Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
Bowdler’s The Family Shakspeare (1818) made Bowdler famous and made his name synonymous with the practice of censoring literary texts by omitting verbal vulgarity. Modern research has found that his purification of William Shakespeare was initially a collaborative effort and that his sister Henrietta should be given primary responsibility for the 1807 abbreviated edition that was published in four volumes in the city of Bath. But it was Thomas Bowdler himself who took over the project, expanded it to encompass the full Shakespeare canon, and produced the ten-volume London version that became a nineteenth century bestseller, with thirty printings.
The principles of “bowdlerism” had their roots in the nineteenth century practice of reading literature aloud in family circles. In Henrietta Bowdler and Thomas Bowdler’s family, their father read with such delicacy and discretion that (as Thomas later wrote) “his family listened with delight to hear, Hamlet and Othello, without knowing that those matchless tragedies contained words and expressions improper to be pronounced.” It was with this childhood experience in mind that Henrietta and Thomas set out to produce an edition of Shakespeare fit for the nineteenth century reading public “in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a family.”
In practice the Bowdlers’ revisions entailed combinations of deletion and substitution exercised in passages whose sexual content they considered too strong, or in which the name of the deity was taken in vain. For example, where Hamlet says “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty!” Bowdler leaves only “Nay, but to live/ In an incestuous bed.” “God” is left intact when it occurs in prayers but is deleted from oaths, with “Heaven” as a frequent substitute. There is, however, a random quality to many of Bowdler’s choices. Among terms for prostitute, bitch and punk are removed, but harlot, baggage and quean remain. The prostitute Doll Tearsheet disappears entirely from Henry V.
Despite the diligence of the Bowdlers, some of Shakespeare’s plays resisted “bowdlerization,” a fact that Bowdler felt obliged both to explain and to apologize for. Doll Tearsheet may have been expendable, but Falstaff clearly was not. Othello posed the greatest challenge to Bowdler’s method, for Bowdler could not “erase all the bitter terms of reproach and execration . . . expressed by the Moor, without altering his character . . . and . . . destroying the Tragedy.”
Bowdler died in 1825, leaving for posthumous publication his revised edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) based on the same principles as The Family Shakspeare. That publication disappeared after failing to sell out its first printing.
“Bowdlerize” seems to have made its first appearance as a verb about ten years after Bowdler’s death, and it has remained in use to the present day.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.