The Censorship of Writing and Literature Under Napoleon I

In Tim's Post on September 21, 2010 at 10:36 pm


            After the turbulent years of the French Revolution, Napoleon had risen to power with the intention of bringing in a moderate authoritarian regime. He sought to control what content was to be published and read by the people.  Napoleon devised a “system competent to curb the unbridled individualism that the Revolution had evoked.”[1]  He had a political agenda that he wanted to promote and anything written that went against his views was censored.

            An early example of censorship was made in a decree on Jan 17, 1800 which suppressed fifty political newspapers out of sixty-three in Paris.[2]  This was just the beginning of the era in which the creativity and freedom of the written arts in France would be stifled by Napoleon.  In September of 1803, Napoleon passed a decree that ordered every book that was currently for sale to be submitted to a Commission of Revision and in July of 1804 the decree allowed him to have surveillance over all books.[3] Napoleon gained full control in overseeing what books were appropriate for the people and what books he wanted to alter or ban entirely.

            The targets for Napoleon’s censorship can be grouped into a few categories of unacceptable material which are: Talk of the Old Regime (Bourbon dynasty) and Revolution, material that may challenge his authority or the churches’, the glorification of other cultures (especially England), and the subjects of Romance.[4]  Napoleon claimed that the censorship was based on stopping, “the manifestation of ideas which trouble the peace of the state, its interests and good order.”[5]  The poet Delille was on the verge of being imprisoned for his sympathetic views on the victims of the Terror during the Revolution, in his poem titled “La Pitié.”[6] Napoleon issued a ban on the Roman historian Tacitus, “due to a nervous fear that the analysis of the motives of tyrants would lead to dangerous comparison.”[7] As England was the natural enemy of France at this time, anything sympathetic to English culture was frowned upon.  In regards to Shakespeare, Napoleon was quoted as saying, “I have read him…There is nothing which compares to Corneille, or to Racine. There is no way of reading one of his plays, they make one sorry for him.”[8] During the time when Romantic literature was becoming popular the Napoleonic government dismissed it as immoral, which made life for the important writers Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël difficult.[9]

            During the reign of Napoleon writers struggled for freedom, while literature was banned and censored based on somewhat trivial claims.  Madame de Staël was forced into exile by Napoleon in 1803, 1806, and 1810 for her written works.  She commented on the situation by saying that France became, “a garrison where military discipline and boredom rule.”[10] This is what had become of Paris during this period of censorship.  The right to free speech and press was overlooked, while Napoleons political, as well as moral views stood in the way.


Coffin, Victor. “Censorship and Literature Under Napoleon I.” The American Historical Review Vol. 22, no. 2 (1917): 288-308

Holland Rose, J.. “The Censorship under Napoleon I.” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, New Series Vol 18, no. 1 (1918): 58-65.

Horne, Alistair. The Age of Napoleon. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2006.


[1] Coffin, 288

[2] Rose, 60

[3] Rose, 62

[4] This is not to say that these were the only categories but a large bulk of the censored material fits into these groupings.

[5] Rose, 62

[6] Rose, 62

[7] Rose, 63

[8] Horne, 127

[9] Coffin, 303

[10] Horne, 136

  1. I’ve heard the quote from Napoleon disparaging Shakespeare before, but for some reason I find it particularly interesting in the context of your article. The inclusion of this quote does not, however, really aid your argument. Napoleon as a drama critic must remain distinct from Napoleon the despotic censor (though, no doubt, the two find some relation in Napoleon the emperor). Indeed, Horne (2006) does not follow up Napoleon’s scoff at Shakespeare by stating that all of Shakespeare’s works were censored by the French government. He merely notes that Geoffroy also criticized Macbeth and that Hamlet continued to play, though it was “extensively mutilated” (127). Corneille, one of the authors Napoleon compares favorably to Shakespeare, also had some of his work censored despite his place as Napoleon’s favorite poet (128). Thus Napoleon’s critical attitudes do not seem to be directly linked to his censorship.
    One could still wonder why Napoleon was so hostile to Shakespeare. Is it merely because he was English and the political situations of the moment pitted France and England against one another? If so, why not ban all of his works? Or more interesting from my point of view, what was lost in translation? Were they performed and published in English or French? If the former, was the English as difficult for the contemporary Frenchmen to grasp as it can be for the modern English speaker? Finally, what did Napoleon make of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (in which the emperor is killed in the penultimate act)?
    I welcome your response and the your insights.

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