Offence, Shakespeare, and Performance

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Offence is a highly topical and much debated issue in contemporary Western societies. Fierce arguments rage between those who advocate mechanisms such as safe spaces, no platforming, and sensitivity readers to protect people from encountering offence, and those who maintain that curtailing the expression of offensive ideas stifles dialogue and impoverishes intellectual exchanges. This article sheds new light on the phenomenon of offence by examining it in the context of literary production, dissemination, and consumption. It focuses on drama as a performative genre, uniquely suited to embodying and interrogating emotions underpinning offensive exchanges. Through analysing representations of offence in several Shakespeare’s plays and discussing three actual or planned Shakespearean productions which caused offence to twenty-first-century audiences, it illuminates the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in defining offence. In particular, it demonstrates how difficult it is to determine agency in offensive exchanges: to establish who ‘owns’ offence, whether it originates with the offender or the offended party, and who has the right to decide what its consequences should be. Simultaneously, it argues that offence includes an element of social performance, as we do not only feel but also act offended. Because of the performative nature of offence, theatre and drama theory offer us a perfect laboratory and vocabulary for engaging with this vital issue.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 Apr 2024

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