The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0457  Tuesday, 13 November 2012


From:        Dom Saliani <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 12, 2012 5:44:37 PM EST

Subject:     Play Length


I stand with Hardy when he admits that he “cannot stand for a four hour play (or three or two or one, for that matter).” I can’t either.

And I wonder if Shakespeare actually dared to “split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing, but inexplicable dumb shows, and noise” with three and four hour performances.


I love theatre but I often find it difficult to SIT through performances some evenings in my comfortable seat in an indoor theatre protected from the elements. I cannot imagine an audience comprised mostly of groundlings (also referred to as “stinklings”) standing in the hot London summer sun for more than three hours. My imagination or credulity does not extend that far.


Especially when there is ample contemporary evidence that it was a relatively common practice then (as it is now) to shorten plays to an endurable length AND to “print more than was presented.”


In Richard Brome’s introductory material of The Antipodes, we find this declaration: “Courteous Reader: you shall find in this book more than was presented upon the stage, and left out of the presentation for superfluous length . . . ”


On the title page of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623), it is advertised that the quarto contains: “The perfect and exact Coppy with diverse things printed, that the length of the play would not beare in the Presentment.”


In the preface to the 5th Quarto Hamlet (1637) there is a gratuitous comment that is quite relevant to this discussion: “The play being too long to be conveniently Acted, such places as might be least prejudicial to the Plot or Sense, are left out upon the Stage.”


Now why would the publisher feel it necessary to include this statement?


The Bard’s plays also contain evidence that many audience members would often agree with Polonius’ verdict that “This is too long.”


We are all aware, of course, of the unambiguous (in my mind) reference to the length of plays in Romeo and Juliet


“The fearful passage of their death-marked love, . . . 

 Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage”


The prologue in Henry VIII echoes this with an oblique reference to the tolerance level of audiences:


Those that come to see

Only a show or two, and so agree

The play may pass, if they be still and willing,

I'll undertake may see away their shilling

Richly in two short hours.


We need to remember that plays did not appear in print until they had lost their commercial viability on the live stage.

What this practice presented was the opportunity for playwrights who were to some (or to a great) extent interested in posterity, a chance to “augment and enlarge” their texts for audiences more sophisticated than those who were capable of only appreciating “inexplicable dumb shows, and noise.”


Therefore, I think the real issue here is not whether the printed plays were longer than the later printed texts.


It is obvious that they were

          and they are

                    and they always will be. (pace Kenneth Branagh)


The real issue is who did Shakespeare write for?


Did he write for the groundlings or for the “graver” sort who relished a speech that “was never acted, or if it was, not above once – for the play … pleased not the million. ‘Twas caviare for the general.”


I think that we have too oft repeated the oversimplified statement that Shakespeare wrote to be seen on the stage and not to be read. This may be true but it is not the whole story.


He also wrote for posterity. Check out the sonnets for evidence that he was well aware that “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments” would “outlive [his] powerful rhyme[s].


Even in his time, it was recognized that to get Shakespeare, his words had to be read. Heminge and Condell said as much in their prefatory material to the First Folio: “Read him, therefore; and again, and again: And if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him.”


Thomas Nashe said as much - much earlier: “yet English Seneca, read by candle light, yields many good sentences, as ‘blood is a beggar,’ and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets; I should say whole handfuls of tragical speeches.”


Notice he talks about reading English Seneca (Shakespeare) by candle light and NOT seeing the play at a theatre.


Dom Saliani

Editor of the ITP Global Shakespeare Series

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