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The "Chandos" portrait
                of William Shakespeare, attributed to John Taylor, and
                part of National Portrait Gallery in London


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Censored Works of Shakespeare

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Banned Books: Shakespeare Censored!

An online exhibition of the works of William Shakespeare that have been censored, challenged, and banned around the world.

The Censorship of William Shakespeare
The following is an online reference guide to the physical exhibition of Banned Books: Shakespeare Censored!

Who was Thomas Bowdler?

Thomas Bowdler was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work with his sister Henrietta that he considered to be more appropriate for women and children than the original. Calling this work, The Family Shakespeare, Bowdler and his sister cut out all things explicitly sexual and much that was ambiguously so.

In 1807, the first edition of The Family Shakespeare was published, in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 of the plays. It was written by his sister Henrietta, but attributed to her brother until the 20th Century. In 1818, Bowdler published 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. Each play is preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarizes and justifies his changes to the text. By 1850, eleven editions had been printed.

Claiming not to add a “single line,” Bowdler wrote that he merely “endeavored to removed every thing that could give just offence to the religious and virtuous mind.”

Bowdler's commitment not to augment Shakespeare's text was in contrast to many earlier editors and performers, such as in 1807, when Charles Lamb and his sister Mary published Tales from Shakespeare specifically for children, with synopses of 20 of the plays, but seldom quoting the original text directly.

His expurgation was the subject of some criticism and ridicule and, through the eponym bowdlerize, his name is now associated with prudish censorship of literature, movies, and television.

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What does bowdlerize mean?


Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): -ized; -iz·ing
Etymology: Thomas Bowdler died 1825 English editor
1 : to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar
2 : to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content

From the Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.  

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What are some notable examples of bowdlerization?

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare's original:

"the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” – Mercutio, Act II, Scene 4, line 61

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

"the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon"


Shakespeare's original:

"Tis true, and therefore women being the weaker vessel are ever thrust to the wall . . ." – Sampson, Act I, Scene I, line 13.


"not ope her legs to saint-seducing gold” – Romeo, Act I, Scene I, Line 206

Omitted from Bowdler's Family Shakespeare.


Shakespeare's original:

"Hie you to church; I must another way,
To fetch a ladder, by the which your love
Must climb a bird’s nest soon when it is dark;
I am the drudge and toil in your delight," - Nurse, Act II, Scene V, Ln 66-69.  

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

"…I must another way,
I must go fetch a ladder for your love.
I am the drudge, and toil in your delight."


Shakespeare's original:

"Spread thy close curtain, love performing night" – Juliet,           Act III, Scene II, line 5

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

". . . and come civil night".


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Shakespeare's original:

"Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!"- Iago, Othello, Act I, Scene I, Ln 94-95

Omitted from Bowdler's Family Shakespeare.


Shakespeare's original:

“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” - Iago, Othello, Act I, Scene I, Ln 121

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

“Your daughter and the Moor are now together,”


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Shakespeare's original:

"Out, damned spot! out, I say!"  - Lady MacBeth, Act V, Scene I, Ln 38.

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

"Out, crimson spot!"


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Why was the Merchant of Venice so controversial?

William Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice makes the character one of the most controversial in Shakespeare’s entire body of work. Representative of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the era, Shylock was depicted as a misery, Jewish moneylender who preyed on the poor.

Shylock overshadows everyone else in the play, though he has such a small role. When performed, the character was often played as a comic villain with a red wig associated with the devil, sidelocks, and a false, big nose, lending more support to the claims of anti-Semitism in the play. Examples of this stereotypical portrayal are evident in printings of the Merchant of Venice during the 18th and 19th Century as seen in Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

Not mentioned in the play, though well known to the people of the era, is that during Shakespeare's day, money lending was one of the few careers open to Jews during the 16th Century, and Christians made deals with them daily. It is this hypocrisy in Shylock’s portrayal as a villain that has often caused critics to raise accusations of anti-Semitism.

Notable actors who have portrayed Shylock include Richard Burbage and Will Kempe in the 16th century, Charles Macklin in 1741, Edmund Kean in 1814, William Charles Macready in 1840, Edwin Booth in 1861, Henry Irving in 1880, Lucille La Verne in 1929, John Gielgud in 1937, Laurence Olivier in a 1973 TV movie, Al Pacino in a 2004 feature film version. and F. Murray Abraham at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. It is in the more recent performances where Shylock has been portrayed as a sympathetic, tragic figure rather than the comic grotesque character of the Elizabethan era.

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Where has the Merchant of Venice been banned?

Though the Merchant of Venice has raised controversy and had been censored almost since its inception, it was not until the 20th Century that the play was banned. Since World War II, the Merchant of Venice has been banned in more classrooms than any other Shakespearean play.

  • In 1931, the Merchant of Venice was eliminated from high school curricula of Buffalo and Manchester, New York. Jewish organizations believed that it fostered intolerance.

  • Then in 1953, minority groups still felt that Shylock was depicted as an unfortunate characterization of a Jew and sought the suppression of the play.

  • And in 1980, the Merchant of Venice was also banned in Midland, Michigan schools due to the anti-Semitic depiction of Shylock.

  • The Merchant of Venice is not banned in Israel. In fact, according to Sam Schoenbaum, a leading 20th Century Shakespearean biographer and scholar, it is one of the country’s most popular plays.
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Exhibit Citations

  • Shakespeare's plays in quarto : a facsimile edition of copies primarily from the Henry E. Huntington Library. Edited by Michael J.B. Allen and Kenneth Muir. Published by the University of California, Berkley in 1981.

    The First Folio of Othello was originally published in quarto in 1622. Shakespeare’s plays began to be printed in 1594, probably with his tragedy Titus Andronicus. This play appeared as a small, cheap pamphlet called a quarto because of the way it was printed. Plays published in quarto were the size of a modern book, and their pages are made by folding a sheet of paper twice to form four leaves. None of Shakespeare’s manuscripts survived, so the printed texts of his plays are our only source for what he originally wrote. The quarto editions are the texts closest to Shakespeare’s time.

  • Tales from Shakespeare. A narrative adaptation of the works of William Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb to a simple level that children could read and comprehend. Published in London by J.M. Dent & Co. and in New York by E.P. Dutton & Co., 1909.
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"Art made tongue-tied by authority."

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 66

Page last edited by on 03/04/2013.
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