illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Protecting Women and Youth

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The year 1774 was a landmark in the history of Shakespeare bowdlerization. A drama critic, Francis Gentleman, edited complete plays for the publisher Bell. Bell’s Shakespeare aimed to make the plays “more instructive and intelligible, especially to the ladies and to youth.” Gentleman objected to such “vulgarisms” as Macbeth’s insult to his servant and Cleopatra’s threat to her maid to give her “bloody teeth.” This, Gentleman says, would be unworthy of a person “in a middling station,” let alone of a “royal character.” Bell’s edition is curiously inconsistent, however. It omits some “glaring indecencies” altogether, but Bell’s Othello has minor indecencies in italics, as a sign for ladies and youth to skip over them. Sometimes, he simply rebuked the objectionable lines in footnotes.

The most famous of all expurgated books, Dr. Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakspeare, appeared in 1807. The edition was intended to remove “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” Its success inspired a number of other expurgations, such as the Reverend J. Pitman’s School-Shakspere (1822). Pitman aimed to provide a more rigorous expurgation than Bowdler’s. In most cases he succeeded, cutting the drunken Porter’s speech in Macbeth from twenty lines to three, as compared with Bowdler’s six. He did not stop short of eliminating entire characters, such as Touchstone and Audrey in As You Like It.

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Achievement and Influence


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