By Pamela Rafael Berkmam
Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has finished its run in New York’s Central Park, despite the withdrawal of support by some sponsors and the disruptions on June 16 and June 18.
Within seconds of the first stage rush, institutions and individuals worldwide raced to defend Shakespeare. My favorite hashtag, #ShakespeareSunday, was all a-Twitter. But during his lifetime Shakespeare would have had no one to so staunchly defend his right to free speech.
Censorship was a fact of life for him and all of his fellow Tudor writers. Not market-based shutting up, like getting a book contract cancelled, but real, true, hard government censorship, the defiance of which carried penalties like imprisonment in seriously horrible places, getting a hand cut off in the public marketplace, and grisly forms of execution.
Shakespeare’s colleague Ben Jonson spent several months in the Marshalsea political prison for co-writing a play called The Isle of Dogs (we’ll never know why – it’s lost). And the only example we have of Shakespeare’s handwriting (we think) are some notes on a play by someone else that he was script-doctoring, with several other playwrights, to make it more palatable to official censor Edmund Tilney, Master of Revels.
Tilney’s job included reviewing every play to be performed in the London-area playhouses. The play was The Book of Sir Thomas More, and the scene in question depicted a mob rioting (some would say protesting) in London.
In the end Shakespeare and his co-writers couldn’t revise the scene enough for Tilney’s approval. Tilney ordered that any representation of the riots be described in narration instead of shown on stage, adding ominously, “not otherwise at your own perils.”
The most well known example of Shakespeare and his friends being placed directly in danger by his writing involved the play Richard II, which contains the “deposition scene” in which Richard is stripped of his crown. Conspirators in the Earl of Essex’s doomed 1601 rebellion paid Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, to perform it publicly the day before they tried to wrest the throne from Elizabeth I. Company member Augustine Phillips’ later testimony is priceless.
The Chamberlain’s Men, Phillips said, told the Essex rebels that the play “was so old and so long out of use as that they should get no company at it.” They had, he said, heartily wished to put on “some other play.” They only did it because Essex’s men offered them 40 shillings over the going rate.
The company was cleared of any deliberate wrongdoing, but they must have been terrified.
In Elizabethan England the ideas in our First Amendment were unheard of, undreamed of: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Considering what Shakespeare managed to leave us even working under the government restrictions placed on him, imagine what he might have done had he enjoyed the protections of the First Amendment. And today, worldwide, what genius is silenced, never to be heard or remembered, because he or she does not?
Note: For more details on the events I’ve mentioned here, try Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1998.