Bowdler Publishes

Representing a heightened British delicacy regarding sexual morality that came to be known as “Victorian,” the English physician Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated version of William Shakespeare’s works that removed what he deemed “vulgar parts.” His attempt to sanitize literature for middle-class readers gave birth to the term for all such attempts, “bowdlerization.”

Summary of Event

Along with Charles C. Boycott Boycott, Charles Cunningham and the earl of Sandwich, Thomas Bowdler is responsible for one of the most recognized eponyms in the English language, “to bowdlerize.” “Bowdlerize”[Bowdlerize] He certainly did not assume that his name would come to denote an obsessively prudish act of censorship. However, after his death his edition of the works of William Shakespeare, expunged of what Bowdler deemed objectionable content, became one of the most notable examples of rewriting an author to suit an audience. It was used as an illustration of the moral priggishness later suggested by pejorative uses of the term “Victorian.” Family Shakespeare, The (Bowdler)
Theater;and censorship[Censorship]
Bowdler, Thomas
Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;censorship of
Censorship;and William Shakespeare[Shakespeare]
[kw]Bowdler Publishes The Family Shakespeare (1807)
[kw]Publishes The Family Shakespeare, Bowdler (1807)
[kw]Family Shakespeare, Bowdler Publishes The (1807)
[kw]Shakespeare, Bowdler Publishes The Family (1807)
Family Shakespeare, The (Bowdler)
Theater;and censorship[Censorship]
Bowdler, Thomas
Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;censorship of
Censorship;and William Shakespeare[Shakespeare]
[g]Great Britain;1807: Bowdler Publishes The Family Shakespeare[0330]
[c]Literature;1807: Bowdler Publishes The Family Shakespeare[0330]
Bowdler, Henrietta Maria

The first edition of 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, containing twenty plays, appeared anonymously in 1807, hiding the fact that it was largely the work of Henrietta Maria Bowdler, Thomas’s sister. In 1818, Thomas, presumably wishing to protect his sister’s reputation from those who would judge her for having worked so intimately with such “offensive” passages, published the work in ten volumes under his own name. The 1818 edition included all of Shakespeare’s plays, although the language of Othello, the Moor of Venice
Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) (pr. 1604, rev. 1623) forced Bowdler to “advise the transferring it from the parlour to the cabinet.”

Thomas Bowdler generally continued Henrietta’s omission of sexually suspicious words or passages. Romeo’s statement about Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1595-1596) that she would not “ope her lap to saint-seducing gold” was stricken, while Iago’s notorious reference to Othello and Desdemona making the “beast with two backs” became “your daughter and the Moor are now together.” Profanities such as “’Sblood” for “by God’s blood” were cut. Bowdler restored some scenes that Henrietta Bowdler, Henrietta Maria had deemed irrelevant to several plots, but Doll Tearsheet disappeared entirely from Henry IV, Part II (pr. 1598), along with most of the Porter’s scene in Macbeth
Macbeth (Shakespeare) (pr. 1606) and all of Katherine’s bawdy English lesson in act 3 of Henry V
Henry V (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1598-1599).

In the Bowdlers’ editions, Henry IV called Owen Glendower “vile Glendower” rather than “damned Glendower,” Falstaff’s “belly” became his “body,” and in Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure (Shakespeare) (pr. 1604) Lucio’s “He hath got his friend with child” was changed to “His friend’s with child by him.” This particular play demanded a separate preface, in which Bowdler announced that

the indecent expressions with which many of the scenes abound are so interwoven with the story, that it is extremely difficult to separate one from the other. I trust, however, that I have succeeded in doing it. . . .

In all, Bowdler removed more than 10 percent of the text of Shakespeare’s plays; Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601) and Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) each received more than one hundred alterations.

The earliest edition of The Family Shakespeare was published at a time when Romantic poets such as Lord Byron Byron, Lord and Percy Bysshe Shelley Shelley, Percy Bysshe were challenging conventional moral and political attitudes, almost thirty years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. However, rather than influence intellectuals, Bowdler sought to shield the sensibilities of Shakespeare’s middle-class readers. The work’s subtitle announced this ethical goal. Bowdler contributed to the popular desire for “improved” literature and continued an older tendency to revise Shakespeare to suit prevailing tastes. He later published bowdlerized versions of the Old Testament and of Edward Gibbon’s Gibbon, Edward
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The (Gibbon) (1776-1788).

Altered versions of Shakespeare had already appeared in the late seventeenth century. For example, William Davenant and John Dryden revised The Tempest
Tempest, The (Shakespeare) (pr. 1611) in 1667, Davenant adapted Macbeth
Macbeth (Shakespeare) in 1674, and Nahum Tate’s revised King Lear
King Lear (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1605-1606), in which Cordelia survives to marry Edgar, appeared in 1687 (and became the only stage version of that play for well more than a century). These alterations were made largely for aesthetic, not moral or religious, reasons; it was thought that Shakespeare’s “untutored” genius needed refining to please the neoclassical preferences of Enlightenment audiences.

This desire for a more “beautified” Shakespeare was influenced by the eighteenth century emphasis on “sensibility.” Persons of delicate taste, especially young women, were believed to be too sensitive to experience whatever was deemed violent, gross, or obscene. No moral person would wish to be offended even by the printed page; therefore, editions designed to protect tender sensibilities became popular, especially anthologies of inoffensive passages such as Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts (1784), William Dodd’s Beauties of Shakespeare (1752), and Elizabeth Griffiths’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama (1775). As Bowdler himself asserted, in capitals, in 1823:


A third factor in Bowdler’s success was the influence of evangelical Christianity, Christianity;and censorship[Censorship]
Censorship;and Christianity[Christianity] especially in regard to the proper upbringing of children. In 1806, for example, a Methodist Methodists;and William Shakespeare[Shakespeare] minister had announced that Shakespeare’s work was filled with “Barefaced obscenities, low vulgarity, and nauseous vice.” In 1841, the Protestant author Charlotte Elizabeth Browne Tonna Tonna, Charlotte Elizabeth Browne recalled happening upon The Merchant of Venice
Merchant of Venice, The (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1596-1597) at the age of seven and tasting the “pernicious sweets” of “this ensnaring book!” Evangelical readers thus welcomed Bowdler’s work as a guard against the corruption of the young. Said one approving reviewer, “It is scarcely possibly for a young person of fervid genius to read Shakespeare without a dangerous elevation of fancy.” In 1821, Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review
Edinburgh Review praised Bowdler’s cutting of offending passages, noting that “those who recollect such scenes must all rejoice that Mr. Bowdler has provided a security against their recurrence.” This concern for the moral protection of youth had also helped popularize Charles and Mary Lamb’s Lamb, Charles and Mary famous 1807 volume Tales from Shakespeare: Designed for the Use of Young Persons.

Not everyone was pleased with Bowdler’s work. In 1818, the Monthly Review
Monthly Review lamented that Bowdler had “omitted many phrases as containing indelicacies which we cannot see, and of the guilt of which our bard, we think, is entirely innocent.” In April, 1822, the British Critic
British Critic (magazine) summarized the damage done to Shakespeare by the Bowdlers: “Emendations, curtailments, corrections (all for his own good) have been multiplied to infinity. . . . They have purged and castrated him, and tattooed and beplaistered him, and cauterized and phlebotomized him.”

The verb “bowdlerize” “Bowdlerize”[Bowdlerize] first appeared as a derogatory term in 1836 and came to describe all forms of literary emasculation. Nevertheless, between 1829 and 1899, seventy editions of The Family Shakespeare appeared, and Bowdler’s influence spread to imitators. The first American expurgation of Shakespeare was published in 1849, and more than forty different expurgated versions of Shakespeare were available in England by 1894. In the preface to Sylvie and Bruno (1889), Lewis Carroll Carroll, Lewis even observed that Bowdler had not gone far enough: “neither Bowdler’s, Chambers’s, Brandram’s, nor Cundell’s ’Boudoir’ Shakespeare, seems to me to meet the want: they are not sufficiently ’expurgated.’” Shortly thereafter, in an 1894 essay titled “Social Verse,” the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne Swinburne, Algernon Charles neatly summarized the Victorians’ approval of Bowdler’s work:

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 more service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.


For Bowdler’s defenders, then and now, his censorship of Shakespeare was mitigated by the resulting wider readership for the dramatist, especially among youth who might not otherwise have come to know him in print. It is also true that, compared to some other contemporary expurgators, Bowdler was more lenient; for example, John Philip Kemble’s Kemble, John Philip acting version of Othello
Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) excised more than one-third of the play. Bowdler also never altered the plot or the characterization of the plays, as the Reverend James Plumptre’s Plumptre , James
The English Drama Purified (1812) had done. If the Shakespeare that Bowdler produced was an emasculated and benign dramatist whose main purpose was to avoid offending women and children, epitomize English creativity, and arouse patriotic literary pride, he was nevertheless, according to Marvin Rosenberg, “the most nearly authentic Shakespeare virtuous females were then likely to hear.”

Further Reading

  • Dobson, Michael. “Bowdler and Britannia: Shakespeare and the National Libido.” In Shakespeare and Race, edited by Catherine M. S. Alexander and S. Wells. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Contends that Bowdler’s edition promoted the dramatist as a model of both national pride and sexual propriety.
  • Franklin, Colin. “The Bowdlers and Their Family Shakespeare.” The Book Collector 49 (2000): 227-243. Summarizes Bowdler’s social context and his edition. Defends his efforts to popularize Shakespeare while guarding young readers from his bawdiness.
  • Perrin, Noel. Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America. 3d ed. Boston: David R. Godine, 1991. A popularly written and well-documented account of Bowdler’s work and influence.
  • Price, Leah. “The Poetics of Pedantry from Thomas Bowdler to Susan Ferrier.” Women’s Writing 7 (2000): 75-88. Argues that the novels of Susan Ferrier (1782-1854), which are composed largely of extracts and quotes from famous authors, follow Bowdler’s practice of altering texts for reading aloud in polite, mixed company.
  • Rosenberg, Marvin. “Reputation, Oft Lost Without Deserving. . . .” Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (Autumn, 1958): 499-506. Summarizes Bowdler’s work and defends him by comparing him to more stringent expurgators of his time and earlier.

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[p]Shakespeare, William;censorship of
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