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"Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing", c.1796, by William Blake


Tens of millions have watched, read or performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Until the 21st century, not one imagined that Helena’s line to Demetrius,

I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well

was an incitement to suicide. They did not because A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy. (Forgive me for spelling out the obvious but we live in literal-minded times.) Helena makes a fool of herself chasing Demetrius through the forest. He wants nothing to do with her. Then the fairies work their magic, and he realises that he loves her as she loves him, and everyone lives happily ever after, as they do in comedies.

The consensus that Helena’s line was not “triggering” has stood the changes in fashion of 420 years. It could not survive the latest BBC production. Russell T. Davies used the excuse of adapting Shakespeare to signal his virtue: “I’m deliberately hoping to get young girls watching this,” he told the Hay Festival. “I will not transmit lines in which women are so much in love that they are threatening to commit suicide.”

Modern censorship of the arts mimics the prudishness of the past. Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler wanted to protect impressionable young girls, as Davies does now. Their “family” Shakespeare of 1807 declared that “neither the vicious taste of the age nor the most brilliant effusions of wit can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity”. Davies thought he could improve on Shakespeare, as did Nahum Tate, whose sanitised King Lear sucked out the tragedy, and allowed Lear to survive to see Cordelia marry Edgar.

New prigs look like old prigs. The grounds for censorship shift, but the cold squint from the heresy-hunter’s eyes never changes. Yet there is something novel and repugnant about Davies and the modern Bowdlers which is worth dissecting — and fighting.

The death of Cordelia is one of the most unbearable moments in literature. There is no starker howl against the randomness of cruelty than Lear’s cry:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?

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Pot-Kettle!
August 10th, 2016
2:08 PM
Yeah, PC censorship / self-censorship is just as lame as censorship for other reasons. But for a #ChickenCoup supporter like Nick Cohen to write this: "People like Davies throw off accusation of sexism, racism and homophobia like fishermen casting lines" ...does really break new ground in lack of self-awareness!

Adrian
July 24th, 2016
9:07 AM
I'd have thought that Russell T. Davies would have liked the erotic meaning of Helena's words, for she is longing for a climax or orgasm at the hands of her love. 'To die', as Partridge showed many years ago in 'Shakespeare's Bawdy', is, like 'le petit mort' in French, to have an orgasm or to 'come' in contemporary English.

Caroline
July 14th, 2016
4:07 PM
"I can see why Georgian audiences preferred Tate’s happy ending" Tate's version was staged in 1681, almost 40 years before George I's reign started.

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