I know I promised censorship, and I’m getting there, but I’m going to do it in a bit of a roundabout way … and we are going to start with famous historical censorship. 

So, when I think of the early nineteenth century, I think of Jane Austen and get all swoony about the life and times of one of my very favorite novelists ever. But the nineteenth century was known for more than empire waists and Lizzie Bennet turning down proposals. It was also the time of an English physician named Thomas Bowdler. In fact, what he got up to was so notable that his name has become a verb: to bowdlerize. And the initial act of bowdlerization was to edit all the dirty bits out of the complete works of Shakespeare. Yep, he wanted to make it possible for the plays to be appropriate “for sharing in front of children and virtuous females.” I’m sure Austen could have found suitable dialog for Mary Bennet in favor of such a thing. Fordyce’s sermons AND BOWDLER.

Thomas and his sister, Harriet, both took a stab at editing Shakespeare’s work. The 1808 first edition of “The Family Shakespeare” is Harriet’s work and she not only edited passages she deemed objectionable, but also eliminated passages she decided weren’t particularly interesting. She did this with twenty of the plays. Thomas took the helm with the second edition, changed the name to “The Family Shakspeare,” re-inserted the censored passages, added sixteen additional plays, and focused exclusively on rewording those speeches which he deemed inappropriate for the aforementioned children and virtuous females. He did struggle with some plays in which sexual content is pretty baked into the plot. Getting rid of Mercutio’s innuendo is one thing, but sanitizing Measure for Measure proved more difficult. The second edition was published in 1818, and the verb bowdlerize was in usage by the 1820s. The negative connotations of the word are not in evidence until the twentieth century. 

As is so often the case when folks begin censoring, things did get out of hand. Bowdler tapped into a market, and a proliferation of bowdlerized editions ensued. Everyone has an opinion about what is and isn’t offensive, so when you market something as squeaky clean, there will always be people who will not find it squeaky clean enough. You can find references to Bowdler’s “The Family Shakspeare” having removed the line “out damn’d spot” from Macbeth if you poke around online to research Bowdler … but he did not, in fact, actually edit that phrase. He left it intact. I got my hands on a physical copy and checked. A subsequent pair of Bowdlerizers, even more heck bent on protecting the sensibilities of children and virtuous females, Americans, Thomas and Stephen Bullfinch, did actually alter that line to read “out, crimson spot” from their 1865 edition of Shakespeare, which was an edition “adapted for reading classes, and for the family circle.” 

Of course, we don’t think of Shakespeare as needing to be edited in order for children and women to enjoy it with their virtue intact these days … it’s a classic, after all. We seem to have a sense that once a book has become a classic (at least those classics that are a part of the Western Canon and old enough to be part of the public domain in their original language … with an asterisk next to Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly challenged for extensive use of the n-word), then engaging with the content, no matter how challenging, is somehow seen differently. Possibly this is because modern readers lack the ability to understand just how ribald some of Shakespeare is. While I imagine that teachers are still as cautious as they were when I was in school about exactly which Canterbury Tales they assign because some are definitely quite bawdy, students do regularly read Oedipus Rex (I think I was assigned it something like four times through middle school and into college) and generally speaking the plot summary is always something like “dude kills his dad and marries his mother” … so how we decide what is and is not appropriate is definitely a moving target, since there is not a doubt in my mind that if someone tried to do an Oedipus retelling and publish it under a young adult imprint it would hit a “most challenged” list. 

I’ve gotten a bit off track here. My main point is: “bowdlerize” as a word is not one that has positive connotations. It is not something we should aspire to do. And yet, isn’t that what this movement across the country towards removing materials from library shelves is? … and that’s where we will be going next. 

RECORD SCRATCH: and to make this more fun, there’s a news story right now that brings the issues of Bowdler to the present day. So, maybe, next time, we’ll even play around with the current Roald Dahl news

In the meantime, in honor of the semi-Shakespearean theme, check out some of these books that retell Shakespeare.