Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Cutting and Line Negotiation

“Though Nature
Hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not Fortune Sent 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. Even before such an occurrence, Shakespeare’s contemporaries were already assessing his works with an eye turned towards trimming them. Ben Jonson, rival and 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 was 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.”1

Folio (front and back): single sheet folded in half, producing 4 pages


Quarto (front and back): single sheet folded in half twice, producing 8 pages

Octavo (front and back): single sheet folded in half three times, producing 16 pages

Others seem to have been of the same mindset as Jonson. Consequently, 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 printed for the first time. The others had appeared earlier in quartos, often 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 assertion 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 1623 was the basis for many of these. 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 by scholars as being authored 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, how it becomes difficult for modern editors to distill an authentic Shakespeare.2

While it is impossible to know exactly how often and in what way early modern players cut their lines as they were preparing them for performance, it is certain that this did happen. There was most likely an ongoing cutting process which happened as the actors rehearsed and continued beyond the first performance. 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 and could be changed by players, scribes, or the prompter. Rather, it was a malleable, ever-changing body, subject to its time and environment, and acknowledged as such by the playwrights themselves. Shakespeare is an anomaly among early modern playwrights, because he would have had an unusual amount of control over his plays, being a shareholder, actor, and the resident 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. Even so, 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 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.


“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)”


“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.”


“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.”


“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 textual precedent for our modern rendering of this speech; it is an editorial compilation by those who have cut and pasted various elements of previous texts together. Given this complex publishing history, during which many individuals had a hand in cutting Shakespeare’s text, it is it is impossible to know which, if any, of the above speeches is closest to the original draft.

There are many reasons for editors and directors to alter a text. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was no authoritative text, as it was adapted for performances based on the preferences of the audience and actors. For example, the Folio text of Hamlet contains jokes that the First Quarto edition does not, most likely because the provincial audiences watching the Quarto text were unlikely to understand the city-based jokes. Minor differences in a text such as this appear throughout Shakespeare’s works, and often an editor must decide on which phrases to use.

Links to the ASC

Today, performances of Shakespeare are almost always cut in some form. This is customarily so that a play can have a manageable running time and be accessible and understandable to a modern audience. At the American Shakespeare Center, plays are sometimes pre-cut by the director, while other times the job of cutting is left to the actors, particularly in the annual Actors’ Renaissance Season. While discussing the cutting process for the 2011 Renaissance Season, ASC actor Sarah Fallon stated 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 production of the 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, cutting the text is an ongoing procedure at the American Shakespeare Center. It continues throughout rehearsal as certain scenes are blocked. Several factors must be kept in mind when cutting a text, including time constraints, limited personnel, and the space of the Blackfriars Playhouse. No matter how the initial cut is made, the option for line negotiation always exists. The actors can examine the uncut play and 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. Shakespeare himself would likely have appreciated this approach to his works and recognized it since his company employed a similar practice.

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


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