The outer reaches of London are slightly Terra Incognita to me. If I can’t get there on my Oyster card, they should in my opinion be regarded with suspicion at the very least. It therefore came as no surprise to learn that Thomas Bowdler was, for a time, curate at Leyton.
Bowdler is best known for his 1807 work, Family Shakespeare. In this, he edited Shakespeare’s plays to make them “family friendly.” In Bowdler’s words, “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.” This consisted of deleting certain elements of the plays or rewriting them to make them less interesting. What a sanctimonious [male organ of generation].
Actually, in reality, much of the work was done by his sister Harriet. But being a woman and all, it would Not Have Been the Done Thing for her to understand that, e.g., when Ophelia talks about “country matters,” she’s actually talking about her lady-parts. So that’s someone who, by the standards of the 19th century moral guardians, was irredeemably corrupt and slatternly censoring Shakespeare to prevent others from being corrupted.
This is the thing that always gets me about censors. They always seem to be more filthy-minded than the rest of us. For instance, one of the expressions that the Bowdlers considered “of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased” was King Lear’s “Ay, every inch a king.” Now, while Shakespeare was undeniably not above a bit of filth, I don’t think any of us read that line and thought, “Ay, every inch a king, including my penis.”
Regardless of whether Lear meant to include his gentleman’s prerequisites in that line or not, I rather think that if you think an author is that great, you take or leave them as they are. For instance, one of Bowdler’s changes was to turn Ophelia’s death from suicide to an accident. This impacts rather significantly on the character and the play as a whole.
The original edition just didn’t bother with several of the plays. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was not in there at all. Nor were Measure for Measure, Love’s Labours Lost, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merry Wives of Windsor, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Coriolanus, Pericles or The Comedy of Errors. The totally awesome Titus Andronicus was cut out, but frankly Troilus and Cressida was no great loss. And nobody ever read Timon of Athens in the first place (if you’re curious, it’s the story of a courageous dog turned superspy and is most famous for the five-minute cavalcade of incoherent swearing in Act III, Scene IV). I do wonder how you make a play like Othello, whose key plot point is the suspicion of adultery, work for kids.
Later editions would restore most of the missing plays. No sign of Pericles, though. And he’s forgotten bloody Cardenio again.
The trouble is, Shakespeare wasn’t writing for kids. He wrote for adults. His public were adults. Much of the filth in his plays was in the form of innuendo, which would only really be understood by adults anyway. I would imagine that to your average child, “the beast with two backs” is a surreal rather than sexual image. Still, apparently there was a need for family-friendly Shakespeare, as the book was hugely popular throughout the 19th century and Bowdler’s name much praised.
Of course, Bowdler was not without his critics – you may have heard the term “bowdlerise,” a word coined in 1836 to describe the excessive and unwelcome censorship of a work of literature. You’ll struggle to find a positive reference to him in the 21st century. Speaking personally, yeah, there are things I’d not introduce my theoretical kids to, but I think that if your child understands the double-meaning of “country matters,” you have bigger problems on your hands.