Shakespeare now includes content warnings at Globe Theatre. Is this overreaction or nothing new for the bard?

An audience sits in Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.
Actors perform a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for members of the media and a small audience during a photo call to present Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, London. AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

LONDON–In the second act of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Oberon, king of the fairies, decides to punish his wife Titania by giving her a love potion while she sleeps. 

“What thou seest when thou dost wake / Do it for they true love take; / Love and languish for his sake,” he says. When Titania awakens, she falls in love with Bottom, a man with the head of a donkey.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s tamer plays, a “fairy tale” that’s suitable for children. 

But a new warning on the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre website is a sign that contemporary audiences may not agree. In a “content warning” on the site, the Globe warns that the play contains “language of violence, sexual references, misogyny and racism.” 

Should Shakespeare come with a content warning? They may cause more harm than good, say some Northeastern University London experts. But others argue that this is another in a long line of new interpretations of the bard’s work, and something that invites us to understand Shakespeare’s time as well as our own.

It’s true that the work of William Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616 and wrote 39 plays, has some difficult moments.

“Shakespeare’s plays are complex and sometimes uncomfortable,” says Flora Lisica, assistant professor in English at Northeastern University London. “There’s a long history of people finding them hard to watch and hard to read.” When she saw the “super violent” play Titus Andronicus at the Globe in 2014, she says, an audience member fainted.

At first glance, she says, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a fairy tale, but it’s also “creepy and dark and weird,” she says, citing the potion component.

How we read these moments depends on our cultural context, she says. “It’s up to every age to define what a particular play might mean for us,” she says. In the past, Lisica says, the potion may have been read differently. But “more recently, it’s read as a more sinister drug that takes away autonomy.” 

That these moments reflect the racism and sexism of Shakespeare’s time may not be up for debate; however, adding a “content warning” in response to controversial moments invokes questions about how we should read and adapt Shakespeare.

For The Daily Mail, adding a warning in response to controversial moments of the play represents a deviation from how the play has been historically presented. “For the past 400 years, it has been performed countless times, particularly at the Globe,” states an article on the site. “But now the historic theatre has given Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ a ‘misogyny and racism’ warning.” (According to the Globe Theatre, they’ve included such warnings for “the past few years,” and the warnings appear for other plays as well.)

One could see the content warning as a new part of the play; in that way, it is a new sort of rewriting. “It’s almost like a subtitle, in a way,” Lisica says, noting also that the content warning is “suggesting a way to read the play.” 

However, as Northeastern associate professor Daniel Swift notes, it’s wrong to imply that each new adaptation does not reinvent the text in some way. “That’s why people keep returning to them, and finding new things in them,” Swift says. “Productions have endlessly cut and adapted and changed the plays, to reflect a certain understanding of the play—that’s what directing a play is, really, giving an interpretation of it.”

The diversity of the countless retellings of Shakespeare’s plays is something that we should celebrate, says Tomas Elliott, an assistant professor at Northeastern. Moreover, it’s nothing new: In 1681, a production of King Lear retold the story with a happy ending. This year, the Globe produced Titus Andronicus with an all-female cast. 

The usefulness of a content warning is another matter. Northeastern assistant professor Rebecca Newby argues that it has the unintended effect of creating controversy on both sides of the political spectrum. “It invites outrage from both sides … you’re almost goading people to look for [racism and misogyny],” she says. “You’re goading outlets, tabloids like the Daily Mail.”

Rather than using content warnings, “I think we should be encouraging students and audiences instead to engage with the culture around it and the history and historical context,” she says.

Elliott, however, argues that content warnings actually give us more freedom from censorship. They “provide a way for us to continue to use theater as a space in which to push boundaries, for the show to go on, rather than resorting to the wholesale closure of theaters or widespread censorship (as, indeed, existed in England for 230 years from 1737 to 1968 as a result of the Licensing Act),” he says.

Engaging with the play and its controversial elements helps us understand Shakespeare’s time and our own, he says. Content warnings, far from taking away from the play, actually facilitate this. “Allowing people to know or understand the content in advance makes sure we have a healthy and productive context in which to stage works both old and new,” he says.

Ironically, Elliott notes, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” already includes a trigger warning. In the play, an actor dresses up as a lion, then warns the audience that it’s just a costume:

You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear

The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,

May now perchance both quake and tremble here,

When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.

Then know that I, one Snug the joiner, am

A lion-fell, nor else no lion’s dam;

For, if I should as lion come in strife

Into this place, ’twere pity on my life.

What’s more, Elliott says, the play itself is an interpretation of another time, “a reflection of Shakespeare’s understanding of the historical Athens at a time when it was ruled by the mythological Theseus.”

Knowing all this, The Daily Mail’s reading, he says, is an “oversimplification.” 

“The idea that content warnings, editing, rewriting and adapting Shakespeare is a new thing is ludicrous.”