11th July 1754. Censorship.
Playwrights in the time of Shakespeare, when there was little mass public entertainment apart from executions and animal sports, were especially vulnerable to state censorship.
Later came private censorship in an attempt to make Shakespeare more acceptable to 19thc susceptibilities.
Today in 1754 Thomas Bowdler, an Edinburgh physician who sanitised Shakespeare, was born. He and his family were to be responsible for omitting all the obvious lewdness, coarseness and vulgarity in the works, resulting in the ‘Bowdlerized’ Family Shakespeare of 1818.
Shakespeare was subject to censorship at a time when any suggestion of anti-government passages could mean torture or death for the playwright.
Queen Elizabeth’s Spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham would be aware of this when he set up the Queen’s Men Company as a group of players-where Shakespeare might have served his apprenticeship-to be used as a vehicle for government propaganda.
By 1596 Shakespeare was in trouble for Sir John Oldcastle portrayed in Henry IV Pt I.
However the real Oldcastle had rebelled against Henry V and executed.
Now he was being honoured as a martyr and this simple unintentional mistake nearly proved the death of Shakespeare.
Matters weren’t helped as the new Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobham was a descendant of Oldcastle and no friend of the theatre, so Shakespeare was forced to ‘pull’ the play and abjectly apologise. Oldcastle was renamed as Sir John Falstaff the drink-sodden braggart.
The Master of the Revels at the time was Robert Tilney, deputy to the Lord Chamberlain for most of Shakespeare’s time, and controller of playwrights and theatre owners, and censorship.
The message was clear, keep to the accepted path as any infringement could lead to a nasty end, particularly as Walsingham would know of any suggestion of talk of insurrection.
Jonson, Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare would all suffer. Shakespeare refers to interference in the Sonnets where he complained of being ‘tongue-tied’ by authority.(1)
The play Richard II originally contained the passage of the King’s deposition, but any reference was forced to be omitted in performance.
When the Earl of Essex planned a rebellion in February 1601 his secret weapon in an attempt to overthrow the state was to re-introduce the deposition of the King: he died.
In Henry VIII the sympathetic treatment of Thomas More received the comment, ‘leave in at your peril’.
With the rise of Puritanism in May 1606 there was an Act to Restrain the Abuses of Players, with the demand to avoid profanities, blasphemies and irreverence.
The consequential rewriting of Othello by Shakespeare for its supposed profanities saw the omission of offensive curses such as ‘Zounds’ and ‘Sblood’. Later came censorship or even the banning of the play for its racist implications.
Today the concerns of Bowdler seem rather quaint, in an age where anything goes. However political censorship is still as menacing.
(1) Andrew Marlowe was supposedly murdered, whilst Kyd was tortured.
wikipedia.org/thomas_bowdler/Pic of Advert.
pbs.org/shakespeare/events/Pic of St John’s.
museumstjohn.org.uk/John’s Gate and Shakespeare Censorship.