Hamlet's death, via Will Hart/Flickr.
A man in the British Library was trying to reference Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when he was thwarted by the filter on the library’s WiFi. The BBC reported that the filter blocked the play because it has “violent content,” which can’t really be denied, even if the British Library apologized and went on to fix the problem.
Hamlet has a straight-up body count. There’s a murder before the play even begins; there’s a suicide; there are poisonings and stabbings and a poisonous stabbing. But that's nothing. Frailty, thy name is WiFi, I say. Even in the strictest, fustiest canon of literature, Hamlet's level of violence doesn't even rank.
This is a—by no means exhaustive—list of literature that's way more violent than Hamlet and that the British Library’s WiFi could have a semi-legitimate problem with. First, a caveat: when you turn over the concept of “more violent” in your mind, there are two ways to take it, which can clumsily be termed as “quality” and “quantity.”
Quality in this context refers to the viscerally upsetting nature of the violence–Better block Toni Morrison’s Beloved, since there is the systemic violence of slavery plus one gruesome, really viscerally upsetting death. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment has two really bloody murders–axe murders even–plus a suicide and quite a few fever dreams. I guess there’s no rule against fever dreams, but one of them has some statutory rape-y stuff going on.
Quantity is a bit more amorphous since each grand epic about war is going to be fighting for that top spot. All Quiet on the Western Front has World War I, but then so does Dr. Zhivago, which has scenes on the Eastern Front, and then the Russian Revolution and then the following Russian Civil War. The American Civil War had more casualties than Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but it’s hard to think of Gone With the Wind as more violent than War and Peace.
Just in Shakespeare alone:
King Lear has more death, with a body count of 10, eye-gouging and even some nudity. The British Library’s rationale for having a filter on their WiFi at all was that it “wanted to protect children visiting the building from content ‘such as pornography and gambling websites.’” King Lear is basically all about screwing over your parents when they’re old and infirm, which I’m sure most parents don’t want their kids to catch onto in these, their formative years.
But even bloodier than King Lear is:
Illustration of Act III, scene II from Titus Andronicus, via
Titus Andronicus, which has a higher body count (14) than either Hamlet or King Lear and much grizzlier deaths—like tongues getting cut out, hands getting chopped off and sons get baked into pies and fed to their mother. Even a clown gets executed.
Catch 22- A really high number of named characters die, to say nothing of the fact that the story revolves around a bomber squadron. The “named-character body count” tops Hamlet even if you don’t count Doc Daneeka who was mistakenly declared dead and the soldier in white at the beginning of the book, who may not actually be a person. You've got Kraft, Snowden, Nately, Giuseppe, Lieutenent Mudd, Kid Sampson, McWatt, Sammy Singer, Chief White Halfoat.
And those are just the people dropping the bombs. Kid Sampson and Snowden meet especially graphic ends, and underneath all of this, the book is, I promise, incredibly funny.
Lot fleeing Sodom. His wife is standing there, because she turned into a pillar of salt, via.
The Bible- Holy moly. Two books into the 66-book Bible, it’s already a blood bath. The main character, God, deserves a lot of credit for flooding the Earth pretty early on, wiping out the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, killing all the firstborn sons in Egypt during the Passover and striking down guys who spill their seed upon the ground. But the people in the Bible aren’t much better.
For instance, one of the patriarchs of the Israelites, Jacob, has a daughter who is raped by the son of the leader of a nearby tribe, the Canaanites. Feeling sheepish and perhaps a bit smitten, respectively, the leader of the Canaanites and his rapist son ask to marry Jacob’s daughter, but Jacob’s sons insist that the Canaanites all have to be circumcised before anyone gets married. So all the Canaanite men do it! That’s a lot of bloodshed right there, but it gets worse. While the Cannanite men are all lying around in pain, Jacob’s sons show up, slay them all and take all the Canaanite women, including their sister, and all the Canaanites’ stuff! This in the first book of the Bible.
On the Origin of Species—Fiction and religion, bloody as they are, have nothing on the natural world. The original title of Charles Darwin’s seminal work was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. I don’t need to explain how natural selection works via a lot of death and failure to pass on genes. It’s “survival of the fittest,” so not even being “fit” is sufficient.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy- At least the fittest survive in Darwin’s book. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth itself is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. That’s all of Earth’s fittest (and the rest of us), gone in a poof. Plus there’s the end of the universe in there and that’s of course the highest possible body count, right?
Our Bodies Our Selves—This has nothing to do with the “bloodshed” that this book deals with—which has more to do with life than violence–but it’s inclusion is sort of conceptual one, so follow me on this. If our selves are coterminous with our bodies and our bodies are mortal—and they are!—then the title of this book is assurance that we will all die–selfhood is mortal, bound to decomposing in the ground too! And that first person plural pronoun is basically the same sentiment as reminding someone that "the bell tolls for them," but more directly than through allusion. Gotta filter that too.
But the topper has got to be:
The Iliad. Thankfully Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College has done the lion’s share of the work here and has compiled all the deaths of named characters killed in the course of the Iliad. He doesn’t even count all the people that Homer mentions were killed in the past.
The list is organized by killer, with descriptions when possible. It’s an insanely long list with a lot of variety: “Idomeneus kills Erymas, spear in the mouth,” “Patroclus kills Erylaus, rock on the head” and on and on. This is just the deaths of named characters, to say nothing of the corpse desecration and unnamed masses who were getting spears to the guts.
Anyway, pretty much everything worth reading should be blocked by the British Library.
The lines between what’s appropriate and inappropriate are, of course, impossible to define. Even the Supreme Court—whose job revolves around demarcating things and making rules–can’t figure it out. In Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart shied away from defining “hard-core pornography,” and instead left the matter with a famous “I know it when I see it.”
Computerized Wifi signals aren’t making judgment calls just yet, which, if anything, points to the complex web of underlying criteria that keeps Ulysses on shelves and anonymous volumes of erotica under the counter. There’s no line you can draw that won’t exclude a widely accepted classic. Literature has a purpose beyond just titillation, you say? Tell that to the Decameron. This conversation can only ever meander until it crashes into some concept that simply begs the question, like “artistic merit.”
Decameron via Wikimedia Commons
The line is just wherever the cultural mores happen to have come down that decade. On American TV, we love violence and fear sex. On Canadian TV, it’s all sex and no violence. In the British Library, the goal was to protect the children from “pornography and gambling websites,” and they ended up banning Hamlet for being violent.