive has upon his closest loved ones and friends. Shakespeare’s tale cautions of the perils of allowing such a lust for supremacy to dominate one’s life, which can ultimately lead to one’s ruin; likewise, the Wife of Bath’s Tale reflects how women may be perceived negatively for being open and free about their sexuality, whereas a man doing the same thing would receive little more than praise for his prowess (Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Tale). We see these same notions in society and more throughout history in various examples. These notions are also clearly demonstrated by characters within these works.

 Shakespeare initially presents Macbeth as an extension of Shakespeare’s introspection and an outgrowth of how he perceives himself if he were to be driven by the same forces that Macbeth is in terms of his desire for rulership at any cost. Essentially, Shakespeare recognizes the dichotomy of human nature within all of us through this assessment. No one person is entirely good, nor entirely evil; as such, merely dismissing Macbeth as an evil person for his deeds would be short-sighted and would not provide a holistic view of the scenario. While it is unquestionable that Macbeth does turn to evil deeds to achieve his ends, the mere fact that he initially grapples with doing so at the play’s beginning exemplifies his humanity and therefore represents the duality of his nature, which similarly exists in all of us. Hence, (Raffel)Shakespeare presents all of us with a choice that we could well make ourselves if faced with the same in our own lives potentially. This dichotomy may also be seen within Beowulf, as the character is both a protagonist and a hero, yet at the same time, he is both restrained in retelling his legend and something of a braggart, driven through the pursuit of the building on his reputation at any cost, as within his tale of fighting against the sea creature or swimming for days to outwit the same monster (Raffel 26). A man’s reputation and the good name meant a great deal in that era; as such, Beowulf’s arrival to fight Grendel and to save the endangered Mead Hall and the King’s reputation (by extension) meant a good deal to the local populace. Even when Beowulf is challenged by Unferth, who accuses Beowulf of exaggerating his claims so as to make himself look better, Beowulf calmly responds with a contradiction, yet then builds on his narrative with a more detailed account of his battle and defeat of Breca: “What a great deal, Unferth my friend, / full of beer, you have said about Breca, / told of his deeds” (Raffel 27). Beowulf indicates that the battle began as a boyish challenge to test one another’s skills, but soon elevated into something more: a contest for power and reputation alike. Hence, these works each echo the premise of building one’s ego and perception by others, no matter what the cost may be (positive or negative).

 Another means of self-reflection and society within these works appears within their historical context. For example, during the time of Macbeth, the rift between England and Scotland was enough to provide an impetus for the characters and their motivations, as well as their ultimate outcomes, since strife between the countries promoted a strong sense of nationalism between the differing cultures was strongly boosted by King James I when he attained control of England. As such, he encouraged subdivisions between the people and their lands alike. Similarly, within Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s prologue represents a broad cross-section of the different classes, lifestyles, and values present within the society around him (Chaucer, The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales). For example, there is a young squire who is a playboy and readily on the prowl for a willing young lass to connect with; he is a solid contrast for the knight, who is fair and focused on his battles and upholding crown and country. The prologue, with its anonymous narrator, reflects both rich and poor people, educated people versus those with limited literacy or vocabulary, and perhaps most importantly, those of deep religious faith as contrasted with those of limited to no faith. The narrator, who carefully delineates their outward appearances, clothing, demeanor, speech patterns, and even tones of voice when they address their soon-to-be travel mates, speaks in detail about each of these individuals. This wide demographic serves to reflect society as it stood in that era. Much like modern society, there are wealthy individuals, educated people, tradesmen, and those with varying interests ranging from reading to hunting. As such, Chaucer exemplifies the differences in each of these people, while simultaneously allowing audiences to glimpse the fact that they are not that different from one another, after all, as everyone shares the goal of the pilgrimage to Canterbury (albeit for a multitude of reasons). The class stance is critical in understanding the roles of these characters and how and why they interact with one another in the manner that they do within the work.

This kind of background is essential for audiences to understand some of the characters on a deeper level, and to gain insight into their inherent personalities. It is telling, for example, within Macbeth, that the Scots are depicted as the primary villains of this work (including Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well as witches), while their opposing foil characters, the heroes, haul from Anglo origins. This division reflects not only the historical background of the time (which may be lost on modern-day readers if they are unfamiliar with this information), but also underscores Shakespeare’s own pride of national origin and support of his Anglo roots. Moreover, it also endorses the prevailing governance of England at that time under King James I, which was a direct opposition to the prior rulership, which openly advocated subdivisions among race, class, and several other comparable characteristics (Davis). Macbeth’s drive to be king leads him to be discriminative in a similar fashion, which parallels history and demonstrates his lack of fitness to be a true and powerful king. Thus, Macbeth’s country of origin and the history of the time both play a factor in the shaping and molding of his character as well, thereby again providing a mirror image of society within the literature. On the other hand, the ruler present in Chaucer’s world is far more lenient and leisurely, and advocated drinking, feasting, and partying over racial and class differences; this unification can be seen towards the end of the Canterbury Tales prologue, in which the narrator indicates that everyone’s introductions culminate with a feast along with a bet: to tell their own stories as they pass the time in their travels, and the individual deemed to be the loser of the tale-telling would have to purchase dinner for all others present at the table. (Readers unfortunately never learn the outcome of this bet, despite being treated to several entertaining and rather raucous tales). Nonetheless, such historical divisions readily created separations between some groups; however, in Chaucer’s Canterbury, the characters are drawn together in their shared pursuit of both happiness and redemption (in whatever form they seek) and are therefore able to rise above political and geographical divides.

It has been argued that one of the most intriguing tales is that of the Wife of Bath, who is one of the travelers making her way to Canterbury. The Wife of Bath is not bound by the rules of polite society, unlike many of the women of her time; rather, she is a woman who makes her own rules and abides by them accordingly, yet at the same time, she is still benign and does not desire to harm anyone. The Prologue’s narrator describes the Wife of Bath as being robust, large breasted, and wearing bright red stockings, which was both vivid and shocking for a woman of the time, who should normally be more reserved in dress and demeanor alike. She is a clothing/dressmaker by trade, and the narrator perceives her to be quite talented in these undertakings. The narrator further adds that she was “a worthy woman all her life” and “had married five husbands at the church door” (Chaucer, The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales 141). She had been widowed five times as well, which ultimately drove her onto the Canterbury journey in quest of her sixth husband! She was quite well-traveled, very vocal, and was even comfortable in some seemingly male pursuits, such as horse riding (Chaucer, The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales 142). The narrator also coyly references the Wife of Bath’s prowess in bed: “And knew the remedies of for love’s mischances, /An art in which she knew the oldest dances.” (Chaucer, The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales 142).Yet, for all the positive commentary on her character and background, it is also telling that the Wife of Bath is never actually named, which reflects the custom of the time in which women belonged to the men of the society (first to their fathers, and then to their husbands, where they were thus treated as a form of property or commodity). The Wife of Bath references this in her story, in which she relates her origins and what led her to have the nature that she does: “To speke of wo that is in mariage;/For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,/Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,/Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve –/If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee –/And alle were worthy men in hir degree.” (Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Tale). She notes that she has almost constantly been married since the age of twelve, and although she observes that most of her husbands were “worthy in their own way” she also touches on what she terms the “woes of marriage”, thereby implying that she was far from happy despite having solid suitors as her partners. More than likely, a woman of her caliber felt stifled and confined by the social restrictions with which she was expected to abide, and as such, her desire to break free and go her own way was granted with her widowhood. Due to society’s expectations of a woman to be a “good wife”, she goes on a quest for a new husband, partially to satisfy the necessary public image that she is expected to uphold and partially for her own needs as well. In the early 1900s, Women also had many doubts surrounding them. In the excerpt, Shakespeare’s Sister, Virginia Woolf goes into detail on how a woman was not worthy of doing anything besides household work and childbearing. (Woolf 191-192) Along the same lines, the Wife of Bath and Virginia Woolf are not alone in this path, either. Lady Macbeth is initially at her husband’s side, initially appearing to be supportive of her spouse, which was also a social expectation of the time. She is also supportive of his quest for power as well, as it would also equally empower her and raise her social status accordingly. However, as the play unfurls and Macbeth’s sanity slowly appears to unravel, so too does Lady Macbeth at an exponential pace. Symptoms such as her sleepwalking demonstrate her mental state and its corresponding decay, and this cycle ultimately ends in her suicide. Her breakdown, which is shown in the form of sleepwalking, is contrasted with the enraged, bloody, “valiant fury” of Macbeth (Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act V 338). As such, Macbeth would seem to reflect evilness within our world (at least by this point in the work) and Lady Macbeth’s realization of what he has become, and how he is no longer the good man that she loved, paves the way for her suicide when she reaches this realization. The contrast between her initial appearance in the play and her later on as she gradually loses her grip on both sanity and reality is a shocking one, and one which jars audiences into the realization as to just how much has been at stake in Macbeth’s life and how far he has fallen, as well as how much both of them have lost as a direct consequence of his deeds (including one another). Hence, Macbeth’s loss of sanity, in conjunction with that of Lady Macbeth, clearly show their responses to the social constructs which dictate how they can and should behave in given circumstances, whereas the Wife of Bath’s sprightly and bright demeanor and clothing mirror her inner spirit and her determination to rise above her circumstances regardless of any obstacles.

The response of others around the characters, such as the doctor, is also telling as to how women were viewed in this society, and how such concerns were readily brushed away. Lady Macbeth’s references to Duncan’s murder at the hands of her husband, the appearance of Banquo in ghostly form, and her constant hand washing to remove blood (which apparently only she can see) leads the doctor to dismiss her as having a crisis in her religious faith as opposed to a physical cause, when it is more a symbolization of her guilty conscience and culpability for her husband’s misdeeds. Lady Macbeth’s downfall is symbolized by this transition, as she was elevated at the play’s outset over the witches (who were relegated to social fringes simply by who they were and what they represented). However, by this point in the work, she is opting to be treated in a manner like that which witches experience, and by extension, relegating herself to a lower form of society. Eventually, her only form of favorable escape will be her death by suicide, while Beowulf seeks immortality through his conquest of seemingly insurmountable foes; and the Wife of Bath seeks yet another marriage.

The actions of all these characters, when viewed as a collective, could serve not only as a cautionary tale as to the consequences of craving too much power or dominance over others, or generalizing them rather than viewing them as individuals, but it could also serve as a replication of society at that time and how some of the prevailing constructs of the classes could contribute to such actions and behaviors. The inequality between the genders and the desire for the middle or lower class individuals to rise to positions of power would readily parallel many common scenarios of these times; indeed, perspectives such as Shakespeare and Chaucer’s views of how human nature factors into each of these scenarios, and how giving in to the darker side of one’s character can lead to one’s literal and physical demise, readily provide insight not only into the psychology of these individuals but into the contemporary values of the era as well. The historical connections present in these works also build on the notion of how literature can and does draw from society and its influences, and how authors use real-life examples as an impetus for their character studies and backdrops.

Works Cited

  • Benson, Larry. “Chaucer: The Wife of Bath’s Tale – An Interlinear Translation.” n.d. Sites.Fas.Harvard.Edu, http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/gp-par.htm.
  • —. “The General Prologue: An Interlinear Translation.” 8 April 2008. Sites.Fas.Harvard.Edu, http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/gp-par.htm.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales.” Education, Pearson. myPerspectives British and World Literature. 2017. 129-152.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Reinhart, Winston. Holt Elements of Literature Sixth Edition. Austin, 2008. 179-188.
  • Davis, LaSharee. “Notes.” 2018.
  • Raffel, Burton. Beowulf. n.d.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993.
  • —. The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act V. n.d.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “Shakespeare’s Sister.” A Room of One’s Own. 1929.
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