The Family Shakespeare  

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Shakespeare is bowdlerized between 1807 and 1818 when The Family Shakespeare is published, expurgating "those words and expressions... which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Family Shakespeare (1807 - 1818) is an expurgated version of the oeuvre of Shakespeare, edited by Thomas Bowdler. It had considerable success.

In 19th-century households, a popular family pastime was reading aloud from the Bible, the classics or major works of English literature. In Bowdler's childhood, his father had entertained his family with dramatic readings of extracts from Shakespeare. Later, Bowdler realised his father had been extemporaneously omitting or altering passages he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt it would be worthwhile to present an edition which might be used in a family whose father was not a sufficiently "circumspect and judicious reader" to accomplish this expurgation himself.

In 1807, the first edition of the Family Shakespeare was published, in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 of the plays. In 1818 was published The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; 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. Each play is preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarises and justifies his changes to the text. The editions were actually edited by Bowdler's sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler's name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare's racy passages. By 1850, eleven editions had been printed.

Bowdler was not the first to undertake such a project, and despite being considered a negative example, his efforts made it more societally acceptable to teach Shakespeare to new audiences. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne said, "More nauseous and 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."

Bowdler's commitment not to augment Shakespeare's text was in contrast to many earlier editors and performers. Nahum Tate as Poet Laureate had rewritten the tragedy of King Lear with a happy ending. In 1807, Charles Lamb and his sister Mary published Tales from Shakespeare specifically for children, with synopses of 20 of the plays, but seldom quoting the original text directly.

Changes to Shakespeare

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.
  • In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!"
  • "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.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Family Shakespeare" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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