Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Should We Censor Shakespeare?

Recently I read about Mark Rylance's comments about censoring Shakespeare's plays.

Mark Rylance with a First Folio

Mr. Rylance, whom I consider to be the greatest Shakespearean actor today, referred to The Merchant of Venice, and how he has cut out some of the anti-Semitic lines. 

He defends Shakespeare but not the language, since it can upset people, especially since the Holocaust: “If a character says it, it doesn’t mean the author means it but since the Holocaust ... these statements have a lot more resonance now than they did at that time.”

There is a very interesting article written in response to his comments, from the Washington Post newspaper. It compares Mr. Rylance's approach, and the approach that director Rupert Goold took when he recently staged Merchant. Goold included the hate speech. 

In Goold's production, this hate speech apparently divided the audience. Some thought it was appropriate, while others thought the play was guilty of spreading the hate that the play was trying to attack.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock in Goold's production

Who is right? Is it right to include the hate speech or not?

Where do you draw the line? Should Shakespeare be cut and how much, and where?

I think that most of Shakespeare's plays, for the practical purposes of performance, can be cut. They can be cut for time, but the content of the play should be preserved as much as possible.

However, in the case of Merchant of Venice, I don't think much of it can be cut, especially the hate speech.

Some of the worst hate speech comes from one particular character, young Bassanio's friend, Gratiano. 

After Shylock loses his day in court, and is forced to convert, Gratiano repeatedly says that Shylock should be hanged and killed. He tells Shylock he would rather "bring thee to the gallows" and have Shylock killed, rather than "to the font" and be baptised a Christian.

The problem is not with the language, but with the character. Gratiano is a bully and a bigot. He is the single worst one in the whole play.

But he is not the only one who bullies others and is bigoted.

To remove his hate speech is to soften the impact such hate speech has. If these words of his are removed then it throws the play out of balance. Without the weight of his bigotry, we can not understand how Jews were persecuted in Venice, nor can we appreciate the kind of intolerant and dangerous world in which Shylock lives.

If Gratiano's bad words are taken away, then should we also take away Shylock's story about how Antonio spat upon him and called him a dog, when they crossed paths on the Rialto? When Antonio comes to borrow money from Shylock, he threatens to spit on him again! Should we cut that, too?

If we take away Gratiano's threats, and take away Antonio's spitting on Shylock, what should we do with Portia's racist insult? 

When the black Prince of Morocco loses his chance to win her as his bride, she is relieved that he lost and says: "A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so."

Not long ago I discovered that Portia's name means pig. No kidding.

Was Portia perhaps... portly?

In Merchant of Venice, there are many places to cut the play to make it shorter, that do not injure the play's meaning. The scene between Launcelot and his father Gobbo comes to mind.

But if the hate speech is cut from Merchant, it is a slippery slope. The more that the language is cut, the more the play loses its meaning, especially as it regards the central character of Shylock.

When I wrote my version of Merchant of Venice, I discovered that Shylock is the hero of the play. Everyone else is a villain. The play has been read and performed incorrectly for 400 years.

Shylock is not the villain. He is not a sympathetic villain, or a good man who did a terrible thing, or a good man who let his temper get out of hand. In the film version with Al Pacino, Shylock was described as a man who experienced "road rage." That is entirely wrong.

Shylock is the hero. Antonio and Bassanio are bigots. Let us not forget that if it was not for their taking the loan in the first place, Antonio would never have been imprisoned and gone to trial. 

Portia, who argues Antonio's case under false pretences, dressed as a man and imitating a lawyer, is a racist. 

Gratiano, Bassanio's friend, is the clearly worst bigot of them all.

One of the reasons why I think we have been misunderstanding Shylock for so long is because actors and directors have either cut the hate speech or they included it without understanding what it means. 

Whether the hate speech is included or not, if characters like Bassanio, Portia and Antonio are portrayed incorrectly as good, honest, and merciful Venetians, then Shylock will always be mis-understood as an irrational, Christian-hating, stubborn, and villainous Jew.

Only when the language is included, and Shylock is portrayed as the protagonist of the play, does it all make sense.

I do not blame actors and directors for getting it wrong all this time. They have been cutting the hate speech because it is confusing and/or offensive to our modern minds, or they have been including the speech in the attempt to explain Shylock's behaviour. 

But it is not Shylock we need to humanize and make sense of. 

Shylock is the only person in the entire play who says what he means and means what he says, and never misrepresents himself. Bassanio pretends to be prince. Lorenzo pretends he loves Jessica but only wants her father's fortune. Portia dresses as a man and subverts the court case. 

What does Shylock do? He offers a loan, at zero interest (!) with a punishment for defaulting on the loan so perverse that Antonio should never in his right mind have accepted it. Antonio tells Shylock not only will he accept the loan, with the pound of flesh penalty, but that Shylock should consider him his enemy! 

When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock follows through on the threat and is now very eager to punish Antonio because he knows that Antonio's young friends have just recently kidnapped his daughter and taken his family fortune. Who would not jump at the chance at exacting revenge on a man who did that to you?

It is not Shylock we need to humanize and get right. Rather, we must understand that the other characters are simply very bad people. They are scheming, duplicitous, manipulative, lying, cheating, kidnapping racists and bigots. They are the villains.

So, I strongly object to censoring Shakespeare's plays, especially The Merchant of Venice. If ever there was a play that deserves to be seen and read in full, it is this play. Without all of it, none of it can be understood.


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