Views on censoring the bard 451 years later from a Shakespeare-lover and free speech fighter.
Happiest of birthdays to my favorite Elizabethan fellow and bawdiest of bards, William Shakespeare. It’s no secret that this famed playwright has taken heat over the years for his spicy language. His plays boast of themes of sexuality, anti-Semitism, violence, and homosexuality; but do these affronts to “moral sensibilities” justify censoring Shakespeare?
I read The Merchant of Venice in college and recognized the blatant anti-Semitic remarks. But to abridge the egregious portrayal of Shylock would certainly be tantamount to censorship. Mark Rylance, actor and former artistic director of the Globe Theater in London, was recently asked whether he ever censored plays when adapting them for the stage, specifically plays that deal with anti-Semitic characters. “If a character says it, it doesn’t mean the author means it but since the Holocaust…these statements have a lot more resonance now than they did at that time.” Students need to understand how time and place influence an author’s writing. And while it is important to recognize that remarks taken out of context can be racist and hurtful, redacting entire characters because they may trigger emotional stress only hinders the learning process.
Threats of anti-Semitism aren’t the censor’s only raison d’etre. Twelfth Night was banned by schools in New Hampshire for “encouraging homosexuality.” Apparently the school in question has a policy of prohibiting “alternative lifestyle instruction” and Shakespeare’s depiction of a woman dressed as a boy was much too racy for school officials. Romeo and Juliet is also frequently banned in public schools for encouraging teenage sex, glorifying teen suicide, and inspiring disobedience towards parental authority. Because learning about these important issues should not be done in the safe confines of a classroom with a certified adult. As Shakespeare would say, “Thou art a flesh-monger, a fool and a coward.”
While Shakespeare has gained notoriety by attracting the eyes and ears of censors, it is important to remember that his works remain as a testament to our predilection for both acts of terror and admissions of love. He might not be your favorite author, but to read and perform his plays is to become an active participant in the mangled scheme that is life, in all its despair and glory. Because that is what great works of literature are supposed to do: create dialogue and inspire hope.