Over the past nearly-six years, I’ve developed a fascination with the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a direct result of my work on our Study Guides — in the Basics section of each one, I use the first 100 lines of the play as an example to teachers of how to work with embedded stage directions, scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, and audience contact. It means I get to know those opening five minutes quite intimately.
It’s occurred to me that there are some similarities that run not only across Shakespeare, but across the centuries, when it comes to starting a show. Obviously not every play follows the same pattern, even within Shakespeare, but a great many have certain characteristics in common, particularly when there’s an opening prologue of some sort.
The first few minutes of the play let the audience know what’s important and what to expect. I’ve talked about the importance before, in my Wandering through Wordles series, but on a basic story-telling level, those first moments set the scene, often quite literally. Within those first 100 lines (which are often but not always within the first scene), Shakespeare tells us where we are or soon will be:
The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “here in Verona”
2 Henry IV: “in a bloody field by Shrewsbury”
Henry V: “the vasty fields of France”
Troilus and Cressida: “In Troy, there lies the scene”
12th Night: “This is Illyria, lady”
He tells us who our important characters or factions are:
Henry V: “the warlike Harry”
Romeo and Juliet: “these two foes”
Richard II: “Henry Hereford… against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray”
Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You three, Biron, Dumaine, and Longueville”
Much Ado about Nothing: “Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina”
Richard III: “this son of York”
Sometimes he tells us what’s already happened, in the time before the play begins:
1 Henry VI: “King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long. / England ne’er lost a king of so much worth”
Troilus and Cressida: “Six-and-ninety, that wore / Their coronets regal, from t’Athenian bay / Put forth toward Phrygia, and their vow is made / To ransack Troy”.
Very often, Shakespeare tells us what’s going to happen, either in the short term, as when Richard lets us know he means to “set my brother Clarence and the King in deadly hate, the one against the other”, or else over the whole course of the play, as with Romeo and Juliet‘s famously spoiler-iffic opening: “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.”
Sometimes the information doesn’t come from a separate prologue, but from the characters themselves, as when Orlando gives us his family history in As You Like It or as in Aegeon’s famously interminable info-dump at the start of The Comedy of Errors. Generally monologues, though sometimes with limited prompting by another character, these openings serve a similar function as the prologue-openings, but come from inside the world of the play rather than from an outside spectator. (This may have the effect of immediately bringing the audience in as well, making them eavesdroppers or confidantes, rather than casting the play as a pageant presented for their perusal.) Some plays also don’t have their famous prologues in their Quarto versions, but even then, the first five minutes still transmit much of the same information — the brawling Capulets and Montagues set up the conflict of Romeo and Juliet, and King Henry tells us about his warlike aims in Henry V, for example.
One purpose of the prologue or prologue-like opening, then, is biographical: either of the individual or of the setting. Shakespeare has to set his stage. The other purpose I’ve noticed is instructional: Many prologues conclude with some sort of “call to action” for the audience, much the same way that epilogues will often end by asking for applause. Romeo and Juliet asks the audience to watch “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,” while Henry V requests that the audience “Admit me Chorus to this history,/Who prologue-like your humble patience pray/Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.” Both of those openings beg the audience’s indulgence for imperfection. The stage can never present things as they truly were, after all, but the actors are going to do their best.
So how do I connect this to more modern media? When I started thinking about biographical and instructional openings, one of the first things that popped into my head actually wasn’t from live theatre — it’s the opening theme of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Pretty much any child of the 90s can bust out these rhymes on command:
Smith not only starts with a great opening word — “Now”, the same as Shakespeare uses to start Richard III, excellent because it focuses the audience’s attention on the immediacy of the speaker’s words — but he also begins by contextualizing his speech as a story. Just as many of Shakespeare’s openings do. The instructional portion of the intro is brief: “Just sit right there; I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air.” He moves quickly into the biographical purpose: He then moves on to a “story up to this point” retelling; it doesn’t give away the ending (impractical in an ongoing TV series), but it does set the scene, much like Rumour in Henry IV, Part 2 and the brothers of Henry V who begin Henry VI, Part I.
We also see in Smith an unreliable narrator. His narration does not always match the visuals. This made me think both of Rumour, who outright tells the audience his purpose is to mislead, and of the Chorus in Henry V, whose version of an ultra-glorious hero-king is not always borne out by the events of the play that Shakespeare gives us. The biographical purpose of the intro cannot be trusted.
Then I thought about the opening number of Into the Woods, which introduces us to all the characters we’re going to need to know about. Sondheim begins as traditionally as is possible: “Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, lived a fair maiden, a sad young lad, and a childless baker and his wife.” The audience quickly recognizes the fair maiden as Cinderella and the sad young lad as Jack of beanstalk fame; rapidly, all within the opening number, we also meet Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, Jack’s mother (and his cow), Red Riding Hood, and the Witch.
Sondheim doesn’t really need to tell us how these stories end — we already know that. (Or do we? as the second act of the musical proceeds to explore — but then, his purpose is subversion of tropes, so it’s entirely fitting that he would give us an opening that lays out expectations, then waits til halfway through to break them). Critically, he does tell us what they all want. The theme of “I wish” runs through the entire play, and Sondheim seeds that in these first moments, as well as providing us with their first obstacles.
Since the play features an on-stage character called The Narrator, who begins with the famous “Once upon a time”, the musical quite obviously points at itself as a story, though in a slightly different way than Shakespeare and Smith. These stories are so well-known as to be ubiquitously understood in Western culture. By giving the audience the familiar opening, Sondheim makes us a promise, placing us in the comfortable realm of the bedtime story — and then almost immediately breaks that promise by showing us that these are not the stories we know, because they will interweave and affect each other.
The instruction in this opening is implicit, embedded in common culture. When we hear the words “Once upon a time,” we already know what to do. We don’t need to be told. But by including them, Sondheim is still pointing us in that direction. And then, he tricks us, pulling a bait-and-switch on the familiarity, to delightful effect.
The biographical purpose of the opening number of Hamilton is obvious: Lin-Manuel Miranda gives us a literal biography of Hamilton’s young life, up to the point where he arrives in New York. The first four words give us crucial information about his family background (“How does a bastard…”; a few lines later, we learn where he’s from (“a forgotten spot in the Caribbean”). And then we learn who he is and how extraordinary he is. It’s a little like the first five minutes of Henry V — not only the prologue, but the first scene between the bishops, where they discuss Henry’s earlier years. And like Romeo and Juliet, Miranda’s Hamilton takes the biographical purpose of the opening all the way through, giving away the ending when Burr states: “And me? I’m the damn fool that shot ‘im.”
Though delivered by Aaron Burr, this song’s purpose is really Hamilton’s self-contextualization. No one else gets a name in this song — we’ll properly meet Burr, Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens in “Aaron Burr, Sir”, Angelica and Eliza in “The Schuyler Sisters”, Washington in “Right Hand Man”, and other important figures as the play goes on. Here, they are defined only by their relationships to Hamilton:
MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:
We fought with him
Me? I died for him
Me? I trusted him
ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:
Me? I loved him
And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him
The musical even presents most of the cast in stripped-down versions of the costumes we’ll see them in later, parchment-colored and almost ghostly; the ensemble presents scenes from Hamilton’s past in stylized dance, dumb-show like — a convention familiar to early modernists. Burr (who has the first lines) alone begins in a full-color costume, and Hamilton dons a jacket partway through. This presentation, with the context of the lines, seems to suggest that Hamilton will be the only character who “matters”, that we will see everything through his eyes and everyone through that lens. But, much like Shakespeare and Sondheim, Miranda subverts that expectation. We get nearly as much insight into Burr’s anti-hero as into Hamilton himself, and Eliza ultimately decides the course of her own narrative (as I’ve discussed before). Everyone’s story matters, even if the main focus of the musical is a single man.
And, like Shakespeare and Smith, Miranda gives us unreliable narrators. Hamilton and Burr are telling their own stories, with their own biases, often at cross-purposes. One of the largest themes of the musical is that of self-determination: How do you create yourself? Is the self that you conceive the same self that the world witnesses? What do you do when the two don’t match?
The instructional component of Hamilton‘s intro is subtler, and it goes by fast. The only line that seems a direct appeal to the audience is Burr’s: “His ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot ‘im.” I think there’s a larger appeal, though, in what Hamilton says upon his entrance and what the ensemble echoes later: “Just you wait.” He’s not just talking to the other figures on stage: he’s talking to us. And we will wait, of course. We’ll stay in our seats to see how the story plays out, even if we know the ending — as Shakespeare well knew we would, too.
The idea of storytelling weaves throughout the musical, in numerous references including the show’s tagline: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Miranda seeds it here, though, in the very five minutes (The opening number runs about 4:25, and then the very first bars of “Aaron Burr, Sir” give us one last crucial bit of information: the year our story begins, 1776). Miranda is, like Shakespeare, cluing us in to something important — about self-determination, about choosing your narrative, about trying to control the story of your life.
Obviously not every play or musical falls into this pattern, and even fewer TV shows and movies do, but it makes me think, broadly, of how storytellers introduce information. How do they give us the background we need? How do they let the audience know what to expect? How and when might they subvert those expectations?
Academic Resources Manager
PS: Don’t worry, rhetoric geeks! I’m still working on some Shakespeare-to-Hamilton comparisons.
PPS: Also on posts about parallels regarding final lines, parodies, meta-theatre, doubling, costuming, and many more things. The more I explore this, the more solidly convinced I become that Lin-Manuel is one of our modern Shakespeares. Not an exaggeration. Just my analysis of how each writer uses his space, his actors, his audience, and above all, his language.