Monthly Archives: March 2014

Culture …and it’s Limitations

Culture seems to be a loosely defined term. The Merriam Webster dictionary online had many different definitions for the word culture. The one that most fits the understanding that I have of the word is, “The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture) This definition also agrees with Stephen Greenblatt’s definition of the word, “The ensemble of beliefs and practices that form a given culture function as a pervasive technology of control, a set of limits within which social behavior must be contained, a repertoire of models to which individuals must conform.” (225) I personally see culture as the ideas and beliefs that a group of people form and then set their boundaries by. Once these social boundaries are in place, anyone that steps out of line or tries to bring in a different way of thinking faces a difficult challenge.

The issue I see with culture, is that often a group of people determine what it’s social boundaries and culture are, and then become very defensive about it and are reluctant to improve on it or change it. The problem with this is that culture is a constantly evolving concept. As people are added to the group or removed from the group, different concepts may emerge that cause one to question the previously determined beliefs. As long as culture is reviewed from time to time, this can be a good thing, but when a group fails to re-examine their beliefs for too long, they may be blindly practicing concepts that do not fit with the current make-up of the group and/or time. This also makes it easy for biases and prejudices to sneak into a culture by a few ruling individuals and remain there for a long time due to the other member’s fear of questioning those at the top. It is important to continually review ones culture to make sure that people are living by their current beliefs and to make sure the people know why they are living that way instead of blindly following something that was told a long time ago before the people knew better. Our culture seems to be in the midst of many changes. It is imperative they we all take a look at what we believe and ask ourselves why we are still practicing so many outdated cultural beliefs. We have grown, evolved and are in need of a cultural re-adjustment.

There have been cultural movers and shakers throughout time. These people knew how to discuss certain topics that could make people evaluate their cultural perspectives in a very different light. Shakespeare was one such author. Shakespeare approaches his writings in a way that appeals to the culture of the time, yet also spawns ideas and questions that make the reader take a good hard look at their culture. In his book “The Tempest,” Shakespeare appeals to the curiosity and adventurousness of the culture during that time by setting the book on a mysterious island. This drew people in who were curious about the new land in America and also gave a medium to discuss sensitive issues in a way that could be purely fictional, even though they hinted about issues that Britain and America were actually going through.  This way he could delve into deep topics that would cause a stir otherwise.

Shakespeare wrote this book at a time when England was experiencing the plague. The average life expectancy was only about 30 and half of the children born never lived past 15. The plague was a big issue and people were very afraid. Shakespeare wrote, “The Tempest” during a time when people needed some type of fantasy to pull them away from their terrified lives. Not only was “The Tempest” an escape for people, but it also made them take a good hard look at society and peoples struggle for power and control. Some of Shakespeare’s characters resemble the wealthy aristocrats that were in control that he couldn’t talk about directly, but he could make us recognize their greed and pompousness through the characters in his books. He brought up issues about slavery, greed, love, religious persecution and jealously in a way that was entertaining but also allowed the reader to read into the text and decipher more and perhaps question society and culture.

In “The Tempest“, it is obvious that Shakespeare is sympathetic to Caliban. Caliban is portrayed as having a very tough life. Caliban’s freedom and home have been taken from him and he is then forced into servitude. It is hard for a reader not to have sympathy for this character. This character is on some moments portrayed as a monster and other times gives sophisticated speeches that show sensitivity and sophistication. Like many other classics, this book looks at civilization and what civilized really means. Shakespeare seems to be trying to bring attention to the issues of the time in a way that forces the reader to evaluate it’s culture and the beliefs practiced by it. A great writer knows how to both appeal to the culture of the time as well as raise questions that challenges the culture of the time. Sometimes these same authors are the ones who’s questions spawn new ideas that eventually cause the culture to evolve beyond the outdated boundaries that were once set for it. “The Tempest”, was able to raise these questions then and is just as useful a tool for re-evaluating our culture now.