Ah, the Comics Code. We all remember that, right? The comic book equivalent of the Hays Code, except kept in place until a much more recent decade (partly, I expect, because comics are “for kids”, and films aren’t necessarily), the Comics Code limited what could be shown in comic books. It came about as a result of a moral panic concerning comic books. This panic had, at its center, the publication of Fredric Wertham‘s anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent.
(Fun aside: I was thinking of reading Seduction of the Innocent, since I suspect most modern-day comics fans know it only by reputation. However, the cheapest I can find it online is $200, and that’s on eBay.)
I gather modern MPAA ratings for films allow a certain amount of room for context and interpretation – not much, but some. The Comics Code Authority, however, did not. If you read down in the Wikipedia entry on the CCA, there’s a story that happened in 1971 – Stan Lee, by request of the United States government, wrote a Spider-Man story depicting the negative effects of drugs. The CCA refused to certify the issues in which that story ran.
And so it goes. The first time I sat down and read the code (it’s not long – the text of the Code comprises 41 points, all stated in brief, plain English; the Wikipedia entry condenses it down to 18 highlights), it struck me that a lot of great works of literature would violate it – Beowulf, 1984, literary horror including Dracula…
… much of Shakespeare…
It’s the Shakespeare that really got me thinking. Would the nigh-universally-acknowledged greatest writer of the English language… run afoul of the CCA?
Hamlet vs. the CCA
Part A (1) Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
The biggest and most obvious criminal in Hamlet is Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Well, right away we have a problem – Claudius is the king – he is the forces of law and justice. And sympathy? Well, near the beginning of Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius gives a soliloquy. The whole thing is worth reading (well, okay, the whole play is worth reading – this is Shakespeare), but a relevant highlight includes:
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
Claudius wants to pray, to repent his crimes, but finds he cannot – he still possesses the benefits of those crimes, and can’t bring himself to give them up. And the scene before this one is the play-within-the-play, wherein Claudius is confronted with a depiction of his own foul crime (though only Hamlet knows it’s deliberate; everyone else thinks it just a play). Claudius is overcome; he storms out.
None of this makes Claudius a good person, but it shows his crime is clearly eating at him.
Part A (2) No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.
Oh man; Hamlet is screwed on this one. The aforementioned play-within-the-play is precisely about depicting the unique details and methods of the crime. Hamlet’s arranged to show Claudius (and the whole royal court) a play that depicts Claudius’s murder of his own brother, Hamlet’s father.
Part A (3) Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
There is, of course, King Claudius, murderer and usurper. Apart from him, there’s Polonius, the king’s trusted adviser, who’s a buffoon. He wanders around sputtering nonsense and missing the point of everything that happens around him.
Part A (5) Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
One could argue that Claudius’s ultimate downfall, and his gnawing guilt, negates any “desire for emulation”, but then they did refuse to approve that Spider-Man drug story… So all we’re left with is the criminal as the king, which is to many “glamorous” and worth emulating.
Part A (6) In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
Ergh. Maybe. The criminal was punished for his misdeeds but… so was half the cast. There were varying degrees of guilt to be found among them, but what of poor manipulated Laertes, or poor, horribly-used Ophelia?
Part B (5) Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Do ghosts count? It doesn’t specifically name ghosts, but Hamlet’s father is generally depicted as walking, and he is most certainly dead.
Part C – Dialogue (1) Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
I feel like I’m missing an obvious one here. I know Shakespeare wasn’t shy about dirty or vulgar humour, but I can’t recall any specific instances from Hamlet.
Part C – Marriage and sex (2) Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
What constitutes illicit? There’s a fair bit made of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s relationship, and it’s implied there’s been sex involved (despite the fact that they’re – horrors – not married).
Is there anything obvious I’ve missed?