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Play Length

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0452  Thursday, 8 November 2012

 

[1] From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 7, 2012 4:17:44 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length 

 

[2] From:        William Proctor Williams < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 7, 2012 9:33:07 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

[3] From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         Thursday, November 8, 2012

     Subject:     Play Length 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 7, 2012 4:17:44 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

If we accept Steve Urkowitz’s arguments and conclusions wholesale, we must be convinced that Shakespeare’s longer plays were at least sometimes played uncut. (I don’t think that he would claim “always,” or even close, though I may be wrong.) Fair enough. But “sometimes” is more than a little squishy. Given the predominance of two- and (less-frequent) three-hour references throughout the period, and the many quite explicit references to longer plays being cut for the stage, I tend to conclude that those plays were often or even most often (but okay: not always) cut for performance. The frequencies, beyond these rather vague adverbs, seem impossible to determine.

 

A key question which arises in my mind, at least: how did these proportions vary in different venues? Were they more frequently cut for Globe performances, and perhaps to a lesser extent at Blackfriars? Were they played uncut at court? (Despite some rather energetic digging, I have found no solid evidence for long playing durations at court.) Did more-educated audiences have more tolerance for lengthy performances? This seems like a perfectly reasonable surmise, but nothing more. I don’t think there’s any solid evidence showing that private-theater, inns-of-court, court, or private-residence performances by S’s company (or others) were longer than those in the public theaters.

 

University performances are quite another matter, one that’s of particular interest because despite bans on public players performing at universities (bans which seem to have been largely enforced and honored), a very short version of S’s longest play (Q1 Ham) advertises on its title page that it (or the play, anyway, in some form) was performed at both Oxford and Cambridge—the universities, not just the towns.

 

We have very good evidence of university men tolerating/enjoying long performances. I’m surprised to find that Steve doesn’t cite the most monumental of those: Thomas Legge’s Richardus Tertius, staged at St. John’s College, Cambridge in March, 1580 (with possible revivals up to 1588). Alan Nelson calls it “the most ambitious dramatic performance ever attempted in England (before or since) . . . a play in three parts given on three successive nights, running to a total of some 10,000 lines [in Latin], with the same actor taking the lead role on all three nights.”  (Early Cambridge Theatres, Cambridge, 1994. p. 61.) 

 

So it’s a perplexingly contradictory conundrum to find the Hamlet university performances cited in a half-length edition—a conundrum no matter what provenance and intention one asserts for that version.

 

But in any case: assuming Steve is right, S’s long plays would sometimes be played uncut. What’s important, it seems to me, is that S knew that. And we can surmise (though only that) that those uncut playings were more frequently before his best customers—the educated courtiers, inns-of-court men and the like who would also pay three or six pence for the gallery seats at the Globe, and (later) even a shilling for a Blackfriar’s seat and more yet for a seat on the stage—or multiple pounds for command and private performances at court and elsewhere. Shakespeare knew that, too.

 

So that in itself could explain why he wrote such long scripts, even though he knew that they would (most?) often be cut for performance. He was writing for his best customers, and knew that the groundlings could and would be served as well via shorter versions. This hardly seems like a stretch or a crazy notion.

 

But here’s what Shakespeare also knew, unequivocally: that his plays were being purchased and read in print form. At least a dozen had been published, for instance, prior to the 1600/1601 debut of Hamlet as we know it (plus the very popular narrative poems, and the sonnets that seem to have been circulating in manuscript among those who could afford transcripts—all of which were explicitly for reading, whether silently or aloud). 

 

Those printed plays were being read. They weren’t being purchased as prompt books or scripts for performance (except perhaps rarely—certainly not enough to support a publisher’s edition). And again, the plays were being purchased and read by his best, most educated, most prestigious customers—those who were inclined and able to drop a shilling for the published versions (plus binding).

 

Plus: considering the incestuousness of the cross-pollination and competition among his fellow playwrights—especially the densely cross-referential poetomachian melee in the late 1590s and 1600/01, pre-Hamlet—he must have known that his rival/fellow playwrights were buying and reading his plays as well. 

 

It’s true that we have no evidence of S’s involvement in his plays’ publication, and some circumstantial evidence of his non-involvement. But publication involvement notwithstanding, it seems wildly improbable to me that S would have ignored a large audience of attentive, prestigious, interested, and moneyed readers when composing.

 

As a writer I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to write well for multiple audiences, much less multiple venues and media. It seems to me that Shakespeare’s rather amazing ability to do that—to write simultaneously (and successfully) for both apprentices and for earls, for the stage and the page—goes a long way towards explaining why Shakespeare became “Shakespeare.”

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        William Proctor Williams < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 7, 2012 9:33:07 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

>A far simpler explanation, however, is that “two hours” meant “less 

>than three hours” - so a play lasting 2 hours and 59 minutes would 

>still be regarded as being “two hours” long.

 

I believe George Walton Williams made just this point some years ago in a paper at a Blackfriars Conference, if I remember correctly.

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Thursday, November 8, 2012

Subject:     Play Length

 

I can easily accept John Briggs’ (and George W. Williams’ at Blackfriars Conference and in Shakespeare Newsletter) contention that two-hours traffic meant anything less than three hours, but I find it difficult to believe that, at least, the Globe audiences would have stood for four or four and a half hours for a play.

 

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