The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0293 Tuesday, 20 July 2010
Date: Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Subject: Duration of Performances and Lengths of Plays
The lead article, Michael J. Hirrel's "Duration of Performances and Lengths of
Plays: How Shall We Beguile the Lazy Time?" in my most recent Shakespeare
Quarterly (61.2 (2010): 159-182) addresses some of the most fascinating issues
being debated in Early Modern theatrical scholarship: the length of Elizabethan-
Jacobean performances and the subsequent effect that performance time had on
the length of those playtexts.
When I taught, I used to say, "Shakespeare's audience would not have stood for
more than two hours to hear a play." However, after private conversations I had
with George W. Williams regarding Early Modern attitudes regarding clocks and
timekeeping ("two hours" = more than or equal to two but less than three hours).
I modified this statement to "Shakespeare's audience would not have stood for
more than two to three hours to hear a play.
Until 2002, I used to say to my students, "Shakespeare was not interested in the
publication of his playtexts." Then I read Lukas Erne's "Shakespeare and the
Publication of His Plays" (SQ 53.1 (2002): 1-20) and began qualifying that statement.
All of these issues are considered in Michael J. Hirrel's "Duration of
Performances and Lengths of Plays" as the essay's first paragraph indicates:
"To what extent were Shakespeare's long plays actually performed? That question
and its implications have vexed scholarship for many years. In the 1930s, Alfred
Hart made the case for the still-prevailing view-Elizabethan and Jacobean play
performance times were limited, more or less, to two hours. So any playtext
longer than 2,400 to 3,000 lines was substantially cut for performance. From
that conclusion, others follow. One critical commonplace is that the full
_Hamlet_ cannot have been performed. Even its shorter Folio text has 3,537
lines, and "there is no chance of a play of over 3500 lines being acted in
full," And because many of Shakespeare's plays similarly approach or exceed
3,000 lines, Lukas Erne argues, Shakespeare must have written them with
publication in mind. In this essay, those views will be challenged. The
Elizabethan theatrical event, we shall discover, was a flexible vehicle that
probably could accommodate full performances of Shakespeare's longer plays."
There are many subscribers to this list who are better versed than I in these
matters, and I am curious what they think about Hirrel's essay.
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