On His Birthday (More or Less), What William Shakespeare Has to Tell Us About Censorship and Drag Queens

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564. Or maybe not. It’s a guess, counting backward from April 26, when church records tell us he was baptized.

The precise date of Shakespeare’s birth is only one of many things we don’t know about him. In his biography, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson provides an inventory of the mysteries.

We don’t know if Shakespeare ever left England. We don’t know where he was or what he did during critical parts of his life.

We don’t know exactly how many plays he wrote or the precise order in which he wrote them. We don’t know how well the plays reflect his personal views on religion, politics, or anything else. 

We don’t even know how he spelled his name.

Despite these conspicuous gaps, new Shakespeare biographies appear regularly. Many of them exceed 400 pages, a remarkable volume of material given the scarcity of reliable facts in our possession.

To fill the void, biographers have resorted to a variety of strategies. One approach is to situate his life in the broader historical context, about which we know a great deal. Shakespeare’s story becomes the story of his age, which has lessons of its own. 

And that brings us to censorship and drag queens.      

Shakespeare had the good fortune to write when plays were immensely popular with the public and the crown placed relatively few restraints on artistic expression. The theater flourished. These liberties upset the Puritans, who took no pleasure in the stage, just as they took no pleasure in pretty much anything.

Indeed, the Puritans hated the theater. They blamed playhouses for all manner of evils, from moral corruption to earthquakes. As Bryson puts it: “They considered theaters, with their lascivious puns and unnatural cross-dressing, a natural haunt for prostitutes and shady characters.”

Shakespeare plainly got a huge kick out of writing about cross-dressing. Examples appear in at least seven of his works. In some instances, cross-dressing plays an essential role in the plot: Portia could not give her famous “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech as Portia; the gender limitations on members of the legal profession required her to do it as a man.

The plays are full of this stuff. Female characters dress as men. Male characters dress as women. And, of course, in Shakespeare’s time female characters were routinely played by boys or young men. So, males played females who played males.  

It must have driven the Puritans crazy.

Shakespeare’s England faced grave and genuine threats to the public well-being. Among other things, plague, tuberculosis, measles, multiple varieties of smallpox, and other diseases had decimated the population and had resulted in economic upheaval.

But the real problem, every good Puritan knew, was off-color humor and men in dresses.   

Here we are, centuries later, replaying the same drama. 

Earlier this year, media reports indicated that at least nine state legislatures were considering laws to restrict or criminalize drag shows.

That’s on top of the much broader effort afoot to censor ideas from classrooms and to ban books from curriculums and libraries. These moralistic frolics are not new to our country; we have seen waves of such activity before. But, according to a report issued last year by PEN America, these proposed laws are unprecedented in their scope and severity.

And they continue to multiply. A check of the PEN America site this month showed 193 educational censorship laws introduced across 41 states since January 2021. 

The Puritans are not dead, though they have slept.

Of course, in recent years we have struggled with a plague of our own, one that has killed more than a million United States citizens. And we continue to deal with the psychological traumas and economic consequences of those events.

Yet every right-thinking person knows that the real problem is men in drag, Critical Race Theory, and Captain Underpants.

Shakespeare died in 1616, tradition holds on the same day he was born. Just twenty-six years later, the Puritans finally prevailed. They won control of Parliament and ordered the closing of all the theaters. The great stage went dark.

If Shakespeare had lived during that period, we would almost certainly have none of his plays.

We would have lost one of the most powerful, insightful, and enduring voices in human history.

But the Puritans would have celebrated because they saved us from the cross-dressers.