On Shakespeare

Censorship Then and Now

Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights had to ensure their work got passed the censors in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and if they were seen to be transgressing the rules the punishment could be imprisonment - or worse. Ben Jonson was branded a traitor for one of his subversive plays - he wore the brand ‘T’ on his thumb.

The Revels Office censored all critical comments of the government, unfavourable representation of the rich, of the nobility, of friendly powers, as well as any material of a religious, political or social controversy, and satire of influential people. Anything that was deemed liable to provoke civil unrest and disaffection was a complete no no.

But more significant than is usually acknowledged about censorship in Shakespeare's day, was the strict banning of any depiction of a fictional character who is seen to disrupt what was called The Divine Chain of Being. Preached in sermons every Sunday, (when attendance was compulsory and you were fined a small fortune if you did not go) these were the homilies preached (on the order of the monarch) that the social order was divinely ordained. Everyone was appointed their place in that order, and must never aspire to go up a notch. The threat of the fear of God and damnation was preached for anyone who dared to disrupt the class system.

A character, like Macbeth, a commoner, murdering his blood-soaked way to the throne, should have made the play political dynamite. How Shakespeare got away with getting passed the censors time and time again, is something that I still have not been able to fathom. That Macbeth is finally deprived of the throne and is killed does not negate all that the original audience would have witnessed: a complete breakdown in The Divine Chain of Being. That is what makes the play - like so much in Shakespeare - such a dangerous, subversive act.

In 2012, censorship, in all its visible and invisible forms, is very much alive and well in the world. The Thai film Shakespeare Must Die is the first Thai rendition of Macbeth and is directed by Ing K and Manit Sriwanichpoom. The film includes a contemporary allegory about a fictitious nation where a popular politician rises up the echelons of power.

A document from the Ministry of Culture's Office of Film and Video says that since the film "undermines the unity of people in the country", the censorship committee refuses to give permission to screen it in Thailand. The wording of the document could come straight out of Shakespeare’s Revels Office.

"The reason given is very broad," Manit said. “I asked the committee which part of the film fits that verdict and how I should go back to fix it, but they cannot tell me which scene.

"This is a Shakespeare story. It's a tale of greed and lust for power. Since we're banned, I wonder if Thai film-makers are allowed to have opinions, to criticise and to reflect on the reality of the situation. There's a lot of talk about democracy, and I don't know how our film is undemocratic."

The film-makers will appeal against the decision.

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