Shakespeare's Openings
How He Baits the Hook

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By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark opens with a simple question:  “Who’s there?”  Besides arousing the audience’s curiosity, this query sets the tone for important questions that follow: Who or what is the Ghost, a demon from hell or a purgatorial soul? Who or what is Hamlet, a frenzied madman or a clever dissembler? Who or what is Gertrude, a complicitous paramour or a naive dupe?
And what of Claudius? He is a Proteus of changing personas: uncle, father, husband, brother, king, spy, murderer, guilt-ridden sinner.

Who indeed is there–and under what guise and for what purpose? 

One can imagine a hush descending over the Globe Theatre after Bernardo shouts the opening line while reporting to the ramparts of Elsinore Castle to watch for Norwegian invaders. Even the boisterous penny-payers in the standing-room-only yard must have gone mute for a moment to hear the reply of Bernardo’s interlocutor, Francisco, a guard just ending his watch in the foreboding midnight darkness.

Something sinister is afoot, the audience knows; the air is heavy with presentiment. But it is not a Norwegian army that shows itself in the torchlight, but a terrifying wraith in the panoply of a dead king. And the guessing game–who’s there?–is under way. 

Obviously, Shakespeare knew how to open a play. Forging words into magical keys, he opened doors into the labyrinth of the human mind and bid the audience enter. In addition to a question–whether direct or indirect, like the first line in Henry VI Part III (“I wonder how the king escaped our hands”)–Shakespeare used a variety of other devices attention-getting devices.
For example, Richard III opens with a soliloquy in which a menacing hunchback, alone on the stage, brazenly announces a murder he will commit. The Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, begins with an “induction,” a kind of prelude that introduces or leads into the play. In the induction, a nobleman returning from a hunt finds a sleeping drunkard named Christopher Sly. Deciding to play a trick on him, the nobleman directs his servants to carry Sly to the best bedroom in his home, dress him in finery, and anoint him with perfumes. When Sly awakens, the servants pretend that he is a great lord who has just come to his senses after 15 years of insanity. The nobleman then have a traveling acting troupe perform a play for Sly called The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare also used an induction to open Henry IV Part II. However, in this induction, only one speaker–an abstraction named Rumour–takes the stage. Before Warkworth Castle, he appears with many tongues “upon [which] continual slanders ride” to declare that Hotspur has killed Prince Hal. But the opposite is true, according to Northumberland’s servant, Travers: Hal has killed Hotspur. And so the audience is in suspense right from the start–who lies dead and who lives to fight another day?

To begin Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used a one-man chorus to recite a prologue disclosing the theme and entire plot of the play, announcing that “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life” and thereby “bury their parents strife.” It is beautiful poetry here–a sonnet, in fact–that engages the audience. It is also the prospect of eavesdropping on the events leading to the shocking conclusion of the play. What would Shakespeare have written about the death of England's Princess Diana or the American actor James Dean?

Although Shakespeare also uses a chorus to begin Henry VIII, he only hints at the plot, promising that “mightiness” will meet “misery”–a prospect that must have tickled the groundling commoners in the audience. But in Henry V, in a prologue spoken by a chorus, Shakespeare ignores the plot entirely, choosing instead to set the scene by telling the audience the stage will become the “vasty fields of France,” where horses print “their proud hoofs in the receiving earth” as mighty armies clash in battle. It is a sort of “once upon a time” beginning that arouses the imagination to alertness. There will be war and blood and smoke, and the audience will see and feel and smell it all.
Shakespeare repeats this approach in Troilus and Cressida, in which a chorus recites a prologue setting a scene of war, ancient Troy, within whose walls “the ravished Helen, Menelaus’ queen, with wanton Paris sleeps” while outside the Greeks and Trojans do daily battle. But Act I presents none of the rousing war whoops of Henry V. Instead, it gives us a timid, lovesick Troilus, who is “weaker than a woman’s tear” and “less valiant than the virgin in the night,” setting the stage for a black comedy–even though the play is technically a tragedy–in which all the great heroes of Homer (including Achilles, Hector, Ajax, and Diomedes) are bumbling fools. Thus, the opening–like the pitch of a side-show barker–inveigles us into the tent, then shows us a horse of a different color.
The opening of Julius Caesar, however, clearly establishes the direction of the play. Commoners who love Caesar clash with two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, who revile him. The scene thus foreshadows the murder of Caesar by nobles and the angry reaction of the hoi polloi after Antony eulogizes Caesar and reads his will. The gathered throng shouts: “Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!” But to avoid reducing the opening scene to a mechanical contrivance designed to lay the plot and catalyze the action, Shakespeare infuses the scene with humor that borders on the burlesque with its outrageous puns. Here is an excerpt, an exchange between Marullus and the Second Commoner.
MARULLUS: But what trade art thou? Answer me directly.
SECOND COMMONER: A trade, sir, that, I hope, I may use with a safe conscience; which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.
MARULLUS:  What trade, thou knave? Thou naughty knave, what trade?
SECOND COMMONER: Nay, I beseech you, sir, be not out with me: yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.
MARULLUS: What meanest thou by that? Mend me, thou saucy fellow!
SECOND COMMONER: Why, sir, cobble you.
MARULLUS: Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
SECOND COMMONER: Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl: I meddle with no trademan’s matters, nor women’s matters, but with awl. I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat’s leather have gone upon my handiwork.
MARULLUS: But wherefore art not in thy shop today? Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?
SECOND COMMONER: Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work. But, indeed, sir, we make holiday, to see Caesar and rejoice in his triumph.

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Coriolanus also opens with a conflict between nobles and commoners, who are in a rage for lack of food. They blame Caius Martius (Coriolanus), calling him “the chief enemy of the people.” Proud Martius in turn calls them “scabs” and “curs,” and the play is off and running. But what makes this opening Shakespearean is the language. In an extended metaphor, Shakespeare–through Menenius Agrippa, a friend of Martius–compares Rome to a belly and the body parts to the citizens. Agrippa, assuming the part of the belly, says, “I receive the general food at first, which you do live upon. . . . I send it through the rivers of your blood, even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain. . . . ‘Though all at once cannot see what I do deliver out to each, yet I can make my audit up, that all from me do back receive the flour of all, and leave me but the bran.”

One of Shakespeare’s most unconventional openings is the first scene of the first act of Timon of Athens, a scene which hints that the work is an allegory. The play tells the story of a generous citizen of Athens who becomes an alkaline misanthrope–a sort of reverse Scrooge–after his money runs out and his parasitic “friends” abandon him. After leaving the city, he lives in a cave, hates everyone, and dies a bitter man. Some critics–the noted G.B. Harrison, for one–argue that the play is weak because the characterization is poor. Maybe they are right. Then again, a close examination of the opening suggests that Shakespeare intended Timon to be a kind of morality play in which the characters represent abstractions or general character types (as in allegorical plays of the 15th and 16th Centuries, such as French writer Nicolas de la Chesnaye’s 1507 play Condemnation des Banquets or the late 15th-Century English play Everyman). 
Consider, for example that the first ninety lines of Timon of Athens are spoken by persons named only by profession. They include a poet, a painter, a jeweler, and a merchant. They have no personalities, as such–only words. Named characters who appear later–Timon and Apemantus, for example–are equally empty of individuality because they, too, are really abstractions. Timon is a personification of misanthropy or spleen; Apamantus, a personification of cynicism; the freeloading lords–Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius–personifications of greed.
And then there is the ominous opening of Macbeth, with three witches reciting rhyming lines and paradoxes while thunder booms and lightning strikes:
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.
THIRD WITCH: That will be ere the set of the sun.
FIRST WITCH: Where the place?
SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.
THIRD WITCH:  There to meet with Macbeth.
FIRST WITCH: I come, Graymalkin!
SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.
ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

This neat, compact opening–with its pleasing rhymes but frightening sights–foreshadows the mood and direction of the play. Consider that storms rage whenever evil surfaces, whether in the form of the witches or a heinous crime committed by Macbeth. Consider, too, that Scotland–befouled by the murderous ambition of Macbeth and his wife–becomes a “heath,” or wasteland, of turpitude. The paradox recited in unison by the witches–Fair is foul, and foul is fair–aptly sums up Macbeth’s distorted perception of reality. Whatever he perceives as fair–the murder of Duncan, for example–is really foul, and whatever he perceives as foul–abandoning his murderous scheme, for example–is really fair.

Of particular interest are the first two lines of the play. Many read these lines as if there were a comma, a colon, or a dash after again, requiring the speaker to pause as if presenting a choice. Rewritten according to this incorrect reading, the lines would say, “When shall we three meet again? Shall we meet in thunder, or in lightning, or in rain?” But there is no punctuation mark after again and, therefore, no choice. Thus, the two lines say, in effect, “When shall we meet again in a storm?” The answer, of course, is when Macbeth appears. He is the storm–a dark, Cimmerian presence who rains down hell and horror on Scotland.

So much meaning in such a short opening. That is Shakespeare..