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The Literature that Shaped English Culture

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When discussing literature on an international level, English is one that frequently comes up. English writers have played a significant role in shaping, not just English literature, but world literature at large. People like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, and the Brontes have all had a significant impact on novelists, playwrights, directors, and even politicians.

But what were the works of literature that were instrumental in shaping English culture? Who are the most influential writers in England, and how impactful are their stories today? In this article, we are going to review some of England’s most impactful literary figures, and discuss their influence on English culture, and international literature at large.

William Shakespeare – The Plays

When we talk about English literature, there is one man towards whom all other writers, poets, and playwrights strive. The one, and perhaps only, giant in English literary history, William Shakespeare, whose plays continue to capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of readers and writers around the world to this day.

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote approximately 38 to 39 plays, which they’ve classified in three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories. Of these plays, the most beloved and widely-read remain Shakespeare’s tragedies, specifically the big four:

  • Hamlet
  • Othello
  • Romeo & Juliet
  • King Lear

Shakespeare wove a certain degree of complexity in all of his characters, from the comical Falstaff to the tragic King Lear to the troubled Hamlet, and the romantic Juliet. No characters are the same, even if they may follow similar tropes. For that reason, Shakespeare stands atop the English literary world, as one of the prime influences on modern English culture today. His plays are still performed at theaters such as the Alchemist Creation theatre, and of course, the reconstructed Globe.

Jane Austen – The Novels

If every playwright since Shakespeare strives to recapture his majesty, then every novelist since Austen has strived for her wit and mastery of the English language. While many may think of Austen as glorified pap, a romance writer who can perhaps turn a phrase or two; those who know and understand literature can appreciate the complexity of her language, characterization, and storytelling.

The modern world of romance writing is perhaps the biggest money maker in all of literature. And it all rests upon the pillar that is Jane Austen. She delved into every single genre of romance, explored every possible character archetype within that genre, and once she was done, she cleverly subverted all of these tropes, all the while parodying lesser writers who came before or after her.

Today, her novel Pride and Prejudice is on the mandatory reading list at high schools all around the world, and is read at universities in England, the United States, and across Europe. Not to mention, the 2005 film, just one of many adaptations, remains a cinematic classic, and a masterpiece in its own right. As the old saying goes, if you must read one novel in your life, make sure it is an Austen.

Ian Fleming – The Character

Few characters manage to endure beyond their time. Robert Howard’s Conan, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, Homer’s Odysseus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Lucifer, etc., have all broken beyond the bounds of their pages to become cultural icons. Such is the case with Ian Fleming’s master spy, James Bond.

In 1953, Ian Fleming published his first Bond novel, titled Casino Royale. The story saw the top secret spy on a mission at the world famous Casino, tasked with busting a major arms dealer’s operation. In order to do so, Bond must infiltrate the casino as a player, uncover the arms dealer, and bring him to justice.

Today, casinos are not the big establishments that they were back in the 50s. After all, gamblers can play real money slots on casino platforms in the UK, Finland, US, and the rest of Europe, without even leaving their homes. However, back in the 20th century, casinos were still luxurious, grandiose tributes to extravagance and risk-taking. So, it is no wonder that the first Bond books became a major hit.

Pretty soon, the MI6 agent was everywhere, and once Sean Connery portrayed the character in the 1960s, he had established him as a cultural icon. To this day, most spy films follow the James Bond formula, and many fail to capture the magic.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fantasy

Some might scoff at the inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien on a list like this. But, how can he not be included. The Lord of the Rings is, perhaps, one of the most iconic pieces of fiction ever created, and almost single-handedly created a trend of fantasy stories set in incredible fictional worlds, populated by mystical races.

Initially intended to be one book, Tolkien separated The Lord of the Rings into three volumes at the request of his editors. Probably for the better, as each volume is already quite long, and dense with information, lore, and purple prose that may make some people’s stomachs churn.

However, among the general population The Lord of the Rings remains a beloved masterpiece, as the books’ sales will show. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings consistently remain in the top five or top ten best-selling books and book series of all time, and Tolkien’s influence on fantasy remains a constant.

Charles Dickens – The Popularity

Finally, it is only right that we end this list with one of England’s most influential and beloved authors of all time. As popular as Tolkien, as influential as Austen, and considered by many to be a rival of Shakespeare (at least in terms of influence), Charles Dickens wrote some of the most well-known, most beloved, and most influential works in the English language.

Bildungsroman such as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations have been enticing children to read since they were first written. The Christmas Carol is a timeless classic, that is still being adapted, parodied, and remade into films, theater shows, and even comic strips to this day. And his more mature works like Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities remain classics in English literature. Dickens’ works remain best-sellers, and his influence on English writing and culture cannot be understated.


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