“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.
“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.