British Literature Course

What do William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens have in common? They are all authors whose works you are likely to encounter if you take a British literature course.

British literature courses are offered by most colleges as part of their English course offerings and can be taken online through distance education websites, too. In these courses, you will read and analyze letters, sermons, essays, poems, plays, and novels written from around the 7th century through modern times. Despite its name, British literature also covers works produced by authors from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, too.

British literature is some of the most famous and fascinating literature ever written. It is an important genre to study because it reflects the evolution of Western civilization. The sheer number of works that compose British literature is simply staggering, so most professors will design their courses to cover only works from a specific period in British history.

British literature courses will typically cover one of three “kinds” of British literature: Old English, Middle English, or Modern English literature. These categories refer to the type of English language used during the centuries when the works were written.

Old English literature, also called Anglo-Saxon literature, includes works written from the 7th century to about 1,000 AD. This literature was written before the advent of the printing press, so copies were painstakingly reproduced by hand. The influence of so many different tribes across England meant there were dozens of different versions of the English language, and these differences are reflected in the literature.

The British national epic, Beowulf, is a poem written by an anonymous author as early as the 7th century. Most Old English authors are anonymous, and the author of Beowulf is no exception. Any British literature course that surveys Old English literature is almost certain to include a reading and analysis of Beowulf.

Middle English literature, also known as medieval literature, refers to works written from the 12th century until the middle of the 15th century when the printing press regularized the English language. Medieval literature often addresses religious themes, courtly love, and chivalry. One of the most famous works from this period is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. A British literature course that focuses on Middle English literature will likely include this epic poem.

The advent of the printing press, combined with increased literacy rates, resulted in an explosion of British literature beginning in the 1500s. In addition to producing such famous authors as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Mary Shelley, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde, the Modern English period gave us the world’s foremost playwright and poet: William Shakespeare.

A British literature course will help you trace the origins of some of the most common phrases and colloquialisms in the English language. “Green-eyed monster,” “star-crossed lovers,” “pound of flesh,” and the infamous “Et tu, Brute?” are all attributed to Shakespeare.

Because the sheer volume of British literature from the modern period is so overwhelming, most course instructors will limit the works studied to a single author or to one of the major literary movements, such as the Renaissance or Victorian era. In courses focusing on modern British literature, you will study the works of such famous authors as Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. These artists’ works profoundly influenced the philosophical, political, and cultural movements in Europe and other Western nations, and a solid British literature course will help you understand how and why that happened.

British literature courses are offered through colleges and online. There are even home study guides that can lead you through British literature from a specific period. In-person courses can last from a few weeks to a full year. The cost of the course will vary depending on whether you take a live class, an online class, or use a study guide. There are also countless online resources that can help you take a course for free. The major disadvantage to an online course is that while it is inexpensive and convenient, you probably will not earn college credit for it.

British literature courses are no longer just for college students who need to take an English course. Now, anyone who wants to broaden his knowledge of Western art and culture can take a British literature course. With so many ways to access the masters of British literature, you can easily take Shakespeare’s advice and “Be not afraid of greatness!”


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