Unless you’ve never picked up a book before, then you at least know the names Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet. There’s no denying that the works of William Shakespeare are a fundamental part of literature around the world. He is often called the greatest writer in the history of the English language; and countless works have been directly or indirectly founded on the characters, events, and story structures made famous in his plays.
In his own time, Shakespeare was seen as merely one among many talented playwrights and poets, but ever since the late 17th century he has been considered the supreme playwright; and to a lesser extent, poet of the English language. No other playwright has been performed on the world stage as often as Shakespeare.
But his works have also been subject of controversy since they were first written. Most of the arguments didn’t heat up until the 18th century when he was taken to task over his puns, and the sexual suggestions in various scenes. Editors like Alexander Pope attempted to gloss over- or outright remove- the puns and the double entendres, but they were quickly reversed by others; by mid-century they were back, with only a few exceptions.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare has been banned from numerous schools and libraries throughout history. The most infamous incident involving the censorship of Shakespeare came from a man named Thomas Bowdler, an English physician who created a “family friendly” version of Shakespeare’s works. Family Shakespeare was published in 1818; his editing had cut 90% out of the stories and made a mockery of some of the greatest prose in the English language.
Some examples of the alterations made by Bowdler include:
Hamlet, in which the death of Ophelia was referred to as an accidental drowning, completely omitted the suggestion that she may have committed suicide.
Macbeth, when the Lady Macbeth’s famous cry “Out, damned spot!” was changed to “Out, crimson spot!”
“God!” as an exclamation was replaced with “Heavens!”
In Part 2 of Henry IV, the prostitute, Doll Tearsheet, is removed entirely; but the somewhat more reputable Mistress Quickly was kept.
Aside from his laughable attempt to rewrite some of these works, Thomas’ most enduring contribution to literature was the term “bowdlerizing”, which has become a widely-used word synonymous with censorship.
Here, in what we like to think of as the civilized, modern age, challenges and official government bans include the following:
In 1966, Mao Tse-Tung announced a “Cultural Revolution,” designed to restore Communist dedication and drive to Chinese society. He named his wife, Chiang Ching, unofficial Secretary of Culture. However, what the department and policy meant was the assassination of officials thought to have lost their loyalty, and the arrest of thousands of others for vaguely defined “crimes against the state.” The works of Shakespeare, along with various music, literature, film, and theater performances were officially banned by the government because they were not seen as promoting appropriate state ideology.
In October, 1976, the Cultural Revolution was officially declared over, as China faced economic needs that required a stake in world trade. On May 25, 1977 the ban on Shakespeare was lifted. The Chinese government would soon after stated that a Chinese-language edition of his collected works would soon be available to citizens.
Before you shake your head and recall the days of anti-Communist rhetoric, look no further than present day Texas, where Shakespeare is banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
While in most states the decision to ban a book is usually made by prison mail room staff at each institution, The TDCJ maintains a statewide database of banned books, to which titles are continuously being added by prison staff across the state. Among the more than 12,000 titles currently banned from Texas prisons are books by George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Norman Mailer, John Grisham, and James Patterson; as well as books by two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Although an appeal process exists in most states that allow a prisoner to form an intelligent defense of a book, more than 85% of such appeals in Texas are denied.
Of his individual plays, Twelfth Night was banned by schools in Merrimack, New Hampshire for “encouraging homosexuality.” Based on the school system’s “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction,” critics took issue with its depiction of a woman dressed as a boy.
The Merchant of Venice is often accused of being anti-Semitic. It was removed from the high school curriculums of Buffalo and Manchester, New York in 1931. A group of Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York, filed a lawsuit in 1949 claiming that assigning the play in a senior high school literature class “violated the rights of [their] children to receive an education free of religious bias.” (Rosenberg v. Board of Education of the City of New York, 196 Misc. 542, 92 N.Y. Supp. 2d 344).
The Ontario Ministry of Education was tasked with ruling whether or not the play was indeed anti-Semitic when it was banned from the ninth-grade classrooms in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario in 1986. It was also banned from classrooms in Midland, Michigan in 1980.
King Lear was banned from British theatres from 1788 to 1820, out of respect for King George III’s alleged insanity. It has also faced challenges today with regards to sex, violence, and obscene language.
Hamlet was banned in Ethiopia in 1978. The play is commonly challenged in U.S. schools by parents objecting to sex, violence, obscene language, and references to the occult.
Romeo and Juliet is very frequently the target of censorship in public schools for encouraging teenage sex, and for glorifying teen suicide, drugs, and disobedience of parental authority.
Macbeth was banned in England by King James for 5 years because he objected to the appearance of, and the incantation spoken by, the three witches. Common issues today include sex, violence, obscene language, and witchcraft.
Those who so often quickly raise their torches and pitchforks under the banner of righteousness always claim to uphold the law and to be in support of free speech; but if anyone dares to speak up in rebuttal to their words, they scream blasphemy from the pulpit.
Shakespeare’s plays show the comedy, tragedy, promise, and despair that is the human condition. If these works are guilty of anything, it’s in showing us the folly and the faults in ourselves. Great literature does not glorify or promote what is wrong in society; it shines a light upon the darkness in hopes that dialogue and reason may help us overcome those faults and to rise above.
For a complete list of titles covered and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit www.deepforestproductions.com
Sources: USA Today, Wikipedia, Amazon, American Library Association, Georgia Highland College, History Channel, Newton County (GA) Library, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Trinity University, Associated Press, Huffington Post
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions