We don’t need to be kept ‘safe’ from Shakespeare, thank you very much

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Another week, another potty development in the ongoing clash between the culture wars and the role of art. Yesterday the academic Hailey Bachrach, a researcher at the University of Roehampton, argued in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph that scenes in Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V, in which female characters are married without explicitly giving their consent, could be troubling to modern audiences. 

“If Shakespeare is being more regressive and less careful than other writers… it can make [him] problematic,” she said. “No matter what Shakespeare intended, it is experienced by modern actors and modern audiences. It could potentially be triggering.”

I don’t know about you but whenever I witness the extraordinary exchange between Richard and Lady Anne in Richard III, the fact that Anne doesn’t explicitly say yes to the murderous hunchback Richard is, for me, precisely the point of the entire scene. 

Rather than prompt a trembling reaction to the fact of historic misogyny that requires me to dash off in search of smelling salts to calm my nerves, I am instead reminded once again of Shakespeare’s brilliance at dramatising the grotesque psychopathy of ruthless power and revealing it anew in all its ugly truth. Imagine if Anne had instead clapped her hands in glee at his proposal – made, don’t forget, while the cortege of her husband King Henry VI, killed by Richard, is passing in the street – and run off to call the caterers. I think most people would have found her “consent” very problematic indeed.

Bachrach may well be well intentioned in her arguments but they seem to display a total lack of understanding of how narrative actually works. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another play to have provoked her concern since, she argues, Titania has sex under the “influence of mind-altering drugs” and is thus too out of it to give her consent’ to Bottom when he turns up in the form of an ass and the blissed-out pair frolic joyfully among the trees. 

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