It always gets my goat that the social character of literature is so grossly misunderstood. You can thank literary critics for this—some of them, anyway. Too enraptured with dunderheaded theories and ideas that have nothing to do with art, they try to reduce works like Shakespeare's plays to some political or social message. Some Marxist scholars, for example, read his plays as if they were straightforward representations of class struggle. Unbelievable!
Shakespeare dealt with class struggle somewhat, sure, but his plays are not political statements about class struggle. Why even bother writing a play if all you want to do is get political? That's what manifestos and political tracts are for.
Shakespeare's works dealing with class are social in the sense that each of his plays has a specific social arrangement. Hamlet tells us about the rot in his fictional Denmark; he's not talking about a specific kind of rot in our own politics. Shakespeare's point isn't to air his own political opinions; it's to show what's wrong with society in a much deeper, broader way. It's not just about politics, folks. As I wrote in Aesthetic Theory, "What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions" (source).
Kafka's Metamorphosis and his other works are irresistible to me for the way their thematic imitation of reality transforms reality into something other than reality. What I mean is that Kafka's writing has lots of elements of reality and seems just realistic enough... until something happens that makes this reality seem really, really strange.
Take his Metamorphosis, for example. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, transforms into a bug, without reason and against the reasoning of his family. And then things just go on as if this transformation weren't that weird. It's like reality just became unreal.
Kafka makes use of themes his readers understand from their own experiences of the modern world—alienation for example—but his novel is not a copy of reality. His fantastic style resists the world as it is. His art is dialectical in its structure, thematic content, and primary images.
It doesn't get much better than this.
Be still, my snobbish heart: I do love me some Samuel Beckett plays. The minimalism! The enigmas! The questions without answers! The displacement! Beckett's own refusal to express (or have) a thesis about human life!
Beckett didn't just put social critique into his plays; he put social critique right into the form of the plays. Endgame, for example, is not without content, but it's not really the content that gives the play its power; it's the form of the play itself. Endgame incorporates mass destruction without being expressly about the capacity for mass destruction.
As much as I want to emphasize the distance of art from society, this distance isn't absolute—art does not have absolute autonomy. For one thing, artists are influenced by other artists, positively and negatively. Cervantes began Don Quixote with the intention of parodying medieval romances. But Don Quixote goes way beyond parody; parody is just the means by which this novel became a critical resistance of the social order.
I think that Goethe's novel about a man driven by unrequited love to commit suicide is a protest against "a hardened petty bourgeoisie," even though it never specifically mentions or talks about the petty bourgeoisie—and that's why I dig it. Goethe resists the world simply by telling this particular story, not by setting out to change the world with his novel. When artists primarily seek to make the world a better place, they probably fail as artists because they're no longer concerned with the aesthetic.
You disappoint me, Brecht. So intent were you to provoke social change, you ended up didactic, authoritarian, and socially ineffectual. You wanted to motivate people to think, but you said nothing that the choir you preached to didn't already know. You brought nothing to society you sought to change. Not with Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Not with anything afterwards. At least you were astute enough to realize your powerlessness.