Both abridgment and bowdlerization are usually carried out by editors, often after the death of an author; they are distinct processes which are often confused. Abridgment, in itself, is not a form of censorship. Many authors consent to the publication of shortened versions of their work in formats such as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Theoretically, these abridged novels are merely shorter versions of longer works, with some descriptive and digressive passages not central to the narrative line having been weeded out, but with the larger meaning or messages of the work having been preserved.
The distinction between abridgment and bowdlerization blurs, however, with the example of texts prepared for use in schools and for juvenile audiences. The plays of William Shakespeare, probably the most abridged and bowdlerized works in existence, are often shortened for use in high schools. More often than not, it is the passages regarded as vulgar and lascivious that are omitted, those passages having been judged extraneous to the meaning of the play by the editor. Such abridgment can lead to the distortion of a work’s meaning by excessive or selective cutting.
The term bowdlerization comes from the practices of the nineteenth century British editor Thomas Bowdler, who prepared sanitized versions of the Bible and of Shakespeare’s plays for the genteel British family audience. His practices went far beyond simple abridgment, however;...
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