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The Man Who Re-wrote 'Offensive' Shakespeare

In 1807 Thomas Bowdler published his first edition of “The Family Shakspeare”. The book contained 24 versions of Shakespeare's plays, all with words, expressions and sometimes even plots changed to be more “family-friendly.” He explained that nothing had been added to the original text, but he had omitted words and expressions “which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family.” In the preface to his work, Bowdler wrote: “My great objects are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value, and at the same time to present to the public an edition of his plays which the parent, the guardian and the instructor of youth may place without fear in the hands of his pupils, and from which the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure: may improve his moral principles, while he refines his taste: and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression. “The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions are of so indecent Nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy.

“But neither the vicious taste of the age nor the most brilliant effusions of wit can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these can be obliterated the transcendent genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre.” Thus, in Hamlet, the death of Ophelia was no longer a suicide, but referred to as an accidental drowning. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s famous line, “Out, damned spot!” read instead, “Out, crimson spot!” In all plays “God!” as an exclamation was replaced with “Heavens!“ In Henry IV Part 2 Doll Tearsheet (a prostitute) was omitted from the story entirely. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”. Bowdler was working in a prudish age and his volumes sold in impressive numbers. By 1850, eleven editions of The Family Shakspeare had been published. He lived on the Welsh coast at Swansea where he died, aged 70. His work brought a new word to the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bowdlerise” means to remove the parts of a book, play, etc. thought likely to shock or offend.


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