The New European - - Eurofile Theatre -

We are re­peat­edly told that to­day’s young peo­ple are over­sen­si­tive, claim­ing to need ‘trig­ger warn­ings’ and to be trau­ma­tised by lit­er­ary texts – in­clud­ing the works of Shake­speare – that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions took in their stride. But is it re­ally true that read­ers and the­atre­go­ers of the past were more emo­tion­ally re­silient than to­day’s ‘snowflake’ gen­er­a­tion?

In his 1765 edi­tion of the The Plays of Wil­liam Shake­speare, the great 18th cen­tury critic Sa­muel John­son ad­mit­ted that read­ing cer­tain scenes in King Lear gave him a sense of extreme dis­com­fort. He found the death of Lear’s daugh­ter, Cordelia, in the tragedy’s last act, so up­set­ting that he avoided ever read­ing the scene again un­til he was forced to do so by his work as an edi­tor.

More­over, he claimed, the blind­ing of the el­derly Glouces­ter in the mid­dle of the play was so ter­ri­ble that a theatre spec­ta­tor would not be able to cope with it. He de­scribed it as an act “too hor­rid to be en­dured in dra­matic ex­hi­bi­tion”.

Was John­son a snowflake, too? If he was, then so were many oth­ers of his time. There is a long his­tory of cen­sor­ing and rewrit­ing the plays of Shake­speare in or­der to make them less trau­matic to their read­ers and spec­ta­tors.

In 1681, King Lear was rewrit­ten by the drama­tist Nahum Tate with a re­vised, happy end­ing in which both Cordelia and her fa­ther live – and this was so pop­u­lar with au­di­ences that Tate’s adap­ta­tion was the only ver­sion of the play to be per­formed on stage for the next 150 years.

Mean­while, another no­tably vi­o­lent Shake­speare play, Ti­tus An­dron­i­cus, was sim­i­larly rewrit­ten. Ti­tus fea­tures a fe­male char­ac­ter who is raped, and sub­se­quently has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off to pre­vent her from giv­ing the names of her at­tack­ers. When the play ap­peared on stage in Eng­land in 1850, all this ma­te­rial was re­moved.

As a con­tem­po­rary re­viewer wrote: “The de­flow­er­ment of Lavinia, cut­ting out her tongue, chop­ping off her hands… are wholly omit­ted.” As the re­viewer went on to com­ment, the play then seemed “not only pre­sentable but ac­tu­ally at­trac­tive as a re­sult”.

The vi­o­lence was not the only thing that read­ers and spec­ta­tors found up­set­ting about Shake­speare’s plays. Race and sex­u­al­ity also caused prob­lems. The fu­ture US pres­i­dent John Quincy Adams wrote in 1786 that although he thought Othello in many re­spects a great work, he found the mixe­drace re­la­tion­ship at its heart, “in­ju­di­cious, dis­gust­ing, and con­trary to all prob­a­bil­ity”.

The Bard has a long his­tory of up­set­ting his au­di­ences, as RE­BECCA YEAR­LING ex­plains

Other prom­i­nent fig­ures also ex­pressed their reser­va­tions about as­pects of Shake­speare. Queen Vic­to­ria, for ex­am­ple, crit­i­cised the plays for their sex­ual hu­mour. She wrote to her el­dest daugh­ter in 1859 that she had never “had the courage” to see Shake­speare’s Merry Wives of Wind­sor on stage, “hav­ing al­ways been told how very coarse it was – for your adored Shake­speare is dread­ful in that re­spect, and many things have to be left out in many plays”.

To counter these and sim­i­lar ob­jec­tions, a mar­ket de­vel­oped for cen­sored print edi­tions of the plays. In 1815, Thomas and Har­riet Bowdler pub­lished The Fam­ily Shake­speare in or­der “to present to the pub­lic an edi­tion of his Plays, which the par­ent, the guardian, and the in­struc­tor of youth, may place with­out fear in the hands of the pupil”.

The Bowdlers edited 20 of Shake­speare’s plays for this pub­li­ca­tion, re­mov­ing swear words and many of the ref­er­ences to sex and vi­o­lence. They also changed plots to make them less po­ten­tially dis­tress­ing – the death of Ophe­lia in Ham­let, for ex­am­ple, be­came an ac­ci­den­tal drown­ing, to avoid dis­turb­ing read­ers with a por­trayal of an ap­par­ent sui­cide.

The Bowdlers were crit­i­cised by some of their con­tem­po­raries for hav­ing gone too far in tam­per­ing with these clas­sic works – but their edi­tion was still hugely pop­u­lar and, by the end of the 19th cen­tury, hun­dreds more bowd­lerised ver­sions of Shake­speare’s plays ap­peared in print.

Race, vi­o­lence, sex­u­al­ity, sui­cide: many of the things that mod­ern stu­dents have been ac­cused of find­ing up­set­ting about the plays are ex­actly what bothered read­ers and spec­ta­tors of the past. Shake­speare has never been a safe or re­as­sur­ing play­wright and his works have al­ways been ca­pa­ble of dis­turb­ing their au­di­ences.

The specifics of what is found of­fen­sive may al­ter, of course: most mod­ern crit­ics of Othello have been more con­cerned about whether the de­pic­tion of the ti­tle char­ac­ter is it­self racist than wor­ried about whether the play ad­vo­cates for mixed-race mar­riage.

Nev­er­the­less, we should re­think the idea that there is some­thing uniquely or unusu­ally frag­ile about to­day’s young peo­ple in their re­sponse to Shake­speare, when such a claim is con­tra­dicted by the ev­i­dence of the past.

Pho­tos: Cul­ture Club/getty Im­ages

VI­O­LENT: Ophe­lia’s drown­ing in Ham­let. Il­lus­tra­tion by Harold Cop­ping. Be­low, Flora SpencerLonghurst as Lavinia in Ti­tus An­dron­i­cus

Photo: Getty Im­ages

TRAU­MATIC: Kel­lie Bright, Beru Tessema, Peter Hamil­ton Dyer and Joseph My­dell in Shake­speare’s King Lear at the Globe Theatre

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