Saturday 7 May 2016

48 Dr Thomas Bowdler, the censor of Shakespeare

48 Dr Thomas Bowdler (photos: Shakespeare, Bowdler’s grave, advert, cover pages) - 7 May 2016
Those who enjoy playing the board game Scrabble or watching the words-and-numbers game show “Countdown” on television may know of the verb “to bowdlerize”.  One dictionary defines it as “to remove passages or words regarded as indecent from a play or novel, to expurgate”; another defines it as “to remove material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, especially with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective”.

The word is derived from the name of Dr Thomas Bowdler, who lived in Swansea 200 years ago and whose gravestone is on the south-east side of All Saints Church, Oystermouth.  Whereas the dandy “Beau” Nash moved from Swansea to Bath, to become the arbiter of fashion in Regency times, Bowdler did the reverse, being born at Box near Bath in 1754, but settling at The Rhyddings in Brynmill.  As children the Bowdlers enjoyed listening to their father reading them Shakespeare’s plays, only later to discover that he had edited them to omit parts that he deemed unsuitable.  Thomas Bowdler and his sister set out to produce an edition that “would not bring a blush to the most innocent cheek of youth”.

Initially his sister Henrietta Maria (known as Harriet) did the editing to produce the first expurgated edition of “The Family Shakespeare” in 1807, though the volume was published anonymously: as with George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) and the Brontë sisters, it was difficult for a woman to have a book published at that time.  The Bowdler version contained twenty Shakespearian plays, omitting “whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies”.  Anything which seemed irreverent or immoral was removed – deleting about a tenth of the original text.  Interjections of “God!” were replaced by “heavens!”, while in “Hamlet” Ophelia’s suicide by drowning becomes accidental rather than deliberate. 

Thomas Bowdler moved to Swansea in 1810 when its population was around 20,000.  A Fellow of the Royal Society, he no longer practised medicine, but was an active campaigner for prison reform.  In 1818 he brought out an edition of “The Family Shakespeare” in ten volumes which did not have such drastic deletions as his sister’s earlier edition.  Swansea Museum has a copy that used to belong to Mrs Ben Evans of the famous department store.  But Bowdler’s abridgements and alterations did make Shakespearian plays known to a wide audience, and motivated people to turn from an abridged version to the original text - perhaps to see what had been omitted! 

A committed churchman, Bowdler died at Rhyddings in 1825 aged 70.  Posthumously his six-volume expurgated edition of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was published.  He bequeathed to St Mary’s Church a painting of the Madonna and Child by the seventeenth century Italian artist Sassoferrato.  Although destroyed by wartime bombardment, a full-colour digital replica was produced from a black-and-white image in 2007, and this now hangs in the church.  He was buried in Oystermouth churchyard, because there was no further space around St Mary’s, his funeral cortѐge being the last to proceed along the tide-line from Swansea to Mumbles.  Bowdler left his extensive library to what at the time was St David’s College, Lampeter.  The verb “to bowdlerize” was in usage by 1838.

Even though he expurgated many of Shakespeare’s plays, Bowdler stopped short of emulating Irish poet laureate Nahum Tate, who in 1681 managed to produce a version of the tragedy “King Lear” with a happy ending.  Bowdler evidently could cope with “Titus Andronicus”, for obscenity and blasphemy were his main concerns, rather than the amount of violence.
So after the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, it is timely to remember that “the censor of Shakespeare” indirectly did much to popularise his work

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