Opinion | Make Shakespeare Dirty Again

It seemed, for a moment, that Shakespeare was being canceled. Last week, school district officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., said that they were preparing high school lessons for the new academic year with some of William Shakespeare’s works taught only with excerpts, partly in keeping with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s legislation about what students can or can’t be exposed to.

I’m here to say: Good. Cancel Shakespeare. It’s about time.

Anyone who spends a lot of time reading Shakespeare (or working on his plays, as I have for most of my professional career) understands that he couldn’t have been less interested in puritanical notions of respectability. Given how he’s become an exalted landmark on the high road of culture, it’s easy to forget that there’s always been a secret smugglers’ path to a more salacious and subversive Shakespeare, one well known and beloved by artists and theater people. The Bard has long been a patron saint to rebel poets and social outcasts, queer nonconformists and punk provocateurs.

Yes, Shakespeare is ribald, salacious, even shocking. But to understand his genius — and his indelible legacy on literature — students need to be exposed to the whole of his work, even, perhaps especially, the naughty bits.

The closing lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, addressed to the poem’s male subject, are among the dirtiest — and hottest — of the 16th century. “But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, / Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.” A favorite trick of Shakespeare’s was to play with word order, especially when he wanted to disclose something too daring to be said in a more straightforward way, such as the love that dared not speak its name. The untangled meaning here: Your love ultimately belongs to me, sir, even if women (sometimes) enjoy your prick. Or, from the neck up you are as beautiful as a woman, and from the waist down you are all man.

Sex is one thing. The plays are also astoundingly gory. The bloody climax of “King Lear” so horrified the playwright Nahum Tate that he felt compelled to rewrite its ending. Tate’s sanitized version of “King Lear,” premiering in 1681, held the stage until 1838. In the 18th century, Voltaire called “Hamlet” the apparent product of a “drunken savage” who wrote without “the slightest spark of good taste”— which didn’t stop Voltaire, who also recognized Shakespeare’s “genius,” from openly borrowing from the Bard for one of his own plays.

In 1872 in “The Birth of Tragedy,” Friedrich Nietzsche praised this savagery. To him, Shakespeare contained the ne plus ultra of grisly truths. Hamlet, he wrote, “sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence.” Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he considered this a good thing. Art, wrote Nietzsche, transforms “these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.”

In light of Nietzsche’s counterintuitive epiphany, the notion of Shakespeare-the-hipster caught fire. Hamlet, uniquely among male roles in the classical canon, became an aspirational part for female theatrical stars looking to prove their bona fides and upend gender preconceptions: Sarah Bernhardt most famously, but also the great Danish actor Asta Nielsen. Shakespeare’s sonnets were a source of succor to decadent aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde, just as they had been to Charles Baudelaire. The writings and teachings of queer poets such as W.H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg suggests they saw themselves in Shakespeare’s works, as did anti-racist writers from James Baldwin to Lorraine Hansberry and Ann Petry.

Where the avant-garde led, pop culture followed. Shakespeare’s plays have always lent themselves to all manner of interpretations and they found new life in the postwar era, with landmark works like Basil Dearden’s “All Night Long,” a neo-noir film from 1962, which set “Othello” in a British jazz soiree. Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968 plugged into a different cultural zeitgeist, capturing onscreen the summer of love, while Roman Polanski’s film version of “Macbeth” in 1971 feels like an encomium for the dying utopian dreams of the ’60s.

In the transgressive ’90s, Shakespeare was everywhere: taboo, art house, alternative and cool. Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” reimagined Prince Hal and Hotspur as gay grunge gods and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” featured Leonardo DiCaprio at the peak of his androgyne allure. Even “Shakespeare in Love,” a relatively middlebrow Oscar winner, presented a vision of the brooding, bearded, sexy Shakespeare, as embodied by Joseph Fiennes.

In many other cultures, the bawdy lowbrow and the poetic highbrow are often personified by separate champions: In France, it’s Rabelais and Racine; in Spain, Cervantes and Calderón. In English literature Shakespeare has always combined both brows into something rich, special and strange. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of Shakespeare’s most magical and sensual plays, Bottom — a man with the head of a donkey — spends the night in bed next to the fairy queen. He wakes up having had something close to a religious experience. Every play in the canon features something similarly subversive and transcendent — and all of them are essential.

One can no more take out the dirty parts of Shakespeare than one can take out the poetry. It’s all intertwined, so that Shakespeare seems almost purposefully designed to confound those who want to segregate the smutty from the sublime. His work is proof that profundity can live next to, and even be found in, the pornographic, the viscerally violent and the existentially horrifying. So if you’re looking for sex, gore and the unspeakable absurdity of existence in Shakespeare, you will definitely find it. That’s the genius of Shakespeare. And it’s precisely what makes his work worth studying.

Drew Lichtenberg is a lecturer at Yale University and the resident dramaturg at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

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