Censoring Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s plays have been censored ever since they were first performed. Some, particularly the history plays, were censored in his own time because they were considered unwise, or even treasonous, in the contemporary political climate. In the 19th century, Shakespeare plays were also often censored, though for their occasionally racy and ‘indecent’ matter rather than their political content. Most famously the English physician and philanthropist Thomas Bowdler produced a sanitised edition of 20 of the plays in 1807, called The Family Shakespeare. 

Bowdler Family Shakespeare 1818
1818 edition of ‘The Family Shakespeare’

The Family Shakespeare was essentially a family-friendly edition of Shakespeare’s plays with the ‘naughty bits’ taken out. As one contemporary advertisement boasted, it omitted ‘those words and expressions…which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family’. Bowdler was inspired by personal example. In childhood, his father had entertained him with readings from Shakespeare, and it was only as he read them later that Bowdler realised his father had been leaving out or changing passages which he thought unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children.

Bowdler saw the need for an edition which might be used in a family where the father wasn’t a sufficiently ‘judicious reader’ to do this himself. He regarded the ‘coarse’ parts of Shakespeare as ‘defects which diminish [the literary] value’; he thought he actually did a favour to Shakespeare, whom he acknowledged as ‘the world’s greatest dramatic poet’, in taking away ‘obscenities’ and exposing the true genius of the text. Thus, the plays could be a more proper aid for the instruction of youth. They could now safely be put in the hands of innocent women and children.

'Lady reading by a window' ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900
‘Lady reading by a window’ ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900

So how did Bowdler decide what to take out? According to him, ‘if any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and if printed, it ought to be erased’. This ranged from minor text alterations to larger plot and character changes. Thus Ophelia’s death in Hamlet was depicted as an accidental drowning, to avoid any suggestion that she may have committed suicide, and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet was entirely left out of Henry IV, Part 1. Lady Macbeth’s famous ‘out, damned spot!’ became ‘out, crimson spot!; any exclamation of ‘God!’ was replaced by ‘heavens!’; Juliet’s cry ‘spread thy close curtain, love performing night’ was replaced with ‘spread thy close curtain, and come civil night’; and Mercutio’s ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’ was changed to ‘the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon’.

Some of the unfortunate victims of Bowdler’s expurgation:
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Ophelia 1851-2
Ophelia (by John Everett Millais, 1851-2)

Although Thomas Bowdler published the work and had considerable influence on it, it was actually his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler, who was instrumental in preparing the first edition. Henrietta made a moderately successful career out of religious writing. She was the author of the best-selling devotional Poems and Essays, and she anonymously published Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, which went through nearly 50 editions. Amusingly, the Bishop of London himself believed the Sermons to be the work of a clergyman, and offered the anonymous ‘clergyman’ a living in his diocese!By all accounts, Henrietta seems to have lived in strict accordance with the moral principles laid out in these works. Gilbert Elliot, the Earl of Minto, said of Henrietta as a young woman, ‘she is, I believe, a blue-stocking, but what the colour of that part of her dress is must be mere conjecture, as you will easily believe when I tell you that…she said she never looked at [the dancers in operas] but always kept her eyes shut the whole time, and when I asked her why, she said it was so indelicate she could not bear to look’.

The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta
The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Bowdlers harshly for their expurgation. Because they made Shakespeare’s plays suitable for family reading (according to contemporary standards), the plays continued to be read by women and children throughout the 19th century, whereas they might have been shunned for their perceived coarseness had no such family-friendly edition been available. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne defended The Family Shakespeare in this respect, saying, ‘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’ Many Victorians did truly find Shakespeare too racy: in 1859 Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter saying ‘by the by, you went to see the Merry Wives [of Windsor]…I have never had the courage to go to see it – having always been told how very coarse it was – for your adored Shakespeare is dreadful in that respect, and many things have to be left out in many plays’.

In fact, Bowdler inspired similar projects – Lewis Carroll once thought about creating a Girl’s Own Shakespeare, saying ‘I have a dream of bowdlerising Bowdler, i.e., of editing a Shakespeare which shall be absolutely fit for girls’. Unfortunately, Carroll never went ahead with the project so we’ll never know what a Victorian girls-only Shakespeare edition would have looked like! Bowdler went on to produce family-friendly versions of parts of the Old Testament and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,though his greatest legacy has undoubtedly been the invention of the term ‘bowdlerisation’, defined (with good reason) in the Oxford English Dictionary as the act of removing ‘material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective’.


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One thought on “Censoring Shakespeare

  1. Thanks for your article. I actually agree with Swinburne, I think it was a good action, as it gave access to the works to many young people and women who would not have otherwise had it. There was a strong streak of Puritanism (or similarly restrictive religious movements) in the UK and the US, followed by the Victorian era, and these important works would simply not have been available, especially to women. I have read ‘child-friendly’ versions of many adult works, and I’m glad I had to chance to gain exposure to them and gain a fondness from an early age. I was fortunate however, in having unedited exposure to the Tempest at age 9. I did read the ‘full-fathom five’ passage where the young hero is told that his father is dead and decaying at the bottom of the ocean, and it still resonates with me in spite of (or because of) its darkness. Perhaps that explains why it’s my favorite Shakespeare passage to this day.

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