All hail Thomas Bowdler, the man responsible for the transitive verb “bowdlerize.” Born on July 11th, 1754, he would have been 255 years old today.
Son of a British gentleman of independent means, Bowdler took a degree in medicine but did not practice, devoting himself instead to the cause of prison reform.
At some point, recalling that his father had entertained the family with dramatic readings from Shakespeare and realizing that Dad had omitted or altered passages he felt unsuitable, Bowdler set out to create an edition for fathers not sufficiently "circumspect and judicious” enough to censor, on their own, the “dirty” and otherwise unpleasant bits destined to corrupt or offend. That the Bard would be compromised in the process was -- need it be said? -- a small price to pay.
A few examples:
* In Hamlet, Ophelia’s death was called an accidental drowning, omitting suggestions that she may have been a suicide.
* Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!"
* The exclamation "God!" was replaced with "Heavens!"
* In a Stalinesque purge, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Henry IV, Part 2) was erased entirely from literary history.
The first edition of The Family Shakespeare appeared in 1807. [Bowdler wasn’t the first who felt the need to “improve” on Shakespeare. Nahum Tate, England’s Poet Laureate in 1692, rewrote King Lear with a happy ending.]
Flushed with his success, Bowdler attempted a second ambitious project, doing battle against Gibbon’s The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Alas, the bowdlerized Gibbon (published posthumously in 1826) was not well received. Still, he didn’t spend all of his time “revising” literature and history in the name of virtue. A gifted chess player, he managed to hold his own against François-André Danican Philidor, a cocky master of the game who played blindfolded against multiple opponents simultaneously, sometimes starting minus one pawn.
Bowdler’s large, personal library -- unexpurgated volumes collected by his ancestors Thomas (1638–1700) and Thomas (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter.
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By 1850, The Family Shakespeare had gone through eleven editions and Bowdler’s name had entered the lexicon, joining the ranks of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, Jules Leotard, Etienne de Silhouette and other eponymous icons.
In Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Princess Ida, Lady Psyche suggests that students at a women's university who wish to study the classics should get their editions "Bowdlerised".
Not everyone appreciated the satire.
“More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler,” railed poet Algernon Swinburne. “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."
Swinburne was an interesting choice of advocate for Victorian morality. Though he himself may have been rescued from corruption by Bowdler’s labors, Swinburne -- an intelligent and imaginative child -- was not spared the more insidious corruption of British public schools. Repeated canings at the hands of his headmasters, one of whom reputedly first splashed the boy’s face with cologne, inspired a lifelong obsession with flagellation and sadomasochism.
Causes Barbara Szerlip Supports