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Play Length

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0445  Monday, 5 November 2012

 

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

Date:         November 4, 2012 9:15:48 PM EST

Subject:     Re: Play Length

 

I’ll comment on some of Steve Urkowitz’s Shakespeare Bulletin article on play length.

 

> As a corollary argument, it is reasoned that the radically

> shorter first-printed “bad” quarto versions of plays such as

> Romeo & Juliet, Henry V, Hamlet, and The Merry Wives

> of Windsor represent texts somehow derived from the

> supposedly cut down “originals” found only in their

> later-printed and longer forms.

 

There can be no real doubt that the corrupt texts derive from plays nearer to the better texts. Urkowitz has long held that the shorter ‘bad’ texts predate the ‘good’ longer texts. The corruptions prove otherwise.

 

> Michael Hirrel, also writing in Shakespeare Quarterly,

 

Hirrel’s article is very good.

 

> there is no testimony that Shakespeare was forced either

> to cater to them or to cut his scripts to please them.

 

There is not much testimony that Shakespeare . . . anything.

 

> We do not know, though, anything at all about whether

> “the play [H5] as performed” more resembled the 1600

> Quarto or the 1623 First Folio. Gurr is simply assuming

> that his two hour theory is correct, that the shortened

> scripts resulted from economic or stylistic decisions by

> the acting company, and that artistic quality (in the form

> of about a third of the play’s longer Folio text) would be

> sacrificed for any number of exigent reasons.

 

When we realize that Q1 Henry V is a theatrical report we understand that it is “the play as performed.” Neither Gurr nor Urkowitz reach that conclusion but a “play as performed,” short & corrupt, isn’t necessarily as it was always performed. Bad quartos are short; short plays were played. Long plays were shortened, one way or another; the evidence stares us in the face. Still, I agree with Steve that longer plays were acted essentially as written. It’s not “either or” nor a question of “artistic quality.” And we are not limited to “acting company”; make them plural. After all, John of Bordeaux, which will go unmentioned (by others), was swiped for playing (by others). Q1 Hamlet is a memorial reconstruction played, recorded, and short. That doesn’t mean Hamlet wasn’t played in full. I guess it was – and that it was recorded.

 

> This essentially cynical view of Shakespeare, his fellow actors,

> and the enterprise of putting on plays makes them all seem

> like purveyors of adulterated . . . .

 

Cynical isn’t so bad. As per Hershel Brown, “the whole congregation was adulterated.” I have no gripe with the concept of “maximal texts” supplied by playwrights. Heywood’s The Captives is a good example; he and the players collaborated to chop its artistic quality. With a play written short, the druthers of the actors might send the author back to his desk (if he had one); but a longer text allows cutting without need for additions. However, there are common-sense limits to this practice and I don’t think it applies to Shakespeare’s plays very well.

 

> And [Ioppolo] has shown that the many dramatic manuscripts

> extant from the period—authorial foul papers . . .

 

Grace Ioppolo hasn’t identified any foul-paper text satisfying any definition, including her own.

 

> Like Orgel and Gurr, in his very well received

> Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, Lukas Erne also claims

> that Shakespeare’s long texts had to be cut down to fit into

> a time limit of two hours. Like Hart, Erne cites many dramatic

> prologues and epilogues which mention two-hour playing times.

 

I didn’t receive Erne’s book very well; the evidence shows clearly enough that Shakespeare had nothing to do with the publication of his playtexts. All one needs for proof is Erne’s claim that the bad quartos were part of the official effort. Shakespeare’s “fellows” denounced the published texts.

 

I don't discount the “two hours” testimony; it is repeated often enough (with no reason to suppose the denizens couldn’t tell time). Van Dam cites Platter (Long before Alfred Hart van Dam argued plays were held to 2 hours): “Den 21 Septembris nach dem Imbiszeszen, ettwan umb zwey Uhren, bin ich mitt meiner geselschaft uber das waszer gefahren, haben in dem streuwinen Dachhaus die Tragedy vom ersten Keyser Julio Caesare mitt ohngefahr 15 personen sehen . . . .

 

> a plausible duration given quickly speaking actors

 

What reason do actors have to speak quickly? They do nowadays, only to show they shouldn’t cram a three-hour play into two hours.

 

> Nevertheless the same “two houres trafficque of our Stage”

> is repeated in the far longer Second Quarto [R&J] (1599),

> . . . . The inclusion of roughly 800 lines not found in Q1 makes

> a two-hour performance of Q2 very unlikely.

 

No doubt; but Q1 is the record of a performance, as a comparison of the prologues shows. Although play length is an important topic I don’t have much trouble with it because I take numbers of long editions to be shorthand reports, including R&J and Lear. Schmidt argued theatrical reporting for Lear more than a century ago; for him, the length question was answered. If one doubts shorthand, as Erne, then the short-play argument helps to decide against shorthand. If one concludes for other reasons that Q1 Lear is the report of a performance – Well King, this case is closed.

 

Gerald E. Downs

 

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