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Unkindest cuts: on editing Shakespeare

Cuts

Some while ago I heard Sir Peter Hall opine on the radio that Shakespeare should never be cut. Henceforth, he would only direct productions with full original text. This seems such an extreme and peculiar position that I have since wondered if I misheard the interview, or was listening to another Sir Peter Hall or have simply misremembered and he was in fact saying the opposite. As I recall, his view was that the texts were written as Shakespeare wished them to be and that any meddling was presumptuous – simultaneously misshaping the work and denying the public opportunity to see the work as viewed by Tudor or Jacobean audiences.

Whether the plays as we know them are in any sense definitive is of course questionable, as most  were compiled by actors working from memory after Shakespeare’s death. Which text to follow when, as with Richard III, the first Quarto version is significantly divergent from the first Folio is another problem I’m not sure Sir Peter addressed. But he is one of the great men of British theatre and I apologize if I’ve misconstrued his words or if it were another Sir Peter voicing those opinions. It’s certainly true that the moment you begin to edit a text you are imposing your own interpretation. By cutting a speech or dropping a scene you are in some sense deceiving the audience; the play is no longer Shakespeare but a modified version.

Such intervention is fine if everyone watching the piece is familiar with the original, but misleading for anyone for whom it is a new and perhaps only experience of the drama. When Baz Luhrmann cut Romeo’s line ‘Thy drugs are quick’ and gave it to Mercutio before the Capulet’s ball it was impressive cinema, the words followed by an explosion of fireworks suggesting hallucinogenic rush, adolescent excitement and party fever all at once. It also created a problem for English teachers everywhere whose students were no longer studying Romeo and Juliet but Romeo + Juliet.

I don’t have difficulties with that. Luhrmann’s film was fresh and vibrant. It played games with the text but was true to its essence.  His job wasn’t to shore up the canon but entertain and make money. He did both, kicking new life into the play at the same time. Good for him.

My task at Shakespeare Comic Books is slightly different; for while the intention is also to entertain and make money, the series was expressly designed for use in schools. To that extent, it has to remain orthodox; re-arranging the text to make something punchier isn’t an option, however tempting.

A few rival comic book companies have decided to present complete Shakespeare scripts, I suspect for the simple reason that it avoids having to employ an editor to trim them down. It also means presenting a lot of material that in some cases may not have been written by Shakespeare at all (it’s thought the Hecate scene in Act 3 Scene 5 was added later to beef up Macbeth’s weird sister quotient, appealing to the Jacobean taste for all things witchy), some parts which are dull and others plain daft.

Amongst the dullest passages I’ve cut was Macbeth’s Act IV Scene 3, in which Macduff confronts Malcolm at the English court. At 240 lines it is ninety-nine longer than the next longest scene, Act III Scene 4 – and in that you get a ruined banquet, Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth’s near madness and ends with his chilling pronouncement ‘blood will have blood… We are yet but young in deed.’ The later scene, by contrast, doesn’t much advance the plot or capture attention.

It was put there for a reason, of course, but since its principal purpose was to flatter James I’s notion of a sovereign’s divine healing powers while exploring the attributes of kingship, it isn’t packed with action. We already know that Macbeth has plunged Scotland into chaos, Lady Macduff and her children murdered and Malcolm in exile. It has some good lines, but since I had to compress the whole play into sixty pages, it seemed sense to cut along that dotted line rather than another.

Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are all relatively short plays. That made it possible to retain more of the original text – almost sixty per cent in most instances. Romeo and JulietTwelfth Night and Henry V, by contrast, are significantly longer works; tougher decisions had to be made.

Amongst the cuts from Henry V was most of Act 2 Scene 2 in which Henry toys with Grey, Cambridge and Scroop, knowing they have plotted against him before unmasking their treachery and sentencing them to death. The scene is not without value, for one thing revealing Henry’s loneliness as king. He has had to renounce Falstaff, now he finds that one of his closest friends, Scroop, has betrayed him to the French. It also shows his decisiveness; just as he had cast off the fat knight, he condemns the traitors to death. He then sets sail for France. Yet at 185 lines, it was too long and digressive – the plotters do not appear before this scene and are not mentioned afterwards – and their action has no impact on events. So mention of the plot was reduced to a note in the continuity box, leaving only Henry’s rousing words as he embarks at Southampton.

Some decisions to cut were slightly easier than others. Since the Shakespeare Comic Books are used in schools a certain level of propriety is essential. Thus a large portion of speeches by Mercutio and the Nurse went into the bin. Famously, in Act 2 Scene 1, he makes reference to the medlar, a small brown fruit with a cleft that’s not possible to eat until rotten, when it splits, spilling juice. It was known as ‘open arse’ and if all this wasn’t enough, Mercutio jokes that Romeo wishes he were a ‘poperin’ pear, a phallic shaped fruit from Poperinge in Belgium. Happily for his purposes, its name also puns on ‘pop her in’.

Some have argued Mercutio’s words imply Romeo is hoping for anal intercourse with Rosaline. Others contend that the ripe medlar fruit was thought to look like female genitalia and thus Romeo’s sexual desire more conventionally directed. Either way, pretty strong stuff for primary school pupils. As is Mercutio’s assertion that ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.’ Children these days are less sheltered than they used to be. Even so, I thought it prudent to shed the lines.

Equally easy to cut was the brief scene at the end of Act 4 Scene 5 in which Peter bandies words with a group of musicians after Juliet’s supposed death. It’s a curious scene, following Capulet’s heartfelt distress on the loss of his daughter, though the mixing of comedy with tragedy was commonplace. Some have suggested it was an opportunity for the celebrated Will Kempe to come on and do a comic turn and might also have provided an interlude during which Juliet’s bed could be withdrawn and the stage re-arranged.

This may be true, but the fact is it lacks hilarity. For while much of Shakespeare’s low comedy remains wonderfully funny, the greater part of his humorous word-play falls flat. So out went Peter and the musicians, and out too went the repartee between Antonio and Sebastian in Act 2 Scene 1 of The Tempest and out also went almost all of the drunken Porter from Macbeth’s Act 2 Scene 3. Jokes that require ten footnotes to explain them have lost their zing, however side-splitting they were four hundred years ago.

Which is not to say that the porter, at least, wouldn’t be hugely entertaining on stage, but actors have the chance to bring words to life through gesture and physical comedy. It’s true I have pictures, but not much space and providing a modern English translation compounds the problem. For while Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to an ‘equivocator’ as being to Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest known as the ‘Great Equivocator’ who was executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, any normal child would be unaware of this. But explaining it crisply would have been difficult and making it amusing virtually impossible. So out it went.

I was reluctant to cut the Porter’s opening speech because it’s so celebrated, but I’ve agonised more about cutting other lines simply because of their power and beauty. It feels like sacrilege or vandalism and I’ve struggled to install as much original text as possible. The American writer and Shakespeare scholar, Michael P Jensen, once commented that the comic books were a crime against the art form – his argument being that the genre inherently favours pictures over words, however expressive the latter, while the Shakespeare comic books are text heavy. Some of the pages are weighted down with them.

I plead guilty as charged, but with mitigating circumstances.  For though a vast amount of space could be freed without the modern English translation, it seems essential to offer some clue to Shakespeare’s original meaning – when highly qualified academics can’t always agree quite what Shakespeare’s saying, it seems tough to let thirteen year old students work it out for themselves.

For example, I read at least three separate interpretations of Lady Macbeth’s lines,

‘thou’ldst have, great Glamis,

That which cries ‘Thus thou must do’, if thou have it,

And that which rather thou dost fear to do

Than wishest should be undone.’

I came up with fourth variant of my own, though off-hand I can’t remember what it was. In that instance, it seemed simplest to snip the lines.

I don’t think Sir Peter likely to approve. I’m not sure Secretary of State of Education, Michael Gove, would either. At the moment he is insisting students read only complete texts by British authors. Beyond returning to a 1950s style curriculum, it’s not certain what he hopes to achieve by this. If he wants to induce intellectual coma, he should push on with his plan. If he wishes to inspire the next generation with a love of Eng Lit, he might do better letting teachers decide what’s best for their students. Hopefully at least a few will continue to opt for the Shakespeare Comic Books.

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