This month, long-running human rights magazine Index on Censorship celebrates the Bard’s potent legacy with a special – and eye-opening – Shakespeare-themed issue

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[Image by Ben Jennings]

Nearly 400 years after his death Shakespeare’s plays continue to tackle controversial themes like aged rulers going mad, regicide and teenage sex.

But luckily his establishment reputation and historic context often means countries which restrict debate may allow Shakespeare’s words to be staged.

It’s as if by placing something in a time past the authorities forget that there can be modern resonances. And that can be a lucky thing for those in countries such as Zimbabwe, Lebanon and India, among others, where theatre’s big themes can often be trimmed down to the not offensive.

But as Index on Censorship magazine discovered in its global journey around theatre censorship and Shakespeare in its upcoming issue, even Shakespeare doesn’t always escape from the red pencil or the steely gaze of the authorities.

Turkey editor Kaya Genç talks to leading theatrical producers about a controversial performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which ended with many of those involved imprisoned. This production was felt to have highlighted the relationship between the elite and the rest (the rude mechanicals) and how status was used for power. The play did not squeeze by. It was noticed.

Theatre, in whatever form it takes, tells us something about society. Sometimes the stories are uncomfortable, but they need to be explored.
The means to telling those stories, and challenging societal realities, may have to be worked around obstacles within that the society where the public and performers are currently in place.

Jan Fox’s long-form essay looks at the love/hate relationship the USA has, and has had, with Shakespeare. The Puritan founders felt all theatre was beyond the pale, and looked frowningly on its ribaldry. So this is a nation with a core of censorship at odds with its commitment to its First Amendment freedom of expression. LA-based Fox covers why Shakespeare still upsets parents because of its drama around everything from teenage suicide to under-age sex. “Shakespeare is telling us about our secret self and that’s what people are aware of,” Gail Kern Paster, editor of the US-based journal Shakespeare Quarterly tells Fox.

While plays by established writers can smuggle through dissent and protest in countries with strict reins of performance exist, as nations move towards greater democracy then the public must expect and demand far more provocative, outrageous and openly challenging material from its theatre as well as welcoming the established gems. We should all look forward to the signs of those times.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The latest issue is out next week. Go here for more information and to order your copy.

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