Cutting the Porter

Pray, what authors should she read
Who in Classics would succeed?

If you’d climb the Helicon,
You should read Anacreon,
Ovid’s Metamorphoses,
Likewise Aristophanes,
And the works of Juvenal:
These are worth attention, all;
But, if you will be advised,
You will get them Bowdlerized!

Ah! we will get them Bowdlerized!

July 11, 1754: The Thomas Bowdler was born on this day in 1754. His fame for the The Family Shakespeare, offering parent-friendly plays “In Which Nothing Is Added To The Original Text, But Some Words and Expressions Are Omitted Which Cannot In Propriety Be Said Aloud In A Family,” got him hoisted by Gilbert & Sullivan in their 1884 comic opera, Princess Ida, excerpted above. The Princess runs an all-female university at Castle Adamant, the young women united by their hatred of men and their boredom with the reading list.

The first edition of the Bowdlers Family Shakespeare appeared in 1807, to little success or controversy. Of the three reviews the book received, one was a thumbs up: “All admirers of Shakespeare must be aware that such a castrated version of his plays has long been desirable.” The second allowed that some editing of some Elizabethan drama might be needed for “some squeamish people,” but “Shakespeare, we should think, might have escaped.” The third review vigorously opposed the book on the grounds that it didn’t go nearly far enough towards its proclaimed goal of eliminating “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” Over the next decade or two, as the Family Shakespeare and the spirit behind it gained fans, the cutters-and-pasters got Bowdler and Bowdler. Shakespeare gives his drunken Porter in Macbeth about twenty lines to itemize the various criminals, despairists and equivocators that go to Hell; Bowdler reduces this to six lines; the Rev. J. R. Pitman, in his School-Shakespeare (1822), gets the five sets of knocking down to two and the speech down to this:

PORTER. Here’s a knocking indeed!… Knock, knock, knock. Anon, anon; I pray you, remember the porter.

Both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet received over 100 cuts; Othello ended up in such tatters that even Bowdler said it no longer made sense, recommending instead that parents move it “from the parlor to the cabinet.” Though some attacked Bowdler as a censorious moralizer, Bowdler’s inexpensive versions were largely responsible for popularizing Shakespeare’s plays when few students had access to them and many schools dared not teach them.