Three views of Shakespeare

Cassiel C. MacAvity

A Comparison of Openings

    The main concern of a screenwriter, a major part of such questions as; will someone produce my script, will the movie be successful, Etc., is; Will the first ten minutes of the movie give the audience a reason to see the next 110 or so? The opening scene has to have a "hook", something to grab the audience's attention from the beginning, until more of the movie can supply additional items of interest. From the opening scenes of The Three Musketeers, set in the 17th century, where the viewer immediately sees two men doing their best to run each other through, to Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, set in the 23rd century, where the viewer sees the major cast get killed off in the first five minutes, a good movie has had a hook.

    The situation is the same with Shakespeare, and I am going to examine the opening scenes of the plays The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, and, The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, to see which gets the audience's attention the fastest.

    The Tragedy of King Richard The Second, better known as Richard II, begins with a courtly argument. Richard is on the throne and is about to face two of his nobles, each with his bowels in an uproar and wishing to accuse the other of treason. To make the point clear, each drops several pounds of steel glove on the other's foot, demonstrating with painful certainty that they would much rather be pointing swords than fingers. Richard R., Rex, not Rich, intervenes, giving an opening argument of "Wrath kindled gentlemen, Be rul'd by me . . ." There are several other and better reasons not to do so, which turn up later, but, for the moment, the nobles declare instead that the king's rule doesn't measure up to their chivalrous code of honor. Instead of a peace, they would rather have many from each other, Richard sets the court date for a few weeks hence, and all Exit (with others).

    The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, (1 Henry IV), begins with a state of the kingdom address given by, who else, considering the title, Henry IV. In it, he declares that England's been a mess, but now everything is fine and everybody together is about to go pick on the pagans, take souvenir photos of the Mount of Olives, and so forth.

    At this point the Earl of Westmoreland announces that a Welshman (Glendower) with a beef (Mortimer) has been butchering English soldiers, and that cousin of Mortimer (Hotspur) is being a royal pain and isn't handing over all his best Scotch. Henry comments that it would have been convenient had his son and Hotspur switched places, but exchanges that for an announcement that this year is out, like everyone else, it'll have to be next year in Jerusalem.

    The opening of The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, (2 Henry IV), is simple, amounting only to "Enter Rumor, painted in tongues", making for rather noisy digestion. Rumor announces he is a talkative fellow, tending to give tongue in all directions, mostly forked. In this case he's forking out to one and all that the firm of Henry and Henry received the point of Douglas and Hotspur's cutting remarks and adjourned from the court. However, for the audience's benefit, he blurts out that the opposite is actually true, and the two Henry's did indeed have the winning arguments.

    In the opening scene of Richard II there is an impending clash of armored knights out to darken one another's reputation, and open, if veiled, defiance of the reigning monarch. It is apparent from the start that if trouble is not afoot, at least everyone's glove is.

    1 Henry IV starts with a long winded "All's well", with the trouble arriving courtesy of a messenger, rather then being in the Royal Lap from the start. This, I think, is a good beginning, but lacks the impact of Richard II.

    2 Henry IV is the same, with a lone actor telling of recent goings on, apparently while waiting for the audience to come in from the refreshment stand and find their seats.

    Of the three, I prefer the opening scene of Richard II. Not only does it start with an active fight from the beginning, as opposed to mentions of one, but for the sake of continuity, is the first in the sequence of the three plays together.


Three Examples of Comedic Villany


    The three plays The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter's Tale, have a number of things in common. They were all written by some Englishman named Willy Shakespeare (Shakespear, Shakspere, etc.), feature more subplot twists than a soap opera, have lovers, and have villains of one sort or another. And a comparison of the assorted heavies in each play shows that what they do reflects in how they end up at the finish of the play.

    In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, what there are in the line of villains are the forest outlaws who aren't really vile un's, and who don't even appear until act IV. As one of them, quaintly named "Third Outlaw", states in IV, i, 44-46; "Know, then, that some of us are gentlemen,/Such as the fury of ungoverned youth/Thrust from the company of aweful men." Third then continues in lines 48 and 49 that he was considered aweful "For practicing to steal a lady,/an heir, and near allied unto the Duke." Even if Italy was made of city-states, this apparently deserved only banishment, even if it was a capitol crime. Another, named Second, but with the same last name as Third, apparently had ensured that someone got the point of certain cutting remarks. Aside from that, and "for such like petty crimes as these" (IV, i, 52), they aren't that bad. As a matter of fact, not only do they have specific injunctions against "outrages/On silly women or poor passengers," (IV, i, 71-72), but they elect Valentine to be their leader after hearing he is multilingual. Apparently they could use someone who could explain in small Latine and lesse Greeke that Karl really did say not to leave home without it as the outlaws went for the cash.

    The outlaws don't turn up again until V, iii, when they serve as the means for the type of grand disentanglement that Charles Dickens tried to work to death years later. They have one major member of the cast, Valentine, and capture another, Sylvia, as she's running from Proteus and Julia (disguised as Sebastian), who are also quickly caught. Everyone then points out everyone else's infidelities just in time for the Duke and Thurio to arrive. Seeing as he's in the area, and the outlaws really hadn't been doing too much, the Duke then pardons them all, the better to call the play a comedy.

    Of the three plays, Much Ado About Nothing has the real bad guy. While Don John is a half brother of Don Pedro, he is, as stated many times, a bastard. In addition, he's illegitimate. He's the type that goes in for pulling wings off flies, taking candy from babies, and foreclosing mortgages, all to keep himself entertained.

    When he is first introduced, he says thankfully in I, i, 151- 152 that he is not of many words, saying, thankfully; "I thank you. I am not a man of many words, but I/thank you." He has plenty of words, though, when he is next seen in I, iii. His general philosophy of "Misery loves company, and I'm miserable" is revealed, along with the story that Don Pedro had recently found him to be revolting, and while forgiving him for it, still trusts him (Don John) as far as he (Don Pedro) can throw the theatre Messina.

    Almost midway through the scene, Enter Borrachio with the news of the impending marriage of a hero named Claudio and a claudio heroine named Hero. Don John is always one to be the architect of and engineer trouble and asks "Will it serve for any model to build mischief on?" Models aren't usually good for foundation, but it will, and he does. At a party which confuses those in the cast and some in the audience as well, he adds to the mess by hinting to Claudio that Hero isn't quite what Claudio thinks. Also, after a convincing bit of long distance substitution, he has the divorce in front of a judge even before a priest has gotten hold of the marriage.

    With all this behind, if not beneath, him, the play ends on the note (struck up by pipers) of vengeance extracted by Benedick, a budding dentist eager to cut his teeth.

    The villain of sorts in The Winter's Tale is Autolycus, an all around pickpocket, thief, and con man, listed as "a rogue", who was appropriately named after a legendary forerunner. He wanders into IV, III with a verse opening (he's singing) of "When daffodils begin to peer", an obvious suggestion of nobility being blooming idiots, or at least going to pot. Two verses later, he stops dead and announces that while he once worked for Florizel, Bohemia's Crown Prince, he'd now be on unemployment, if Bohemia had it. After finishing his song, he then explains that he now makes his living pulling linen off of hedges and wool over eyes. Clown, a sheep to shear preparing to shear sheep enters, and Autolycus crawls into action.

    A purse, a pack full of cheap trinkets, two commercials, a few songs, many more purses, and a handful of coins later, one is left with the impression that Autolycus is a mild version of Don John. In IV, iv, 683-686, he comments on royal illegitimates, that "if I thought it were a piece if honesty to acquaint the King withall,/I would not do't. I hold it the more knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my profession." However, he's already shown great distaste for, of all things, getting hung, and, at the end of the play, decides to reform.


Opening Moves


    Someone once commented of a certain movie that "It stated at 8:00. When I looked at my watch at midnight, it was only 8:15." Since the comment was intended as a review of it, that movie must have started out extremely slowly, and slowed further from there. For a movie or play to be interesting, it has to get an audience's attention from the beginning, then keep it. This paper is a comparison of the opening scenes of Othello, The Moor of Venice, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra to see if they can do this.

    Othello, the lead in Othello, has a characteristic which not only gets mentioned all through the play, but which gets brought up in the title. It seems he's black. This is something which in part influences the behavior of a number of people throughout the action. In the first scene, it gets brought up as Iago and Roderigo enter.

    Iago, it seems, is the standard bearer to the General Othello, as well as the particular one. Recently it was promotion time, and much to Iago's disgust, he was passed up in favor of a man named Michael Cassio, of no relation to the electronics people. Iago has decided that he doesn't like Othello, and Roderigo agrees with him.

    Having decided this at some ungodly hour of the night, they pick on a particular nobleman by yelling their heads off, raising Cain and Senator Brabantio, who demands to know what is going on, saying, "What is the reason of this terrible summons? What is the matter there?" (I, i, 83-84) It is then explained why Brabantio in particular was picked as Iago delivers some cheerful howls of "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." (I, i, 89-90) Othello has just run off with Brabantio's daughter, and by the end of the scene, both Brabantio and the audience have indeed figured this out.

    At this point, one unfamiliar with the play can now assume that what follows will be some underhanded racial attacks, possibly followed by a divorce of some sort, probably the daughter from either Othello or her family. This scene gives no hint that Iago will drive Othello to a fit of murderous jealousy and cause the deaths of many, including Othello, his wife, and probably ultimately, Iago himself.

    Act One, Scene One of King Lear introduces the two main plots and projects the action of one of them from the start. Edgar and Edmund, the illegitimate son and legitimate bastard, respectively, fathered by the Earl of Glouchester, are made known. After this, Lear jets in, announces he'll divide up his kingdom among his daughters, and demands to be flattered. Furthermore, he almost does this in one sentence, making it obvious that this territorial division has strings attached to it. Gonorrhea, Goneril, or something like that, and her sister Regan, immediately pitch in. The third daughter, Cordelia, is left to chew her nails during this, quickly showing that Shakespeare may have turned out a poet, but she didn't. So Lear turns her out and gives her share to the first two sisters.

    This opening scene sets up practically everything. Almost from the start, one can see how the play is going to go, and one can sit back and enjoy it. Will Lear come to his sense in time? What will the sisters do? Stay tuned for the next scene!

    Antony and Cleopatra also starts with the main characters offstage and begins with a pair of soldiers giving a state of the Antony address. Then, Flourish, Enter Antony, Cleopatra, and Company, and the two lovebirds giggle over each other momentarily. When a messenger arrives from Rome, he gets sent packing after a few sarcastic remarks from Cleopatra. the pair giggle some more, Exeunt with the train, the soldiers comment some more, and they too Exeunt.

    All one gets as an interest out of this is that Antony can decide between running an army or sitting with Cleopatra. A viewer does not realize from this that with the right moves, Antony could very simply provide a different Roman Empire than what actually occurred. The opening scene of the act simply hints of a romance, with dutiful soldiers floating in the background, and little more.

    Of the three plays, it would seem that King Lear has the best of the openings. It has all the main characters and it gives the conflict from the start. To grab, and keep, the audience's attention, this is, more often than not, a basic requirement.


© 1997 Cassiel C. MacAvity