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William ShakespeareMeditation 78
On Censorship

By: JT

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'If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.' Dr. Thomas Bowdler 1754 - 1825

From the title page of Bowdler's edition of Shakespeare's plays: '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 my first year of high school, we were assigned Shakespeare's "As You Like It." This was one of the books we had to purchase. When I went to buy my books, I noted there was a less expensive version of the play available than the edition recommended on the school book list, so I bought that one.

When we studied the play in class, I noticed my version was slightly different from everyone else's. Not much, but mine had a few different words, and in some places, a few extra rhyming couplets. And it turned out the version assigned for the class was the expurgated version - or bowdlerized version. For Dr. Bowdler is one of those individuals whose name has entered the English language to commemorate[1] what he did, which was to clean the dirty words out of Shakespeare. And in the late 1950s, the Province of Ontario was still protecting its youth by assigning Bowdler's version to students.

But the times were changing, and by my second year of high school when we did Hamlet, we were allowed to know that Ophelia's watery fate was not just an accident.

However, that one encounter with Bowdler was enough to sour me on censorship. It seemed so silly, particularly after my friends and I compared to two versions of "As You Like It" in detail to find the dirty words, and just found innocuous Elizabethan terms which had lost their meaning over the centuries. Even considering the gentler and perhaps more innocent times in which I grew up, we found nothing in the unexpurgated text to shock us, and what is worse, we found no fresh vocabulary with which to shock our parents. And we never did figure out what we were being protected from.

But it was a good time to grow up if you liked to read, as censorship laws were being overthrown throughout the English speaking world. It was not too long before I was being titillated by Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" and "Tropic of Capricorn" and thoroughly bored by D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," part of the vast selection of formerly forbidden literature that was now available. Yet, I don't think I was corrupted in any way.

Over the past few decades we have been fortunate in that there has been less censorship than at any time in history. We have been fairly free to read what we want, to write what we want, and to see what we want. But, the threat of darkness is always there. There are any number of people and organizations ready to bring censorship back.[2][3]

The argument is nearly always the necessity of protecting children. It can be a persuasive argument, however, the recommended solution is not. To protect the children, everyone has to protected? The censors do not propose limiting access, but prohibiting access.

This is wrong.

I will not suggest that some material should not be kept out of the hand of children, and perhaps even agree with Dr. Bowdler that certain religious texts fall in this classification.[4] But, banning and censorship is not the answer. What we should be doing is educating children in such a way that they are capable of handling mature subject matter when they reach their maturity.


  1. The Apathetic Agnostic Church has chosen to commemorate Dr. Thomas Bowdler further by recognizing his birthdate of 11 July as our day to Support Free Speech and Oppose Censorship. This day has been added to the Church Calendar
  2. On 11 November 2002, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the federal government's defense of a law requiring public libraries to install internet filters to block access to pornographic sites. That's not just blocking the sites for children, but for everyone.
  3. On 15 November 2002, Concordia University in Montreal obtained a court injunction preventing a public forum on university property to discuss the Middle East situation. They feared it would be accompanied by violence.
  4. Bowdler did not limit his efforts to Shakespeare. He also published a cleaned up version of the Old Testament.

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