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?
I can see why Georgian audiences preferred Tate’s happy ending to the original. I think they should face it rather than censor it, but I can also see why modern audiences cannot bear the sexism of The Taming of the Shrew or the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice.
But Davies could not produce evidence that young women had committed suicide or had thought about committing suicide after seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream because none exists. Not one of the feminist critiques of Shakespeare I have read mentions Helena’s throwaway remark about killing herself for love. They object to — or at least note — the line in which she says she would allow Demetrius to beat her, if only he would love her, but conclude that Helena is moved by the hardly gender-specific emotions of infatuation and jealousy, and that in any case Shakespeare was writing a comedy.
It is his determination to seek out the paltriest grounds for offence that makes Davies so contemporary. Much of modern “dissent” is not a protest against injustice but a kind of religious test. The inquisitor discovers sin where no one has seen it before and demands you prove your worth by seeing it too. The flimsier the pretext for complaint, the worthier complainants prove themselves to be. Our culture of competitive grievance is at root a form of showing off. I am more perceptive than you are, more compassionate, and more determined to purge the world until it is clean.
Two years ago London’s Barbican gallery staged an exhibition on the horrors of slavery, which made its point by having black actors pose in cages. Protesters forced them to close their show. In a modern twist, the censors were not neo-Nazis who wanted to defend racism but left-wingers who claimed the display was “objectifying”. It is not enough for an artist to be righteous. He or she must meet the demands of doctrine, which grow as fast as prohibitions in Calvinist Geneva.
Davies’s lack of principle is characteristically modern too. He signalled his virtue again by inserting a lesbian kiss at the end of his adaptation. If religious conservatives had objected that homosexuality was immoral, he would have said they were threatening his artistic freedom.
I would have defended him, as would everyone in the arts. For artists on the liberal Left know how to take on challenges from their traditional enemies. Unfortunately, they are hopeless at taking on authoritarianism from their “own” side.
Will actors and directors be damned in future for not bowdlerising Helena? It’s hard to tell. People like Davies throw off accusation of sexism, racism and homophobia like fishermen casting lines. We cannot be sure when they will land a catch, only that one day they will haul in another luckless artist to gut and fillet.
We know for certain, however, that the neurotic intolerance they promote stifles creativity. You cannot write well if you are always looking over your shoulder to see if an accuser is coming at you from behind. You have to drive them from your thoughts.
The best way to banish them is to use the Shakespearian weapons of viciousness and wit that the Bowdlers took such exception to.
At the Hay Festival, a wonderful member of the audience said that if Davies were truly concerned with offering a protection to teenage girls they had not asked for, he would rewrite Romeo and Juliet so that Juliet does not kill herself for love. If one line, never acted upon, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be censored for the sake of public safety, how much more dangerous could Juliet’s actual suicidal passion be? If Davies were telling the truth rather than throwing his weight around, every production would see the aisles choked with the bodies of dead teens.
Cornered and stumped, Davies could only sound like every pompous schoolmaster in history caught out by a bright pupil. “I’m disappointed frankly with that question,” he intoned with a shake of the head.
Those who can, create; those who can’t censor. Davies may have written the odd decent episode of Doctor Who but no one is going to remember his work in 40 years’ time, let alone 400. He would be happier doing what nature intended him to do: standing at the front of a class telling children what they can and cannot think.