William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download William Shakespeare Study Guide

Subscribe Now

William Shakespeare and Censorship

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Censorship of Shakespeare’s plays began in the author’s lifetime. In 1581 England’s Queen Elizabeth I ordered that all plays to be performed should first be submitted to the Master of the Revels for examination for political and religious sedition. In 1607 this requirement was extended to the printing of plays. At least two of Shakespeare’s plays are believed to have fallen foul of the censor: Richard II (1597) and Henry IV, parts I and II (1598). Richard II contains a scene in which Richard is deposed. After the Earl of Essex’s unsuccessful revolt against Elizabeth in 1601, the queen complained that a certain play, probably Shakespeare’s Richard II, had been publicly performed to encourage insurrection. On the eve of the rebellion Essex’s followers had sponsored Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform the play. The censor subsequently judged the deposition scene to be too politically sensitive to be performed. It was omitted from all editions of the play until 1608, after Elizabeth’s death.

Henry IV provoked animosity because of its use of the names Oldcastle, Harvey, and Russell for characters. Descendants of these historical figures objected to the unflattering portrayals of their ancestors, so Shakespeare rechristened the characters Falstaff, Bardolph, and Peto.

In 1642, after the execution of Charles I, England became a Commonwealth under the governance of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, a Puritan, closed the theaters and banned the performance of stage plays, including Shakespeare’s. The ban did not include musical entertainments, however, so Shakespeare’s plays, along with others, were adapted to accommodate enough music to make them legal.

The Restoration

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, stage plays made a limited comeback. Charles II licensed just two theaters in London (compared with the sixteen that had operated from 1576 to 1614). One holder of a license was Sir William Davenant, who was given Shakespeare’s plays to “reform and make fit” for performance by the actors under his management. Davenant typified an attitude to Shakespeare that was born in the Restoration and survived into the nineteenth century—that Shakespeare was a genius who had the misfortune to live in a barbaric age and therefore lacked decorum. He portrayed unpleasant situations and placed rough language in the mouths of royalty. Accordingly, Davenant’s version of Macbeth does not contain the death of Lady Macduff, and Macbeth’s unkind words to a servant “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!/Where gott’st thou that goose look?” became, “Now, Friend, what means thy change of Countenance?”

In another Restoration version of Measure for Measure, Angelo turns out to be a hero, declaring that he loved Isabella all the time and was only testing her. The poet and critic John Dryden adapted many of Shakespeare’s plays according to contemporary taste, producing such works as Truth Found too Late (1679), a version of Troilus and Cressida in which Cressida is faithful. Another notorious adapter, Nahum Tate, rewrote King Lear with a happy ending, in which Lear and Cordelia survive, Lear is restored to his throne, and Cordelia is told that she will be a queen.

Women and Censorship

Shakespeare’s portrayal of women was deemed inappropriate to the Restoration sensibility, which romanticized them as gentle, refined creatures innocent of sexual matters. Davenant’s version of Hamlet “sanitizes” Ophelia, transforming her from a full-blooded and sexually conscious woman to a silent, coy creature. Shakespeare’s Ophelia is aware of the sexual implications of Hamlet’s banter, responding with double-entendres of her own. Davenant’s Ophelia responds only with silence, denoting either embarrassment or ignorance.

Ironically, the arrival in the Restoration period of female actors also led to a kind of reverse censorship, in that Shakespeare’s plays were sometimes made bawdier. In...

(The entire section is 2,710 words.)