How dare I touch a single word of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare is SHAKESPEARE. His renown is god-like, and I revered him. His work is perfect and should not be altered. To edit his work felt like desecrating a monument, or something to boost my vanity, or being cruel to a friend. Not a pleasant feeling.
But in the course of my studies, I came across prompt books for Shakespeare’s actors. Sometimes these were used in London, and often used on tour in the country side. Even the first folio and second folio show in inconsistencies. Shows were trimmed and reordered, sometimes ruthlessly, to fit a certain time frame and audience taste. For instance, it took Shakespeare about 4000 lines to give Hamlet full expression, but early performances needed to cut the length (about four hours) to about two hours. That meant cutting 1500 lines or more, and, in some cases, moving scenes for continuity. There was no official “director” or “editor” of the play for performance, and it seems most likely that the actors decided what to keep and cut, albeit the theater owner may have had a say, so these decisions were made as a group. Despite his genius, and brilliance of the work, Shakespeare must have known that his shows needed to be cut for time and audience.
All this has made me feel much better about editing.
So I take those two ideas as first principles, and have added a third: location. Since we perform Shakespeare outside, with no amplification, and often in areas not architecturally designed for the human voice, how language travels in those spaces is a primary concern. True, an actor’s skill in projection and their volume matter, but language matters too. Single syllable words with strong, clear sounds, like “whips and scorns of time,” are more discernible to the ear and are more easily projected rather than polysyllabic words like “contumely,” or “consummation,” which are often more difficult to project because they are a mouthful, especially outdoors with little for the voice to bounce off.
It is primarily these considerations I keep in mind when I edit a script. Many of my edits involve trimming speeches or cutting redundancies (as in the first example). When trimming Prospero’s first speech, I focused on what the audience needs to hear to follow the story, and felt the exclamation “that a brother should be so perfidious!” was enough to convey Prospero’s ire. The second speech is repeated after Miranda’s line, so the audience gets the same information, and, while these long speeches coupled with Miranda’s inattentiveness convey character and a relationship, the audience will be able to get it the first time, and not need the repetition.
Or sometimes it helps to cut obscure jokes and references. This cuts run time, and removes things the majority of audiences won’t understand or find funny. In the second photo, I’ve marked a section to cut, but wanted to hear it with my actors and talk about it with them first, and come to a decision together. There are even short scenes I will ask the cast about to see if we can cut them.
Or sometimes edits are made to suit an actor’s range. There have been moments in rehearsals where an actor has difficulty with a line, or feels uncomfortable with it, or can’t quite make the line sing, and we take a step back, ask ourselves is the line necessary. If it is for story, or for character development, information on relationships, or is just a fun moment to play we work on it more. If it isn’t, sometimes the line is cut, though I wouldn’t say this happens frequently. We make every attempt to preserve lines before cutting them in rehearsals.
Or sometimes the script is edited for production reasons. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, we had an actress play Conrade and Margaret. Normally this was fine, except for one point in Act 3 where she was Conrade at the end of one scene, and Margaret at the beginning of the next. Not even the speediest quick change would help with this exit and entrance. So, we ended up rearranging the scenes to give her time, but only did so because it did not interfere with the story. If it were to interfere with the story we had two contingencies: stall with music, or, if all else failed, recast Margaret. Thankfully we had to do neither.
While story, time, and location should govern most editorial changes, I would advise against editing for personal bias, politcal purposes, or other ideological reasons because that is a sure fire way to ruin the integrity and complexity of Shakespeare’s work. For me, editing is not about cutting, it is about preserving as much of story, character, action, and ideas as possible, but trimming to suit our time needs. Give the audience what is absolutely necessary, don’t alter the play radically, and enjoy the ride.