Thomas and Henrietta Maria Bowdler, and the works of William Shakespeare: Is “bowdlerizing” a four-letter phrase?


Unauthorized modifications to a textual content reside within the murkier confines of the copyright system, the place, at most, ethical rights could maintain courtroom. Our lexicon captures this mist: Characterize such alterations as “expurgation,” distortion”, or “red- penciling”, and it could elevate eyebrows. However name it “enhancing”, and furrows on one’s forehead are much less doubtless.

Inside this lexicon there’s one significantly curious synonym– “bowdlerization” (per the Cambridge Dictionary, “to take away phrases or elements from a e-book, play, or movie which can be thought-about to be unsuitable or offensive”). Whence, and why, this nineteenth century time period? The reply discloses a fascinating story, which nonetheless has the facility to instruct, the place the works of William Shakespeare met pre-Victorian sensibilities of what was appropriate, even in personal areas.

As a pure matter of etymology, “bowdlerization” derives from the household identify of Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), and his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler (1750-1830), each from a small village close to Tub, England. Their father was a banker, Thomas as educated as a physician, whereas Henrietta Maria moved in literary and associated social circles.
What introduced collectively the 2 siblings was a e-book publishing challenge, The Household Shakespeare, first revealed in 1807, with a second version revealed in 1818. Additional editions adopted.

As described in Smithsonian Journal, the aim was to provide an version of Shakespeare’s works –

‘…wherein nothing is added to the unique Textual content: however these phrases and expressions are omitted which can’t with propriety be learn allowed in a Household.’ In different phrases, The Household Shakespeare was Shakespeare with out the ‘indelicacy of expression’ the Bard usually favored.

So “bowdlerizing” was born.

The article refers to a literary scholar, Adam Kitzes, suggesting that the final reservation of the Bowdlers concerning Shakespeare’s texts was that the works suffered from an overabundance of literary “realism”. So, to the literary ramparts went the Bowdlers. Their aim was to make contents appropriate for a father to learn aloud to his household with out worry of corrupting the listeners, this in opposition to a way that licentiousness was on the rise in early nineteenth century England (right here, particularly chapter 3).

In so doing, the sought to current a textual content that preserved Shakespeare’s “beauties”, whereas eradicating the “blemishes”. The outcome are texts that resemble the unique, at the very least plot-wise, however with out materials phrases in locations, and even whole plot occasions lacking. The 1807 version addressed twenty of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven performs, whereas the second version included all thirty-seven of them.

How properly do they do? The article stories that within the first version, about 10% of the textual content was eliminated, with explicit consideration to keep away from any whiff of non secular irreverence. So–

… to keep away from blasphemy, exclamations of ‘God!’ and ‘Jesu!’ had been changed with ‘Heavens!’ or omitted altogether.
Or, Woman Macbeth’s plaintive entreat- ‘Out, rattling’d spot!’ modified to ‘Out, crimson spot!’

As for plot —

A number of the modifications had been extra drastic: the prostitute character in Henry IV, Half 2 is omitted, whereas Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet turns into unintentional drowning.

The diploma of cooperation between Thomas and Henrietta Maria in producing The Household Shakespeare stays a topic of debate. It was as soon as assumed that Thomas was the anchoring oar (regardless of he being a physician, whereas Henrietta Maria was an already revealed writer), however more moderen examination suggests that it was a collaborative effort.

Some are of the view that Henrietta Maria initiated the challenge and took the lead in producing the primary version (at the same time as her identify was omitted from the title web page). Thomas did so just for the later editions, beginning with the 1818 version. Even that will have been a smoke display screen. Thomas could have championed his authorship “to keep away from [Henrietta Maria] having to confess publicly to having understood the passages requiring removing.”

Irony was usually a key function of the literature of that interval, and nothing might have been extra ironic than the truth that the Bowdlers had been fond, very fond, of Shakespeare. In publishing the e-book, they wished to broaden the attraction of Shakespeare’s works to “weak” readers, this by sanitizing the textual content (as expressed, to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff”).

In so doing, they hoped, The Household Shakespeare would encourage Shakespeare’s performs to be learn aloud, even enabling a household to “carry out” the play of their non-public setting. Bowdlerizing the textual content was a supply of fine, not one thing to be condemned.

Right this moment, the time period “bowdlerize” bears a pejorative connotation. It might not be within the league of book-banning, however doing so nonetheless is one thing to be frowned upon (“So what do your mother and father do? They bowdlerize books.”). Or not. The Bowdler siblings had been earnest of their convictions, and so they weren’t a part of any government-sanctioned marketing campaign of censorship. In the event you selected to amass their e-book, you presumably knew what you had been getting.

Furthermore, because the article observes:

The Bowdlers, and the quite a few copycat expurgators, had been vigorously slapped down by a literary institution that was involved with the ‘genuine’ Shakespeare, who even then was seen as a novel genius. ‘Directly so exalted and but so fragile, Shakespeare’s language had taken on such a sacred standing that it was weak to even the slightest contact,’ Kitzes writes.

This commentary remembers this Kat’s dialogue a number of week in the past about the usage of a copy of an early nineteenth century portray, in a truncated kind, as a up to date e-book cowl. There, the problem was the authenticity of a murals in an age of mechanical copy. Right here, whereas authenticity can be raised concerning the literary work, mechanical copy will not be of concern.

When there is no such thing as a ethical proper varnishing on the textual content, can we converse of an “genuine” work of literature, which is exempt from any later alteration? Relying upon one’s reply, maybe the Bowdlers ought to be entitled to a bit extra sympathy.

Image on prime proper by Arun Gopi and is licensed below the Artistic Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Worldwide license.



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