So how does the/this/a play begin?
Why is it important?
Well, riddle me this, Batman: what does the modern theater have that the Shakespearean Globe did not? I’m not talking plush seats. Or cocktails in the lobby. Or validated parking.
I’m talking about house lights.
When we go to see a play today (and keep that phrase in mind), we are given a clue as to when to pay attention: the house lights go down, the stage lights go up… and at some point between those two events (and before the arrival of the actors onstage), we–as an audience–shut the heck up (or at least should shut up, and turn off our cells, and stop texting [gee, you’re not getting a snapshot of my psyche and pet peeves or anything, are you?]). We pay attention.
But in Shakespeare’s day, there was no such clue. At least no visual clue. In Shakespeare’s day, the activity of going to experience a play was not–as it is today–called “going to see” a play, but rather “going to HEAR” a play. So how does the playwright get the attention of the audience–particularly when the majority of said audience was the poor, unwashed who were standing in the pit, eating, drinking, and talking to one another?
Well, there’s two ways to do it:
- With a BANG: something big happens, shocking, maybe loud, that will grab the audience by the lapels and quiet them down
- With (if not a whimper) a slow building of exposition
The Comedy of Errors definitely begins with the former: the processional of the Duke and his court, with the hapless Egeon. The opening couplet (“Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, // And by doom of death end woes and all.” [I.1.i-2]) demands attention: i.e. HEY, AUDIENCE… I’m about to die… you’d better listen up and hear why!
The Tempest also begins with a bang: the storm itself (again, the whole bookending of the Bard’s career with similar concepts).
As for the latter method: The Merchant of Venice is a great example of the quiet opening. Here, Antonio, Salarino, and Salanio enter, and Antonio (the title Merchant) proclaims:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
While it’s a famous quote, it’s not completely necessary to the understanding of the play if you miss this speech.
So Shakespeare has two options: slap the audience to attention or not even try. Here, he tries… keep this in mind as we hit other play, and think about how this affects our view of the play (or if it does).