Sanitised or modernised: staging Shakespeare today

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London

Recorded at the Battle of Ideas festival 2022 on Sunday 16 October at Church House, London.


How should we approach Shakespeare today? Challenging the reverence many hold for Britain’s greatest writer, some have argued that staging the Bard today is a tricky issue. For example, actress Juliet Stevenson stated that the alleged anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice meant that it could not be made ‘acceptable’. Some Shakespeare plays, she said, ‘where history has overtaken them, should just be buried’.

Others have taken the approach that the way to make Shakespeare ‘acceptable’ is to encourage his plays to meet the political sensitivities of a modern audience. The Globe in London hosted a series of educational workshops on how to teach ‘anti-racist Shakespeare’, looking at Othello and The Tempest in particular. Under the artistic directorship of Michelle Terry, The Globe also focused on ‘inclusivity’ in Shakespeare, with colour and gender-blind casting. Off stage, others have argued that teaching Shakespeare in schools should be met with caution, as his works contain ‘problematic, outdated ideas’ like ‘misogynoir’ and ‘homophobia’.

Purists might gasp at such meddling, and defend the progressive sensibilities of a genius writing in politically contentious times. After all, if The Merchant of Venice is so anti-Semitic, why is Shylock given the most meaningful speech in the play? But others argue that without reinterpretation, any work of great literature would languish. If it is the nature of great art to able to be speak across the ages, what is wrong with ‘decolonising’ Shakespeare in 2022? Should we be relaxed about moves to ‘modernise’ art from over 400 years ago? Or are we in danger of dumbing down these classics to suit contemporary political ends?

Professor Aaqil Ahmed
director, Amplify Consulting Ltd; professor of media, University of Bolton; former head of religion, Channel 4 and BBC

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster, BBC TV and radio arts and history documentaries; patron, Shakespeare Schools Foundation;

Tomiwa Owolade
writer and critic; contributing writer, New Statesman

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
director, Don’t Divide Us; author, What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth

Daniel Smith
teacher of English; second in department, Reigate School, Surrey; author, Macbeth: 25 key quotations for GCSE

Gregor Claude
art teacher, Coopers Company and Coborn School