Thomas Bowdler and the Cockrane Affair

Kenneth Walthew explains how, on a visit to Malta for medicinal purposes, Thomas Bowdler the purifyer of English literature, found himself involved in a farce which was worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

In the early months of 1811, chance brought together on the island of Malta two Englishmen whose careers and characters could hardly have been more sharply in contrast, but who were both to play in one of those farcical interludes which occasionally enliven the solemn narrative of history. One of them, Lord Cockrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was the author of the comedy and its leading actor. The other, Thomas Bowdler, filled a minor, offstage role as prompter and commentator.

Later in life, Bowdler was to attempt to purify the works of Shakespeare so that they were, in his opinion, 'fit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies'. When it was published in 1818, his ten-volumeFamily Shakespeare brought him a dubious fame, and, posthumously, with the verb 'to bowdlerise', a permanent niche in the English dictionary.

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