Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!

Shakespeare censored

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.

Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”

That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.

I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.

Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.

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12 thoughts on “Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!”

  1. I’ve heard that in the 18th century, King Lear was routinely performed with a happy ending, on the grounds that the original would shake the whole world view at the time. If I recall, the greatest reader of the time, Samuel Johnson, read the original and said it was the only book he could not read twice because the ending so troubled his mind.

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  2. In our world, there is both what is ugly and beautiful. However, we shouldn’t live in a cocoon. If we shy away from what really is then we are choosing to close our eyes. We need to acknowledge the existence of both in order to achieve balance in our lives. Censorship has its place when it doesn’t overreach beyond what is necessary.

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