You can learn a lot about a society by the things it censors. In 1807, Thomas and and Henrietta Bowdler published a “family” version of Shakespeare from which the Bard’s blasphemy, sex, and violence had been carefully, but not always successfully, excised. Ophelia’s suicide became an accidental drowning, while the various curses and foul language were softened. (One example: “Zounds”, which is frequently lampooned as a equivalent to “heck”, or “darn”, was actually a contraction of the blasphemous “God’s wounds”, referring to the Crucifixion, and therefore about the most offensive thing possible to say.) The idea was to make the work accessible to children (and, let’s face it, women) for whom that sort of content was considered inappropriate.
The Bowdlers would come in for a lot of criticism, if not outright vilification, in the years that followed, but they never meant to actually censor Shakespeare. Their intent was to make it available for a broader audience, the same way that Garth Stein wrote a “young adult” version of his successful racing novel, entitled Racing In The Rain: My Life As A Dog. (The primary “bowdlerization” there is the toning-down of the adult story’s central plot point, a false rape accusation from a teenaged girl that proved to be very controversial with, and triggering for, certain male readers who could never imagine a young woman coming on to, or causing trouble for, a handsome older man, largely because they assume their own repulsiveness to the fairer sex is universal rather than a specific product of their own querulous, creepy personalities and Cheeto-dust-stained, fuggernautical miens.) At no point did Thomas and Henrietta suggest that the availability of Shakespeare be restricted. Rather, they hoped that their efforts would increase interest in, and engagement with, the original work — at the appropriate time, of course.
I’ve never particularly disapproved of censorship on moral grounds, within reason. Rabbit, Run was not materially improved when Knopf changed the phrase “Best bedfriend, done woman” found in the first hardcover edition back to Updike’s original draft of “Best bedfriend, fucked woman” in later paperback reprints. This mild evasion, and many like it, smoothed my childhood’s precocious passage through many an adult-oriented book. It wasn’t always evenhanded. When I was nine years old I found my father’s copy of John Toland’s outstanding The Rising Sun; I finished it understanding the mechanisms of Japanese torture, which were related in gripping detail, much better than I understood the idea of rape, which was mentioned when necessary but always held at a discreet distance. Perhaps it no longer matters in an era where even adults restrict themselves to a diet of young-adult garbage, but there was some benefit in not bombarding children with unrelenting grotesquerie, particularly when the grownups were smart enough to know what was being said between the lines anyway.
Those days are long gone, of course. There is now no sexual practice or perversion so disgusting that we will not cheerfully rub the noses of our children in it, particularly if doing so raises our status in a society that is now far too illiterate to usefully read Shakespeare in the original but which exalts sex-positivity to a degree that would make a fourth-century centurion leaving a vomitorium turn back for another round. Yet there is one bit of sexuality too pungent, too controversial to express in the printed (or HTTPed) page today; namely, the notion that there are two biological sexes and that they may be referred to as such in writing.