All cultures have certain references common to them which can sometimes act as a type of shorthand in conveying ideas. This is true of subgroups within the main culture and can sometimes help convey an alternative meaning to that which the words themselves do not. This is why works such as Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible are subject to interpretation, because the audience (and culture) for whom they were written no longer exists, and as a result, we no longer fully understand the context the writers intended.
For instance, in England, there’s a movement to perform Shakespeare’s work using the original English in which it was performed. Doing so reveals a number of puns, lost to modern listeners since the spoken language has evolved since the Elizabethan era. Equally so, references to notable figures of the times which Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized, no longer have meaning for us. It’s believed that Polonius in Hamlet is based on a prominent member of the Cecil family, which would have been more evident to audiences of the day who were familiar with the inspiration.
An example from modern times is the Star Trek (Original) episode “Spock’s Brain”. If someone makes a reference to it in a work, many Trek fans would immediately realize it’s meant to be derogatory, since the episode is known for being one of the worst ever produced. In a post on social media once, I stated that for every “City on the Edge of Forever” there’s a “Spock’s Brain”. Anyone familiar with the show understood what I meant.
In 1987, E. D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy, which included a list of items all Americans should know. His work was in reaction to what he saw as a decline in knowledge of American culture and cultural references and read like an attack on modern educational standards, which he implied teaches students how to learn, but doesn’t supply them with facts. A similar work, The Closing of the American Mind, by Allen Bloom took a similar tone, lamenting how “openness” in education was undermining Democracy in the United States. Both works lobbied for a closer examination of US history and Western culture. The current crop of politicians and pundits use the term “Woke” to describe a similar situation nowadays.
Allegory is based on shared understanding and experiences, often stating one side of an argument while offering allusions to the other side. The Bible, for example, relies on allegory in many places and modern readers are at a duel disadvantage by not knowing the context in which it was written, and also due to having only static words on a page to convey the meaning. Since literacy was a specialized skill during the time most of the Bible was composed, elements of it were conveyed to the congregations through letters (Paul and other evangelists’ epistles) which were read to the faithful. Written text does not convey the inflections of the speaker. So, we have no way of knowing how people heard the words which made a huge difference in how the letters were perceived. Since Paul was often writing to congregations whose beliefs did not always match his, the way the letters were read probably made a huge difference in perceived meaning among early Christian communities.
I’m always happy when I “get” a message conveyed by the references someone uses. I once overheard an older Black gentleman involved in an argument with a woman and he said, “Oh, woman, oh woman” which I recognized as a reference to the Ray Charles song “Hit the Road, Jack” so I understood his meaning. Inside jokes are another means of communication meant for a specific group, often referencing a shared experience among that group. I’ve noted on occasions that I have jokes that are so “inside” that I’m the only person left who gets them.
Writers do well to consider the context in crafting their work, but cultural experiences often dictate certain references that are difficult to ignore. Shakespeare references the death of fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe in As You Like It, and perhaps other works as well. The Hebrew Scriptures, which come to us as the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, reference a number of deities worshipped by the surrounding tribes and caution the faithful that “you shall have no other Gods before me”. A work which conveys meaning beyond the static words has the best chance of being remembered and surviving. Consider how many plays, movies, and television shows have been forgotten, while others go on to become classics. Still, a writer should not ignore the cultural shorthand, and should always strive to craft rich tales that work on many levels.