When I was in Grade 9 our English class read William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I can still recite Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene I: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath…”
At the time I remember thinking that real mercy would be anything that would get me out of English class. Now, I’m grateful, because I learned a great deal from the Bard. Morality. Wit. Critical thinking.
Not everyone gets the opportunity.
Shakespeare is one of the most censored authors in history, The Merchant of Venice his most banned play due to the unflattering portrayal of the money-lender Shylock, considered anti-Semitic (it is; it was also the prevailing attitude in Shakespeare’s day, so true to the era). Parents have protested; classrooms across this continent have shunned it.
In our class, we were more fortunate: the teacher seized a fabulous opportunity, and we discussed, in-depth, the ways in which we stereotype and vilify. I memorized that lesson just as I memorized those lines.
This is Freedom to Read week, an annual event celebrating intellectual freedom. According to the Canadian Book and Periodical Council, “Freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves. Free expression on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read.”
We agree. So does our Will who, in his Sonnet 66, bemoaned “art made tongue-tied by authority.” Had he known how true that would be when it came to his own writing, he’d have rolled in his grave enough to circumnavigate the Globe — and I mean the planet, not the theatre.
It was censorship of Shakespeare’s work that gave rise to the term to bowdlerize, after Thomas Bowdler published, in 1807, an expurgated version of Shakespeare’s work called The Family Shakespeare, in which he cut out all things he considered unsavoury. To bowdlerize is, according to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary: “to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.”
So in Macbeth, “Out Damn Spot! Out, I say!” became the somewhat less dramatic: “Out, crimson spot.” As for the bawdy bits — and Will was a champ at those — they were axed altogether, leaving inexplicable gaps in the narrative. The big question is: who was Thomas Bowdler to decide what we should or shouldn’t read?
At the Nelson library, you can read Shakespeare’s substantial oeuvre of plays and sonnets. You can read critical essays, and annotated editions (so the bawdy bits won’t be lost on you when you get to them). You can read biographies about Old Will himself, or find out what life was like in Shakespearean times — including prevailing attitudes.
For the culinarily adventurous, we have Eating Shakespeare: Recipes and More from the Bard’s Kitchen, and for those who like their Bard served up as fiction, Jennifer Lee Carrell’s 2010 novel Haunt me Still, among others. A general search for Shakespeare comes up with 199 titles, not one of them banned, censored, or bowdlerized — and all of them quotable.
Incidentally, the Merchant of Venice is not banned in Israel. According to Sam Schoenbaum, a leading Shakespearean scholar, it’s one of the country’s most popular plays. Which, when it comes to freedom to read, puts a whole lot of people on the same page.