Thomas Bowdler: Bowdlerizing Shakespeare 1

Thomas Bowdler: Bowdlerizing Shakespeare

Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was an old school English Georgian gent, physician and philanthropist, but forever remembered for censoring Shakespeare and in doing so creating the eponymous verb bowdlerize (or bowdlerise). So what does ‘bowdlerize‘ mean…?

bowd·ler·ized bowd·ler·iz·ing

1:  to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar

2:  to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content

In 1807 Thomas Bowdler published his first edition of The Family Shakspeare – four small volumes containing 24 edited versions of Shakespeare’s 37 plays.  Crucially, the text of these 24 plays had words, expressions and sometimes even plots changed to be more “family friendly”, and each play was preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarised and justified his changes (bowdlerizations!) to the text.

In Bowdler’s own words The Family Shakespeare was a Shakespeare edition “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.” As of first publication of The Family Shakespeare, the works of the Bard were opened up to women and children in Victorian England, who would otherwise have been offended by the original words due to the sensitivities of the time. Whilst this Victorian prudishness may seem amazing these days, it’s a real truth that Bowdler’s versions opened Shakespeare to a far wider audience than ever before – Shakespeare was suddenly ‘safe’ for a family with Victorian values.

Thomas Bowdler was helped in his quest to clean up Shakespeare by his two sisters – Jane Bowdler (1743–1784) and Henrietta Maria Bowdler, and by 1850 eleven editions edition of The Family Shakspeare had been printed with considerable commercial success. Along with expanding the number of plays, Bowdler changed the spelling of Shakespeare from “Shakspeare“, used by Bowdler, was changed in later editions in the mid-19th century to “Shakespeare

So Why The Censorship?
Bowdler made clear his motives for wanting to censor Shakespeare in both the preface of The Family Shakespeare, and an advert in The Times for the 1819 edition.

From the preface:
“The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent Nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy. But neither the vicious taste of the age not the most brilliant effusions of wit can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these can be obliterated the transcendent genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre.”

From the advert:
Bowdler-bowdlerizing-shakespeare“My great objects in the undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value, and at the same time to present to the public an edition of his plays which the parent, the guardian and the instructor of youth may place without fear in the hands of his pupils, and from which the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure: may improve his moral principles, while he refines his taste: and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition”

Example Bowdlerizations

Some examples of alterations to Shakespeare’s works made by Bowdler include:

  • In Hamlet the death of Ophelia was no longer a suicide, but referred to as an accidental drowning.
  • In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s famous line of “Out, damned spot!” read instead “Out, crimson spot!
  • In all plays “God!” as an exclamation is replaced with “Heavens!
  • In Henry IV Part 2 Doll Tearsheet (a prostitute) is omitted from the story entirely 
  • In Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” becomes was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”.

Whilst Bowdler may have broadened the audience of the time for Shakespeare’s writings, there’s no doubt some of the humor and much of the grit of the Bards plays are the loser. And as with Mercutio’s prick of noon, many of Shakespeare’s puns and innuendos-  that Bowdler and sisters his bowdlerized – would these days be overlooked with a limited understanding of what Elizabethan audiences would have found racy.



  • LexaGraeme says:

    Great article! “Bowdlerisation” is a word I’ve heard often, but never in regards to Shakespeare. I’d often wondered on its etymology. Thank you.

  • Lynne McAnulty says:

    Is anyone able to remind me of which play was bowdlerised to substitute “Murder!”
    for the French word “Merde! which means excrement?
    The character shouting Murder/Merde! was a guard or watchmand, rushing on stage to warn a king/lord/master of the house that there was an attacking army approaching the castle.homestead ..
    I recall reading the play back in the early 60s at a catholic school and the guard yelling Murder.
    then years later reading the same play in a different edition and seeing he was yelling Merde!
    Of course I went looking for a translation!

    All I need now is – which flaming play was it?

    RSVP if you know, and TIA