Old enough for the bloody Bard

At 11, my son is barred from seeing Shakespeare's 'Richard III' on screen. Why, asks Polly Toynbee
Click to follow
Saturday night and Ian McKellen's Richard III is showing in the local cinema. Perfect. Something I and Nat, my 11-year-old son, can enjoy together. We often see Shakespeare productions in the theatre and a few months ago we went to Stratford to see the RSC's Richard III. He was eager to compare it with the new film - (spot-the-cuts is part of the pleasure of the abbreviated McKellen performance).

But it was not to be. Astonishingly, the film is a 15. Nat is of small stature and would not pass for more. So he will have to wait for the video. One censor regretted it was not a 12, but the others apparently actually considered giving it an 18. Shakespeare, according to the the British Board of Film Classification, is not for children.

Or at least it is only to be used to force down children's throats in painful classroom readings, to be studied on the dry page, essayed, contexted and gobbetted to death. Shakespeare is OK if it is done by men in tights - Olivier's Richard III is licensed for kids - but not when brought startlingly to life in a frightening Thirties fascist Britain. Too dangerous, too powerful, too real - though the same production appeared on the stage. Maybe it is time to return to the Lord Chamberlain, mercifully released from his theatre censorship role in 1968. I doubt whether he ever expunged Shakespeare's words - unlike Dr Thomas Bowdler, whose notorious "Family Shakespeare" in 1818 omitted the rude and bloody.

But maybe the film censors would like Bowdler back, scissors at the ready? What of Lear? Once in the "Out, vile jelly!" scene my companion fainted into my lap at the sight of Gloucester's eyeballs. Or what of Titus Andronicus, that rabid litany of horror? The stage directions read "Enter Lavinia, ravish'd; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out." Child-pie is eaten, and Titus promises to "make two pasties of your shameful heads!"

My son recently acted in Mark Rylance's production of Macbeth. As young Macduff, his throat was cut nightly with a savage "What, you egg!" and copious blood gushed forth. As Fleance, he witnessed the bloody slaughter of his father, "Safe in a ditch he bides, With twenty trenched gashes on his head". As Young Siward, he was thrust through, full frontal. Was it remiss of me to let him act this? I think not.

So why can't children see the film of Richard III? There is a scene where the louche Lord Rivers is knifed through in bed while (off camera) he engages in oral sex. (No child would know what they were doing unless they already knew about such things). Clarence's throat is horribly cut in the prison bath, and the princes are stifled with a silk scarf. But did Shakespeare mean this portrait of absolute evil to be done genteelly?

Quentin Tarantino is considering a film of Macbeth, the ultimate Natural Born Killer. Maybe at that point the words and moral integrity of Shakespeare will no longer justify the Technicolor brutality on the screen. But I doubt it even then.

I have always sought to protect my children from violent movies. I dislike the casual zap and pow imagery flavouring most of what children see - everything from Ninja Turtles to Stallone's brutish gun and knuckle play. Spurious and devious plot lines create heroes justified in using maximum force. But violence in Shakespeare is unequivocally in the hands of evil. The good guys usually win with little show of force. There is no moral equivocation on violence, no lingering sadistic relish or taste for blood in the work of he who has written some of the most disgusting scenes to grace the stage.

Censorship is always prone to silliness. I am grateful for the board's classifications for children on most occasions, but sometimes they are a bunch of ninnies. For if ever a reluctant child were to be ignited by Shakespeare, it is in this remarkable, moral and enjoyable film.


In my column on 15 April, I suggested wrongly that the Mitsubishi Pencil Company was the subject of a massive sexual harassment case in the US. It is, of course, the wholly unrelated Mitsubishi Corporation which faces this litigation. I apologise for the embarrassment caused to the Mitsubishi Pencil Company.