Friday, January 14, 2011

Cleaning up Shakespeare

Friday, January 14, 2011
Loretta reports

The current controversy about Alan Gribben’s bowdlerization of the Mark Twain classic, Huckleberry Finn, lures NHGs to travel back in time to 1818 and visit the man who gave his name to the tidying up of great works of literature, Mr. Thomas Bowdler.

Here, in his own words, is Bowdler’s explanation:
That Shakspeare is the first of dramatic writers will be denied by few, and I doubt whether it will be denied by any who have really studied his works . . . It must, however, be acknowledged, by his warmest admirers, that some defects are to be found in the writings of our immortal bard. The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy. But neither the vicious taste of the age, nor the most brilliant effusions of wit, can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these could be obliterated, the transcendant genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre. To banish every thing of this nature from the writings of Shakspeare is the object of the present undertaking. My earnest wish is to render his plays unsullied by any scene, by any speech, or, if possible, by any word that can give pain to the most chaste, or offence to the most religious of his readers.  . . . I flatter myself that every reader of the Family Shakspeare will be pleased at perceiving that what is so manifestly improper, is not permitted to be seen in it . . .

The full Preface  makes very interesting reading.  I'll leave you
to decide how you feel about it.

Excerpt from  The family Shakspeare, 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, Volume 1, Thomas Bowdler.

First edition cover of Huckleberry Finn , courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit [presents] Macbeth by William Shakespeare , courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


Anonymous said...

Ah, the power of PC!

Chris Woodyard said...

Thank you, Loretta, for this interesting post. It should remind us just where “tidying up”--even for the noblest motives--can lead.

Penny said...

thank you for the post, keep up the good work and happy new year

Auron Renius said...

Swear words have always been the most expressive in any language, shakespeare knew that :)

Emma J said...

WHY do conservative, opinionated people always think they can "improve" books by others who are much more talented?

Meg said...

I wonder how he "cleaned up" Titus? It makes you wonder what could be left that would be worth reading -- a great deal of the basic plot elements in Shakespeare's works revolve around sex, murder, and other "unwholesome" (but very human) activities and emotions. I'm trying to imagine growing up with the "Family Shakespeare" and then seeing or reading the real deal for the first time. What a shock!

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