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Top tips when editing Shakespeare

Lots of people ask me how can I bear to cut and edit Shakespeare down to sometimes 45 minute versions. I say I believe one minute of Shakespeare can affect you so 45 is quite alot! But I think my main objective when cutting down the plays is to help make it accessible for as many people as possible to enjoy and experience the great pleasure I think Shakespeare can bring.



It began when my theatre company started to do lunchtime theatre. The plays needed to be 45 minutes long. Strictly. As the idea would be that working people around Fleet St, and later Victoria would come in at 1pm, watch for 45 minutes and be back at their desks by 2pm. They were allowed to eat their lunch while they watched and the actors had to be less precious about noisy sandwich wrappings and crisps being munched! In fact in many ways this would end up featuring as part of the action…you’d sometimes lose your apple to Puck if we were doing “Dream”!



Later we would need adaptations this kind of length in order to do our Butterfly site specific productions as these are often promenade and the audience can’t stay on their feet for too long. So we’d try and get them in and out in 75 minutes. Roughly an hour long version of the text and some time for walking around.



Ok so all this maths was enough to do my head in and I found myself roughly equating scripts of 8000 words would make up an hour. There were some serious trials and errors that mainly landed on the poor actors heads as invariably we had to cut things down at the last minute.


But these days I aim for less is more, and know that the action, walking, singing, sword fighting etc…all needs time to breathe.





I am entirely ruthless and entirely sacrificial in my editing!



You may be surprised to learn that I just get a downloadable copy from the internet and proceed to read it aloud. I’m trying to keep anything that is funny, famous or so entirely awesome it can’t be touched. Everything else is up for grabs! The internet version makes it easier to somehow select and cut things – it helps me be less precious.



Cutting Characters!



I speak it through and begin just cutting out chunks. I will have considered earlier what subplots I want to keep in or what characters I could lose. For example  I always keep Silvius and Phoebe but cut Audrey and yes horror! Touchstone from As You like it. I warned you I was ruthless! Once I have decided to cut subplots I have to see how to extricate myself from scenes that invariably Shakespeare has expertly linked into the main plots, but I find cutting big is the same principle as lieing big!



Having gone through just selecting and cutting large swathes from the text I check my word count and am often horrified that it is still too high. So I go in again..I do the same process but this time I highlight in blue anything that is a “maybe cut”. I also try to again chop out some of the larger speeches.





When you look at a Shakespeare speech he often sums up things in the first two lines and the last lines, and if you’re outrageous about these things (as I am) you can turn for example Puck’s speech, re telling how he transformed Bottom with the asses head into, ”My mistress with a monster is in love. Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass” .



The editing does go hand in hand with how I’ve imagined directing the piece. I know I will have shown the mechanicals running about like maniacs so Puck’s description does not add anything to the action of the story so it can go. It is of course great fun and beautifully descriptive (and certainly something the actors should study to get some clues about performing that sequence) but not essential in an edited version.


I try to not add any other words other than Shakespeare’s texts so it is editing rather than adapting. As I read back through again and check my word count on realising it’s still too long I now rather painfully cut my “maybe cuts” in blue and finally I’m roughly at the word count.



Cutting opens up Creativity


But sometimes plays really are impossible to make shorter and I have to think outside the box! Rearranging scene order can help and I’ve had to be more creative with a couple of scripts namely A Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The former was a wonderful production I directed for the Courtyard theatre with the RSC Youth Ensemble over 10 years ago now. On realising I couldn’t cut it down I had the rather radical idea of cutting out the whole first scene – WHAT?!! Yes, literally. Our version began with the scene where Mamilius is taken from his mother and it unleashed a wonderful  idea which was to frame the play as if it was the ghost of Mamilius telling the story. This led to gorgeous choices that the young people created – the oracle became the game of paper and numbers pinching in and out I don’t know the name! Perdita’s flowers were all coloured sweet wrapper garlands, and every choice a kids eye view on it. So cutting can open up creativity! With Midsummer when we perform in Puzzlewood we cut the whole first scene out and get the mechanicals to discuss in a gossipy way the hullabaloo they just witnessed namely the first scene action. They tend to use members of the audience to signify the characters so they can reenact the events to the “slower” mechanicals amongst them! This then gets interrupted by Lysander and Hermia’s entrance “How now my love? Why is your cheek so pale?” audiences love this and it helps everyone understand in a very basic way who and where everyone is at the start!





Though I sound cavalier I am a stickler for the scansion. It always hugely helps to keep your cuts in a way that keeps the metre intact and I can tell you now that can be a creative task in itself! Finally I check through my internet version with the Arden Shakespeare to check any weird internet errors (though I’m sure there’s none on this website hey Richard!) And redo the layout so it is useful for the actors when we are rehearsing.



Good luck editing! Be bold and try not to be to precious. It’s a great opportunity to lose the archaic references and things you need to check the notes in the back of the book to figure out. It is also very freeing and helps you make the plays your own. The joy of watching an entire audience from every background and age sometimes experiencing  their first experience of Shakespeare really enjoying it makes it a worthwhile activity! Check out some of my one hour adaptations they are a great intro into the plays and also take a lot less time to rehearse! And see some great pictures of our unusual productions around the country.

[Ed. Here’s some links to the One Hour Shakespeare plays, adapted by Aileen, that we’ve published:

Or you can find all the adaptations that we’ ve published at:

Shakespeare adaptations for play-reading or production




Let’s Play


Aileen Gonsalves
RSC Director
Artistic Director, Butterfly Theatre
Editor of Directing,


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