July 11, 2008

Gratuitous Literary Trivia Geekery Posting

My email quote-of-the-day guy today serves up a little something I thought worth passing on:

If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or print-ed; and if printed, it ought to be erased.

- Dr. Thomas Bowdler
(The Family Shakespeare, Preface)

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.

- Ibid., title page

Today is the 254th anniversary of the birth of English physician, philanthropist, and man of letters, Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) near Bath. Bowdler is remembered primarily for his heavily expurgated edition of Shakespeare's plays, The Family Shakespeare (1807), which sought to preserve the Bard's "beauties" while banishing the "blemishes" supposedly introduced to please a bawdier age. The first edition included 20 plays that were probably "cleaned up" by Bowdler's sister Harriet. Typical of the passages deleted is this somewhat off-color banter in the 3rd act of Othello, a double entendre that many readers today may not even "get":

"CLOWN: Are these I pray, call'd wind instruments?

BOY: I marry they are, Sir.

CLOWN: O, thereby hangs a tail.

BOY: Whereby hangs a tail, Sir?

CLOWN: Marry sir, by many a wind instrument that I know."

Although many recent critics acknowledge that Thomas and Harriet Bowdler probably did much more good than harm by introducing the works of Shakespeare to a broad, middle-class readership, the two have subsequently been rewarded for their pains by the widespread adoption of the pejorative verb "bowdlerize," meaning to prudishly expurgate a literary work. As the great French author Stendhal (1783-1842) once observed,

"Prudery is a form of avarice, the worst of all."

Posted by Robert at July 11, 2008 09:16 AM | TrackBack