The character of Hamlet speaks about as many lines as make up the entirety of A Comedy of Errors, which clocks in at about 2 hours. It was, then, with equal measure of delight and dole that I shouldered the task of cutting all of Hamlet down to a half an hour to use in our education programming. Delight in the challenge of it, and dole in the... challenge of it. The end goal of the endeavor was to have a version of the play without narration that high school students can perform at the end of a week long Shakespeare residency taught by a tag team of their classroom teacher and one of our teaching artists.
It’s a noble goal but it sometimes seems impossible. It would be easy to condense the play if all that I had to care about was plot: The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet to revenge his murder, Hamlet’s like, “Heck yes I’m gonna avenge your murder, also blooblooblooblah, I’m actin’ crazy”, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, HAMLET AVENGES, everybody dies. See, easy. The problem is that what’s great about Shakespeare isn’t his plots, which often seem to be held together with Elmer’s glue and bits of cello-tape (I mean, really, send multiple copies of that letter, Friar Laurence); what’s truly astoundingly magnificent about Shakespeare is the way he uses language and develops compelling characters. Hamlet uses his 1,438 lines to develop a character so complete, on leaving the play it’s hard not to think a little bit like him. It’s as if his mind is transparent and we can see a complete human being’s cogs turning and neuroses bubbling about. Not only that, the words! Oh the words words words!
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
I mean, that’s just... I mean, READ THAT! Read it over and over again! Read it out loud!
The problem is, as I’ve just demonstrated, to educate someone in Shakespeare, you can’t just give them a large chunk of text and exclaim in all caps, “READ THAT.” It’s not helpful. If a student doesn’t care about Shakespeare, reading a large block of antiquated, overly loquacious text isn’t going to open their eyes and make them sigh in profound, revelatory beauty no matter how enthusiastically you endorse it. You have to espouse in them their own love of Shakespeare through inviting them to engage in it. So, allowing students to perform Shakespeare: good idea. Giving them way too much complicated text: bad idea. The complexity is clear, my job in cutting 7/8ths of Hamlet is to preserve the spirit of Shakespeare, but in a manageable dose. The quotation above remained in its entirety, but the 11 lines that sat above it in the original text which are equally good, are gone.
At times, cutting the play can feel perverse (splicing and recombining swaths of text like a taxidermist configuring a jackalope) and at other times liberating when the sense of a scene or a monologue suddenly resounds significantly more clearly and attainably. I know I have a responsibility to give young people an invitation into the ranks of Western Culture. Who cannot quote Hamlet? Only children. By the time you enter adulthood you know the phrases, “To be or not to be,” “To thine own self be true,” “The play’s the thing,” “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They’ve grown into your mind like roots and shape your thoughts without you even knowing it. Exposing young people to these foundational lines is essential, but in palatable dosages. Knowing what to cut is a matter of knowing what is most significant. The lines can’t stand without the story, but the story’s junk without the lines. In other words, my task in cutting Hamlet is to find more art with less matter.
- Tessa Nelson, Company Manager and Dramaturg for Much Ado About Nothing