Seafaring men, sir. They say they have letters for you. – HAMLET IV vi

In pulling out the previous post title (and remembering one from a couple of months ago regarding the same scene), I’m was hit by the notion that the reason scenes like that are often trimmed mercilessly or cut entirely (besides of course the human bladder) is the very reason people love particular episodes of the better episodes of this New Golden Age of Television we’re in.

Ask fans of Game of Thrones or Mad Men or what have you for a favorite or at least a monumental and point-turning episode and they’ll frequently mention “that one where they dropped sixteen of the seventeen plotlines we usually jump around among and focused on just one for the whole hour”. (“The Watchers on the Wall” and “The Suitcase” episodes of the aforementioned are good respective examples. You no doubt have your own favorites.)

But the moment the Burbage Break hits a play like Macbeth, the whining begins. “That’s not our lead actor; that’s not the main story; can’t we get rid of most of that and get back to a star turn speech or a swordfight?

The Burbage Break, for people who don’t do this all the time, is a colloquial term (one of many – I’ve heard it called other things, but I like plain “Burbage” most) for that moment around Act IV when Shakespeare et al. would leave a nice and probably contractually dictated gap in which the inevitably Richard Burbage-portrayed protagonist would be captured by pirates or something and the actor himself could go have a pee or an ale or a shag or just a seat before coming back refocused for the big swordfight that led to his temporary demise, twice Wednesdays.* And the candles would get their wicks trimmed for the indoor shows, and the audience would have to live with other stuff going on.

(In the midst or rehearsals for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, I noticed that even in that play’s Act III version of what happens during Hamlet’s Burbage, Hamlet sleeps through most of it. All that nattering is exhausting. And even during his break, Hamlet won’t butt out – he sends a long letter poor Horatio has to just stand and read on stage. There are other people in your nutshell, Hamlet. Make room.)

All this is hearsay, of course, but the fact remains that these rest spots do exist for the big feather-in-the-cap tragic roles – Shakespeare was a practical man; just look at his grain storage.

And that Other Stuff gets fascinating. You don’t notice Lear disappears for several scenes because of the onstage eye-gouging. Hamlet’s gone? Groovy – let’s watch a woman go stark raving mad. Malcolm & Macduff, though, bless their hearts. I’ve seen their long (long) scene done really well, but there’s a long while between the baby-murdering that distracts us from the start of Macbeth’s teatime and Macduff’s grief about something we knew already as Macbeth finishes his biscuit. And most of that long while is a not-even-argument-exactly purity test given in real time. It’s a staging challenge when compared to blinding a man with one’s thumbs.

So TV producers out there, hear me out: do a four or five hour episodic adaptation of one of the plays (instead of doing four plays in that span coughhollowcrowncough); let your star off for Episode Four and suddenly everyone will be all excited about Malcolm and the lingering visuals of the healing hands of Edward the Confessor and of Rosse’s long ride to England and no one will even notice the big jerk was gone.

…I suspect the lack of break for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern was in the back of my head when I thought of this. They don’t rest. There’s no ale. And I’m blogging when I should be memorizing. Back in a bit.



*I know, I know, they didn’t do twice Wednesdays then. We barely do it now, relatively. It’s an expression. The internet demands such a lot of preemptive defenses against literality.

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