Writing Prompt: Bowdlerized
Write about a situation involving an attempt to gently or modestly explain something illegal, outrageous or lewd to someone who might find it offensive, disturbing or problematic.
Post your response in 500 words or fewer in the comments at the end of this post. Or, keep reading to learn the history behind it.
July 11 is Bowdler’s Day, which in equal parts honors and ridicules English physician and philanthropist Thomas Bowdler for his famed prudery. He is responsible for the publication of a book called The Family Shakespeare in 1807. Finding Shakespeare’s works too bawdy and inappropriate “to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies,” Bowdler censored Shakespeare’s works to make them less offensive for women and children, with the assistance of his sister Henrietta. (You can read the full text of The Family Shakespearehere.)
While Shakespeare’s plays are indeed brimming with naughty puns, murder, suicide, etc., Bowdler’s sanitization seemed nearly as bizarrely puritanical then as it does today. Since then, the word “bowdlerize” has been used as a word meaning “to censor or expurgate,” especially in notably absurd or destructive ways.
He not only nixed about 10% of the text, which contained 20 plays across four volumes, but also replaced some of the language and scenes within the plays for the benefit of "our virtuous females": Blasphemous declarations of God! or Jesu! became Heavens!, and in some editions he altered Lady Macbeth’s famous cry of “Out, damned spot!” to “Out, crimson spot!”
Some of the more infamously dirty jokes and double entendres were mangled or eliminated:
- In Othello, Iago’s line “… your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” becomes “… your daughter and the Moor are now together.”
- In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s dirty joke, “… for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon,” becomes “… for the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon,” and some of the subsequent lines are eliminated.
- Some of Hamlet’s naughtier language to Ophelia in Act III is dropped entirely.
He also deleted a prostitute character from the text of Henry IV, Part 2, and he tweaked some of the tragedies to make them less tragic or problematic: e.g., Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet was made accidental (instead of a scandalous suicide).
Despite the rampant censorship, Bowdler noted in the introduction that Measure for Measure, Henry IV, and Othello were still too foul for some audiences—or “incapable of being completely buckled within the belt of rule.”
Therefore, this week’s prompt is dedicated to Thomas Bowdler.