Thomas Bowdler: Wikis


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Thomas Bowdler (pronounced /ˈbaʊdlər/) (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825) was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work, edited by his sister Harriet, intended to be more appropriate for Victorian era women and children than the original. He similarly published an edited version of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His edition was the subject of some criticism and ridicule and, through the eponym bowdlerise (or bowdlerize),[1] his name is now associated with censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programmes.



Bowdler was born near Bath, the son of a gentleman of independent means. He studied medicine at St. Andrews and at Edinburgh, where he took his degree in 1776, but did not practice, devoting himself instead to the cause of prison reform.

He was a strong chess player for his day, and played eight recorded games against the best chess player of the time, François-André Danican Philidor,[2] who was confident enough of his superiority to Bowdler that he played with handicaps. Bowdler won twice, lost three times, and drew three times; Philidor was usually blindfolded and playing multiple opponents simultaneously, and sometimes started without one pawn. The first recorded game to feature a double rook sacrifice was played between Bowdler (white) and H. Conway at London in 1788.[3]

In 1818, after retiring to the Isle of Wight, he published his Family Shakespeare, which had considerable success. He subsequently attempted to do the same with the works of historian Edward Gibbon, a project which was not as successful. Bowdler's edition of Gibbon's work was published posthumously in 1826.

He later settled in south Wales, where he died, and is buried at Oystermouth in Swansea. His large library, consisting of (unexpurgated) volumes collected by his ancestors Thomas Bowdler (1638–1700) and Thomas Bowdler (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Family Shakespeare

In 19th-century households, a popular family pastime was reading aloud from the Bible, the classics or major works of English literature. In Bowdler's childhood, his father had entertained his family with dramatic readings of extracts from Shakespeare. Later, Bowdler realised his father had been extemporaneously omitting or altering passages he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt it would be worthwhile to present an edition which might be used in a family whose father was not a sufficiently "circumspect and judicious reader" to accomplish this expurgation himself.[4]

In 1807, the first edition of the Family Shakespeare was published, in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 of the plays. In 1818 was published The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; 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. Each play is preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarises and justifies his changes to the text. The editions were actually edited by Bowdler's sister, Harriet. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler's name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare's racy passages.[5] By 1850, eleven editions had been printed.

Bowdler was not the first to undertake such a project, and despite being considered a negative example, his efforts made it more societally acceptable to teach Shakespeare to new audiences. The poet Algernon Swinburne said,

More nauseous and 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.

Bowdler's commitment not to augment Shakespeare's text was in contrast to many earlier editors and performers. Nahum Tate as Poet Laureate had rewritten the tragedy of King Lear with a happy ending. In 1807, Charles Lamb and his sister Mary published Tales from Shakespeare specifically for children, with synopses of 20 of the plays, but seldom quoting the original text directly.

Changes to Shakespeare

Some examples of alterations made by Bowdler's edition:

  • In Hamlet, the death of Ophelia was referred to as an accidental drowning, omitting the suggestions that she may have intended suicide.
  • In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!"
  • "God!" as an exclamation is replaced with "Heavens!"
  • In Henry IV, Part 2, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet is omitted entirely; the slightly more reputable Mistress Quickly is retained.

Popular culture

  • In the Moral Orel television program, Moralton's town library is named the Thomas Bowdler Library; most of the library's books are censored (Episode 2, "God's Greatest Gift")
  • In the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde, the Jurisfiction police who monitor the textual integrity of all books written and unwritten are constantly battling the Bowdlerisers, who attempt to erase material that they find offensive.
  • In Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1884 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".


  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume One, The Comedies, ISBN 0923891951
  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume Two, The Tragedies, ISBN 0923891986
  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume Three, The Histories, ISBN 0923891994
  • The Family Shakspeare, 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 by Thomas Bowdler in 10 volumes, Facsimile reprint of 2nd edition, revised, in 1820, Eureka Press, 2009. ISBN 9784902454161

See also


  • Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: a history of expurgated books in England and America, by Noel Perrin. David R. Godine, Boston, 1969. ISBN 0-87923-861-5.
    • note also 1992 extended edition - Nonpareil, Boston, 1992. ISBN 0-87923-861-5.
  • Lynch, Jack (2007). Becoming Shakespeare: The Strange Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard. New York: Walker & Co.


  1. ^ The "-ise" form is more common in British English and New Zealand English, whereas "-ize" is preferred in American English.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Brown, Arthur (1965). "'The Great Variety of Readers'". in Allardyce Nicoll. Shakespeare Survey (18 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 18. ISBN 0-521-52354-0.  
  5. ^ Tabak, Jessica. "Acts of Omission: Fiona Brideoake examines 19th-century censored Shakespeare", November 2, 2009

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THOMAS BOWDLER (1754-1825), editor of the "family" Shakespeare, younger son of Thomas Bowdler, a gentleman of independent fortune, was born at Ashley, near Bath, on the ath of July 1754. He studied medicine at the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh, graduating M.D. in 1776. After four years spent in foreign travel, he settled in London, where he became intimate with Mrs Montague and other learned ladies. In 1800 he left London to live in the Isle of Wight, and later on he removed to South Wales. He was an energetic philanthropist, and carried on John Howard's work in the prisons and penitentiaries. In 1818 he published The Family Shakespeare " in ten volumes, in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions c are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." Criticisms of this edition appeared in the British Critic of April 1822. Bowdler also expurgated Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published posthumously, 1826); and he issued a selection from the Old Testament for the use of children. He died at Rhyddings, near Swansea, on the 24th of February 1825.

From Bowdler's name we have the word to "bowdlerize," first known to occur in General Perronet Thompson's Letters of a Representative to his Constituents during the Session of 1836, printed in Thompson's Exercises, iv. 126. The official interpretation is "to expurgate (a book or writing) by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive." Both the word and its derivatives, however, are associated with false squeamishness. In the ridicule poured on the name of Bowdler it is worth noting that Swinburne in "Social Verse" (Studies in Prose and Poetry, 18 94, p. 98) said of him that "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," and stigmatized the talk about his expurgations as "nauseous and foolish cant."

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