The sanitized Shakespeare of Mary Lamb and Henrietta Bowdler – Excerpt: ‘Shakespeare’s Lady Editors’ by Molly Yarn

Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare
Frontispiece from 1922 edition of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb. Folger PR2877 L3 1922

As anyone who has read Shakespeare’s plays can attest, their content is not always very appropriate for children: brutal murders, bawdy jokes, incest, etc. Editions of Shakespeare’s plays that have been designed specifically for children often omit or smooth over things that parents might find objectionable.

In the 19th century, young women were effectively considered children as well — in need of protection from damaging exposure to the rougher adult world depicted in Shakespeare’s texts. The below excerpt from Shakespeare’s ‘Lady Editors’ by Molly Yarn explores the extent of this restricted access; how it was perpetuated by two female editors of Shakespeare’s works, Mary Lamb and Henrietta Bowdler; and how this all played out in Emily Dickinson’s co-ed Shakespeare book club.


In 1807, two books appeared that would deeply influence the world of Shakespeare publishing, both originating largely with female creators – Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Henrietta Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare. Although Mary wrote the majority of the Tales, the original imprints listed Charles Lamb as the sole author, thereby avoiding any negative publicity that might derive from Mary’s well-known psychotic episode, during which she killed their mother.29 The anonymous Bowdler edition, originally published in a small batch by a Bath publisher, did not achieve popularity until Henrietta’s brother Thomas convinced a London publisher to re-release it in an expanded form under his name. Although Thomas has therefore received most of the credit (and the blame) for the Family Shakespeare, the idea originated with Henrietta, and many of her edits survive in the re-released edition and its subsequent revised printings.30 These two books exemplify the tradition of nineteenth-century domestic Shakespeare.

Both books grew out of the impulse to make the works of Shakespeare available to those who could not previously access or understand them. The Lambs’ Tales focused on the combined market of women and children, particularly female children; by the second edition, the ‘Advertisement’ section described them as ‘not so precisely adapted for the amusement of mere children, as for an acceptable and improving present to young ladies advancing to the state of womanhood’.31 Bottoms suggests that even during composition, ‘the Lambs’ dual aim caused them to substitute simple plotlines for children but to focus their stories on the women whenever possible’.32 Both the Tales and The Family Shakespeare frame themselves in relation to a male authority controlling access to Shakespeare. The Lambs suggest that after a girl read the Tales to get a sense of the story, her brother, having access to the complete Shakespeare, could

read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages they may choose to give their sisters, in this way will be much better relished and understood.33

The introduction to the Bowdler text explains that the edition is intended to replicate the mediated transmission methods of the Bowdlers’ childhood, in which a discriminating father exercised his good taste while reading Shakespeare aloud to the family, avoiding any immodest material that might provoke ‘blushes’.34 Both introductions therefore acknowledge the incompleteness of the text offered, and the necessity of a qualified mediator to dispense a sanctioned, sanitised version of Shakespeare.

As a result of that perceived necessity, the spectre of expurgation haunts domestic editions, making them easily dismissed, criticised, or mocked. Expurgated texts violate editorial norms by insisting on the visibility of the editor’s intervention in the ‘authorial’ text. They refuse to allow the reader to indulge in the fantasy of direct, unmediated access to the author. This issue has been described by Sonia Massai and Jonathan Bate in relation to adaptation:

The figure of the author is still very powerful, and the further a text departs from the author’s holograph, the more marginal and negligible it becomes to the critic’s attention. Editing is particularly affected by this prejudice, in that the editor’s task is generally identified with the recovery of a partially lost original: a transcendental drive leads editors to try and fill the gap left by the disappearance of the natural author at the center of his work.35

The most famous expurgator of Shakespeare was a woman, and she (unintentionally) gave her name to the practice of expurgation on moral grounds. Henrietta Bowdler was the first woman to bowdlerise Shakespeare, and she was by no means the last. In her initial edition of the Family Shakespeare, published in 1807, Bowdler employed both aesthetic and moral judgement in her expurgations, cutting parts of the text that she found uninteresting in addition to those that were, one might say, too interesting.36

So as ‘innocent’ populations gained increased access to Shakespeare, cultural gatekeepers responded by making judgements regarding which parts of Shakespeare were safe and appropriate for the new readers, and even what elements they were most likely to enjoy. Access to printed Shakespeare was no longer contingent on parental approval – school boards and teachers now shared that responsibility. A working-class reader could acquire an inexpensive ‘shilling Shakespeare’ of their own. The images presented by the Lambs and Bowdlers of a male relative mediating contact for girls still existed, but a new social context also emerged: reading in a classroom with other children, overseen by a teacher. New approaches involved some trial and error, as demonstrated by a professor at Queen’s College, London, in the 1890s, whose student later recalled that

[we were] reading the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth when the Professor held up his hand: ‘Ladies, before proceeding further we will turn to the next page. We will count one, two, three lines from the top. We will count one, two words in this line. We will erase or cross out the second word and substitute the word “thou”. This line will then read “Out thou spot. Out I say.”’37

The more efficient solution to this problem was to remove offending words prior to printing, and the popularity of expurgation as a defensive position meant that most domestic editions suffered from a lack of textual ‘wholeness’ that some found troubling. Some objected out of a desire to protect the sanctity of the Shakespeare text, accusing expurgators of ‘mutilating’ or even ‘castrating’ the text, removing from it the things that made it male.38 One reviewer of the Cowden Clarkes’ expurgated Cassell edition wondered, ‘if we begin to rewrite Shakespeare, where is the operation to end?’39

Given that Bowdler’s edition was far from the most extreme example of expurgated female-edited Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, certain aspects of this concern are understandable. Feeling that Bowdler had been overly conservative in her cutting, Rosa Baughan prepared her own version of the text.40 The resulting Shakespeare’s Plays Abridged and Revised for the Use of Girls, published in two volumes by T. J. Allman in 1863 and 1871, retains only the bare minimum of Shakespeare.41 Volume 1, containing the ‘Tragedies and Historical Plays’, is a meagre, insubstantial book. Hamlet occupies only fifteen pages; Baughan dispenses with Romeo and Juliet in just nine.42 She writes in her introduction that her initial intention was to publish a book of selections from Shakespeare in the style of the popular nineteenth-century excerpt books, the most famous of which was William Dodd’s Beauties of Shakespeare.43 Baughan recognised that, had she executed her plan, ‘one of the greatest charms of Shakespeare – the fitness of the sentiment in the mouth of the speaker – would be entirely lost’, so she chose instead to produce a severely expurgated edition.44 She admitted that comedy was the primary victim of her expurgation, comedic scenes being where ‘the greatest freedom of expression is to be found’, but Baughan believed that the humour would be ‘the quality least appreciable by the class of readers for whom I have laboured’.45 In other words, the girls wouldn’t get the jokes anyway.

As for prose adaptations, the Lambs themselves recognised the dangers of offering an incomplete Shakespeare to someone experiencing the plays for the first time, expressing the wish in their Preface that

if [the Tales] be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of the young readers it is hoped that no worse effect will result than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length (such a wish will be neither peevish nor irrational).46

Others criticised editors and adaptors who admitted to the missing elements, and thus highlighted their existence. One review of the Lambs’ Tales complained about ‘the language of the preface, where girls are told that there are parts in Shakespeare improper for them to read at one age, though they may be allowed to read them at another. This only serves as a stimulus to juvenile curiosity, which requires a bridle rather than a spur.’47 In poet Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare reading group, the men suggested that they go through all the copies of the plays and mark out anything ‘questionable’. The women rejected this idea, informing the men that they did not want those ‘questionable’ things emphasised, and that they would read everything. Dickinson herself haughtily told them that ‘there’s nothing wicked in Shakespeare, and if there is I don’t want to know it’.48

© Molly G. Yarn 2022, reproduced by kind permission of Cambridge University Press