Shut up, Shakespeare!

Censors were clueless about Elizabethan slang.

William Shakespeare (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
William Shakespeare
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In apartheid South Africa, everything was banned. TV was banned. “Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?” was banned. D.H. Lawrence was banned. I forget the name of the ministers of culture at the time, but a long line of leaders at the tip of a continent concurred: no movie or show or poem or painting challenging the apartheid ideal could be tolerated. The country would not countenance seditious culture of any kind.
And what happened? Apartheid collapsed. The USSR, with its strict censorship laws, went the same way. A system, it seems, that systematically stifles dissent, cannot sustain itself. Debate, and healthy discussion, may actually strengthen democracy.
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for the moment, seems to concur. Whether it’s just because of the crazy games our shaky coalition plays – I’ll pass your law if you pass mine – or because our elected leaders actually thought things through, Miri Regev’s “Loyalty Law” hit a snag recently; so far it has failed to get into our statute books. This might be the first time in history that loyalty was floored by not voting in the death penalty for terrorists; strange are the machinations of power here. It’s a mad mess, it’s a soap opera; but, for the moment, it’s also democracy at work.
When democracies start to censor dissent, foundations shake. And it’s so complicated: those scissors-wielders are not usually literature mavens. Take South Africa, during the apartheid years. Not only cuddling across the color-bar was a no-no in South African culture; all sex was also sliced out of art. Nudity was never seen on our stage or screen, no heated acrobatics for two. Even sexy banter was banned.
But the censors were clueless about Elizabethan slang.
“Nothing,” for example, meant anything to do with sex. Hamlet has a rip-roaring time riffing with Ophelia on the word; check out the mousetrap scene in Act Three. It doesn’t get more gutter than that, but each wildly flirtatious word was left intact in our schoolbooks, to our (educated) English teacher’s delight.
“Much Ado About Nothing” now takes on a whole new meaning; the groundbreaking play discusses whether women can be trusted in and out of the connubial bed. Hero proves they can be, of course; it’s men who are the idiots – but that’s a whole new discussion.
Had the guardians of our morals understood the slang they would have been hard at work slashing the plays. So much of the language is bawdy and crude; they didn’t dream that “to die” doubled for happy horizontal fun. The French believed each orgasm - “le petite mort” - shortened your life by a minute; Shakespeare picked up on the pun. (When I lecture on the sonnets I pause here for a math moment; to simplify the calculations there are 10,080 minutes in a week.)
Romeo and Regan, Othello and Orlando all sigh that they’d love to die; most people miss the underlying lust. “Give me my Romeo,” murmurs Juliet on her wedding night, “and when I die / Take him and cut him out in little stars …” etcetera. Without understanding the text we might think Juliet weird; why so morbid while waiting for her love?
“Spirits” was also now-forgotten slang, referring to a bodily fluid of a decidedly physical nature. Regan, Lear’s oldest daughter, was not thinking of Heaven when commanding Edmund to “let thou spirits fly.“ She was letting him know, with one lascivious wink, that if he helped her to murder her husband, he would be well-welcomed into her bed.
It’s all in the text.
Shakespeare, of course, was seditious in a way that transcended crude cracks. But he had to take great care when his dialogue turned disloyal. Queen Elizabeth I was no prude: she watched without impunity Macbeth’s hungover porter emptying his bladder for a long, lo-o-ong time. But the Elizabeth did not brook dissent; calling her policies into question could cost a playwright his head.
Shakespeare loved his head; he had no intention of losing it. And he’d have been well aware of Christopher Marlowe’s dreadful death. Marlowe, whose “Jew of Malta” preceded “The Merchant of Venice” by two years, was murdered in a pub brawl in London when he was only 29. Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in the same year; Shakespeare wanted to live much longer.
Why did Marlowe, with his trailblazing plays and brooding good looks, meet such a sticky end? The official story has Marlowe, too drunk for comfort, arguing with a friend over paying for the wine. His buddy, one Ingram Frizer, was not in a giving mood; unsheathing his sword he stabbed Marlowe above the right eye, killing him on the spot.
That’s the party line.
Countless conspiracy theories claim otherwise. Reliable sources say the men were never in a pub, and were certainly not drunk. They’d been in a safe house for government officials; perhaps Marlowe was a spy? Perhaps he was an early atheist in an age where not believing in God was punishable by death? (The Death Penalty for atheists; should we pause here to shudder?) Some claim Queen Elizabeth herself had him dispatched to dissenters’ heaven. Whatever the truth, Shakespeare felt queasy at crossing his Queen.
Yet what’s a playwright to do, when domestic issues scream in his ink?
Shakespeare fudged times and changed names, and let the audience connect the dots.
Take Lear, for example. In his dramatic storm meltdown, the aging ex-monarch realizes he has taken too little care of the poor naked wretches in his kingdom. The cold, newly-homeless once-king agonizes aloud about how his poor subjects can bide the pelting of a pitiless storm; how their houseless heads and unfed sides can cope. And as lightning strikes, he understands: he is to blame.
O, I have taken / Too little care of this,“ he laments.
Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what the wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
It is an idea Shakespeare returns to again and again: empathy of the powerful for the poor has to be the way to go. Lear is not an early communist; he is not espousing equality for all. But shaking the superflux to the poor – just skimming off the excess jewels and fur gowns, imported cigars and champagne – might make the empire a more pleasant place for all.
Is it disloyal for a playwright to suggest such a thing? In the presence of his primary patron, is he stark raving mad?
Queen Elizabeth would have had his head on a platter had Shakespeare set the play in sixteenth century England; King Lear’s epoch was sufficiently ancient to facilitate ignoring contemporary parallels. But the groundlings, shivering in their ragged clothes at the Globe, must have felt that somehow, someday, their great-great-grandchildren would be gifted with the National Health, and a free education. It must have been a heady feeling; but was it disloyal? Would our Minister of Culture fund King Lear?
Elizabeth Rex was man enough to ignore Lear’s implied rebuke, as well as that of Gloucester. “Heavens, deal so still!“ says the blinded Lord G, who, like Lear, has been cast out of his castle.
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your pow’r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Like Lear, Gloucester is not a Marxist. But, like his king, he bristles at how the mighty, those never without ice-cream or designer coats, trample on laws that should protect the proletariat. The all-powerful Queen, dolled up in her diamonds, must surely have winced at Lear’s lacerating words: “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all.“ Yet, even in an age when political dissent on the stage was punishable by death, King Lear was produced unabridged.
And Shakespeare kept his head.
And we have the plays.
Which brings us back to Miri Regev.
It’s easy to understand the logic behind the proposed “Loyalty Law.“ It seems counterintuitive to fund art that goes against one’s agenda. It takes a special Minister of Culture to breathe deeply and admit: not all agendas are universal.
In 2005 a play premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre which was very hard for many, me included, to stomach. Based on the diaries and emails of Rachel Corrie, an American college student who traveled to Gaza in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, the script canonizes Corrie. Bombs were blowing up Israelis day after terrible day; as part of the plan to bring back security IDF soldiers demolished buildings in the Gaza Strip. Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, stood in front of the family home of local pharmacist Samir Nasrallah to save it from demolition; an armored Caterpillar IDF bulldozer ran her down, killing her instantly. Of course the nature of her death was contested; ISM members accused the soldier/driver of deliberately ploughing into a defenseless woman, while Israeli eyewitnesses insist it was an accident as she could not have been seen from inside the vehicle.
My Name is Rachel Corrie, (no surprises there) shows no complexities. Journalist Katharine Viner, and actor/director Alan Rickman put on a piece of pure political propaganda – bad Israeli bastards murder innocent angel. Let the violins play.
It’s a travesty of art; had it been written in Israel (where it was later staged), I can certainly see the argument for not gifting it with Government budgets. That’s a knee-jerk, Israel-First, My Agenda-First reaction, and it seems legitimate.
Or does it?
The whole purpose of Art, in the words of Degas, is not what you see, but what you make others see. Sometimes, as in the case of Corrie, the audience might be incensed and outraged by the message. Sometimes they might agree. Sometimes the play, or painting, or poem, might make them pause, as they reach for their popcorn, and ponder their core beliefs.
Isn’t this what makes people people; and what makes a society work?
The Merchant of Venice is a case in point. It has a very mean message about money-grabbing Hebrews, yet it might be the most powerful plea for Justice-for-Jews ever written. How qualified is the censor to know? And would the world have been a better place without Portia, and Shylock and their blockbuster battle?
Watch this space for more.
This is the fourth in a series on literature by Dr. Pamela Peled, who lectures at the IDC and Beit Berl. and can be contacted at