William Shakespeare

Closures & Censorship

The theater business came with risks. First and foremost was the plague. Outbreaks caused the government to shut down all the theaters in London on a regular basis, most seriously for nearly two years from 1593 to 1594. During these closures, actors had to find other ways to make money. Acting had political risks as well. All plays were subject to censorship by a government official called the Master of the Revels. It was illegal to perform plays which directly discussed political issues. This law may explain why Shakespeare’s political plays are set in either medieval England or ancient Rome. In those settings, Shakespeare could explore questions about how a country should be ruled without appearing to criticize the government of his own day. Playwrights also had to be careful about discussing religion or anything that might be considered “immoral.” In Twelfth Night , a female character named Viola dresses up as a man and calls herself “Cesario”. A countess, Olivia, and a duke, Orsino, both express their attraction to the young “man,” and when Orsino discovers that “Cesario” is really a woman in disguise, he announces that he will marry her without waiting for her to change back into women’s clothes. Both Olivia’s and Orsino’s attraction to “Cesario” can be seen as homosexual—but also as heterosexual. If either Olivia’s or Orsino’s desire had come across as unambiguously homosexual, Shakespeare would have been in trouble.