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Duration of Performances and Lengths of Plays: How Shall We Beguile the Lazy Time?


Prevailing opinion for many years has held that Shakespeare’s long plays cannot have been performed in his own time without substantial cuts. However, a careful review of the evidence shows that those plays could have been, and probably were, performed essentially as written. The typical Elizabethan theatrical event lasted almost four hours. That duration remained consistent, even as the times of day at which an event began and ended shifted in the middle 1590s. But the theatrical event was a flexible vehicle, accommodating plays of substantially varying lengths. Plays were intermixed with several forms of incidental entertainment. Time allocated to this entertainment varied in inverse proportion to that devoted to the plays. Audiences probably wanted to see longer plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, so when acting companies performed those plays, relatively little time would be spent on other entertainment. The maximum time available for a play was about three and one-quarter hours. That was sufficient time, at the speed at which Elizabethan plays likely were delivered, to perform even Shakespeare’s longest plays without cuts. Some cuts were made for local editorial reasons, but not for the principal purpose of reducing a play’s length.

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