Cutting and line negotiation

“Though NatureHath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not FortuneSent in this fool to cut off the argument?”- Celia, As You Like It, I.ii.43-45 

The process of cutting Shakespeare’s text began simultaneously with the very act of printing it. Indeed, even before such an occurrence, Shakespeare’s contemporaries were already assessing his works with an eye turned toward trimming them. Ben Jonson, one-time rival and later admirer of Shakespeare, said in his Timber: or, Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter, “I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand.” Jonson is quick to add that he “loved the man,” and he only wished that, as Shakespeare’s “wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so, too.”

Others would seem to have been of the same mind as Jonson. This means that the commonly accepted versions of Shakespeare’s plays which are performed today are, in fact, the products of a lengthy editing process which began with the first publication of Shakespeare’s works in folio form in 1623. This edition, produced seven years after the playwright’s death, contained thirty six plays, eighteen of which were appearing for the first time in print. The others had appeared earlier in quartos of lesser quality. Crucially, the First Folio of 1623 was compiled by two of Shakespeare’s colleagues and fellow actors who claimed to have drawn the material from his private papers. This lends the First Folio credence as the authoritative source for the majority of Shakespeare’s plays. Several subsequent re-printings of the Folio followed, however, the first in 1632, and each strayed further and further from the original. The Second Folio, for example, corrected many of the original printer errors from the First, but it also introduced a plethora of new ones. A Third Folio in 1663 added seven new plays to the canon, only one of which, Pericles, is currently accepted as being by Shakespeare. A Fourth Folio followed in 1685, and in the eighteenth century several octavo compilations of Shakespeare were additionally published, each of whose individual editors each had a different perspective on how to present the plays. It is easy to see how, from this variety of sources, it becomes difficult to distill an authentic Shakespeare.[2]

While it is impossible to know exactly how often and in what way early modern players cut their shows as they were preparing them for performance, it is certain that this did happen. That there was an ongoing cutting process which happened as the actors rehearsed and continued beyond the first performance is likely. Furthermore, the hapless playwright had no voice in this practice once his play was handed over to the company. Early modern copy was not regarded as being set in stone. Rather, it was a malleable, ever-changing body, subject to its time and environment, and, most importantly, it was acknowledged as such by the playwrights themselves. Shakespeare himself is a bit of an anomaly among early modern playwrights, for he would have had an unusual amount of control over his plays, being a shareholder, an actor, and the primary playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s (and later the King’s) Men. As such, he may have had additional input into what was cut from his plays. Yet even Shakespeare would have understood the need to make cuts based on audience reception and actor feedback.[3] 

The flexible attitude of the early modern playwright toward his text meant that, when it came to printing plays, pinning down an “original” version was almost impossible. This fluidity of copy is exemplified in the changes seen in what is arguably the most famous speech in Romeo and Juliet: Juliet’s “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” 

Today, the standard version runs:
"What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. 
O be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (II.ii.40-44)" 

Yet here is the First Quarto (1597) text: 
“Whats Montague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part,
Whats in a name? 
That which we call a Rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

The Second Quarto (1599):
“Whats Montague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme, nor face, o be some other name
Belonging to a man.
Whats in a name that which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete.”

And, finally, the First Folio (1623):
“What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme, nor face, O be some other name
Belonging to a man
What? in a names that which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete.” [4]

In fact, there is no actual textual precedent for our modern rendering of this speech; it is an editorial invention by those who have cut and pasted various elements of previous texts. Given this complex publishing history, during which many individuals had a hand in cutting Shakespeare’s text, none of whom were Shakespeare himself, it is it is still impossible to know which, if any, of the above speeches is closest to the one which the original author truly intended to be heard.

Links to the ASC
Today, performances of Shakespeare are almost always cut in some form. This is customarily for the twofold purpose of presenting a play in a manageable running time as well as crafting a story which is easily accessible for modern audiences. At the American Shakespeare Center, plays are sometimes pre-cut by the director, while at other times the job of cutting is left solely to the actors, as is the case during the annual Actors’ Renaissance Season, when rehearsal time is limited to the matter of days an early modern theatrical troupe would have had to put up a play. While discussing the cutting process for the 2011 ARS, ASC actor Sarah Fallon states that the ultimate goal is to achieve “clarity and a streamlined story.” Often, cutting a play and keeping all of the plot-lines intact and clear can prove challenging, as was the case with the 2011 ARS production of the early modern anonymous work, Look About You, a play replete with intrigue and disguises. Some 600 to 700 lines were cut from this show, about which process actor John Harrell stated, “I edited this play, and I defy any of you to be as confused as I was.”

Just as it was in Shakespeare’s day, the cutting procedure is an ongoing one at the American Shakespeare Center. It continues throughout rehearsal, and there are several factors which must be kept in mind by all involved, such as time constraints and considering what works in the space of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Another aspect of this process often involves cutting or conflating characters due to limited personnel or rapid turnover of figures on the stage. Yet, no matter how the initial cut is made, the option for line negotiation always exists. The actors may go back at any time to examine the uncut play, and, if a line of dialogue or a plot point is deemed valuable, they may petition to have it reinserted. “There are no set rules on how to do it; there are just tools that you instill in yourself. […] But you have to also be willing to throw all preconceived notions out the window,” explains actor Tyler Moss. And in spite of the variety of obstacles which must be overcome in cutting a play for performance, none of these hurdles are seen in a negative light. “Look how much we can do with what we have,” says actor Paul Jannise about the resources of the American Shakespeare Center. Shakespeare himself would likely have appreciated this approach to his works and seen much in it that was similar to how his own company of players operated.

A sample from the cut script of Henry V for a production at the American Shakespeare Center.

Henry V

Arden Edition 3rd Series.  Editor:  T.W. Craik, 1995

Edited for ASC 2011 production by RALPH ALAN COHEN



Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story

That I may prompt them; and of such as have,

I humbly pray them to admitth’excuse

Of time, of numbers and due course of things

Which cannot in their huge and proper life                                                    5

Be here presented. Now we bear the King

Toward [From] Calais: grant him there; there seen,

Heave him away upon your winged thoughts

Athwart the sea. Behold, the English beach

Pales in the flood with men, with wives and boys,                                        10

Whose shouts and claps outvoice the deep–mouthed  sea,

Which like a mighty whiffler ’fore the King

Seems to prepare his way. So let him land,

And solemnly see him set on to London.

So swift a pace hath thought that even now                                                 15

You may imagine him upon Blackheath,

Where that his lords desire him to have borne

His bruised helmet and his bended sword

Before him through the city. He forbids it,

Being free from vainness and self–glorious pride,                                        20

Giving full trophy, signal and ostent

Quite from himself to God. But now behold,

In the quick forge and working–house of thought,

How London doth pour out her citizens.

The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort,                                                 25

Like to the senators of th’ antique Rome

With the plebeians swarming at their heels,

Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in. ;

As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,

Were now the General of our gracious Empress,                                           30

As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,

Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,

How many would the peaceful city quit

To welcome him! Much more, and much more cause,

Did they this Harry. Now in London place him.                                              35

As yet the lamentation of the French

Invites the King of England’s stay at home.

[Till] Th’ Emperor’s coming in behalf of France,

To order peace between them [] and omit                                                   40

All the occurrences, whatever chanced,

[Invites his] Till Harry’s back return again to France.

There must we bring him; and myself have played

The interim, by remembering you ’tis past.

Then brook abridgement and your eyes advance                                          45

After your thoughts straight back again to France.

 In this case, the edited text includes a reference to current events in Elizabethan England which would have struck a chord with an audience then but would mean little to one today. 
[1] Ben Jonson, Workes (1616), quoted in “Appendix B: Records, Documents, & Allusions,” The Riverside Shakespeare(Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1846.
[2] Arthur Freeman, The First Folio: Text as Icon (Folger Shakespeare Library, First Folio: digital copy,, 2-5.
[3] Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 105-112.
[4] Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller, Shakespeare, The Stage, and The Book (Folger Shakespeare Library, First Folio digital copy:, 31-33.