The Reverend Thomas Bowdler was a nineteenth-century physician and literary enthusiast who took it on himself to purge Shakespeare’s plays of ‘those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’. This evidently led him to have Othello strangling Desdemona because she played the trumpet, rather than the strumpet of the original, in his bed. I suspect that this story is apocryphal and designed to poke fun at the good doctor – does anyone have a copy of Bowdler’s ‘The Family Shakespeare’ to check? – but anyway the poet Freda Downie (1929-1993) takes the idea and runs with it, having a good deal of fun herself in the process. I’m not sure that I catch all the playful subtext here, and the last four lines in particular seem a bit elusive: I take them to mean something like ‘I was afraid the unfettered exuberance of our lovemaking would attract the attention of my handsome neighbour who would then follow suit? cuckold me?, and that indeed is what happened’. Still, a poem that I find highly original and quirkily memorable.
She played the strumpet in my bed
(for Dr Bowdler)
She played the trumpet in my bed
And never failed to raise my head
Her low notes in a minor key
Were studies in intimacy
And preludes to that highest note
I urged her on to every night.
And yet, that note I feared the most.
I feared the ornaments were lost –
I feared the stars would be blown out –
I feared my neighbour roundabout
Would lift his own dark handsome head
Divining brass in my low bed.
And that is what my neighbour did.