Censoring Shakespeare


The Family Shakespeare. In One Volume; 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. 8th ed. By Thomas Bowdler. London: Printed for Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1843.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to bowdlerize is “to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.” The word bowdlerize derives from the name Thomas Bowdler, who revised Shakespeare’s plays to modify or remove content he thought would be unsuitable for reading in a family setting. Several editions of The Family Shakespeare were published in the first half of the 19th century.

Bowdler’s preface to the first edition, published in 1807, is also included in the Special Collections edition published in 1843. In that preface he explains, “I can hardly imagine a more pleasing occupation for a winter’s evening in the country, than for a father to read one of Shakespeare’s plays to his family circle. My object is to enable him to do so without incurring the danger of falling unawares among words and expressions which are of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty, or render it necessary for the reader to pause, and examine the sequel, before he proceeds further in the entertainment of the evening.”

Here are examples of Bowdlerization:
Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio, Act II, Scene 4
Shakespeare, 2nd folio: “for the bawdy hand of the Dyall is now upon the pricke of Noone”

Bowdler, Family Shakespeare:
“for the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”
Othello: Iago, Act I, Scene I
Shakespeare, 2nd folio:
“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your Daughter and the Moore, are now making the Beast with two backs.”

Bowdler, Family Shakespeare:
“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now together.”

Special Collections holds hundreds of items by and about Shakespeare. Included in the collections are two editions of The Family Shakespeare, the one-volume 1843 edition in the Lindley Collection, and an edition in six volumes, published in 1853, in the Philbrick Collection.