Thomas Bowdler  

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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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Thomas Bowdler (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825) was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work that he considered to be more appropriate than the original for women and children. He similarly edited Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His expurgation was the subject of some criticism and ridicule and, through the eponym bowdlerise (or bowdlerize) , his name is now associated with prudish censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programmes.



Bowdler was born near Bath, the son of a gentleman of independent means. He studied medicine at St. Andrews and at Edinburgh, where he took his degree in 1776, but did not practice, devoting himself instead to the cause of prison reform. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May, 1781.

He was a strong chess player and once played eight recorded games against the best chess player of the time, François-André Danican Philidor, who was confident enough of his superiority to Bowdler that he played with handicaps. Bowdler won twice, lost three times, and drew three times; 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.

In 1818, after retiring to the Isle of Wight, he published his Family Shakespeare, which had considerable success. He subsequently attempted to do the same with the works of historian Edward Gibbon, a project which was not as successful. Bowdler's edition of Gibbon's work was published posthumously in 1826. His sister Jane was a poet and essayist, and his sister Harriet was the editor of Bowdler's publications.

He later settled in south Wales, where he died, and is buried at Oystermouth in Swansea. His large library, consisting of (unexpurgated) volumes collected by his ancestors Thomas Bowdler (1638–1700) and Thomas Bowdler (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Family Shakespeare

Family Shakespeare

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.

Popular culture

  • In "Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 chapter six Emory Bortz says, "I've been pirated, me and Wharfinger, we've been Bowdlerized in reverse or something."
  • In the Moral Orel television program, Moralton's town library is named the Thomas Bowdler Library; most of the library's books are censored (Episode 2, "God's Greatest Gift")
  • In the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde, the Jurisfiction police who monitor the textual integrity of all books written and unwritten are constantly battling the Bowdlerisers, who attempt to erase material that they find offensive.
  • In Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1884 comic opera Princess Ida, Lady Psyche suggests that students at a women's university who wish to study the classics should get their editions "Bowdlerised".


  • 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

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