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interior of the Office of the Censor London
Office of the Censor,
St John's Gate, London
Censorship is one of the primary tools of any repressive regime. Often it is taken to mean the banning of certain printed materials, control of the media and the predominance of propaganda. This suppression of free thought is only ever partially successful. You can make people shut up, but you can't stop people thinking and spreading those ideas in secrecy – or can you?

The most effective method of censorship is not to simply forbid the writing, speeches, or influence of an individual, but to remove the individuals themselves. Stalin did it in the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge did it in Cambodia, China did it during the Cultural Revolution, and there are some that would claim that McCarthy tried to do it in the USA. The State, or its agents, killed free speech by "disappearing," removing from power or simply ostracizing the "intellectuals" responsible for so called "seditious" ideas.

In Elizabethan times it was no different. The State apparatus, under Sir Francis Walsingham, was an effective and efficient weapon against any counter-Reformation activists. But as usual, paranoia and suspicion would corrupt an organization primarily set up to protect the monarch, and it would become increasingly amoral, violent and expedient in its treatment of suspects.

Playwrights were particularly vulnerable. The theatre was the only real mass entertainment, with the exception of public executions and bloodsports (which, it could be argued, expressed their own political message), able to convey ideas to a large audience. Walsingham realized this when he set up the Queen's Men, a flag waving, propagandists' company of players, with whom William Shakespeare probably served an apprenticeship.

The message delivered through this company's performances was plain; the Queen and all she stands for are good, and opponents of her rule shall come to a horrific end. It may have been done with a smile, but the message was clear.

But Walsingham could not control everything that was said on a stage – at least not at first. Much of the Elizabethan playwright's troubles came not from overtly political works they were writing and performing at the time, but from past works. In particular anything which depicted disobedience to the monarch, or even insurrection and the deposition of a king or a queen, was regarded as particularly dangerous.

Jonson, Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare would all, to varying degrees, be brought to book for material they had written that was considered seditious. Kyd would be almost tortured to death for a misreading of his work, and it is possible that Marlowe's typically outspoken verse was a component in his eventual murder. Secret policemen, especially at the "hurting people with hot pointy sticks" level are usually not great readers, and are certainly not trained in the subtleties and twists of literature. Marlowe may well have suffered death by allegory – damned by accusers too ignorant to be able to tell the difference between a period piece and a work of truly seditious satire.

Shakespeare makes reference to State interference in the written works of the time. In the sonnets he complains of being "tongue-tied" by authority. Making a clear comment on Marlowe's murder by the State, in "As You Like It," he makes a character say:

When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

In this speech, he refers to "a little room" for two reasons. Firstly it is a pun on Marlowe's famous line, "infinite riches in a little room"; secondly it is a reference to the room where State enforcer Ingram Frizer carelessly parked a very sharp knife between Marlowe's eyes.

The meaning is obvious; men are damned by the ignorance of other men. It has more contemporary echoes in the book burning and turmoil that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," where the book was vilified by millions of people who would have been unable to read it in their own language, never mind understand it in the language in which it was written. There is also an echo of the murders in Columbine, where Marilyn Manson records were burned on the mere rumor that the perpetrators might have taken their inspiration from the lyrics contained there.

Most Catholics, and Catholic-sympathizing writers, at the time faced a dilemma. If your allegiances were already suspected, it is likely you would have a whole posse of paid informers following you around, desperate for you to make that one fatal slip of the tongue.

In 1596, William Shakespeare would find himself in trouble for his use of a character called Sir John Oldcastle, in his new work "Henry IV Part 1."

Sir John Oldcastle was actually an old character from William's days in The Queen's Men. He had been upgraded to a central character in Shakespeare's new play, but he had also been made a drinker and doxy sodden braggart.

The real Sir John Oldcastle had been a rebel against Henry V, who had been executed. The new Protestant take on history honored him as a martyr. With the new Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobham, being a descendant of Oldcastle, and not well favored towards the theatre at the best of times, William was forced to pull the play, make a groveling apology and rename the character Sir John Falstaff.

If Shakespeare named his character after Sir John Oldcastle on purpose, to satirize him and purposefully cause offence, then it is untypical of a playwright who generally kept his head down and used subtle suggestion as his chief weapon of attack. It is more likely it was a simple, unintentional mistake, but it is a clear example of the gauntlet a writer had to run every time he committed an idea to paper. It is also ironic that one of Shakespeare's best known and best-loved characters might have also nearly proved to be the death of him.

Later, some of Shakespeare's enemies would publish a "true account" of Sir John Oldcastle's life, with a straightforward attack on his depiction in "Henry IV" contained in the preface. As is usual with overt propaganda, it has fared rather less well at the hands of history than the playwright and the play that it seeks to attack.

The scene in which the weak and corrupt king is deposed in Shakespeare's "Richard II" had long been controversial – so much so that it was omitted from performances. The State police didn't want its population getting ideas about the ease with which a regime change could occur.

The State was clearly obsessed with the power of theatre, thinking it to be a major informer of public opinion, much like television and newspaper chiefs tell us their media are today. But opponents of the regime had, themselves, got caught up in the mythology of the all-powerful play.

When the Earl of Essex planned his rebellion in February 1601, his "secret weapon" in the overthrow of the State was to be a performance of William's "Richard II," with the deposition scene re-instated. The source material for the play had been a book by Sir John Hayward, published in 1599, and dedicated to Essex. Elizabeth had concluded that the hapless Hayward was purposefully evoking the story of a long-dead, deposed monarch in order to start trouble and had him brutally tortured. Book burning was common in this Elizabethan police state and it is probable that Hayward's books were destroyed en masse.

Essex and his supporters, including known theatre buff the Earl of Southampton, clearly thought the play of "Richard II" so incendiary that the common audience, who would have totaled a maximum of 3,000 anyway, would rise up and tear down the State in a single night.

The play was put on, and then to dilute the rebellion still further, Essex waited at least 12 hours before walking the streets of the Capital in an attempt to rouse the masses. He failed. He died.

One cannot escape the image of two Frasier and Niles Crane types wandering the streets trying to raise a rebellion by brandishing a copy of a slightly controversial cookbook.

Shakespeare and his company got off lightly, successfully claiming they had merely performed the play for the money. But Elizabeth made them perform it in front of her shortly after, just to let them know by whose favor they still lived.

The Hayward affair led the Company of Stationers to restrict the publication of any historical book until it had been deemed suitable. Those that didn't fit with the dominant Protestant way of looking at things were burned. Censorship was being institutionalized.

William encountered censorship again in 1590, when highlighted sections of the play "Henry VIII," with its sympathetic treatment of the Catholic Thomas Moore, were marked with the words, "Leave this in at your peril!" Not a message to take lightly.

The rise of the Puritans in Jacobean England would cause more problems for Shakespeare. In May 1606, an act of Parliament to "Restrain the Abuses of Players" became law. In short, a fine of £10 was to be levied on each use of a profane, irreverent, and blasphemous word or phrase in a play. While this form of theatrical swear box must have been annoying to the writers, it did at least give William the opportunity to go back and revise some portions of his work.

"Othello" is a good example of how censorship affected Shakespeare long after his death. Extremely popular in its day, critics later in the seventeenth-century would criticize its mixed-race relationship. It was also frowned upon in the early nineteenth-century by US President John Quincy Adams, who described the relations between Othello and Desdemona as "disgusting." It was found unfit to be performed in the states of pre-Civil War America, and, even in 1950s Britain, a kiss between a black man and a white woman shocked audiences.

In the eighteenth-century, one of Shakespeare's most revered plays, "King Lear" was thought unplayable because of its downbeat subject matter and ending.

Sexuality was more open in Elizabethan times, but in the nineteenth-century Victorian society was so dismayed by the seemingly overt homosexual themes contained in the sonnets that they preferred to believe William Shakespeare had not written them. This, after all, was the era of the persecution of Oscar Wilde. Even in the early twentieth-century, versions of "Macbeth" circulating in schools and colleges still had the bawdy gatekeeper's scene omitted on grounds of decency.

Free speech is not always a comfortable thing to deal with – it means being an adult and learning to live with some things we would prefer not to hear. But censorship by the State almost always results in bad things happening to actually quite good people. No where else has this been more true of late than in Afghanistan, where religious censorship was allowed to run riot and, ultimately, culturally impoverish the entire country.


Sir Francis Walsingham portraitSir Francis Walsingham

Earl of Southampton portraitThe Earl of Southampton

Earl of Essex portraitEarl of Essex


The River Thames, LondonShakespeare's London

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