Quite without argument literature’s busiest and most officious of busybodies was Thomas Bowdler. A man trained to be a physician or surgeon (I forget which), he gratuitously meddled in things far removed from the ambit of his chosen calling: encroaching on the province (if that) of the clergyman instead of enriching his own, trying to sanitise supposedly impressionable minds and souls.
A full two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death he picked on the poor Bard as a starting point to begin his self-appointed purification mission. Carefully excising, expunging and expurgating words, phrases and passages considered ‘indelicate’ for tender eyes and ears, he produced The Family Shakespeare: an opus to be dipped into by a benignly stern pater familias for the instruction, improvement and edification of his brood. One can imagine the scene: a Sunday evening at home by the fireside, after a properly sensible supper, with six or seven eager faces upturned as the man ponderously drones on.
And mind you, Victoria was not yet enthroned to set her stamp on the age.
Well, history often displays a nice sense of irony, so it wasn’t long before the silly doctor got his come-uppance (but not before he had visited his unwholesome attentions on the Bible, and Gibbon, poor man): his name soon became synonymous with overly sensitive morality and ridiculous censorship. The same tender minds for whom he laboured now laughed at him.
But curiosity impels us to examine what precisely Bowdler found objectionable in England’s greatest son – and not, certainly, out of moral scruple in this day and age.
As far back as the 1930s, Eric Partridge, the famous scholar and writer on English language, trawled through Shakespeare and documented every single word, phrase and passage having sexual or scatological connotations. And the result was his monumentally entertaining Shakespeare’s Bawdy. A sample, perhaps? Here’s something from Venus and Adonis – Venus speaking:
‘Fondling,’ she saith, ‘since I have hemm’d thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from the tempest and the rain:
Then be my deer, since I’m such a park;
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.’
For sheer exuberance of imagery, that has few equals: the Elizabethans were remarkably free of moral straitjackets.
And if that whets your appetite (pun or none), Partridge’s delightful work is now available in a fine reprint (Routledge Classics): both scholar and prurient alike can rejoice.