The Globe Theatre in London has launched a project to “decolonize” Shakespeare, as if that would make plays like The Tempest “acceptable” to them and their audience. This would have met with no approval at all from Plato (c. 425- 348 BC). For him, all poetry and the arts were corrupt, and in his Republic, a discussion of how an ideal state should be constituted, he called for them all to be banned.
Plato’s argument begins from exactly the same position as the Globe’s: that all art, but especially that which deals in words, has an educational effect. In other words, it instructs, whether it likes it or not (and Greeks did indeed argue that this was its effect, and purpose). Consequently, Plato believed, unless it offered lessons of the highest moral probity, it was a corrupting force.
At one level, this was simply a matter of censoring those passages which caused maximum offense, e.g. the anger of the hero Achilles in the Iliad — the wrong model of heroic behavior to set before Athenians. But Plato went much further than that. Poets and playwrights dealt in illusion, a mere shadow of reality, all nothing but make-believe. Should not life itself teach us right and wrong, rather than ignorant, ill-informed, insubstantial shadows?
Then again, consider the results of such play-acting. Staged before mass audiences, tragedy and comedy (Greeks invented both formats) encouraged dangerous emotional responses — weeping and wailing, or crude, buffoonish laughter.
Plato imagined the state saying to such performers: “We should be absolutely daft, as would any state, to let you perform if the authorities had not decided whether your work was fit to be recited and suitable for public performance. So show us your work, and if your doctrines seem the same as — or better than — ours, you can go ahead; if not, not.”
Precisely. As a liberal force for good, the Globe has a moral duty to eradicate everything out of tune with contemporary mores. Simply “decolonizing” the Bard can do little to spread inclusivity and diversity, let alone stop the rampant forces of colonial exploitation winning the day.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.