Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Bard Bits: Playing with Propaganda


Today’s playwright might fear a bad review if a play doesn’t meet the critic’s choice, but if Shakespeare blew a play he faced a fearsome critic: The Queen, QEI, and then later a king, James I. A monarch for a main critic could involve more than a “We are not amused” commentary (okay, that was Victoria, not Elizabeth). It could have involved being hanged, drawn, and quartered. A bad review takes on new meaning, in that regard.

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Plays were the cat’s meow in the 1600s

The Master of Revels, as jolly as a title as that sounds, was a fearsome critic. His duties included scrutinizing all plays for possible slander against the royalty. He had the power to remove any possible line that hinted trouble. In fact, the monarchy was to be presented in the best possible manner. That might explain why QEI’s father, King Henry VIII, a rather notorious fellow, is presented more decently than not in the Henry plays by Shakespeare. The man not only knew how his bread was buttered, Shakespeare was consciously aware of the knife in the butter dish.

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No one, not even the Bard, could knock Henry off his horse

Shakespeare took advantage of how the 1600s was moving from Latin being the language of literature to that of English. His puns, sonnets, banter, and general wordplay, which gave double meanings to many of his words, helped establish England’s identity as a country whose people could have a bit of fun with the language and keep a straight face–something seen throughout the ages with the likes of Monty Python and long lasting shows such as Dr. Who.

Shakespeare followed the dictates of his monarchs and his country’s tastes, which is why his plays have disparaging lines about foreign aspects, particularly concerning the French. While snide lines might have been popular in his time, they tend to ruffle and offend as time moves on.

Playing with words amounted to Shakespeare fashioning some propaganda to suit the need. Shakespeare not only moved words around to move the audience, he moved his nation to be one established as possessing wit and a respecter of language, although in his heyday he tended to play with propaganda.

So, a question pops up: is Shakespeare still “…not of an age, but for all time,” as Ben Jonson once said? With more emphasis on cultural, social, and political awareness, are some of Shakespeare’s plays, and even sonnets, facing censure?

Are his plays to be taken with a grain of salt as a reflection of his period or just plain taken off the reading list?

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