The Reading Room
The Banning of the Bard
William Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in many ways. They’ve been translated into nearly every language on Earth and at least one “alien” language (Klingon). Sometimes they have undergone serious changes. Legal requirements forced cuts and alterations, and in some times and places they’ve been banned altogether. He wrote about all aspects of human life, and rulers and censors haven’t always appreciated his candor.
In Elizabethan times, theater companies existed at the government’s pleasure. Shakespeare biographer Dennis Kay writes that he “had to learn to walk a political tightrope.” For the most part, he walked it with little trouble. His closest encounter with official disapproval of his work came in 1601, when the Earl of Essex led an uprising against Queen Elizabeth I.
Before launching his campaign, Essex paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a special performance of Richard II. The Queen regarded the play, in which the eponymous king is deposed and murdered, as a symbol of insurrection, and her censor ordered the deposition scene removed from all later performances. The play wasn’t restored to its original form until 1608. Shakespeare got off lightly compared to the Earl of Essex, who was beheaded.
After Shakespeare’s death, the Puritans rose to power, deposing and executing Charles I. In 1642, Parliament banned the performance of plays in England. Shakespeare’s works, along with those of other playwrights, could no longer be seen on the stage. The Puritans denounced the “lascivious mirth and levity” of stage plays. Theaters, including the Globe, were closed or converted to other purposes.
The Restoration of 1660 saw only a limited return of theatrical productions. Just two theater companies were licensed in London. One of them, run by Sir William Davenant, was authorized to “reform and make fit” Shakespeare’s works. His cleaned-up versions led to an era in which the plays were seldom performed in their original form. While Davenant toned down the language, he expanded the role of some characters. In his Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, and the witches get more stage time. For years, licensing limitations made this the only way British audiences were likely to see Shakespeare.
The Puritans who crossed the ocean had no more love than Cromwell’s party for frivolous productions. While plays were often discouraged, it wasn’t till 1750 that the Massachusetts legislature passed a colony-wide ban. Anti-British sentiment may have played a role; Tories generally favored keeping the theaters open.
King Lear, with its fairy-tale feeling, might seem like one of the more harmless plays, but it was banned in England in 1810. It showed a king suffering from bouts of insanity, and King George III lived with worsening mental problems at the time. The play was banned as disrespectful to the king, who wasn’t even allowed to read it himself. The ban was lifted only with his death in 1820.
Thomas Bowdler’s name always comes up in connection with suppression of Shakespeare, but he gets more blame than he deserves. He created a “family-friendly” version of Shakespeare’s plays, taking out the cursing and crude humor. No stage company was forced to substitute his text for the original; it just satisfied readers who were squeamish about dirty words.
Shakespeare has been suppressed in other countries besides Britain. The Soviet Union never explicitly banned Hamlet, but Stalin’s well-known dislike for the play was enough to keep it from being performed. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t like a play in which a ruler’s crimes are exposed.
In 1966, China’s Cultural Revolution banned vast quantities of Western works from publication and performance. Shakespeare was among them, being considered (correctly) incompatible with China’s policy of all-embracing Communism. The ban remained in place till 1977, but today his works are very popular in China.
Many calls to ban Shakespeare have been deservedly ignored. In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald published playwright Lachlan Philpott’s call to ban Shakespeare in Australia for five years, in the hope that eliminating the competition would get his work a little more attention. His proposal went nowhere.
In Iran in 2018, a director and a theater manager were detained in connection with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The problem wasn’t the play as such; a video clip that went online showed men and women dancing together, which is illegal under Iran’s Islamic law.
It’s surprising, if anything, how few restrictions there are today on performing Shakespeare. Even North Korea has seen performances. His work has survived many attempts to silence it, and today it’s performed almost everywhere. The desire to censor is as universal as Shakespeare’s themes, but he has won out many times.