Cutting Shakespeare

Wait…You want us to remove what from the text?

Nothing was more shocking to the ears of twenty-five English teachers than to hear that we could — and should — edit Shakespeare’s texts to fit the needs of our students.

What?  Preposterous!

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“Enough; hold, or cut bow-strings.” Bottom: Act 1, scene 2

To many an English teacher, the Complete Works of Shakespeare may as well be a sacred text.  To make matters worse, we were all Americans, which is to say we’re far more likely than the Brits to be overly sentimental, and our general attitude is that the students should rise up to Shakespeare: He should never stoop down to them or us.

But British Shakespearean experts from no less an institution than the Globe Theatre were telling us to make edits!  What is the point of making your students bang their heads against something they have no ability to comprehend; you may as well just give them a brick to hit themselves with.

Furthermore, we were assured, we have never seen a production of Shakespeare that wasn’t cut (barring Branagh’s Hamlet, of course).  Every director makes cuts.  They’re necessary for the audience’s comprehension.  They’re necessary for the flow and the aesthetics of a particular production.  They’re necessary to get the audience out of the house before the theatre management charges the company overtime.

And as a teacher, they’re necessary to help kids come to love writing that the twenty-five of us admired enough to apply for scholarships and crowdfunding grants in order to study Shakespeare at his home theatre.

Having said all that, I didn’t think I would actually ever have the gall to chop up a Shakespeare play.  But, well, today I did.

I’m about to lead my drama club through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I needed it to be as accessible as possible for them.  I had bought an edition that had already been edited for a younger audience, but two things stopped me from using it.  The first was that it required permission from the editor in order to use the script.  Now, it was nice of them to edit the thing, but it’s still Shakespeare’s work, and it’s still very much in the public domain, so the idea of paying royalties irked me.  Furthermore, I saw Shakespeare the actor playing Ned Stark from Game of Thrones in my head, and he said, “If the demands of your time and your audience require you to chop up a script, then you have to chop it up yourself.  You can’t let somebody else do it for you.” (Incidentally, this is the second time the work of George R. R. Martin has been referenced in one of my Shakespeare posts; apparently I see them linked somehow…)

All in all I cut a good ten pages out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you know what?  Our production is going to be better for it.

There are certain rules that the Globe follows — as I imagine the RSC and other prominent Shakespeare entities do as well.  I followed them, too:

1. Find a good online copy of the text.

They recommended using the full texts provide by MIT.  (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/)

2. Make cuts, but don’t rewrite anything.

It’s not our job to change the story.  That’s been done, and the man most famous for doing so gave his name to the process of revising with a political or moral agenda: bowdlerizing.  Don’t do it.  No one will like you.

3. Don’t make cuts that would disrupt the rhythm or rhyme.

Pretty important, really.  You’ve gotta keep those elements that make Shakespeare ‘Shakespeare!’.

4. Always think about your audience.

This was the most important criteria influencing my decisions with the text today: I needed the text to be comprehended by my actors, all of whom are under 18 and have limited experience with Shakespeare, which will also be true for their mostly student audience.  Because I want both the audience and actors to remember this as a truly positive experience, I also needed it to be short enough for their 21st century attention spans; the goal is to build them up so that they have the stamina for a four-hour Branagh Hamlet, but you can’t start there.

Here are some of the particular realizations I took away from this exercise.

First, there is an excessive number of allusions to Greek mythology, and they go far beyond the basic knowledge of the Olympians that most of my students do possess.  I didn’t cut all references to ancient lore because some of it is needed for color, but it’s clear that Shakespeare expected his audience to know the names he was dropping, and this generation isn’t the same.  They won’t be charmed the way Shakespeare’s original audience was by referencing Philomel in a lullaby; they’ll try to understand for about one second, and then they’ll be bored.  Which isn’t to say that others would react the same way; I certainly wouldn’t, but I’m not acting in this performance, nor am I the intended audience.  Some classical allusions needed to go.

There are also several instances where Shakespeare has the characters tell the audience what’s going to happen before it happens.  Perhaps in his era where one went to hear a play (the word audience does, after all, imply a group of people listening…) it was necessary to do this in order to reinforce the storytelling.  But today we’re so used to watching things happen that it feels unnecessary to have Oberon dictate exactly what Puck will do as he dabs the eyes of the lovers with the magical elixir just moments before we see Puck do it.  If anything, my students are more likely to comprehend what they’re seeing visually before they comprehend it aurally — hearing about it after seeing it might be beneficial, but it isn’t as necessary to include before.  Same with the “Pyramus and Thisbe” dumb show; I’m sure it can be fun to stage, and there certainly are historically interesting reasons to include it, but for my kids — no.  It got cut.

And then there were the occasional bits that just felt extraneous (do we really need Philostrate?), so they met with the axe.  But for the most part, the text is still there, still so clearly recognizable that only the most studious devotee of the play would be able to pick out what was cut.

Most importantly, the students will still find the play to be very challenging and (I hope) deeply rewarding.  The prospect of mounting this production has some of my actors bubbling with excitement while others shy away in dread.  My hope is that it will be challenge enough for the go-getters and approachable enough for the wary.

As for myself, I’ve skinned my first Shakespeare and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Next time will be even easier.

 

House of Bard’s: If Shakespeare Had Written About Congress

Shakespeare sat here.

Shakespeare sat here.

I was having a conversation with a friend about House of Cards recently, and I shared with him that I love how deeply Shakespearean it is.  He asked what I meant, and after talking about it for a few minutes, he suggested I write a blog post on the topic.  I hadn’t done so because the subject has already been discussed in the media, and I’m new to the show (the first season is two years old and I only just finished it three weeks ago), so I’m not sure I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said.  However, there may be others out there whose Shakespeare is a bit rusty and who would be intrigued to know a bit more; also, there are probably many of you who’ve noticed connections that I’ve missed, so I’d love to see how long our list of similarities and connections could grow through the conversation.  I’ve only read one article (from The New Yorker) about the Shakespeare-Cards mashup, so if you’ve read more than me and something I write reminds you of someone else’s piece, well, all I can say is that we’re all pulling from the same source material and great minds do think alike.  I also want to say that I’ve only seen Season 1 — so SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t watched the show; and don’t spoil anything for me in your comments, those of you who’ve seen all three seasons.  Also, I haven’t seen the original British version, so I don’t know the degree to which anything I write below is true for that version.

Characters & Plot.  From the first ten minutes of the first episode, I thought to myself: Sen. Frank Underwood is Richard III and Macbeth all rolled up into one character.  He’s been promised a position of great power (Secretary of State), then he’s overlooked in favor for someone else.  Now, he has a better right to complain than Macbeth: Macbeth was promised the kingship by the witches and not by the king himself, whereas Frank was legitimately led to believe he’d get the position from the President-elect, who later reneged.  Even so, the moment Frank learns that he’s been looked over, he smiles at the President and accepts his demotion outwardly, though thinking, like Macbeth, that his rival for the post is “a step on which I must fall down or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies.”  But Macbeth goes on to say right after that line, “Stars hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.” Frank Underwood would never say that: he’ll deliver a moving eulogy, full of religious imagery, then go on to say he has no belief in God and feels no compunction about it.  He doesn’t need his Lady Macbeth to tell him to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it”: he’s had that routine figured out for years.  Which is why he’s ultimately more like Richard III.

No, really, Claire...I wanna be the Vice President.

No, really, Claire…I wanna be the Vice President.

In 2012 I took my students to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Kevin Spacey perform as Richard III.  Admittedly, this was one reason the Shakespearean overtones seemed so immediately obvious: I always look at him on the show and think of him in that role.  We sat in the front row, and at BAM that means your feet are on level with the actors’ feet.  Spacey’s Richard was scary.  He used the entire stage, and at certain moments he was toe to toe with us, which was both electrifying and terrifying.  Watching him play Frank Underwood is similarly thrilling.  Like Richard, he tells you right up front he’s been wronged and he’s going to do bad things to make things right — right for him, that is.  He’ll help you or hurt you if it’s to his benefit, and — help or hurt — it won’t trouble him the slightest to do what needs to be done.  We love Richard and Frank because they are preternaturally confident, and however bad they may be, you never stop admiring their self-assuredness.  As the New Yorker article points out, it’s a real bummer when Richard gets killed; you know that he deserves it if we live in a moral universe, but you think to yourself, “Well, damn.  Now the fun is over.”

Frank’s wife, Claire, is kind of like Lady Macbeth.  She definitely provokes, encourages and helps him towards his greatness because it will mean big things for her as well.  But she’s a fully developed 21st century character; she’s got her own non-profit, her own interests and power plays that sometimes cause her to cross Frank’s interests.  If Frank is one part each of Macbeth and Richard, then Claire is maybe one part Lady Macbeth, but three parts Rosalind from As You Like It: beautiful, witty, scheming and wise.  But that rotten part of her that is Lady Macbeth is enough to spoil the whole apple.  Neither of these characters can have happy endings, but they’ll definitely have exciting ones.

I don't always speak directly to the audience, but when I do, I like to have a sip o' bubbly.

I don’t always speak directly to the audience, but when I do, I like to have a sip o’ bubbly.

Structure and Genre.  Like Shakespeare, the writers of this show love to employ sly, witty, sometimes bitter asides and soliloquies.  Frank — like Richard, Macbeth, Hamlet, Polonius, etc — reveals wonderful secrets during those moments when he looks at the camera to pull us out of the scene and into his mind.  It’s part of his strategy for winning us over, and his look always says the same thing: you know I’m right.  I have been seen clapping my hands with childish glee when he looks aside at us and says…nothing.  Once he’s established his use of the aside, he no longer needs to use it for words.  He just looks, as if to say, “See what I’m talking about?  Tell me I’m wrong.”  And, thus privy to his nefarious plots, we delight in being his confidantes and become complicit in his schemes.  I’m sure there is a bigger meta-metaphor to be developed here, but I’m going to leave it at that.

Is this the face of a man who would murder his brother and nephews, and then trick you into marrying him after murdering your own husband?

Is this the face of a man who would murder his brother and nephews, and then trick you into marrying him after murdering your own husband?

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and these plays are historical insofar as their characters were once real, flesh and bone people, and some of the events of the stories did certainly happen.  But to go to them for a history lesson is to miss the point.  Like our historical Hollywood movies today whose purpose is to tell us (we, the people of the present) as much, if not more about ourselves than the people of the past, so, too, did Shakespeare’s histories function.  Furthermore, his treatment of certain historical characters has been controversial.  Don’t believe me? Check out the website for the Richard III Society; their mission: to “secure a more balanced assessment of the king” since 1924.

House of Cards is only slightly different.  Although its characters are purely fictional and not meant to embody any specific historical figures, its depiction of Washington and the power structure is real-ish, albeit straight out of the conspiracy theorist’s handbook.  And it works for that reason: conspiracy theories are a lot more exciting than plain-Jane, banal, common sense reality.  Although I know there are politicians who do bad things, I doubt that too many have ever been guilty of murder.  Have journalists slept with their sources to get information?  Probably, but I doubt it’s par for the course.  So it’s consistent with a Shakespeare history: it does give us a peek into the world of politics and power, with its egos, its pushy lobbyists and sleepless interns, but we peek at it through gauze and smoke.

Alright, I’m sure there is more to say, but I’ll leave that for you, dear reader.  Where have you seen Shakespeare hiding in the show?