Skip to main content

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.

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.

Image placeholder title

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 MeasureHenry 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.

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at The Idaho Review, a literary journal accepting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction submissions.

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using an abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Alison Hill breaks down the definition of investigative journalism, how good investigative journalism makes for sweeping societal change, and how the landscape of the work is evolving.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

Historical fiction relies on research to help a story’s authenticity—but it can also lead to developments in the story itself. Here, author Lora Davies discusses how inspiration and research helped shape her new novel, The Widow’s Last Secret.

Poetic Forms

Saraband: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the saraband, a septet (or seven-line) form based on a forbidden dance.