Thomas Bowdler

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Thomas Bowdler
Title page of Bowdler's best-known work
Born11 July 1754
Died24 February 1825(1825-02-24) (aged 70)
OccupationPhysician, editor
Notable work
The Family Shakspeare (1807)

Thomas Bowdler, LRCP, FRS (/ˈbdlər/; 11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825[1]) was an English doctor best known for publishing The Family Shakespeare, an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's plays. The work, edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler, was intended to provide a version of Shakespeare that was more appropriate than the original for 19th-century women and children. Bowdler also published several other works, some reflecting his interest in and knowledge of continental Europe. Bowdler's last work was an expurgated version of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published posthumously in 1826 under the supervision of his nephew and biographer, Thomas Bowdler the Younger.

The verb bowdlerise (or bowdlerize)[2] has linked his name with the censorship or omission of elements deemed inappropriate for children, not only in literature but also in motion pictures[3] and television programmes.


Thomas Bowdler was born in Box, near Bath, Somerset, the youngest son of the six children of Thomas Bowdler (c. 1719–1785), a banker of substantial fortune,[4] and his wife, Elizabeth, née Cotton (d. 1797), the daughter of Sir John Cotton, 6th Baronet of Conington, Huntingdonshire.[5][6] Bowdler studied medicine at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, where he received his degree in 1776, graduating with a thesis on intermittent fevers.[7] He spent the next four years travelling through continental Europe, visiting Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sicily, and Portugal. In 1781 he caught a fever in Lisbon from a young friend whom he was attending to through a fatal illness.[8] He returned to England in broken health and with a strong aversion to the medical profession. In 1781 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP), but did not continue to practise medicine.[7] He devoted himself instead to the cause of prison reform.[7]

Bowdler was also a strong chess player and once played eight recorded games against the best chess player of the time, François-André Danican Philidor, who was so confident of his superiority that he played with several handicaps. Bowdler won twice, lost three times, and drew three times.[9] The Bowdler Attack is named after him.

Advertisement for 1819 edition of The Family Shakspeare

Bowdler's first published work was Letters Written in Holland in the Months of September and October 1787 (1788), which gave his eye-witness account of the Patriots' uprising.[6] In 1800 Bowdler took a lease on a country estate at St. Boniface, on the Isle of Wight, where he lived for ten years.[6] In September 1806, when he was 52, he married Elizabeth Trevenen (née Farquharson), age 48, the widow of the naval officer Captain James Trevenen who had died in Catherine the Great's service at Kronstadt in 1790.[6] The marriage was unhappy, and after a few years Bowdler and his wife separated. They had no children. After the separation, the marriage was never mentioned by the Bowdler family; in the biography of Bowdler written by his nephew, Thomas Bowdler, there is no mention of Bowdler ever marrying.[6]

In 1807, the first edition of the Bowdlers' The Family Shakspeare, covering 20 plays, was published in four small volumes.[10] From 1811 until his death in 1825, Bowdler lived at Rhyddings House, overlooking Swansea Bay, from where he travelled extensively in Britain and continental Europe. In 1815, he published Observations on Emigration to France, With an Account of Health, Economy, and the Education of Children, a cautionary work propounding his view that English invalids should avoid French spas and go instead to Malta.[7] In 1818, Bowdler published an expanded edition of The Family Shakspeare, covering all 36 available plays, which had considerable success.[11] By 1827 the work had gone into its fifth edition.[12] In his last years, Bowdler prepared an expurgated version of the works of the historian Edward Gibbon, which was published posthumously in 1826.[6] His sister Jane Bowdler (1743–1784) was a poet and essayist, and another sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler (Harriet) (1750–1830), collaborated with Bowdler on his expurgated Shakespeare.[6]

Bowdler died in Swansea at the age of 70 and was buried there, at Oystermouth.[6] He bequeathed donations to the poor of Swansea and Box.[13] His large library, consisting of unexpurgated volumes of 17th and 18th century tracts, collected by his ancestors Thomas Bowdler (1638–1700) and Thomas Bowdler (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter. In 1825 Bowdler's nephew, also called Thomas Bowdler, published his Memoir of the Late John Bowdler, Esq., to Which Is Added, Some Account of the Late Thomas Bowdler, Esq. Editor of the Family Shakspeare.

The Family Shakespeare[edit]

In Bowdler's childhood, his father had entertained his family with readings from Shakespeare. Later in life, Bowdler realized that his father had been omitting or altering passages he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt it would be worthwhile to publish an edition which might be used in a family whose father was not a sufficiently "circumspect and judicious reader" to accomplish this expurgation himself.[14]

In 1807 the first edition of the Bowdlers' The Family Shakspeare was published in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 plays. In 1818 the second edition, covering all 36 available plays, was published.[11] Each play is preceded by an introduction wherein Bowdler summarizes and justifies his changes to the text. According to his nephew's Memoir, the first edition was prepared by Bowdler's sister, Harriet, but both were published under Thomas Bowdler's name. This was likely because a woman could not then publicly admit that she was capable of such editing and compilation, nor that she understood Shakespeare's racy verses.[15] By 1850 eleven editions had been printed.

The spelling "Shakspeare", used by Bowdler and also by his nephew Thomas in his memoir of Thomas Bowdler the elder,[16] was changed in later editions (from 1847 on) to "Shakespeare", reflecting changes in the standard spelling of Shakespeare's name.[17]

The Bowdlers were not the first to undertake such a project. Bowdler's commitment to not augmenting or adding to Shakespeare's text, instead only removing sensitive material, was in contrast with the practice of earlier editors. Nahum Tate as Poet Laureate had rewritten the tragedy of King Lear with a happy ending; In 1807, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb published Tales from Shakespeare for children with synopses of 20 of the plays, but seldom quoted the original text.[7] Though The Family Shakespeare was considered a negative example of censorship by the literary establishment and its commitment to the "authentic" Shakespeare, the Bowdlers' expurgated editions made it more acceptable to teach Shakespeare to wider and younger audiences.[18] As said by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, "More nauseous and more 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".[6][19]


Some examples of alterations made by Bowdler's edition:

  • In Hamlet, the death of Ophelia was referred to as an accidental drowning, omitting the suggestions that she may have intended suicide.
  • "God!" as an exclamation is replaced with "Heavens!"
  • In Henry IV, Part 2, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet is omitted entirely; the slightly more reputable Mistress Quickly is retained.

Prominent modern literary figures such as Michiko Kakutani (in the New York Times) and William Safire (in his book, How Not to Write) have accused Bowdler of changing Lady Macbeth's famous "Out, damned spot!" line in Macbeth to "Out, crimson spot!"[20] But Bowdler did not do that. Thomas Bulfinch and Stephen Bulfinch did, in their 1865 edition of Shakespeare's works.[21]

Publication information[edit]

  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume One, The Comedies, ISBN 0-923891-95-1
  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume Two, The Tragedies, ISBN 0-923891-98-6
  • The Family Shakespeare, Volume Three, The Histories, ISBN 0-923891-99-4
  • The Family Shakspeare, 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 by Thomas Bowdler in 10 volumes, Facsimile reprint of 2nd edition, revised, in 1820, Eureka Press, 2009. ISBN 978-4-902454-16-1

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bowdler, Thomas" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ American/British spelling differences: "-ize" is preferred in American English whereas "-ise" is the form used elsewhere.
  3. ^ "Filter Amazon streaming with ClearPlay". Archived from the original on 29 January 2016. Retrieved 25 December 2015.
  4. ^ Bowdler, p. 18
  5. ^ "The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 202" Archived 16 February 2017 at the Wayback Machine pg. 241
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Loughlin-Chow, M. Clare, "Bowdler, Thomas (1754–1825)", Archived 6 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2011. Retrieved 17 December 2011 (subscription required)
  7. ^ a b c d e Poynter, F. N. L. "Thomas Bowdler", Archived 19 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4879, 10 July 1954, pp. 97–98
  8. ^ Lee, Sidney. "Bowdler, Thomas (1754–1825), editor of the 'Family Shakespeare'", Archived 24 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine Dictionary of National Biography, 1885, ODNB archive. Retrieved 17 December 2011 (subscription required)
  9. ^ Philidor was usually blindfolded and playing multiple opponents simultaneously, and sometimes started without one pawn. The first recorded game to feature a double rook sacrifice was played between Bowdler (white) and H. Conway at London in 1788. See "Dr. Thomas Bowdler vs Henry Seymour Conway" Archived 25 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 16 December 2011
  10. ^ Shakespeare, William; Bowdler, Thomas (1807). The family Shakespeare ... London: J. Hatchard.
  11. ^ a b "What did Bowdler bowdlerize? | OxfordWords blog". OxfordWords blog. 11 July 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
  12. ^ Classified Advertisements, The Observer, 10 June 1827, p. 1
  13. ^ Bowdler, p. 329
  14. ^ Brown, Arthur (1965). "The Great Variety of Readers". In Allardyce Nicoll (ed.). Shakespeare Survey (18 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-521-52354-7.
  15. ^ Tabak, Jessica. "Acts of Omission: Fiona Brideoake examines 19th-century censored Shakespeare" Archived 22 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine, 2 November 2009
  16. ^ Bowdler, pp. 31–32 and passim
  17. ^ Integrated Catalogue, The British Library. Retrieved 17 December 2011; and "The Family Shakspeare" Archived 1 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine, WorldCat. Retrieved 17 December 2011
  18. ^ Eschner, Kat. "The Bowdlers Wanted to Clean Up Shakespeare, Not Become a Byword for Censorship". Smithsonian. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
  19. ^ Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1915) [1891]. "Social Verse". Studies in prose and poetry. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 84–109: 88–89.
  20. ^ Michiko Kakutani, Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You, N.Y. Times, Jan. 7, 2011, at C1 & 5 (only the original print version still contains Kakutani's accusation -- the online version has been corrected); William Safire, How Not to Write (1990; 2005 printing), page 100; Davies, Ross E. (2012). "Gray Lady Bowdler: The Continuing Saga of the Crimson Spot". The Green Bag Almanac and Reader: 563–574. SSRN 1758989..
  21. ^ Davies, Ross E. (2009). "How Not to Bowdlerize". The Green Bag Almanac and Reader: 235–240. SSRN 1333764..