Setting & Social Context

Setting & Social Context

In some exams, you may find that the setting and social context of a passage are made explicit to you in the opening notes. In such a case, it is clearly important that you consider this information. Rely on the simple rule that anything the examiner chooses to tell you, must be important.

However, you can't always guarantee that the setting and social context will be made that explicit. In this section, we will discuss guidelines to bear in mind when considering the context of the passage.

The setting of a play is not necessarily important. Sometimes the playwright will make little or no reference to the location where a scene is set. It is not the setting which is significant, the setting is merely a vehicle for the scene.

Theatre groups often interpret the setting of a scene very differently. Their own interpretation of the setting can influence the audience's perception of the events. In an exam focusing on the text itself, that is not so important, unless the question asks you to consider a setting for the scene.

  • What is important is considering why any references to setting are included. If the playwright does give a scene a specific setting, what was his reason for doing so?
  • Does a particular setting create a certain environment?

As is mentioned in the introduction, the examiner may choose to include notes regarding the setting and social context. In this circumstance you must think about how they influence the character's actions and what environment they create on stage.

For example, if the scene involves two characters arguing in a pub, then there are different issues to consider than if the setting was a funeral. Similarly, if a Victorian daughter character is arguing vehemently with her father, then there are different issues than for a modern family.

You are not social historians in this exam, and so your main focus is on the text itself, but acknowledging the social context where appropriate will help raise your marks.

You should use your awareness of the social context to inform your understanding of the characters and events. Does the setting help to place the events ina particular social context such as a palace, a bar, a kitchen, a shop, a church, or an office, for example.

The use of symbolism within the setting is easier to notice when looking at a whole text. For example, in Ibsen's "Doll's House" the Christmas tree doesn't merely show the time of the year.

Its change in appearance and events that take place at the tree help the audience to understand Nora's situation. It symbolises the situation of the family. This is something that the audience can appreciate during the course of the play.

Given only one extract, setting and symbolism can be harder to appreciate.The examiner is aware of this. If an object is referred to explicitly in the text, then it is worth considering whether it represents something significant.

It may be a particular belonging of another character.

  • What value does the character holding the object place in it?
  • What does it tell you about the character?
  • Does the setting reflect or affect a character's mood? That is to say if a character appears unhappy, is it because of where they are, or does the setting reinforce that sense of sadness?

The way people speak in a scene can be a clear indication of the social context.

  • Do the words suggest that the characters come from a particular social class or culture?
  • Do they appear fashionable, intellectual or upper class?
  • Does the playwright give the characters a particular dialect?
  • Is this done merely to show where the play is set or does it tell you about the character?
  • Can you highlight specific examples of vocabulary to support your ideas?
  • How does the language used by the character influence your attitude towards either the character or the character's role in the scene?

There may be two characters from different backgrounds in the scene.

  • If this is the case, then does it affect the way they interact with each other?
  • Does the playwright appear to be raising an issue about status, class or power?
  • Has the playwright set the play in a particular culture?
  • Does the playwright use language and dialect to reflect this?
  • Do the words used have a particular value within this context?
  • What would be lost if different language was used, and there was Standard English dialect?
  • Does the playwright rely on stereotypes to develop the setting and social context?

Setting and Social Context