Between the Twitter discussion surrounding the Globe’s Shakespeare and Censorship event (which I fully recognize could not have captured the nuance of the speakers’ actual talks) and a conversation that came up during a plenary on teaching Shakespeare at this year’s BritGrad conference, I’ve been grappling with the question of what we’re talking about when we’re arguing for or against “censoring” Shakespeare (and that’s not even getting into the obviously biased moral weight of the use of that word). I’d like to try to define my take on this debate with a series of questions, because I think so many things are getting lumped under one umbrella, it’s almost impossible to actually discuss the problem.
What do we mean by censorship?
First and foremost, two issues I think are actually completely separate have been lumped under one category. First, there’s the kind of censorship undertaken by the Bowdlers in The Family Shakespeare, which expurgated lines and passages that were deemed inappropriate for women or children by the standards of the day. Then, there is the kind advocated by Mark Rylance a few years ago: quietly removing out-of-context anti-Semitic remarks, in his specific example, or other instances of racism, sexism, ableism, or whatever else that were unremarkable in the period but have a different resonance now.
These are not, to my mind, the same issue, though I think the people who group them both under the banner of “censorship” would like them to be. The question comes down, for me, to one of harm: no one is going to be hurt by a bawdy joke, the word ‘damn,’ or a reference to suicide (all things the Bowdlers cut). Casually using “Jew” as a synonym for “a disgusting idiot,” or “Ethiope” as a synonym for “dark-haired and ugly” is startling and harmful, particularly because the text provides no space for unpacking, undermining, or lingering on these words: they just pass by.
But those who cry “censorship” would surely say that it’s essential we confront these ugly parts of Shakespeare.
Who are we asking to confront these things?
Who is unaware that the past was sexist and racist and ableist and a bunch of other things? Who actually needs to be reminded that there were periods in history (including, you know, the present) where aspects of one’s identity were so hated that the words themselves were insults? Probably mostly people who don’t hold any of the identities that Shakespeare is casually demeaning. The assumed audience therefore becomes one that is white, able-bodied, not Jewish or Muslim, probably not poor, probably male, and many other intersections of privilege. People who don’t need to learn the lesson that they have been and still are often dehumanized by the dominant culture are doubly alienated, both by the assumption that they too need to ‘confront’ something they already know, and by being forced to confront it for the benefit of the more privileged members of the audience.
Adults, at least, can decide they don’t want to put themselves in that position. I don’t have to go see The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew. But what about educational Shakespeare, where this conversation often gets especially vehement? Maybe a school trip to Othello can be a learning experience about racism for white children. But what burden is being placed on the black children in that class, both to witness and then presumably have to discuss and become the emblem of a lesson they already know too well? How completely alienating, to be forced to publicly grapple with the fact that the writer you are going to see because he is The Greatest English Writer in fact casually but explicitly demeans you and your identity, to realize in front of all your classmates that apparently Shakespeare’s supposed universality doesn’t include you.
Maybe this is an important lesson to learn. But I argue that it’s a lesson to be learned on one’s own terms, not by surprise at a school matinee– and certainly not a lesson one learns before being forced to continue studying Shakespeare anyway.
What is this confrontation supposed to empower us to do, if not reject Shakespeare– or parts of Shakespeare– if we so choose?
Every generation re-evaluates the art it has received and decides whether or not it is still worthy and relevant to their interests, but it feels like we’re in a moment of particularly intense scrutiny right now. Maybe it’s important to remind Shakespeare-lovers that much of Shakespeare’s work is deeply problematic. But if we’re going to force people to confront Shakespeare’s problems, then what is the point if we’re not allowed to then say, “Actually, you’re right, this is incredibly offensive, hopelessly out of date, and I want to walk out of this play/stop studying this subject/decide never to watch, read, or produce Shakespeare again.” I think that’s a legitimate response, but not the one, I suspect, that people who are most precious about censoring Shakespeare would support. And in the context of a school or even just being in the middle of a performance, it’s not actually one that’s allowed (at least, not without causing a scene).
I personally still think Shakespeare’s plays are worth doing (otherwise this degree would be a massive waste of time). But how can we negotiate the terms under which we do them in order to do more good than harm? If we have decided to do Shakespeare, how can we do the most welcoming Shakespeare possible?
I completely understand the impulse to say that it’s equally problematic to whitewash Shakespeare and pretend he never wrote anything bad. But I have to ask again: who exactly are you trying to educate that in that instance? People who experience some form of oppression already know they are and have been oppressed. I can assure you that anyone who loves Shakespeare and is a member of a group he demeans has already grappled with that fact. Maybe they want to come to the theatre and watch a playwright they generally like and also not hear their identities casually derided in order to shock and educate others.
I can’t help but feel that an insistence on retaining the most casually bigoted parts of Shakespeare, feelings be damned, is an insistence on maintaining Shakespeare’s air of exclusivity. Such a producer doesn’t care who he is alienating or insulting: Shakespeare, a dead guy, matters more than the living people who might encounter this play. The privileged audience members who need to learn a lesson matter more than the less privileged audience members, the ones whose actual, lived identities are being treated as no more than a thought experiment.
Plays like Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew raise their own sets of problems in this respect. Their offensiveness is baked into their story and structure, and while I think we should ask more questions than we do about why we not only continue to produce them, but continue to produce them a lot, there are cases that are so much simpler. Despite all the furor that followed his comments, Mark Rylance was talking about quietly amending individual words. It’s not that hard. It makes a big difference.