William Shakespeare

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Women and Censorship

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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 his 1670 adaptation of The 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.