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Taking your first steps into higher education
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4.3 Context

While it is possible to reach some initial conclusions about what a text means without considering the context in which it was produced, and to which it might refer, this can result in a limited interpretation. Poems, songs, historical accounts and artworks are not produced in a vacuum; they are influenced by the circumstances in which they are created. For example, the sequence of sonnets from which this one came were written in the period leading up to the poet’s marriage to Robert Browning – a marriage which led to her disinheritance from her family’s vast riches (derived from West Indian slave plantations, although she herself was a very public abolitionist). She also suffered from a debilitating spinal disease, and died aged 55 in 1861.

To examine the context of a text, you need to ask the following questions; while not all of these may be relevant, it is worth asking them just to be sure.

  • Who produced the text and what do you know about this person?
  • Where and when was this text produced and what was happening in the wider world at that time?
  • Do you know anything about why the text was produced?

Take care to ensure that any contextual information is relevant to your interpretation.

In brief, consider all available contextual information and stay alert for additional information. Think about how the contextual information can be used in conjunction with your consideration of effects and techniques in your analysis of the text.