Context, Subtext, Intertextuality: A Tool for Editorial Analysis

by Batya Amir and Keren Mazuz 


This essay suggests how three key concepts, context, subtext and intertextuality can be applied by editors to achieve greater consonance with an author’s meaning in a text. These conceptual tools can provide editors with insights, or “right” readings, in order to comprehend and convey the author’s message more incisively, particularly in highly nuanced texts.

In the following, we probe the academic literature to define these three concepts and discuss their relevance in ways we believe could serve the process of text preparation.

Key Concepts


A text is not read and written in a vacuum, but rather in a given context which affects its meaning and interpretation. Implicitly or explicitly, the contextual meaning is already inscribed in the text. The concept of context consists of all the cultural, social, political, and other webs of significance with which the text is associated.      

The Context of Culture

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred to the following example when demonstrating the importance of context in his field study. We believe it offers insight into an editorial understanding of context:

Consider…two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eye. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical…one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink.[1]

The meaning of a contracting eyelid depends on its context. We chose this example because it describes a social signal which suggests a notion, a mood and a sentiment —components that also define the text message. Editors must discover the presumptions, social understandings and cultural codes inherent in a text through its context. For instance, is the winking boy in the Geertz example engaging in deliberate communication? With whom? What is the particular message being imparted? According to what social code?

These questions address issues of context and only by resolving them can we understand the social meaning of this scene. Such understanding on the part of an editor is a key to conveying the author’s message accurately.


In order to understand the connection between what is literally said (the tone, language and nuance) and what is meant (the text message), we look for the subtext. The subtext expresses the author’s aims, agenda, and voice.

 Returning to Geertz’s example, let us suppose that the person winking is a black boy, a girl, or an elderly patient. What would the possible objectives of each of them be? Within these various contexts, a different subtext emerges. The subtext might be implicit between the lines of the text or found in a “pre-text,” i.e. the conceptual process that authors engage in when writing. The success of a text in expressing its underlying message, what Bogumil and Molino call the “textual power,” [2] is contingent on how well it conveys the author’s subtext. Bogumil and Molino show through Langston Hughes’ short story, “That Word Black,” how the word black has a negative meaning, because “black” is infused with a pejorative connotation to denote illegal (“black market”), immoral and unacceptable social behavior (“black list”, “black balled”).[3] Their critique reminds editors of the power of language to create texts and form new social images and meanings. A text projects a message composed of context and subtext which relates to extra-textual factors, namely the readers’ knowledge and experience.

Editing the Subtext in Shakespeare’s Text

 An example from the world of literature, as interpreted through a cinematographic lens, can illustrate the relations between context and subtext. For this purpose film can be examined as text. The film in question is the 2004 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” directed by Michael Radford. The medium of film influences the way we view Shakespeare’s characters, plot, and setting in ways that are themselves dependent on a specific historical and social context. The visual presentation in the film is therefore able to reveal a subtext that is implicit in Shakespeare’s text.

Viewing the film, we witness the silent exchange occurring through eye-contact and facial expression, and as the actor Joseph Fiennes says, “The actor in the film works on what is not said”.[4] Both actors and director collaborate here as “editors” of a text in order to form a field of multiple references, backgrounds, cultural codes, political and historical contexts, and agendas—an interwoven web.

They facilitate the choice, expression and acceptance of their particular reading and interpretation of Shakespeare’s message. In addition, they act as channels for the message to be conveyed, giving form to the author’s voice and bringing to light a particular subtext they choose to emphasize.

In the process of unfolding the context and subtext, the editor begins to engage in another process, that of intertextuality. It can be defined as a matrix of meanings established in other works that provide points and terms of reference familiar to both the author and the reader.


“No text is an island entire of itself”[5]

The term intertextuality has permeated the academic discourse of varied fields.[6] However, the semiotic concept of intertextuality was first introduced in the work of Post-Structuralist theorist and psychologist Julia Kristeva (1966) in response to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. According to Bakhtin, the production of a text is never the feat of a single author; rather “each act of textual production presupposes antecedent texts and anticipates prospective ones.”[7]

Intertextuality: Kristeva’s Semiotic Definition

Kristeva defines intertextuality on the basis of two axes: a horizontal one connecting the author and reader of a text and a vertical one connecting the text to other texts.[8] As we become aware of the relationship of one text to another, the influence of different social contexts on the production of these texts comes into focus. The literary word is seen “as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee …and the contemporary or earlier cultural context.”[9] The concept of intertextuality, according to Kristeva, questions the originality of a text, with its layers and echoes of accumulated cultural and literary knowledge, which endlessly build on and influence one another. We, as readers—and certainly as editors—produce the meaning of a text we read as part of an ongoing dialogue with it (and its author) according to its context and subtext, and with other texts to which we have been exposed. [10]

Exemplifying Intertextuality in Wolf’s Ethnography

A poignant example of intertextuality can be found in Margery Wolf’s ethnography, A Thrice Told Tale.[11] As an author and researcher, she approached the text both as a material and a cultural web of meaning. When she encountered the exceptional event of a young Taiwanese mother who suddenly exhibited unusual behavior, evoking contradictory reactions and questions in her community, Wolf wrote three different texts about this event. The first text was a piece of fiction, a short story describing the event from the perspective of the anthropologist as an author. The second text comprised Wolf’s and a Taiwanese assistant’s field notes from the perspective of the anthropologist as observer and commentator. The third was an article she published in the American Ethnologist journal in 1990[12] analyzing the event thirty years later from the perspective of a social scientist. In each text, the author’s subtext reflected on ethnography and fiction through different contexts. This example shows how the researcher was able to create a new text based on one event, meant to be read by different audiences. The researcher could choose and edit text elements, namely what to write, in what language and register, in what voice, what to include, and what to omit.

In her commentary on the three texts, Wolf reflects on her responsibility as an author/editor to her audience, as well as on her social context, her cultural bias, her own influence by “texts” and cultural concepts that inevitably color her writing: “I can give my interpretation of what I see, hear, smell, and feel, filtered through a mind that was constructed in the United States.”[13]

Exemplifying Intertextuality in Literature

            Following Daniel Chandler’s statement, “When writers write, they are also written. To communicate we must utilize existing concepts and conventions,”[14] we can find examples of intertextuality in numerous themes in literature. All of them use shared texts that employ context and subtext for a varied readership. [15] Some examples are: John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden, a retelling of the story of Genesis set in California, and James Joyce’s Ulysses based on Homer’s Odyssey. Another example is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies which refers to the Bible in its use of names and plot, and relates to other novels in theme (“innocence corrupted”).[16]

  Yet another example will illustrate the various levels of how the reader can understand references in a text worked on by different editors. In The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, the cultural context of the protagonist’s reading of Spinoza may be unfamiliar or surprising considering the social context of the hero. But, as the plot continues, Spinoza becomes a common reference point between the hero and his sympathetic Russian interlocutor, both of whom differ widely with regard to their socio-cultural background and education. Therefore, a wider readership might need commentary on the two characters’ intertextual relationship, as well as on the historical context of the novel, the Mendel Beilis trial, and the motif of ritual murder of which the protagonist is accused. An editor might consider asking the author to clarify the cultural references for the reader.


“Every reading is always a rewriting” [17]

            These three concepts, context, subtext, and intertextuality, discussed through examples from fiction and non-fiction, bring to the fore points of reference that can enhance the dialogic interaction between editor and author. They can be used as strategies for the editor to critically engage with the author in elements of intertextuality, for the purpose of offering optimum formulation of the text message.

We believe that these concepts provide an analytical framework that helps the editor identify the relationship between text elements (language, readership, voice and register) and thereby applies this form of analysis to enhance the clarity and cogency of the edited text so that it achieves fidelity with the text message.

 How, then, can the editor apply the insights these three concepts provide?

Practical Application for Editors

In his insightful source of suggestions for practical application, Charles Bazerman advises:

Learning to analyze intertextuality will help you pick through the ways writers draw other characters into their story and how they position themselves within these worlds of multiple texts. It will help you see what sources researchers and theorists build on and which they oppose. It will help you identify the ideas, research, and political positions behind policy documents.[18]

Bazerman guides us clearly and thoughtfully through the different levels of a text’s reliance on other texts ranging from: quotations to beliefs and ideas that are familiar to the reader; the use of language, phrasing and genres as representative of specific social worlds and periods; the use of certain registers or forms that echo identifiable voices in a discourse, and “intermedial reference” (i.e. when texts refer   to movies or music). Brazerman’s essay is an excellent guide for the perplexed editor. As a result, we learn to pay attention to “re-contextualization,” when words from one document are used in a new context, are given a different meaning or express a new critical subtext that reflects the author’s position.

 Applying contextual, subtextual, and intertextual analyses to the text to be edited allows the editor to make observations about the context of a writer’s references. Bazerman points out that such analyses reveal subtle clues or distinctive terms of a certain period that might evoke particular responses and attitudes toward a theme. These analyses allow us to see patterns, phrases or words that seem to be in contrast to the general tone, voice, or register of a text, and sharpen skills in doing justice to the writer’s intentions while preparing the text.

Useful Questions

As editors, whose task it is to refine and clarify a text with regard to content and style in order to help an author convey a message to a specific readership, a number of questions that may be useful as tools in the editing process should be kept in mind:

  1. For whom is the text intended? Is the text appropriate for a particular audience in terms of genre, language, style, and register?
  2. In an age of increasing digitization, editors face new challenges and adjustments. Visuals are increasingly favored over texts, and editors have to respond to that need by being aware of the power of the visual enhancement of texts to bring out subtle references.[19] These in turn echo the intertextual aspects of the respective piece.[20] As a result, the editor must notice if a newspaper or magazine photograph needs a caption, and what code or subtext it should convey.[21] Does a book state a reference to a film, a painting, a piece of music that needs to be explained or clarified?
  3. As a result of digitization and the ease with which digital tools enable “borrowing” from the Web, does the dubious originality of a piece require vetting by the editor?
  4. Does language experimentation or innovation in a piece serve to amplify the text message or does it detract from it?[22]
  5. Can and should the editor allow for unusual syntax, punctuation and word formation?[23]


This essay reflects on ways in which the three key concepts, context, subtext and intertextuality, may serve as useful strategies in text preparation. As suggested above, the application of these concepts could contribute to the editor’s reflective acts of reading, interpreting, and critiquing texts. These conceptual and practical tools can provide directions for the “right” readings in order to convey an author’s message.

In the process of clarifying the author’s message, editors must bear in mind that writers are weavers of words in an immense fabric of varied texture and contexts. They echo patterns that came before them, and from time to time dare to break new ground with a fresh color or thread, an innovative twist that creates a new pattern, and maybe a new tradition or approach. In this sense, editors are invaluable facilitators, who by understanding the text (its context, subtext and intertextuality) and patiently and respectfully editing the fabric, suggest variations in color and arrangement and present the text to the reader in the most illuminating way.


       1. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books Press, 1973), 6.

       2. Mary L Bogumil and Michael R. Molino, “Pretext, Context, Subtext, Textual Power in the Writing of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King Jr.,” College English 52, no.7: (1990), 800-811.

       3. Bogumil and Molino, “Pretext.”

       4. The actor Joseph Fiennes in an interview included on the DVD “The Merchant of Venice,” (2004).

       5. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners (1994):

       6. For a thorough analysis of context, subtext, intertextuality see: Marko Juvan, 2008.

       7. Ronald Bauman, A World of Others’ Words: Cross Cultural Perspectives on Intertextuality (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004): 4; (“The text lives only by coming into context with another text with context). Only at this point of contact between texts does a light flash, illuminating both the posterior and anterior, joining a given text to a dialogue.” (Bakhtin,1986), 62. See also T.S. Eliot’s essay on the role of the poet at the intersection of individual voice and literary tradition (Eliot, 1921), 1-5.

      8. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 69.

      9. Moi Toril, ed,  The Kristeva Reader-Julia Kristeva, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 36.

      10. Another perspective brings Gerard Genette who links the term intertextuality primarily to the issues of quotation, plagiarism and allusion (Chandler, 1994).

      11. Margery Wolf,  A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism & Ethnographic Responsibility (Stanford: University Press, 1992).

      12. Margery Wolf, “The Woman Who Didn’t Become a Shaman,” American Ethnologist 17, No. 3 (1990): 419-30.

      13. Margery Wolf, A Thrice Told Tale (1992), 57.

      14. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners, p.2.

      15. For intertextuality as a literary term, see Jeffrey Fischer (2006). He raises the interesting question whether there is “such a thing as ‘raw experience’ (an original life):”We are acculturated to have certain kinds of experiences by the education, the upbringing, the cultural climate we live in. … perhaps we act out scripts (sic!) in our lives; we live in stories.” (2006),28. See also Alfaro, 1996.

[16] . For more details regarding allusions to the Bible, Euripides, other novels and references in film regarding Lord of the Flies see: (accessed: 19.5.2012)

      17. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners, p.3.

      18. Charles Bazerman, “Intertextuality: How Texts Rely on Other Texts, in: What Writing Does and How it Does It.” eds., Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior (Erlbaum Press, 2004), 1.

      19. Chandler provides a visual example for a cultural reference with an advertisement for Absolute Vodka, where the shape of the bottle takes the form of the famous front door of 10 Downing Street. The “reader” of the ad needs the knowledge of the shape of the bottle, since its recognition emphasizes the feeling of exclusivity as implied in the subtext of the entrance into Britain’s center of political power, (1994), 6.

       20. See the excellent example of a digital presentation on intertextuality in Lord of the Flies by Victoria Woolridge ( Another digital example, the Prufrock Papers, developed in the English Department at the University of Sakatchewan in 1999, uses T.S.Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as a hypertext in a web of other texts and references,

       21. Roland  Barthes calls this “textual anchorage” (1977), 38.

       22. The blurring of boundaries is achieved when taking subjects that do not seem to lend themselves to a particular text form, but which is shown to be served by them. An example for dealing with matters of extreme consequence is found in Art Spiegel man’s graphic novel “Maus” which deals with the Holocaust.

        23. Fischer gives an example for this in a reading with his English class; the unusual punctuation of the piece is intended by the author to facilitate a certain way of reading aloud in order to emphasize the message. (2006), 36.  


Alfaro, María Jesús Martínez. “Intertextuality: Origins and Development of the Concept.” Atlantis 18, no.1/2 (1996): 268-285. (In Spanish)

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. In C. Emerson and M. Holquist, eds.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977.

Bauman, R. A World of Others’ Words: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Intertextuality. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Bazerman, Charles. “Intertextuality: How Texts Rely on Other Texts”. in: What writing does and how it does it. Charles Bazerman & Paul Prior (Eds). Erlbaum Press, 2004.

Bogumil, L., Mary and R. Molino. “Pretext, Context, Subtext: Textual Power in the Writing of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King Jr.” College English 52, no.7 (1990): 800-811.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners. 1994. [Date accessed: 30.4.2012]

Fischer, Jeffrey. “Killing at Close Range: A Study in Intertextuality.” The English Journal 95, no. 3 (2006): 27-31.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New  York:BasicBooks Press, 1973.

Juvan, Marko. History and Poetics of Intertextuality. Purdue University Press, 2008

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Toril, Moi, ed.,  The Kristeva Reader – Julia Kristeva. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Wolf, Margery, “The Woman Who Didn’t Become a Shaman,” American Ethnologist, 1990.

Wolf, Margery, A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism & Ethnographic Responsibility. Stanford: University Press, 1992.


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