The Royal Shakespeare was technically perfect, energetic, and missed the point of the play or worse, gave us a bowdlerization for sensitive contemporary minds. Cleaning up Shakespeare has a long history that makes our particular attempts amusing.
Shakespeare drove the Victorians crazy, because he was too good to ignore and too earthy for polite company. A play like Merry Wives of Windsor had naughty bits and John Falstaff, that no good lover of sack and mischief, may have gotten his comeuppance, but there was endless innuendo. This left a market to be filled: clean Shakespeare, and the Victorians went to work producing Pure Shakespeare (TM).
The result left a Victorian thinking he had watched Shakespeare while never having his nineteenth century beliefs challenged with a bracing shot of seventeenth century perspectives. Shakespeare was not always right (see his Joan of Arc), but even wrong, he is brilliantly wrong. His errors are different than our own or may (such is his influence in any English speaking culture) have caused our errors. As such, we can always learn.
Unless, we like the Victorians, bowdlerize the Bard. A 2018 version of Merry Wives did just that, but for our particular scruples. The naughty bits were made as naughty as possible and the earthy comedy got down right dirty. Merry Wives reinforces the Christian marital order by showing faithful wives who are merry, but virtuous. Love is triumphant and attempts to turn Christian marriage into a for-profit institution are thwarted.
Or so Shakespeare wrote the play.
This might have offended the 2018 audience, so Christian marriage is subverted and Falstaff is not redeemed. Shakespeare is once again Pure Shakespeare (TM) for his audience, though nobody is going to learn anything new from the show. If you want to laugh at a man hit on the head with a trash bin (and more than a few evidently do), then this was the show for you. If you wanted to think or compare what Shakespeare said about love and marraige with what we are taught today, then you were out of luck.
This Merry Wives challenged nothing, wasted Shakespeare, while not being edgy enough to be more than bore. By contrast, London’s Globe did a 2018 Winter’s Tale that challenged everyone with a view of redemption and hope so universal as to seem impossible, yet so appealing as to be utterly desirable. The Merry Wives crowd chuckled and went home quickly, while the Globe audience thundered with applause for a theater that made us cry, laugh, and think old thoughts in new ways through the genius of the Bard.
Old thinkers are needed most in times of decay: twenty-first century England or fourth century Athens, but only if we allow those thinkers to be as wrong as they were so we can see where they might be right in ways we need to hear.
Plato in Republic shows how damaging such misuse of great thinkers can be. His characters know their classics and are ready with a quip, but never with an insight. Quote Simonides or Homer, but for the god’s sake, is do so in snippets that make older thinkers sound as if they agree with the Athenian educational establishment.
Decadence is not challenged, but supported when great thinkers are bowdlerized. The kind of Telegraph reader, cautious but caught up, that made up the audience in Stratford did not need earthy or edgy: Britain is being buried in dirt. Instead, an alternative that is English, in the DNA of the nation, was possible, but like Cephalus or Polemarchus they gelded the poet to protect their upper middle class feelings.
But Christian educators must not be smug. Shakespeare, Plato, or King must challenge us, must be read as they are, or we too will be blind. I have seen Christian “classical” schools that have forgotten to argue with ideas. Instead, they learn them, compare them to a pre-existing worldview, and so bowdlerize Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Much education today, Christian and secular, is the bowdlerization of our brains.
Lord have mercy.
*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39. Part 40. Part 41. Part 42. Part 43. Part 44. Part 45. Part 45.5. Part 46. Part 47. Part 48. Part 49. Part 50. Part 51. Part 52. Part 52.5. Part 53. Part 54. Part 55. Part 56. Part 57. Part 58. Part 59. Part 60. Part 61. Part 62.