Saturday, May 1, 2010

Shakespeare's Opening Lines

Nicht Diese Tone... I've been doing a lot of posts on education and baseball lately, so here's something completely different.

How much can you tell from a play's opening line? Shakespeare, of course, is famous for, among other things, his attention-grabbing first scenes. I don't remember when I heard this, but I recall being told as a student that every single one of his plays promises romance, violence, or ghosts and other paranormal beings at the outset. The idea was that, though Shakespeare wrote for the well-educated and well-mannered of his time, he knew how to appeal to the masses as well.

Opening lines are a bit more limiting than opening scenes, and some in Shakespeare's plays are less engaging than others (Timon of Athens). Some, however, kick of incredible soliloquies of the kind you'd expect to hear far later in the play (Richard III). Some, of course, are delivered by witches (Macbeth), or welcome ghosts to the stage (Hamlet). If I had a goal, I would say that my goal here is to sort these opening lines into the mundane, the epic, the frivolous, and the provoking.

The Mundane:

There are actually quite a lot of opening lines in Shakespeare's plays that are not all that engrossing. While often these lead to famous - or at least effective - opening scenes, it is nevertheless the case that we often start with day-to-day business, rather than the more weighty business of the play.

First Citizen: "Before we proceed any further, hear me speak."

Bernardo: "Who's there?"

Henry VI, Part II

Suffolk: "As by your high imperial majesty I had in charge at my depart for France..." (he drones on a bit)

Henry VI, Part III

Warwick: "I wonder how the king escaped our hands."

These two opening lines aren't so bad, but coming as they does at the opening of the second and third parts of the Henry VI series (which, in turn, comes somewhere in the midst of the other many Henry plays), they are not especially exciting. Really, they serves to connect the ending of the previous plays to the starts of their own, and thus barely count as opening lines at all.

King John
King John: "Now, say, Chatillon, what would France with us?"

Well, we do have the title character speaking, at least. But this opening seems more interesting to the Englishman in Shakespeare's time than to us now. Oh those conniving French! How dare they!... It's just not as stirring anymore.

King Lear
Kent: "I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall."

A psyche-out. King Lear is full of epic everything - especially from the mouth of Lear - so of course the opening itself is petty bantering between noble, courtly-types. Compare to Lear, shortly after his entrance: "Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester... Meantime we shall express our darker purpose." A perfect answer to the banal conversation of Kent and Gloucester.

Measure for Measure
Duke Vincentio: "Escalus."

"My lord," is the response. The Duke starts to unveil the plan that gets everyone in trouble in the rest of the play thereafter, but I wonder why Shakespeare didn't just straight into that? Is it, perhaps, the conspicuous name of this key player in the action, Escalus? Certainly beginning a play with a name is not exciting, but when that name is shared by one of the most famous playwrights of all time (the Greek Aeschylus), surely there's a reason.

The Merchant of Venice
Antonio: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad."

Not interesting. The rest of his speech adds little. I suppose natural sympathy is somewhat awakened here, but I think the audience naturally looks down on Antonio with this opening as much as they are moved by it, especially once they find out he's sad because he's having problems with his riches-laden merchant ships. Poor guy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Shallow: "Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star-Chamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire."

Much Ado About Nothing
Leonato: "I learn in this letter than Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina."

The Life and Death of Richard the Second
King Richard II: "Old John of Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster, hast thou, according to thy oath and band, brought hither Henry Hereford thy bold son, here to make good the boisterous late appeal, which then our leisure would not let us hear, against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?"

Response: "I have, my liege."

The Tempest
Master: "Boatswain!"

To be fair, the play starts "of thunder and lightning heard," so there is a storm going on.

Timon of Athens
Poet: "Good day, sir."

An uneventful beginning to an awesome opening scene. The conversation is between a poet, a painter, a jeweller, and a merchant. You can imagine the fun, or go read it.

Troilus and Cressida
Prologue: "In Troy, there lies the scene."

Two Gentlemen of Verona
Valentine: "Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus: home-keeping youth have ever homely wits."

Not bad, but not terribly exciting either. A decent joke, but the essence of the speech is "get out of the house!" A good enough starting point for a plot.

The Winter's Tale
Archidamus: "If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on the like occasion..."

There's a lot of argument over whether this is one of Shakespeare's best plays or one of his worst. Regardless, the opening is uninspiring. The rest of the speech is, essentially, "man, Bohemia and Sicily are different, and if you came to visit, you'd see." Great. Anyway, from there the play is certainly much more... unusual. There's even a mysterious, sudden jump forward of about 20 years at one point.

The Frivolous:

I separate these from the mundane because many, while still not exciting, are at least quirky in a way that the mundane openings are not.

The Comedy of Errors
Aegeon: "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall and by the doom of death end woes and all."

This has potential, but strikes the reader as being a bit over-the-top. The Duke's speech, which follows, indicates that Aegeon is overreacting a bit. Hence frivolous, not epic or even provocative.

Henry IV, Part II
Rumour: "Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? I, from the orient to the drooping west, making the wind my post-horse, still unfold the acts commenced on this ball of earth."

It's always dangerous to start with "Rumor," or some such, and this opening is a little silly. "This ball of earth" leaves much to be desired, and the truism of Rumor's swift spread is far from news. Not a terrible opening, nonetheless, but really just a transition from the fist part of Henry IV to the second.

Henry VI, Part I
Bedford: "Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!"

Oh those hung heavens and their blackness, yielding day to night! Oh the poor, dead, Henry V! Not the best funeral ever.

Julius Caesar
Flavius: "Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home: is this a holiday?"

First Witch: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
Second Witch: "When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won."

This one goes to show that silly can also be provocative. The mysterious witches here have many a strange and, I daresay, funny line. The hurlyburly trivializes what's going on, but the matters at hand end up being far from trivial.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Theseus: "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace; four happy days bring in another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow this old moon wanes!"

File this opening under the "conversation that would never happen" category. Clearly we've got some expository information that's useful for the audience, but what engaged couple sits there idle-y counting the days to their wedding in glowing verse? No, the real conversation goes like this: "Hippolyta, we only have four more days to get everything in order for the wedding! Oh crap!"

Roderigo: "Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly that thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this."

Tush, indeed.

Taming of the Shrew
Sly: "I'll pheeze you, in faith."

Appropriately, this play starts with a drunken man in front of an alehouse. The exchange that follows is witty and fun, as the rest of the play is.

The Provocative:

These opening lines don't blow the reader (or viewer) away, but they certainly capture your attention.

All's Well That Ends Well
Countess: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband."

I don't know this play, but the opening certainly raises questions. What happened? How is this going to be a comedy, exactly?

Antony and Cleopatra
Philo: "Nay, but this dotage of our general's o'erflows the measure"

Spicy. Antony and Cleopatra enter shortly thereafter, displaying ever their mutual dotage. If you know the story, however, you know who's really in command in this relationship. Hint: it's not Antony.

As You Like It
Orlando: "As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns, and, as thou sayest, charged my brother, on his blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my sadness."

Not unlike the Merchant of Venice, but here the "sadness" has to do with the need to find a good wife. Knowing that this is a comedy - and one of my favorites - goes a long way towards promising the kind of absurdity that does indeed follow. As You Like It has more cross-dressing, more fools, and more hilariously bad puns than just about any other play you'll find.

First Gentleman: "You do not meet a man but frowns: our bloods no more obey the heavens than our courtiers still seem as does the king."

Henry IV, Part I
King Henry IV: "So shaken as we are, so wan with care, find we a time for frighted peace to pant, and breathe short-winded accents of new broils to be commenced in strands afar remote."

Something exciting is going on. This is definitely the way to start a history.

Henry V
Chorus: "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars."

At Shakespeare's time, especially, it's easy to see why this would engage the audience. We know from the outset that we're going to follow kings to war and death, all in an almost mythological tone.

Henry VIII

Prologue: "I come no more to make you laugh: things now, that bear a weighty and a serious brow, sad, high, and working, full of state and woe, such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow, we now present."

Love's Labours Lost
Ferdinand: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, live register'd upon our brazen tombs and then grace us in the disgrace of death; when, spite of cormorant devouring Time, the endeavor of this present breath may buy that honour which shall bate his scythe's keen edge and make us heirs of all eternity."

Pretty cool. Almost epic, if only the play were more well known. It's worth noting that the Ferdinand, King of Navarre, is talking of love already, as if it were a war.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Prologue: "To sing a song that old was sung, from ashes ancient Gower is come; assuming man's infirmities, to glad your ear, and please your eyes."

Titus Andronicus
Saturninus: "Noble patricians, patrons of my right, defend the justice of my cause with arms, and, countrymen, my loving followers, plead my successive title with your swords: I am his first-born son, that was the last that wore the imperial diadem of Rome; then let my father's honours live in me, nor wrong mine age with this indignity.

Sounds like there's a fight brewing.

The Epic:

There are not many truly "epic" openings in Shakespeare, but there are a few that, I expect, you'll recognize. Texts in full; no comments.

Richard III
Gloucester: "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes."

Romeo and Juliet
Prologue: "Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."

Twelfth Night
Duke Orsino: "If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical."

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