July 11, 2015

It Happened on July 11th

Born, Thomas Bowdler, 1754

Title page of Bowdler's Shakespeare.
July 11, 1754 was the birth day of Thomas Bowdler, the man whose expurgated version of Shakespeare's works made the bard's work "safe" for women and children. The word bowdlerize, in fact, has come to mean just such an act of censorship or expurgation.

The first to "Bowdlerize" Shakespeare's works, however, was Thomas Bowdler's father, a country squire also named Thomas. He was in the habit of reading to his family in the evenings, and his favorite author was William Shakespeare. He must have been very familiar with the plays, and a quick thinker to boot, for he managed to omit or change the more "offensive" passages to something suitable for his wife and children as he read. Later, Thomas Bowdler decided to prepare an edition for those families not blessed with such a quick-witted father.

The first edition of The Family Shakespeare was published in 1807 and contained 24 of the plays. Each play was introduced by a commentary by Bowdler explaining where and why he had changed the text. It was a popular work in its time, and by 1850 the work had gone through 11 editions.

Some of changes made involved language, such as changing "God!" to "Heavens!", and Lady Macbeth's "Out, damned spot!" to "Out, crimson spot!" Other changes involved plotlines: Ophelia died an accidental death in Hamlet, for example, rather than as a suicide. The character of the prostitute Doll Tearsheet was deleted entirely from Henry IV, Part 2, although the (slightly) more respectable Mistress Quickly remained in the text.

It was nearly 160 years later that scholars made the discovery that it was not Thomas Bowdler after all, but his sister Henrietta (sometimes called Harriet) who had made most of the expurgations. As an unmarried lady, it would have been unthinkable for her to admit to having read -- much less understood -- Shakespeare complete with all the unseemly incidents and language. Consequently, The Family Shakespeare was published in her brother's name. Harriet also wrote a work called Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, a work that went through nearly 50 editions. Sermons was published anonymously, of course.

1819 advertisement: "My great objects in this undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare, 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 delicacy of expression, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition."
For Thomas's part, he tried to duplicate the success of Shakespeare with a similarly edited version of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This work was published posthumously, and was not as successful as the Shakespeare edition.

Thomas Bowdler had other interests beside Shakespeare. He had trained to be a doctor, although he disliked the sight of blood and never practiced. He devoted much of his time -- and his inheritance -- to the cause of prison reform. He was also an extremely good chess player. He once played eight games against Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, known as the best chess champion of the age. Bowdler won two games, lost three, and tied three. This is not quite as remarkable an achievement as you might think; it is known that Philidor played with handicaps against Bowdler. It is not known, specifically, what the handicaps were in all of the Philidor-Bowdler games, but we do know that Philidor was known to have played multiple opponents simultaneously, sometimes blindfolded, and sometimes after having spotted his opponent a pawn or a rook, or having given odds.

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