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William Shakespeare and Censorship

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Last Updated on April 23, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2710

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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...

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to a kind of reverse censorship, in that Shakespeare’s plays were sometimes made bawdier. In his 1670 adaptation ofThe Tempest, Dryden gave Miranda a twin sister called Dorinda who specialized in sexual innuendo.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare became the standard acting texts of the eighteenth century. They were so widely used that many people assumed them to be Shakespeare’s own words. When, in the mid-1700’s, the actor-manager David Garrick announced a production of Macbeth “as written by Shakespeare,” there was an outcry from those who had long loved the existing version, believing it to be Shakespeare’s. In the end, Garrick compromised. He restored the original words in some scenes, but made some “improvements”: He left out Lady Macduff’s death scene, removed the crude Porter, had the witches sing and dance, and wrote a moralistic dying speech for Macbeth. In his version of Hamlet, Garrick cut out the grave-diggers because he thought low-life comedy inappropriate to tragedy. Colley Cibber’s 1700 adaptation of Richard III remained the popular acting text until well into the nineteenth century, and some of Cibber’s additions even survived into Laurence Olivier’s film version of 1955.

An incident of 1795 revealed much about eighteenth century attitudes toward Shakespeare. A forger called William Henry Ireland printed an expurgation of King Lear, billed as Shakespeare’s original manuscript. Ireland’s forgery fooled many. He explained after he was caught that he had cleaned up the text because people found it hard to believe that Shakespeare himself had written such “ribaldry.” King Lear also fell victim to political censorship when it was banned from the English stage from 1788 until 1820, out of respect to George III’s insanity.

Protecting Women and Youth

The year 1774 was a landmark in the history of Shakespeare bowdlerization. A drama critic, Francis Gentleman, edited complete plays for the publisher Bell. Bell’s Shakespeare aimed to make the plays “more instructive and intelligible, especially to the ladies and to youth.” Gentleman objected to such “vulgarisms” as Macbeth’s insult to his servant and Cleopatra’s threat to her maid to give her “bloody teeth.” This, Gentleman says, would be unworthy of a person “in a middling station,” let alone of a “royal character.” Bell’s edition is curiously inconsistent, however. It omits some “glaring indecencies” altogether, but Bell’s Othello has minor indecencies in italics, as a sign for ladies and youth to skip over them. Sometimes, he simply rebuked the objectionable lines in footnotes.

The most famous of all expurgated books, Dr. Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakspeare, appeared in 1807. The edition was intended to remove “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” Its success inspired a number of other expurgations, such as the Reverend J. Pitman’s School-Shakspere (1822). Pitman aimed to provide a more rigorous expurgation than Bowdler’s. In most cases he succeeded, cutting the drunken Porter’s speech in Macbeth from twenty lines to three, as compared with Bowdler’s six. He did not stop short of eliminating entire characters, such as Touchstone and Audrey in As You Like It.

The Backlash Against Expurgation

The nineteenth century saw the beginning of a countermovement to expurgation. Actor-managers such as Robert W. Elliston, William Charles Macready, and Samuel Phelps staged performances with partly restored texts. In 1823 Elliston restored the tragic ending of King Lear, and in 1838 Macready reintroduced the Fool after decades of absence from the play. Elliston’s 1821 restoration of Richard III shocked some people, including a Times critic, who thought it a new arrangement, not a return to Shakespeare, and declared it dramatically inferior to the generally used Cibber version. Phelps finished the task that Elliston had begun, virtually eliminating the use of Cibber’s Richard III.

Other actor-managers were less scrupulous in their fidelity to Shakespeare’s texts, manipulating them to suit their own interpretations of roles and to protect the sensibilities of audiences. For example, in 1885 William Kendal adapted As You Like It so that the cantankerous Jacques “became more reasonable.” Henry Irving’s edition of Macbeth cuts the murder of Banquo and Fleance, and Lady Macduff’s death scene.

Another blow for authenticity was struck in 1843, when Parliament removed the monopoly that, since the Restoration, had confined the performance of plays to two London theaters. To circumvent the ban (and feed the popular mania for elaborate spectacle), non-licensed theaters had disguised Shakespeare’s plays with spurious elements—pageants, dancing, and singing. After the ban was lifted, a large number of theaters began to produce the plays “straight,” with greater sensitivity to his original texts.

Censorship in Schools

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.


Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Explores the extraordinary staying-power of Shakespeare’s work. Bate opens by taking up questions of authorship, asking, for example, Who was Shakespeare, based on the little documentary evidence we have? Which works really are attributable to him? How extensive was the influence of Christopher Marlowe? Bate goes on to trace Shakespeare’s canonization and near-deification, examining not only the uniqueness of his status among English-speaking readers but also his effect on literate cultures across the globe.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. For a review of Bloom’s work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare: The Tragedies. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A study of the tragedies in chronological order.

Danson, Lawrence. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Danson’s scholarly study examines Shakespeare’s philosophy and how it was demonstrated in his dramas. Bibliography and index.

De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. This work provides an extensive guide to Shakespeare’s life and works.

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001. An encyclopedic treatment of the life and works of Shakespeare.

Donno, Elizabeth Story. “The Epyllion.” In English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987. This brief introductory survey provides an excellent approach to Shakespeare’s mythological poems, placing them securely in their contemporary literary context. Includes basic documentary notes and a complete bibliography of all relevant materials. Fully indexed.

Draper, Ronald P. Shakespeare, the Comedies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Draper provides an analysis of the playwright’s comedies. Bibliography and index.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Duncan-Jones portrays Shakespeare as a man influenced by the political, social, and literary climate in which he found himself. She also examines speculative stories such as his love for a Dark Lady. Includes bibliography and index.

Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare: The Histories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Holderness examines the historical plays of Shakespeare and the historical events on which they were based. Bibliography and index.

Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. 1999. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Honan’s life of Shakespeare shuns the mythology that has grown up around the playwright and places him in the context of his age.

Kasten, David Scott. A Companion to Shakespeare. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Offers an innovative and comprehensive picture of the theatrical, literary, intellectual and social worlds in which Shakespeare wrote and in which his plays were produced. Each individual essay stands as an authoritative account of the state of knowledge in its field, and in their totality the essays provide a compelling portrait of the historical conditions, both imaginative and institutional, that enabled Shakespeare’s great art.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000. Between 1594 and 1608, Kermode argues, the language of Shakespeare’s plays was transformed, acquiring a new complexity that arose out of the playwright’s increasingly successful attempts to represent dramatically the excitement and confusion of thought under stress.

McConnell, Louise. Dictionary of Shakespeare. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. A basic reference companion.

McLeish, Kenneth, and Stephen Unwin. A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. This concise guide summarizes the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays, providing an easy reference.

Marsh, Nicholas. Shakespeare, the Tragedies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Marsh analyzes the tragedies of Shakespeare, providing study guides. Bibliography and index.

Proudfoot, Richard. Shakespeare: Text, Stage, and Canon. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. A study of Shakespeare’s plays, with emphasis on their stage history and how they were produced. Bibliography and index.

Richards, Jennifer, and James Knowles, eds. Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. A collection of essays focusing on the playwright’s later plays, including The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Bibliography and index.

Southworth, John. Shakespeare, the Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. A biography that focuses on the dramatist as a member of the theater, writing for the theater in collaboration with the theater company.

Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare’s Professional Career. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Thomson examines the theatrical world of Elizabethan England to illuminate Shakespeare’s life and writings. For a review see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997. For a review of this closely argued aesthetic analysis of the greatest sonnets in English poetry see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Vickers, Brian. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. For a review of this study see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. A critical introduction to Shakespeare’s life and work. For a review of this biography see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Wilson, Ian. Shakespeare: The Evidence: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work. London: Headline, 1993. Wilson draws on documents discovered during the excavation of the site of the Globe Theatre to delve into the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s life, including authorship of his plays, his sexuality, his religion, and the curse he set on his own grave.


Life’s Work


The Restoration