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With or Without You: Government Censorship and Literary Creativity

Good Queen Bess, absolute monarch during the great flowering of English drama, had a hair-trigger policy on censorship. No writer was allowed to criticize the Queen or her policy on the religious struggles then going on in England. This is why Shakespeare’s supposedly vast and all-encompassing corpus of work contains zero direct critiques of contemporary government, political figures, or policies. There’s a reason we know Falstaff as “Falstaff”; his original name was “Oldcastle,” but Lord Cobham, the Queen’s touchy new Chamberlain, had an ancestor of that name, and he mandated that Shakespeare change it. (It didn’t work; the character was already so popular that Lord Cobham’s rivals referred to him as “Falstaff” behind his back and in private letters.) In fact, in the late 1590’s, Elizabeth’s government cracked down on the theater that produced a satirical play called The Isle of Dogs. Thespians were imprisoned, the playhouse shut down. This cowed London’s playwrights, including Shakespeare, from critiquing government ever after.

Censorship didn’t choke off that literary flowering, just as the French monarchy’s Royal Censor didn’t stifle French neoclassical drama and Jean Racine. Government censorship seems to have been pervasive in the European monarchies for centuries; likewise in classical Indian and Chinese dynasties, whose literary leading lights are almost never caught badmouthing the Maharajah or the Emperor. You’re more likely to see a poet praising an imperial or wealthy aristocratic patron, in the manner of Virgil or Horace; even Shakespeare made a bid, early in his career, for the favor of the Earl of Southampton. The earliest bards, singing epics for warlords in mead-halls, were (one can assume) ill advised to reproach power for slaughtering the enemy.

I point this out not to make the case that government censorship is good for human expression. Rather I would point out that government censorship, historically, hasn’t been bad for it: That literature can flourish in spite of a gag order regarding the ruling powers in a society.

Of course, it should be pointed out that trying to do more than just shut poets and novelists up about the government—coercing them to praise the government or its ideology—hasn’t worked, historically. More than one leading writer of 20th century Russian literature—Pasternak, Mandlestam, Bulgakov—was persecuted by Stalin. (The Master and Margarita wasn’t published in book form until 1967.) The major figures in Soviet writer’s collectives, like the approved Nazi ideologues in literature, have vanished. Similarly, there is an entire genre of classical poetry—that of the imperial paean—that is almost completely lost to us; this genre of official poem has proven instantly forgettable, like the occasional poetry produced by British poets laureate. (What does last, sometimes, is its opposite—like the Pumpkinification by Seneca the Younger, a Menippean satire which sends up the deification of the Roman emperor Claudius.)

One of the few examples we have of a poet directly critiquing a government, specific political figures, a religious institution, and specific religious figures is Dante Alighieri. The crucial thing that set him free was his rootlessness. He wrote his Commedia during one long exile. But really he could badmouth Florence so readily because he was beyond the reach of the Black Guelfs. Dante, too, could play nice with the superrich of his day; Cangrande della Scala—a letter from Dante to him still exists—was one of many patrons who helped Dante along his way. The opening paragraph of the letter:


The outstanding praise of your Magnificence, which watchful fame spreads abroad on flying wing, pulls different people in different directions, so that it brings some to hope in their prosperity, casts down others in fear of destruction. The report of such fame, exceeding by far that of any present day person, as somewhat beyond the truth, I judged to be somewhat exaggerated. In truth, so that this great uncertainty might keep me in suspense longer, as the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem, as Pallas came to Helicon, I came to Verona to be an eye-witness for myself what I had heard. And there I saw your great works, I saw your benefices and touched them; and just as I had earlier suspected excess in part in your praisers, now later I know the excess of the deeds themselves. So that, just as by hearsay alone I was favorably inclined by a sort of submission of the mind, now I am through sight your faithful servant and friend.


Dante speaks truth to power…when the power in question isn’t paying for his room and board. (Cangrande della Scala spread his share of fire, pillage, intrigue, and military devastation, mostly against Padua.)

The question to be answered is this: Why does literary quality rise or fall more or less independently of government censorship? (Again, I differentiate the gag order, as in Elizabethan England, from the forced paean, as in Stalinist Russia.)

Some guesses. Overly topical political critiques lose power over time. Orwell’s Animal Farm gains longevity of appeal from its parable-like nonspecificity. Dante’s critiques of Florentine politicians and bad old Popes have lost power, too; we know these figures through footnotes. We see them as examples of sins first, characters in the Inferno second. Dante’s contemporaries probably thought of them as real people and examples of sins at the same time.

Censorship may act less as a formal constraint and more as a formal goad— forcing inventiveness and self-surpassing, in the manner of a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Bulgakov didn’t write The Master and Margarita with the intention that it should survive pretty much by chance and be published and recognized long after his death. Rather he came up with a brilliantly funny and imaginative way of expressing his ideas; he wrote the novel, as he wrote his plays, with the hopes of saying what he wished to, but slipping it past the censors.

Third, it may well be that writers aren’t interested in harping on their governments, even when their governments do bad things. This may be due to temperament, aesthetic sense, or caution. I would point out that in the United States, where poets and novelists can critique the government if we wish to, many of our foremost poets and novelists, old and young—Billy Collins, John Ashbery, Kay Ryan, Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz—do not criticize the American government, American policy foreign or domestic, or specific American politicians. In fact, if you considered those writers’ poems and novels from a detached perspective, knowing nothing else about the country from which they hailed, you would probably guess that America had a rather strict gag order in place. All of us have the option to incorporate such material into our art, but most American writers simply don’t exercise it. Perhaps this is why the American government doesn’t ban contemporary novelists and poets. It needn’t bother; their attention is elsewhere anyway.