February 24, 2021


Today is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Bowdler, placed among the ranks of hysterical censors, do-gooders, and fussbudgets (see Comstockery) when all he really wanted was to give his children a little more Bard with a little less bawd.

v. to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate
Oxford English Dictionary
Thomas Bowdler was born in 1754 with a sterling pedigree. His great-grandfather founded the library at Trinity College in Dublin, his grandfather served with Samuel Pepys in the Admiralty, and his father married a wealthy baroness, ensuring the family’s financial comfort. When Bowdler was a child, his father gave family readings from the works of Shakespeare, though secretly omitting passages he felt were indelicate for fairer and younger ears. Bowdler was convinced that other parents might also like to share the Bard’s work with their families but lacked the improvisational talents of his father. So after retiring from a career in medicine, and with the help of his sister, Henrietta, Bowdler set out to sanitize Shakespeare for a delicate populace.

In 1807, Thomas and Henrietta published the first four volumes of the wholesome Family Shakespeare, containing twenty-four of the playwright’s works. Bowdler would complete the entire catalogue by 1818. It is only fair to note here that, unlike a number of other editors at the time with their vanity projects, Bowdler added nothing to the text. However, the title page clearly announced that “those expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family,” in addition to “whatever is unfit to be read by a gentleman in a company of ladies.”

Bowdler was a devoted reader of Shakespeare but unapologetically wrote that “many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.” Therefore, gone from Romeo and Juliet went its pricks and spreading curtains, while Othello lost its reference to the “old black ram . . . tupping your white ewe.” Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth’s “damned” spot turned “crimson,” and poor Ophelia’s watery suicide in Hamlet became an accidental drowning. Though reviled by critics for its literary castrations, Family Shakespeare was a fantastic success and reprinted many times over.

Unfortunately for Bowdler, subsequent revisions to other works proved less successful. He died just a few years later, in 1825, and within a decade, his name was being used pejoratively to represent any prudish editing. However, despite the negative connotations with his name, he is not universally castigated. Nineteenth-century poet and Shakespeare scholar Algernon Charles Swinburne famously asserted that “No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.” Further, many others were eager to come forth and expand his work. Even the venerable Lewis Carroll allegedly had designs for his own expurgation and said, “I have a dream of Bowdlerising Bowdler” and producing a volume of Shakespeare specifically fit for young girls.

Carroll’s book was never published, Bowdler was henceforth associated with hypersensitive pruning, and, thanks to modern acceptance of literary integrity, children today can still appreciate Desdemona and Othello “making the beast with two backs.”