illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Censorship in Schools

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Last Updated on April 23, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

Meanwhile, the Shakespeare expurgation industry was thriving in America, fostered by the growing demand for school texts. In 1849 the first American expurgation of the plays in dramatic form was published: the Shaksperian Reader, edited by Professor John W. S. Hows. Hows wrote an apologetic preface, confessing his veneration for the “pure unmutilated text,” but explaining that without revision, Shakespeare could not be used as a class book or for family reading. Hows cut mercilessly, removing Falstaff completely from Henry IV, part I, and stopping Othello at the end of the third act. He also added four years to Juliet’s age in Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare makes her not quite fourteen).

Expurgation of school texts continued unabated into the twentieth century. Back in 1750, Garrick cut Juliet’s ardent wish that Romeo would hurry and deprive her of her maidenhead. Bowdler removed the same lines. Nearly two centuries later, a 1985 survey revealed that American school texts, including those of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Scott, Foresman; Macmillan; Ginn; McDougal, Littell and Company; and McGraw Hill, had also cut the lines. Scott, Foresman’s Romeo and Juliet cut more than three hundred lines, mostly sexual allusions. For example, Romeo’s line, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight” was changed to “ . . . I will be with thee tonight.” In 1985 a ninth-grade student in Vienna, Virginia, protested these cuts. His teacher responded by supplying the class with a full text and discussing the cuts with the students. In the media debate that followed, some school editions were criticized for failing to state that they were abridged. Ginn, for example, omitted four hundred lines from its Romeo and Juliet, yet claimed in its teachers’ edition that the play was “presented here as Shakespeare wrote it.”

Political censorship manifested in the twentieth century in the form of political correctness. Groups monitoring discrimination on grounds of sex, race, religion, and disability found plenty to object to in Shakespeare. In 1931 The Merchant of Venice was eliminated from high school curricula in Buffalo and Manchester, New York, in response to pressure from Jewish organizations, who believed it fostered anti-Semitism. On the twentieth century stage and on film, directors continued to cut Shakespeare—not because it was bawdy, but for reasons of length or obscurity. Often they “interpreted” plays to emphasize a political or philosophical standpoint, sometimes with acclaimed results, sometimes with a decidedly reductionist effect. There has been an antifascist interpretation of Julius Caesar with jack-booted crowds saluting Caesar, and a feminist version of The Taming of the Shrew in which Kate ends her speech of submission to her husband by spitting in his eye.

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