The recent firestorm over Alan Gribben’s school-friendly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has made me think about Shakespeare’s conflicted relationship with education over the years. Just last January, parents and teachers in Nashville complained that the Classical Theatre Project’s visiting production of Romeo and Juliet was too sexually suggestive for students. As I understand it, per the article in The Toronto Star, protestors requested line cuttings before the show had even opened. Then, in May, Westmount School in New Zealand fired a teacher for using an unapproved translation of King Lear. The school committee stated that the text was “morally defiling,” and Professor Tom Bishop noted that the original text was even more explicit.
Whenever I read stories like these, I always wonder why parents are surprised by the sexual content in Shakespeare. What versions of the plays have they been reading that they are so shocked? Why is it okay to read the words aloud in class but not act them out, or even see them enacted by others? If Shakespeare is so obscene, why do we teach his works to high school students?
Censoring Shakespeare for the purposes of reaching a broad and, specifically, young audience is nothing new. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bowdler (whose sanitized works became so infamous that they spawned the word “bowdlerize”) created The Family Shakespeare. Bowdler’s goal was to create a new edition of Shakespeare because, he bemoaned, neither Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, or As You Like It could be “read aloud by a gentleman to a lady” in their original state (v). His perspective on Shakespeare’s works came from his father’s censored readings, and the family listened “without knowing that those matchless tragedies contained words and expressions improper to be pronounced; and without having reason to suspect that any parts of the plays had been omitted by the circumspect and judicious reader” (viii).
But that lack of suspicion is the problem. When we teach an edited, biased edition – whether it is Huckleberry Finn or Romeo and Juliet — we are essentially teaching a lie.
The “original” versions of Shakespeare’s plays are always available, but we would do well to remember that sometimes a student’s introduction to a work in the classroom is their only encounter with that work. I don’t know if I will ever read The Catcher in the Rye again. I don’t know if I will find the time to go back and re-examine The Great Gatsby with an adult perspective. It may be safely said that the only reason I have read Hamlet more than once since high school is because I fell in love with Shakespeare. For many underprivileged students, consistent exposure to the arts (let alone a Shakespeare production) can be hard to come by. The play you share with students today may be the only version they take with them.
To refashion the basic plot, theme, or language of a classic piece of literature is tantamount to saying that our modern aesthetic is the best and most reasonable. We are saying, as Bowdler did, that Shakespeare would be perfect and completely admirable if he had just left out these few details. We are saying to students that we want them to know about Shakespeare’s works, but we don’t really want them to know Shakespeare’s works. Rather than shelter students from select pieces, we should give them opportunity to understand and grapple with all the facets of the play. If we’re going to bother teaching the plays, we shouldn’t remove Jacquenetta’s pregnancy or the accusation that Armado is the father from Act V of Love’s Labour’s Lost. We shouldn’t write Doll Tearsheet completely out of Henry IV, Part I. We can’t ignore the themes of racism in The Merchant of Venice and we can’t have Romeo and Juliet without a bawdy Mercutio.
I’m not a purist. I’m not against cutting Shakespeare down to manageable performance lengths or even asking students to perform ultra-abridged versions of a play. I think it’s important, however, to ask what we hope to accomplish with all this editing. Just what are we trying to teach when we do it? If we’re trying to introduce students to the pleasure of words, the use of meter, the complex and energizing theatrical medium, the depth of character(s), and the evolution of the English language itself — well, then, cut the piece as you must. But when we allow students to rely on modern translations or “safe” and “friendly” edited editions/ performances, we’re not engaging them in the text or expecting critical thought. We’re not honestly exploring some of the most celebrated works in the history of the world. We’re merely teaching them to learn the key points of the play to pass the test.
Romeo and Juliet is a story about young lovers. It includes jokes about sex. I personally don’t think there’s anything going on in a Shakespeare play that a high school student doesn’t know about or hasn’t encountered on MTV programming. Perhaps, with today’s hyper-sexualized entertainment, teenagers are subjected to an excess of provocative behavior and we shouldn’t encourage that in a school environment. I’m not trying to pass judgment on the moral standards of others, but I do think we should be consistent. If adults are fine with adolescents reading “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” out loud in class, why are they then squeamish about an actor saying it onstage? Why are the staged murders of Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris permissible? Why is it okay to showcase a double-suicide at the end?
Erase the comfortable notion that the most celebrated writer of all time was more cerebral and more circumspect than we. “Shakespeare” is not code for “safe and pure.” How can we proclaim his works as timeless, suitable for our children’s studies, but then clip them to conform to our subjective template of contemporary social mores?
If parents are taking issue with the mature themes, or even a child’s individual ability to grasp Shakespeare as written, then perhaps we should re-examine whether teaching his works at the high school level is appropriate, instead of excising and rewriting the parts we don’t like. We might re-evaluate when and how we’re teaching the material rather than lambast a production for including the material we teach and an actor for (gasp) gyrating appropriately.