Thomas Bowdler

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Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was a Scots trained English physician. A fever specialist he became a member of the Royal Society and travelled extensively until ill-health forced his retirement from medicine.

He is best remembered today for “cleaning up” the plays of Shakespeare by censoring all words and phrases that he considered "inappropriate" under the moral strictures of the time to be “read aloud” to the family. The “Family Shakespeare” was completed in 1818. At his death he was working on a similar treatment of Edward Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” which his nephew, a churchman, would complete. Copies of “The Family Shakespeare” (or “Shakspeare”) are still available.

The term “bowdlerise” was coined to describe the expurgation of works in this way.

He was not the first to sanitise Shakespeare – at least one “children’s edition” already existed and he was not the last. A. W. Verity made similar changes in the early 20th century – his editions were still the set text in N.S.W. (Australia) high schools in the 1960s and are still in print.

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