Combating Shakespearean shrinkage

A scene from The King
Steven Elder, Sean Harris, Ivan Kaye, and Timothée Chalamet in The King (2019), Netflix, based on Shakespeare’s Henriad.

Though the term became a punchline in Seinfeld, the retail concept known as “shrinkage” refers to damaged or stolen inventory that is simply written off as part of the cost of doing business. Shrinkage is considered an acceptable loss — and I see similar losses in Shakespeare where moments in otherwise stellar productions lose focus and intensity, or simply make no sense because the hard work of figuring them out hasn’t been done.

What concerns me isn’t the loss, it’s the acceptance of it, the lingering notion that Shakespeare is supposed to be incomprehensible and difficult to understand. There’s no question that Shakespeare’s language can be hard to make sense of, but our job as artists is to illuminate the text and not pass that confusion on to the audience.

Peter Brook, in his seminal work The Empty Space, called such shrinkage “deadly,” adding that “nowhere does the Deadly Theatre install itself so securely, so comfortably and so slyly as in the works of William Shakespeare.” In Brook’s mind (and mine), Deadly Theatre is bound by tradition, by the notion that “somewhere, someone has found out and defined how the play should be done.” This leads to constant imitation of past performances rather than investigation and new discoveries. For some artists — and, to be fair, some audiences — such reproduction is comforting because, according to Brook, “just the right degree of boring is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event.”

What to do about such deadly Shakespeare shrinkage? Different artists tackle the problem in different ways, and one option is to just cut the confusing passage. But in Cutting Plays for Performance: A Practical and Accessible Guide, authors Aili Huber and Toby Malone warn that you should “never cut anything you don’t understand. If you want to cut it, you have to get it first.”

Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex, but they’re also, you know, a lot — they’re as hard for an audience to take in as they are to fully and satisfyingly realize. I try to always be very sure about the story my production is telling, then cut the things that get in the way of that. Uncut Shakespeare is an overgrown hedge, a David struggling to escape Michelangelo’s block of granite. Shakespeare’s beauty and power can get crushed under the sheer weight of words, and it’s extremely difficult to make every single word sing the way it should. I don’t want to exhaust an audience that’s forced to sit through sections that aren’t absolutely pertinent. No awards are given for longest Shakespeare, and as Huber and Malone point out, Shakespeare’s plays have been cut for all sorts of reasons, beginning in the playwright’s lifetime.

One ridiculous way of addressing the archaic complexity of Shakespeare’s language is changing it completely. This was the option taken by Julian Fellowes, who rewrote Romeo and Juliet, snobbishly proclaiming Shakespeare as unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t come from his privileged background or have his expensive education. Similarly, actor Joel Edgerton rewrote Henry IV, Part 1 for his screenplay for The King, because he said even “intelligent people…feel stupid” when they “watch Shakespeare.” I feel sorry for both Fellowes and Edgerton, both of whom I suspect have been victims of Shakespeare shrinkage: bad interpretations that lacked clarity and irreparably damaged their feelings about his plays.

Scene from Romeo & Juliet
Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in Romeo & Juliet (2013)

Actors are frequently told that Shakespeare gives them everything they need in the text, but that’s an oversimplification. Merely saying the words becomes monotonous: they require imagination and passionate action to bring them to life. Shakespeare was not just a poet, he was a dramatic poet, putting his exquisite language in the service of character and story. Shakespeare plays shouldn’t be poetry readings.

When I’m directing or teaching Shakespeare, I try to always emphasize clarity over poetry, sense over sound. It’s imperative that the language be investigated and activated, so I turn to Barry Edelstein’s invaluable book, Thinking Shakespeare: A Working Guide for Actors, Directors, Students…and Anyone Else Interested in the Bard. Edelstein suggests that “the central Thinking Shakespeare question” actors should return to again and again is, “Why is [this character] using these words now?” The answer is never “Because it’s beautiful poetry” — the reasons are always rooted in character and such acting basics as given circumstances and super-objectives. Shakespeare’s characters talk in order to think and act, and, like his plays, are full of contrasts. This “clash of opposites” is known as “antithesis,” and Edelstein argues that understanding and outlining those differences “is absolutely indispensable to making sense of Shakespeare on stage.”

The worst reaction to Shakespeare’s complicated language, it seems to me, is thinking that it should be hard for an audience to understand. This will only cause Shakespeare shrinkage to expand, creating entire productions that are difficult to understand, not just occasional moments, and alienating audiences who have been disappointed too many times. Shakespeare should never be a chore: It’s some of the greatest music ever written serving some of the greatest characters ever created, and we should ensure that every syllable crackles with intensity and specificity. Otherwise, they’re just “words, words, words,” …with little meaning and few compelling reasons to watch.

9 Comments


  • If Shakespeare’s language is so difficult, why are so many of his lines and phrases in our fickle memories? When it comes to emotion, he often resorts to monosyllables. For example, Cleopatra’s maid says in their tomb scene, ‘The bright day is done and we are for the dark.; Shakespeare not Beckett.

  • Agreed but what (is left)) about performance in translation? There is always an interpretation in the translation before editing the final version. It makes it necessary to ‘play’ with the language in order the play to work, that is, to produce and provoke a desired effect image message etc. (puns are a challenge).Shakespeare in translation in this sense avoids the ‘sacrilege’ controversy by assuming the original sin naturally.

  • The idea of reducing excising after understanding the difficulty is well-stated. Once understood the decision to edit the passage might become unnecessary.

  • I have been a long time fan of Austin Tichenor and the Improvised Shakespeare Co. This article embodies in a very articulate way the message that I hope my students glean from my classes. I find it applicable to so many theatrical traditions outside of Shakespeare as well. A good message of the actor’s responsibility to the text and commitment to imagination and strong training.

  • When, I directed Shakespeare in high school, I would cut deep. Some students were fine with the reduction of their roles but others would come to me and “fight” for reinstatement of their lost lines. It was great to see them understand their characters and their situations. The lines were needed to play the character and let the audience more fully enjoy and understand the play. I loved seeing my students get Shakespeare.

  • Beautifully and thoughtfully expressed. Shakespeare’s texts may require a deeper dive for directors, actors, and audiences than the average play – but the rewards are sumptuous for all.

  • Spot on! When we were doing Shakespeare in little old out of the way New Bern with the talented Mary McGinley in charge, we usually had folks asking us what language had been changed, because the production had “explained” everything.


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