Thomas Bowdler Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 487 words.)