Shakespeare and Censorship

You probably know by now how I feel about Shakespeare. You probably also know how I feel about censorship. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I hear of someone censoring Shakespeare, I tend to take notice.

This guy, for instance, has been ticking people off for decades. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)
This guy, for instance, has been ticking people off for decades. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The latest example comes from Mark Rylance, an actor and former artistic director for the Globe Theatre in London. In a recent interview, Rylance confessed that, while working at the Globe, he would often cut out the passages of Shakespeare’s plays that appear anti-Semitic. He claimed that the censorship was necessary, as those lines have taken on more “resonance” since the Holocaust. He also defended his actions by pointing out that in Shakespeare’s day, playwrights and acting companies would often self-censor to avoid offending their audiences.

While I appreciate Mr. Rylance’s attempts to show consideration for Jewish audiences, I can’t help but condemn any attempt to censor an author’s works, no matter how hateful they may seem (because what’s the point of protecting speech that doesn’t offend people?). In the particular case of Shakespeare, there’s no reason why these plays, if they are going to be performed at all, shouldn’t be performed as written, especially in light of their history.

One thing that I will probably never understand about people who are presumed to be my elders and betters is why they cannot for the life of them put a work of literature into its proper historical context. We’ve seen this before with works like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gone with the Wind: critics try to judge them by modern standards of what is acceptable without taking into account the society in which the author lived, how it may have influenced his thinking, and what sort of culture the author was trying to portray. In this case, we forget that Shakespeare was living and working in Elizabethan England, where anti-Semitism was an institution. There’s no doubt that some of Shakespeare’s characters discriminate against Jews, but whether Shakespeare himself was an anti-Semite should have no bearing on how we view these plays: if he was not anti-Semitic, we must excuse him for trying to faithfully represent an unjust society. If he was anti-Semitic, we can expect no better from a person who was born and raised in such a society. His incomparable merits as an author shouldn’t be cast aside for this one (albeit terrible) fault in his thinking

Mr. Rylance is right on at least one point, though: actors and writers in Shakespeare’s day often did censor themselves. This is because they already had what we supposedly want to avoid: a society that couldn’t appreciate the right to free expression. If Shakespeare ever censored himself, it was because he didn’t want his head, literally, handed to him. It was because he saw his friends being imprisoned for writing plays and wished to avoid a similar fate. Censorship was common in Shakespeare’s day because freedom was not. Factions both political and “religious” held such a tight grip on the throats of the English people that one false step could mean losing one’s livelihood or, possibly, one’s life. Today in Britain and America, we have no such restrictions. Except in a few notable instances, the idea of free speech is respected. However, once we begin to let our words and others’ words be curtailed by the fear of “offending” people, we surrender a piece of our birthright for the pottage of approval. Censorship slowly becomes normalized, then accepted, then expected. Soon, authors find themselves in the same predicament as Shakespeare’s colleagues: being forced to self-censor to avoid incurring the wrath of whoever’s ideology happens to prevail at the moment. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but terribly hard to get out.

Statue of William Shakespeare in London’s Leicester Square. The scroll he’s pointing to reads, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” (Image by Lonpicman).

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while anti-Semitism is evil and wrong, we must remember that human beings often are too. They succumb to prejudice quicker than truth and–whether they realize it or not–the majority often rules them. Though some diehards might beg to differ, William Shakespeare wasn’t God: he’s allowed to make some errors, and he would be a poor writer indeed if he didn’t allow his characters to do the same. The answer to human folly is not to block it out and ignore it, but to combat it with truth, a truth whose surest guard lies in free, unadulterated speech.


Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know what you think, even if it isn’t flattering, but beware. “I am not bound to please thee with my answers.”

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10 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Censorship

  1. Absolutely!
    I literally just read a review for a George Elliot novel, which said “…the depictions of domestic violence don’t hold up from a modern perspective”. I felt like commenting about the key words there: Modern Perspective. What about a 19th century perspective? That’s clearly what perspective she was writing from and for!

    I believe that practicing Judaism in England during Shakespeare’s time was illegal. The only legal religion (legally) was Protestantism, and Catholicism was barely tolerated. It’s very likely that Shakespeare was at least vaguely anti-Semitic, but that’s due to his time period. Even if he wasn’t, he was writing for an audience who would have found it fine. Do we get to censor Dickens for having a nasty Jewish character too?
    I’d be pissed off if a newly released book was anti-Semitic, but I can’t place that kind of judgement on anything written more that 100 years ago. I got annoyed with Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” the other day for being blatantly racist, using the N-word and the evil dark people thing. Not cool. I feel like she should have been more enlightened, being a modern woman and all… but it was still way before these sorts of things became offensive.
    Oh man, I’m having Fahrenheit 451 flashbacks now. This whole thing was the point… society gets rid of books because they offend all the minority groups.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just don’t understand why people can’t see literature as a product of its time. They always try to force it to fit modern standards, which is pointless no matter how you look at it.

      Tell me about it! When I read that one section of Fahrenheit 451, all the headlines and opinion pieces I had read about censoring “offensive” books started running through my head. So which book are you going to be? 😉

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      1. I don’t understand it either… I have to wonder if these are the same people who read Hemingway and Fleming and don’t question the themes they wrote into his works. I don’t like the misogynistic tone they take, but I accept it as their time. It just makes me glad that for the most part, writers have evolved with society!
        How can a 1500’s author conform to 2000’s standards? Shall we get the TARDIS in?

        YES! And the bit about dumbing books down and condensing and condensing until you get to one sentence books…. I’m sitting there thinking about popular books… the Fifty Shades trilogy, James Patterson, sports biographies, Reader’s Digest, Twitterature… It’s a bit scary. Plus I think he had a point about people hating others for being smarter- but that’s a whoooole other rant, I think I’m going to do a separate post after my 451 review =D
        I think I’ll be Bid Me to Live by H.D- it’s totally weird and dreamlike, so even if I mix up stuff it’ll probably be okay. Plus it’s already dying at that kills me. What about you?

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        1. Sorry if I’m posting that reply more than once, my laptop is trying to self destruct by annoying me so much with it’s shittiness that I throw it out the window. I desire that we may be better strangers!

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        2. I’d like to be a Shakespeare play (Hamlet, or something like that), but I’ll never remember all that, so instead, I’ll be To Kill a Mockingbird. Or to make it really poetically just, maybe I’ll be a collection of Bradbury’s stories. 🙂

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  2. Hanna, what a breath of fresh air! I have been frustrated myself by this solicitous attitude from those who claim they “know better.” It’s not important to know Shakespeare’s heart (whether anti-Semitic or not). His works reflected the world as in which he lived and we can better understand it because he told the truth! You’ve expressed this well. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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