The Bowdlers Wanted to Clean Up Shakespeare, Not Become a Byword for Censorship

Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler started out with relatively noble intentions

The first page of 'Measure For Measure' in the First Folio of 1623. Set in Vienna and full of less-than-proper characters, this play proved the most challenging to bowdlerize. Wikimedia Commons

They just wanted to bring Shakespeare to the masses!

Thomas Bowdler is best-remembered for being the credited author of The Family Shakespeare, a book first published in 1807 “in which nothing is added to the original Text: but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read allowed in a Family.” In other words, The Family Shakespeare was Shakespeare without the "indelicacy of expression" the Bard often favored. Bowdler's revisions to Shakespeare and infamous enough that his meddling is "celebrated" by librarians and literature fans on this day each year–the anniversary of his birth in 1754.

This project actually began with his sister, Henrietta Bowdler, writes literature scholar Adam Kitzes. In that way, as Oxford Dictionaries notes, “it was truly a family Shakespeare.” Eventually, the Bowdler name got turned into a verb denoting censorship.

It’s hard to know how much of the book–in its original printing or any of its subsequent versions–was actually written by specifically Thomas or Henrietta: the dictionary notes that Thomas Bowdler might have claimed authorship of later editions “to avoid [Henrietta] having to admit publicly to having understood the passages requiring removal.” What is true is that Henrietta Bowdler was already a published author in 1807 and had more experience in the literary world than her brother, who was a doctor by profession. 

Shakespeare is justifiably still well-known for capturing human experience from a number of vantages and in real tones. Although his language isn’t always accessible to modern audiences, he talks about universal themes, and uses characters from different walks of life. This realism was too much for the author of The Family Shakespeare, whichever Bowdlers were involved.

The result: a book that’s sort of shaped like Shakespeare, plot-wise, but which is missing key phrases and plot events. The 1807 edition, which Henrietta pioneered, only dealt with 20 of the 37 extant Shakespeare plays, Kitzes writes. The 1818 edition, which Thomas led, included all 37.

Things that were removed in the first edition included about 10 percent of the original text, the dictionary records. “...To avoid blasphemy, exclamations of ‘God!’ and ‘Jesu!’ were replaced with ‘Heavens!’ or omitted altogether,” the dictionary writes. ‘Some of the changes were more drastic: the prostitute character in Henry IV, Part 2 is omitted, while Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet becomes accidental drowning.”

In some cases, as with Othello, material that was perceived to be inappropriate was impossible to remove from the play. In those cases, Bowdler advised that the plays should either be read aloud only in parts, or be transferred “from the parlour to the cabinet, where the perusal will not only delight the poetic taste, but convey useful and important instructions to the reader.”

This advice is ironic, Kitzes writes, because The Family Shakespeare was meant to allow the playwright’s works to be read out loud. That’s because the Bowdlers actually liked Shakespeare. Thomas Bowdler, who is credited with writing the prefaces in later editions of The Family Shakespeare, voiced great fondness for the playwright's work. He just thought it was frequently inappropriate. In the case of one play which he struggled to edit satisfactorily, Measure For Measure, Thomas Bowdler wrote that “its great beauties… are closely interwoven with its numerous defects.”

The Bowdlers, and the numerous copycat expurgators, were vigorously slapped down by a literary establishment that was concerned with the “authentic” Shakespeare, who even then was seen as a unique genius. “At once so exalted and yet so fragile, Shakespeare’s language had taken on such a sacred status that it was vulnerable to even the slightest touch,” Kitzes writes.

In the end, Thomas Bowdler defended himself against critics by saying that he was simply separating the wheat from the offensive chaff and preserving what was best about Shakespeare. Although in the beginning, The Family Shakespeare was supposed to be a tool to allow Shakespeare to be performed aloud in a family setting, by the time the last edition was published in 1825, a few years before Thomas Bowdler’s death, it had become a permanent division.

In the publicly conservative Victorian period, Kitzes writes, The Family Shakespeare grew in popularity. The term “bowdlerize,” meaning, in the words of Merriam-Webster, “to expurgate (something, such as a book) by omitting of modifying parts considered vulgar,” was first used in the mid-1820s, and it has been around ever since. 

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