What did Bowdler bowdlerize?
Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was a doctor, chess player, and devotee of prison reform – but his legacy lies in his editing of Shakespeare. Bowdlerize (or bowdlerise) means ‘remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective’.
Effectively, it refers to censorship. Other terms for this practice include expurgate (from the Latin ex-, ‘out’ + purgare, ‘cleanse’), sanitize (ultimately from the Latin sanus, ‘healthy’), and blue-pencil (because of the colour pencil traditionally used in editing). Of these, sanitize is used derogatorily, though the other two need not be.
Bowdler and Shakespeare
Bowdlerize owes its existence to Thomas Bowdler. This came about because of Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakspeare (retitled The Family Shakespeare in subsequent editions, following the differing trends for spelling the playwright’s name). This was published in 1818, in 10 volumes; an advertisement quoting the preface declared Bowdler’s intention:
‘My great objects in this undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakspeare, 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 the pupil; 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, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition.’
Bowdler wasn’t alone in this endeavour. His sister Henrietta (known as Harriet) collaborated with him on the text; it was truly a family Shakespeare. She is even believed to have completed an earlier version on her own. This first edition was published in four volumes in 1807, covering 20 of Shakespeare’s plays – but without Bowdler’s name in evidence; it thus did not contribute to the popularization of bowdlerize as a term. Thomas Bowdler’s later claim to authorship of the 1807 work was perhaps done in order to avoid Harriet having to admit publicly to having understood the passages requiring removal.
What did Bowdler cut?
About 10% of the original text was excised in the first edition. Some of the amendments addressed language use. For instance, to avoid blasphemy, exclamations of ‘God!’ and ‘Jesu!’ were replaced with ‘Heavens!’ or omitted altogether. Some of the changes were more drastic: the prostitute character in Henry IV, Part 2 is omitted, while Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet becomes accidental drowning.
In the 1818 edition (which included all 36 plays), Bowdler restored some of the passages which had been cut in the 1807 edition, but also expurgated others that had previously been intact. Measure for Measure and Othello he considered beyond the pale, and printed them with a warning that they were ‘unfortunately little suited to family reading’.
By the end of the century, there were fifty other expurgated editions of Shakespeare available from other editors. In some ways, Bowdler was quite unusual in his commitment not to add to Shakespeare’s text. Throughout the previous century, many had seen Shakespeare’s strength in plots rather than language, and heavily adapted, augmented, and amalgamated his works. Examples include Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, Beatrice and Benedick transferred from Much Ado About Nothing into Measure for Measure, and a version of The Tempest where the noted speech ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ opens with ‘Thy Daddy’s dead, thy Daddy’s dead’.
Shakespeare wasn’t the only author to receive Bowdler’s treatment; he also prepared a bowdlerized version of the works of the historian Edward Gibbon, though this wasn’t published until after Bowdler’s death.
How old is the word ‘bowdlerize’?
The first use of bowdlerize in the current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry comes from an 1836 essay by the politician Thomas Perronet Thompson, later published in his 1842 Exercises, political and others:
For among the names preserved in the writings of the apostles, are many, like Hermes, Nereus, Olympas, Silvanus, and perhaps Phebe our sister, which modern ultra-christians would have thought formidably heathenish; while Epaphroditus and Narcissus they would probably have Bowdlerized.
This discussion takes place in the context of determining whether or not early Christians gave new names to those being baptized; he is suggesting that the names would have been cut from the Bible by those pursuing a certain ideology. Even the earliest known use, then, appears to be criticizing the practice, rather than neutrally describing it.
In this instance, the name Bowdler is given in italics, and the –ized suffix is added in roman type (that is, non-italicized). It is fairly common, when an eponymous term is first gaining currency, for the new term to be typographically acknowledged as some form of debutante. Today it is usually done with scare quotes. In the case of bowdlerize, its earliest appearances retained the capital B of Bowdler’s name, though the word is now naturalized sufficiently to have bowdlerize (rather than Bowdlerize) as the entry in our dictionary of current English.