was a strict disciplinarian who prescribed that his son be a physician. The father’s prescription was filled only partly, however. Although Thomas became a physician, he could not bear to see anyone in pain — and so gave up his practice.
Young Thomas then spent his time crusading against immoral activities and influences by, among other things, joining anti-vice organizations, which became a natural foundation for his lifework on the Isle of
Wight. He had concluded that modest ladies should be enabled to read Shakespeare without blushing.
In 1818 Bowdler published a diluted ten-volume edition of Shakespeare’s works «in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words are omitted that cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family». He had toned down suggestive dialogue and snipped off scenes that he thought were too explicit, insisting that only references that might «raise a blush on the cheek of modesty» had been excised.
Bowdler believed that the language of the seventeenth century was not necessarily acceptable in the nineteenth. For example, the words of Hamlet — «transform honesty from what it is to be a bawd» — were changed to «to debase honesty from what it is», and his words with Ophelia became decorous. Lady Macbeth’s poignant «Out, damn’d spot!» became «Out, crimson spot!» The speeches of some main characters — Hamlet, Macbeth, Falstaff — were dismembered beyond recognition, whereas others were so diminished that they fell into oblivion (the lascivious Doll Tearsheet, for example, who makes her appearance in Henry IV).
This expurgated version of Shakespeare’s works, The Family Shakespeare, was published in Bath in 1818 and contained 110 name in the preface and no name of an editor. A reader did not know to whom to attribute the revision. In future editions, Thomas Bowdler was listed as editor. And yet the Bowdler family and friends knew that Henrietta Maria, or Flarriet, Thomas’s sister, was the phantom author of the original volume. Why the anonymity? It has been suggested that because Harriet was a prim and proper spinster, she would not be expected to know, and would not want anyone to know, that she understood obscene words and expressions. Hence she hid her authorship.
Although Bowdler thought that the public would be pleased with his purge of Shakespearean obscenities, he was quite shocked to learn that his excisions did not receive universal acceptance. He replied to his critics: «And should I be classed with the assassins of Caesar, because I have rendered these invaluable plays for the perusal of our virtuous females?» He added, in capital letters, «IF ANY WORD OR EXPRESSION IS OF SUCH A NATURE THAT THE FIRST IMPRESSION WHICH IT EXCITES IS AN IMPRESSION OF OBSCENITY, THAT WORD OUGHT NOT TO BE SPOKEN, OR WRITTEN, OR PRINTED, AND IF PRINTED, OUGHT TO BE ERASED».
Bowdler’s eraser skipped none of Shakespeare’s works. He expurgated all of them. He then turned his purifying scalpel on Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, excising that marvelous masterpiece by removing «all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency».
For attacking the classics of literature, Bowdler has been immortalized as the world’s best-known self-appointed literary censor. His name lives in the language in many forms. The dictionary definition of bowdlerize,
a verb sprouted from his name (other growths are bowdlerism and bowdlerization), is «to radically expurgate or prudishly censor» a book by omitting words or passages regarded as indecent, which, of course, removes its vitality and «spice».