Tuesday 11 July 2023


 Born on this day in 1754 was one of those rare men whose name has survived as a verb (and, by extension, noun and adjective) – Thomas Bowdler, whose cleaned-up edition of Shakespeare was the original 'bowdlerised' text. His work, The Family Shakespeare: in which nothing is added to the original Text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family, was first published in 1807, with a more complete edition following in 1818. The first edition was apparently the work of Bowdler's sister Harriet, but both editions were presented as the work of Thomas alone, presumably because it would have been unseemly for a lady to have immersed herself so studiously in Shakespeare's bawdy. The Family Shakespeare was a great commercial success, running into eleven editions by 1850. 
  Bowdler has long been a byword for Victorian prudery (overlooking the fact that his Shakespeare was first published long before Victoria's reign, and Bowdler himself was 12 years dead when she ascended the throne). In fact the damage he did to Shakespeare's text was slight compared to earlier editors such as Nahum Tate, who took it upon himself to give King Lear a happy ending, and The Family Shakespeare was certainly useful at a time when the plays were commonly read aloud in the family circle – hence the public appetite for it.  One man who vigorously defended Bowdler was the famously degenerate Algernon Charles Swinburne: 
'More nauseous and more foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. 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.' He had a point. 


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, I wonder how he handled Falstaff... I know he expunged Doll Tearsheet altogether, but kept Mistress Quickly.

  2. I wonder what the Bowdlerized version of Titus Andronicus is like. It must be about 5 pages long.

    1. I wonder... I do know he cut the line 'Villain, I have done your mother'. There must have been many more.