Bowdler was born near Bath, the son of a gentleman of independent means, and studied medicine at St. Andrews and at Edinburgh, where he took his degree in 1776, but did not practice, devoting himself instead to the cause of prison reform.
He was a strong chess player for his day, and played eight recorded games against the best chess player of the time, François-André Danican Philidor , who was confident enough of his superiority to Bowdler that he played with handicaps. Bowdler won twice, lost three times, and drew three times; Philidor was usually blindfolded and playing multiple opponents simultaneously, and sometimes started without one pawn. The first recorded game to feature a double Rook sacrifice was played between Bowdler (white) and H. Conway at London in 1788.
In 1818, after retiring to the Isle of Wight, he published his Family Shakespeare, which had considerable success. He subsequently attempted to do the same with the works of historian Edward Gibbon, a project which was not as successful. Bowdler's edition of Gibbon's work was published posthumously in 1826.
He later settled in south Wales, where he died, and is buried at Oystermouth in Swansea. His large library, consisting of (unexpurgated) volumes collected by his ancestors Thomas Bowdler (1638–1700) and Thomas Bowdler (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter.
In 1807 the first edition of the Family Shakespeare was published, in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 of the plays. In 1818 was 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 summarises and justifies his changes to the text. By 1850, eleven editions had been printed.
Bowdler was not the first to undertake such a project, and despite being considered a negative example, his efforts made it more societally acceptable to teach Shakespeare to new audiences. The poet Algernon Swinburne said, "More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children."
Bowdler's commitment not to augment Shakespeare's text was in contrast to many earlier editors and performers. Nahum Tate as Poet Laureate had rewritten the tragedy of King Lear with a happy ending. David Garrick had starred in a version of Othello which he altered to make Iago the lead role, renaming the play Iago to match. In 1807, 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.
Some examples of alterations made by Bowdler:
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