The Elizabethan period was a time of rapid change and instability, when new crises could arise suddenly and without warning. In order to keep the peace in a time of constant threat, the government relied on censorship. Censorship was not new, however. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had introduced censorship measures in the 1530s. Queen Mary I intensified these measures in 1557, when she made every publisher in the land officially enroll with the Stationers’ Register in London. Mary’s registry survived into Elizabeth’s reign, and the new queen further required every new book to be vetted by members of the Privy Council. Any book published that undermined the queen’s dignity was asking for trouble. In 1579, for instance, John Stubbs wrote a pamphlet arguing that a marriage between Elizabeth and the duke of Anjou would pose a threat to the nation. The duke was 22 years younger than Elizabeth, but even more galling than the age gap was the fact that the duke was French and Catholic. Elizabeth was furious, and she punished both Stubbs and his publisher by chopping off each man’s right hand.
As a public form of entertainment, the theater business came with political risks. As with books, all plays were subject to censorship by a government official called the Master of the Revels, whose job it was to ensure that no political issues were addressed directly onstage. Shakespeare’s plays were examined by the Master of Revels, which may explain why his more overtly political plays are set in either Rome or medieval England. In those settings, Shakespeare could explore questions about how a country should be ruled without appearing to criticize the government of his own day. However, despite the care he took to avoid censorship, Shakespeare fell afoul of the censor in 1601, after the Earl of Essex sponsored an unsuccessful revolt against the queen. As it turned out, Essex’s followers had attended a performance of Richard II just before the revolt, and Elizabeth believed the play had encouraged the men to act. Her specific concern regarded the scene in which the king gets deposed from the throne. Her censor agreed, and he required the deposition scene to be removed from all editions of the play.
Perhaps the most infamous case in which Shakespeare’s plays were censored occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century, nearly two hundred years after the playwright’s death. In 1807 a man named Thomas Bowdler published a book titled The Family Shakespeare. Edited by his sister, Henrietta, the Bowdler version removed the many indelicacies of expression so common in Shakespeare’s plays. The title page described the edition as one “in which nothing is added to the original text: but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be allowed in a family.” Despite their intentions to create a family-friendly Shakespeare purged of all blasphemy and immorality, the Bowdler edition is now considered a touchstone example of the negative effects of literary censorship. Indeed, the case is so infamous that the name Bowdler has since become synonymous with censorship. The common English verb bowdlerize means to remove from a text any material deemed offensive or improper.