How to use Context in a HSC English Essay

Context. There’s a great word! But what is it? If you are an Advanced or Extension student, you have probably been wondering about how to use context in a HSC English essay. Let’s start with the basics. Regardless of the complexity of a topic, every piece of learning in the study of English as a language is going to start with the words.

The Oxford dictionary teaches us that the word ‘context’ has roots in Latin. If we break up the word, it gives us a closer look at what the word is trying to convey. ‘Con’ is a prefix in Latin which means ‘with’, ‘Texere’ translates to the act of weaving. Taking this information alone, we can figure out that the word is about mixing things together.

Let’s now examine the definitions (source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/context)

  1. The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood:

  2. The parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning:

While this is helpful as background knowledge to… wait for it… give you context (arrr arr arrr), this alone is not going to improve your writing. The key to using contextual information effectively is having a broad amount of it. As a high school student you are not expected to be an expert in any one topic but it is important that you know how a person who makes a piece of art is influenced by where they are in both place and time. Everyone is a slave to their own time period. A good essay writer is able to examine elements that are time and place specific and elements that are not just relevant to the events, people and places in the composer’s life. Why is the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “to be or not to be” still relevant and powerful today? Thinking about these sorts of questions and researching them is how you build contextual knowledge.

Using Shakespeare as our 400+ year old go-to-guy, let us see how context may have shaped his own work, its popularity, messages and timelessness. Here are a few broad issues that you are going to be expected to have a basic knowledge about:

  • The reformation

  • Martin Luther

  • Queen Elizabeth

  • King James I and VI

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

and to a lesser degree

  • King Henry VIII

  • Gutenberg Printing Press

  • The European wars of religion

  • The Spanish Armada

  • European Enlightenment

  • Colonisation

  • European geopolitics in the late 1500 / early 1600s

  • The Borgias

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the list, do a quick search on all of those topics and people. If you are a visual learner, it can be helpful to find quick YouTube videos that are 5-10 minutes long which give you an overview of the topic. Make sure that you do not spend too much time getting bogged down on certain details as it can be a rabbit hole that does not have a clear exit. At this point, your knowledge of the playwright’s context has grown exponentially. However, your own context or a comparative context may be required to effectively argue how the two influence one another.

A good method for finding new information about context on your own is looking for ‘historical events in (decade/century)’. It can be helpful to also drill down to particular places as well . So if you have a book that was written in England in 1948, you might want to look for what was happening around that time period and who was influential in that region. There are no hard and fast rules in research, other than to keep digging and weaving (remember that word?) a tapestry of context. Even if you are not going to be talking about events and issues, it is always good to have a strong basis in research so that when it comes time to write, you are approaching the topic with knowledge that fits across a broad spectrum.

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