Friday, March 29, 2013

Bowdlerism Reconsidered

"Bowdlerized" ("ISE" in England --"ISE" for any none Greek-based words-- or "IZE" in North America) is a fierce academic epithet because it is an accusation of something untrue, untrue on several levels. First it is a change from the original, from the art from which it comes, so it is a counterfeit. Second, it is a denial of the art's truth, its essence. The motive is meaningless. Bowdler had a good motive for what he did; the process is a lie, a sacrifice of artistic truth for some reason, trivial or not, that is opposed to truth. Synonyms in the Thesaurus include: emasculate, alter, neuter, shorten, reduce, cut, abridge, castrate, spay, contract, foreshorten, demasculinise, expurgate, demasculinize, and abbreviate. Antiintellectual and declasse are not included but none are flattering.

Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler were English siblings who, in the early 1800's, prepared and published editions of Shakespeare’s works meant for women and children and for families to read together. They wanted people exposed to these great works but were eager to eliminate any controversial or offensive material they felt inappropriate for women and children. (It may well be that this approach exposed many to the genius of Shakespeare who might well have not were the material not scrubbed.) In 1818 Bowdler published his edition of 'Shakespeare,' the work by which he is best known. Its title ran: '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.' In the preface Thomas Bowdler wrote: 'Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.' He also complained of the unnecessary and frivolous allusions to Scripture, which 'call imperiously for their erasement.' Four editions were published before 1824, and others appeared in 1831, 1853, and 1861. During the last years of his life Bowdler was engaged in rewriting Gibbon's 'History.' The work was completed just before his death in 1825, and published in six volumes by his nephew Thomas.

He has always been reviled for his prudery, his destructive approach which can only be characterized as non-artistic, and his willingness to sacrifice the art and truth of genius to a lesser god. He was, however, not alone. Samuel Johnson said that Cordelia's death in Lear was too painful to be endured. Mr. Nahum Tate agreed so much he rewrote it. In his version Cordelia lives, marries Edger and everyone lives happily ever after. His play was quite successful. It first appeared in 1681, some seventy-five years after Shakespeare's version, and is believed to have replaced Shakespeare's version on the English stage in whole or in part until 1838. While many critics sneered and dismissed it, Samuel Johnson quite approved. The memorable Lear of David Garrick was Tate's!

Nor is this a behavior of older and rigid times. When Taming of the Shrew was staged in New York at their Shakespeare Festival in1990, it was bowdlerized to dilute the play's misogynist sentiments, sort of the essence of the play.

The sacrifice of truth for sensibilities never ends, perhaps because the targets are endless. We must make Julia's confessor a lay adviser, the Merchant a pedantic Calvinist, substitute a jousting contest for Agincourt, a swede for the Moor, but maybe a Moor for Henry the Fifth. And no dwarfs. Or madmen. Or hunchbacks.

So it seems, for all its faults, to Bowdlerize is Politically Correct.

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