Shakespeare’s plays are considered by many to be the pinnacle of high art – lovely language with high philosophy and idealized characters. But not everyone is ideal, and many words and turns of phrases are… well… not exactly dinner-table talk.
Shakespeare was writing to be entertaining, and his Elizabethan audience was just as entertained by uncouth humor as our own modern audience – except now instead of playing on words about being “hung,” we now see Will Ferrell’s butt. Where today we have websites dedicated to parsing out each offensive moment in each movie or television show for our protection from smut, what could Shakespeare be censored for?
The government of Shakespeare’s time wasn’t so concerned about jokes with bad taste (though those jokes do abound!), but were rather more concerned with political uprisings and religious offenses. During Shakespeare’s own lifetime, playwrights were especially susceptible to suspicion from above as their words entertained masses of people, and could plant the seeds of an idea subtly. Every new play had to be approved for performance by the Master of the Revels, who looked the pieces over for any possible sedition. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were often questioned for their work, and sometimes it had very awful consequences. You can read more about 16th century censorship at PBS’s In Search of Shakespeare site.
William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. London, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Over time, different audiences have determined what is offensive to them in Shakespeare’s work. A second folio of 1632 in the Folger collection, seen here, bears the work of a censor for the Holy Office in Spain, Guillermo Sanchez. In the name of religious piety, Sanchez blotted out whole swaths of Shakespeare’s language, and cut Measure for Measure out of the book in its entirety. Nahum Tate rewrote a happy ending for King Lear in 1681 that wasn’t altered in performances for almost 200 years.
Outside of the realm of censorship, but just as famous for its alteration, David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor, rewrote the end of Romeo and Juliet so that Juliet awakes just after Romeo drinks the poison so that they briefly see each other alive before their final demise. You can see a comparison of these scenes in performance on the mobile tour video for the Folger’s next exhibit, Here is a Play Fitted.
Victorian audiences were so appalled by apparent homosexual overtones in the sonnets, that they dismissed the idea that Shakespeare even wrote them. Oscar Wilde, persecuted at that time for much the same reason, wrote a short story in which characters go mad over many years examining the sonnets for hidden meanings, The Portrait of Mr. W. H. Othello has a long history of criticism, as well, being called “disgusting” by US president John Quincy Adams for its depiction of a mixed-race couple. The Folger’s former exhibit, Shakespeare in American Life examines the experience of African Americans with Shakespeare.
Even today, there are just some things a modern audience would rather not see or hear when it comes to Shakespeare. We don’t want to see filthy humor mixed in with the glorious art – but some of the best art comes from being a mix like that, and Shakespeare was a true master of this mix of elements that both comfort and disquiet us – for whatever reason. Measure for Measure is still a difficult play to produce – after all, its plot hinges on a Puritanical political figure attempting to force a nun to sleep with him. As Michele Osherow said, this play and those like it are closer to modern drama in that it makes us ask harder questions of ourselves and our world – and that’s not always a comfortable experience, be we queens or commoners.
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