Is anyone these days familiar with “Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare,” cleaned up bowdlerised story versions of the plays? Mind you, these aren’t the only cleaned up versions; there are editions of the actual plays that have had the rude bits cut out. I don’t know why anyone in this day and age would bother. These days Elizabethan saucy wit is pretty obscure unless it is something perfectly obvious like Malvolio’s letter reading speech in “Twelfth Night.”
‘By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s; and thus makes she her great P’s.’ And if anybody doesn’t get that they either have to be extremely naïve or as thick as two planks and if the wooden O had had aisles it must have had the groundlings rolling in them. The fundamentalist university in Greenville, South Carolina, the Bob Jones University (most famous alumnus the Rev. Ian Paisley) produce a Shakespeare play every year and I believe every bit of sauce is religiously cut. Was “religious” the most appropriate word to use there? But acting in Shakespeare’s plays one can’t help but notice that if a bit of unexpurgated rudery does appear, it’s always the kids who seem to get it first. What started me off on this line of thought is that a new edition of Mark Twain's “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word. The use of the word "nigger" had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic. In this edition, the offending word is replaced with “slave” and “injun” is changed to “Indian”. But evidently hundreds of people have complained about the edits.
The novel has often been criticised for its language and characterizations and it is reported to be the fourth most banned book in US schools. The "N-word" appears 219 times in the story.
"Trying to erase the word from our culture is profoundly, profoundly wrong," said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and Dr Sarah Churchwell, a lecturer on American literature, told the BBC that it made a mockery of the story. “It's about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn't racist.”
Twain himself was evidently very particular about his words and didn’t take kindly to editing. He is quoted as saying that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter”. And when a printer made punctuation changes in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” Twain wrote later that he had “given orders for the typesetter to be shot without giving him time to pray.”
The publisher of this new edition of “Huckleberry Finn,” New South Books, says dozens of people have telephoned to complain and hundreds have sent e-mails. The press has also weighed in to the debate, generally in defence of the original version. “What makes Huckleberry Finn so important in American literature isn't just the story, it's the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language,” the New York Times said in an editorial. “There is no way to 'clean up' Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.” In the UK, an editorial in The Times called the new edition “a well-intentioned act of cultural vandalism and obscurantism that constricts rather than expands the life of the mind.” The sanitised version is published in a joint reissue with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which also has the offensive epithets replaced. Oh, boy! The political correct brigade is once more triumphant. Mind you, as the controversy is not about religion but only about racism, I’m sure Bob Jones can carry on using the old version with a clear conscience.