Skip to main content

Not to Be! Library Blocks 'Hamlet' for Being Too Violent

This tale's lightest word might not harrow up thy soul, but Shakespeare enthusiasts still won't like it.

British writer M. H. Forsyth was working in the British Library last week when he needed to look up a line in William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." From his laptop that was connected to the British Library's free Wi-Fi, Forsyth Googled "Hamlet MIT," because he wanted to find the version of the famous play that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts on the website shakespeare.mit.edu.

However, when he tried to click the link, a message from the British Library popped up saying the site was blocked due to its violent content.

"Hamlet" is famously violent: By the play's end nearly every main character has been stabbed, drowned, poisoned, executed or some combination of the above.

When Forsyth tried to access MIT's "Hamlet" again, another message informed him that his attempts to access violent content were being logged.

MORE: How Secure is iCloud?

Forsyth — "wretched, rash, intruding fool" that he is — then took the problem to the information desk, where he was met with shrugs and redirects.

As Forsyth recounts on his blog, "'But,' I said, 'it's one of those points where you just want somebody to understand the central point. The British Library has banned Hamlet for being too violent.' And the lady behind the desk nodded and smiled."

As Hamlet would say, "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

This "foul and most unnatural" blockage was swiftly avenged: If Forsyth's in-person protests failed to move the librarians, the dramatic retelling posted to his blog seemed to do the trick.

Less than a day after Forsyth published the blog post, the British Library Reference Service responded via Twitter that the Web filter had been modified to allow MIT's Shakespeare editions. It turns out that the British Library recently switched to a new Wi-Fi service, and the Wi-Fi came bundled with a Web filter whose default settings are pretty strict.  

In other words, it appears that no one at the British Library actively chose to block access to Shakespeare. Rather, the Web filter's strict algorithm flagged the text as violent and blocked it automatically.

The British Library says it's now aware of the problem and is working to readjust the filter's settings as more users identify blocked websites.

Forsyth doesn't think the incident is a sign of something rotten in the state of the British Library, however.

"I fear that the whole thing has been taken up by those who believe that this is some Orwellian conspiracy, rather than an example of how silly Web filters are, especially in a library where researchers have to track down some rather odd things," he told us.

Email jscharr@techmedianetwork.com or follow her @JillScharr. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

·        7 Ways to Lock Down Your Online Privacy

·        The 40 Best Google Chrome Extensions 

·        Stores Tracking Shoppers Using Phone Wi-fi Signals