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Theme Is Key

Cutting Shakespeare down to 10 minutes




William Shakespeare


One day in class, my English professor explained an activity we were going to do in the semester called a “10minSh play,” which was an abbreviation for 10-minute Shakespeare. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Is that even possible?”

Usually, Shakespeare’s plays would last about two hours or more. Knowing that the development of a storyline needed many scenes to unfold and characters to be introduced, I couldn’t fathom how one could try and make a Shakespeare play understandable in just 10 minutes. But the professor explained that the script used for “10minSh” would not be of the original material but an abridged version of it, meaning that scenes and dialogues were cut down significantly until only around 2,000 words were left— nothing added or rearranged.

This made me question the point of “10minSh.” Why reduce an enormous and complex script, such as Shakespeare’s, to its skin and bones? But once my professor encouraged the class to try abridging one of Shakespeare’s scripts, The Merchant of Venice, I began finding the answers to my questions.

I was familiar with The Merchant of Venice because I read it in grade school. Even though it was many years ago, I still retained some knowledge of it and managed to somehow cut down its scenes to the ones I found most important: The feud between Antonio and Shylock, Jessica and Lorenzo’s elopement, Portia’s test for a suitor, and Shylock’s loss in the court scene with Antonio. But I quickly began to realize how difficult it was for me to explain each of these events without giving a bit of its backstory. And even then it was hard to cut down dialogue. I wanted to squeeze in all the essential things I noted into my abridged story and when I did, it felt like I wasn’t doing the original script justice. It didn’t make sense anymore. It was only when I focused the story on a certain aspect, thanks to my professor, did I begin to see how plausible a 10-minute Shakespeare play could be.

That’s when I began to enjoy it.

I learned two things while abridging the script. One was that focusing on a certain theme helped finding scenes to remove and keep for the abridged version. The other was that doing so would put the script into a new perspective. By only cutting the dialogue, some lines of the characters were highlighted or a scene was given more importance. It was this that made “10minSh” so interesting for me.

To narrow down my theme, I focused on one of the character’s development in the story. I was interested in Shylock the first time I read The Merchant of Venice. He wasn’t an antagonist who hated the main character for plot’s sake but had his own personal reasons for it. And when you focus on those instead of just thinking of him as the bad guy because the good guys in the story say he is, you’ll find he’s actually a relatable character. That, of course, didn’t excuse the unsavory actions he committed or the things he said when he became a victim of discrimination and prejudice.

Thanks to Shylock, I managed to abridge The Merchant of Venice around the theme of discrimination, revenge, and karma.

Two years later and seeing the result of my abridgment in a play by the lower batches of my university made me very happy and entertained, especially since all of the actors were boys. I appreciated their efforts in adding their own twist to the abridgment, proving how even with only 2,000 words Shakespeare’s plays had room for so much interpretation, which made performing it all the more fun.

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