Thomas Bowdler: Shatterer of Worlds

Once upon a time, there was a man called Thomas Bowdler, a terrible man who lived on an island and played chess with prisoners. This man Bowdler got an idea. An awful idea. Bowdler got a wonderful, awful idea.

Bowdler decided that the works of Shakespeare were a little too edgy for Victorian audiences, and that he should remove all of the "adult themes" that weren't suitable for children. A bit of the old Comstockery!

Oh, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or maybe his head wasn't screwed on just right. But I think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Bowdler's father used to read Shakespeare to his family at night, and the whole Bowdler family would listen to the tales with wide eyes. But what they didn't know, and what Bowdler found out when he was older, was that his father took out passages that he didn't think would be good for the kiddies, like all the stuff about whores and cross-dressing and donkey shows. The stuff, in other words, that made England a literary force to be reckoned with.

So Thomas got the idea to rewrite the plays and publish The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; 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. And thus the great cycle of Christianity continues: the sins of the father shall be visited upon the tenth generation. The abused shall become the abusers. And this was the case with the Bowdler family. The entire clan was obsessed with picking apart great literature, from Bowdler's father to his evil sister, Henrietta. In fact, Henrietta was the one who published the first edition of The Family Shakespeare in 1807.

Here are a few changes Bowdler and his family made:

1. Bowdler made Ophelia into a bad swimmer. Instead of accurately representing her decision to no longer weather the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Bowdler changed Ophelia's suicide into an accidental drowning. For Christmas' sake. If he went that far, why didn't he just save the day and give Ophelia an inner tube or those inflatable arm bands that babies wear in the pool?

2. Bowdler took all the sexy stuff out of Romeo & Juliet.

What is the point of a teen sex comedy with no sex?

It starts at the beginning. He decides to omit I.i.13: "Tis true, and therefore women being the weaker vessel are ever thrust to the wall."

Juliet's line in III.ii.5 is changed from "Spread thy close curtain, love performing night" to "Spread thy close curtain, and come civil night." "Love performing night" isn't risque, not even to your humble pilgrim servant, Goodman Carter. But "come civil night" is just lame.

Maybe these are forgivable for a bad editor. But Bowdler's biggest mistake was fucking with the one guy you do not fuck with in this play: Mercutio. He changed Mercutio's line, "the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" to "the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon." (II.iv.61) Come on, that's the first rule of the drama: no one wants to read a play without at least one prick in it.

3. Bowdler devolved Lady Macbeth's "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!" into "Out, crimson spot!" Jesus Christ, if Bowdler was really a moralizer and deluded himself into thinking that literature should only be written for didactic purposes, then why didn't he love this line? Lady Macbeth is unknowingly proclaiming God's judgment of fire and brimstone for her gravest sin: murder. She is a strong woman, and so she's going to hell! Bowdler should love this! But when Bowdler sees naughty words, he just screeches "Heavens to Betsy!" and crosses a line through anything within a ten foot radius.

4. Bowdler removed all the fun racist bestiality from Othello. Seriously, who does this?

When I read Othello for the first time, the line that stuck with me the most were Iago's words to Desdemona's father, Brabantio: "an old black Ram is tupping your white Ewe." The imagery, coupled with Iago's "your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs," were examples of Iago's crude vision of sexuality when contrasted with Othello and Desdemona's love. When you cut these lines or change them, you cut the character, and you cut the meaning.

5. Bowdler took out a prostitute from Henry IV Part II. He took her out on the town for a night full of blow, gambling, and tiddlywinks. No, Doll Tearsheet is a prostitute, and Bowdler took her out of the play. Get it, Doll Tearsheet? But that lofty pun takes on a different significance when you actually discover what this asshole did. Now she doesn't exist anymore! He tore sheets from the Folios, thinking it was a jolly old time to squander entire characters that Shakespeare was given by the Most High! And if you think that's bad...

6. Bowdler thought he was a better editor than God. This man bastardized The Old Testament by removing things that he thought might make our dear children too squeamish. Many of you foul pagans and unbelievers who have strayed from the Path might praise this decision as a rebellion against the tyranny of an unjust god. But what fun is the Old Testament if you don't get to read about awesome stuff like Lot sleeping with his daughters, Onan's grave sin of spilling sacred sperm, or Hebrews enacting laws that let them kill each other?

7. Bowdler was not a good writer. When I realized that I really didn't know that much about this man other than what I had researched online, I decided to take a look at some of his actual writing, not just his editing. I eagerly turned to his famous best-seller, Letters Written in Holland, in the Months of September and October: to which is added a Collection of Letters, and Other Papers, Relating to the Journey of the Princess of Orange on the 28th of June, 1787. Here is a portion of this delightful work:

Throughout my entire life, people have made fun of me for finding boring things interesting. I cannot find this book interesting. Perhaps Mr. Bowdler could have used an editor himself?

If you want, you can read Bowdler's entire Family Shakespeare here. The only problem is this: why would you want to when you can read Shakespeare instead?

But let's not be too hard on Bowdler. The guy did have some redeeming qualities. He liked chess, for instance. Secondly, he wasn't the one that gave King Lear a happy ending, no matter what Neil Gaiman has to say about it. That unhappy honor is bestowed upon Nahum Tate, the poetaster poet laureate. That's about it.

Oh yeah, and he also cut up Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What a jerk.

Some will tell you that many other than Bowdler edited Shakespeare's words and "augmented them" with their own, including Alexander Pope! They're right; all of these people did bad things, but Thomas Bowdler was the worst.

Algernon Swinburne, one of Bowdler's few defenders, once claimed that "more nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children." Oh yeah, Algernon Swinburne? I just bowdlerized your oeuvre full of sex, drugs, and ass-paddling, and guess what? There was nothing left to print.

Just to make sure this shit never happens to you, writers, consider adding this to all of your future works as an appendix:

"For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

That should scare the fuckers off.


Posted by kevin on Wed, 16 Jul 2008 13:00:11 -0400 -- permanent link

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