There is no avoiding the political nature of Shakespeare’s plays. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was fascinated by the play Macbeth, and its musing on how power is acquired and abused by tyrants. It just so happens that a renegade Thai director has the rare achievement of being funded by the government to make a film that was then banned by that same government’s censorship boards for political reasons . Like many times before, from the time of Shakespeare onward, Shakespeare’s plays have been used for political reasons and liked and disliked.
Shakespeare’s political views have always been dangerous. While Shakespeare was still alive he and his troop (The Chamberlain’s Men) were asked by some plotters attempting to overthrow Elizabeth I at the end of her reign to stage Richard II, a play that would seem to justify rebellion against an ineffective and incompetent monarchy as it deals equivocally with such matters as divine right monarchy and how people can seek justice in this world. Shakespeare managed to preserve his head during that political crisis, but it could have gone another way had Elizabeth been less secure.
Writing cannot avoid being political. When we create, we create from our own worldivew and perspective, and that is always political. That which we choose to focus on requires us not to focus on other aspects. That which we support and that which we are opposed to or dislike are also political matters. Shakespeare lived in a time of crisis like our own with ferociously serious politics, where (like today in Thailand and other countries), politics could be a matter of life or death, prison or freedom, blessing or cursing. To choose to be true to yourself is to put yourself in danger in a corrupt and wicked world.
And that is what the movie Shakespeare Must Die is about, in a nutshell. In an alternative version of Thailand (with use of real-life footage of repression), a director stages a version of Macbeth that provokes the deadly repression of a dictatorial regime. Despite the fact that the direct of the film has a pretty hostile anti-Red shirt bias, the people in charge of approving films thought that film audiences in Thailand would be too stupid to get the difference between the real life version of Thailand and a fictional portrayal. I think that such elites generally tend to sell the common people far too short.
Why is this a problem? Thailand is in a state of political crisis, and there are very powerful people who are deeply ambivalent, if not hostile, to the whole existence of elections and voting in the first place, especially because the people of Thailand keep on voting for anti-establishment parties and leaders over and over again. The fact that a director is not free to make a film about those who overthrow legitimate governments to set up their own murderous and tyrannical regimes because it may remind audiences too much of how the real elites of Thailand behave is unacceptable. When a movie cannot comment on the absurdity of the cult of personality because it strikes too close to sensitive ground, then there is a serious problem here. What to do about it is less clear.
After all, regardless of whether truthtellers (even in the famously indirect and coded way that Shakespeare was a truthteller) are co-opted into the system, killed, or exiled, the truth remains. Whether the truth is known and secretly whispered about or openly faced or secret to all but God and the people responsible themselves, it remains true. When we cannot talk about truth because it offends those who are powerful, we are in an unacceptable situation that can only end in immense tragedy and suffering. We would be wise to judge ourselves, so that we may not be judged. When we refuse to face judgment in any way from those of us who are fellow sinners and merciful to others on those grounds, we can only be judged from above, and that is vastly less pleasant.