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  • Shakespeare’s Technique of Opening:Strands of Action
  • Joel Benabu (bio)

In the academy, play-openings have been studied less frequently than their endings. This critical lacuna in early modern theatre scholarship is particularly surprising because, like the ending, the opening contains implications for the composition, production, and reception of a play. Considering the significance that an opening has in captivating audience attention, the construction of the opening in Shakespeare’s day (but also in our own) posed practical challenges to those charged with the task of staging it.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the subject of play-openings has received a modest amount of attention. Recently, and with specific reference to early modern theatre, Douglas Bruster and Robert Weimann’s Prologues to Shakespeare’s Theatre: Performance and Liminality in Early Modern Drama presents interesting attempts to describe certain components of Shakespearean openings. However, critical interest in their study, as much as in those of their predecessors (Arthur Sprague, Thelma Greenfield, Tiffany Stern, and Robert Willson Jr.), has focused largely on describing the dramatic forms that typically set plays in motion (namely, prologue, induction, framing dialogue, and so on).1 My interest in this essay lies elsewhere: I shall attempt to define Shakespeare’s technique of opening, as well as analyze strategies for reading openings that have a direct bearing on how they are staged.

I begin by advancing theoretical considerations on openings that are supported by an approach to reading the playtext that underscores its theatricality. Thereafter, I demonstrate my arguments by examining summarily the evidence provided by the opening of Hamlet and by a detailed study of the opening of Macbeth in the Folio text.2 My choice of plays may strike some readers as odd, since the Folio text of Macbeth and the Quarto and Folio texts of Hamlet have been subjected so often to close readings. I do so because even the most detailed and illuminating studies, such as Stephen Booth’s “On the Value of Hamlet” (1969) and Marvin Rosenberg’s The Masks of Macbeth (1978) and The Masks of Hamlet (1992), all present readings that fail to clearly distinguish between theatrical and literary parameters. By contrast, my reading relies upon theatrical parameters exclusively in order to show how Shakespeare constructed his openings, as well as how he communicated practical information for staging them to his actors and other members of the company. My findings may be applied as much to stage practice as to pedagogy because they bear reference to the way a playtext is handled in the theatre up to our own day, instead of subjecting it to a literary reading, which is the focus often adopted in Shakespearean criticism.

Reading Shakespeare’s Openings Theatrically

Theatre practitioners do not generally begin constructing the opening by looking to the initial words of a playtext; they are aware that an opening is constructed from evidence offered by the playtext as a whole. The process, as Peter Holland has observed, may start with the entire company reading the playtext aloud, and it ends with the actors translating words into action through rehearsal (8–29). Furthermore, for actors, a well-constructed opening offers the opportunity to exhibit professional [End Page 209] skills, to fulfill ambitions as performers appearing onstage; in other words, to channel their enthusiasm and creative energies from the moment they step onstage and come into contact with an audience. It is precisely in the transactions initiated in an opening that an actor can establish a meaningful and distinctive act of artistic communication with the audience.

These transactions have been described by Peter Brook in his well-known The Empty Space (1984): “In order to bring actors and audience together and to join them as a single source of energy, the audience’s interest must be engaged” (108). Later, he adds: “What is important is to immediately present material that is capable of engaging progressively and simultaneously the spectator’s body, heart, and mind” (109). The challenges to which Brook alludes grow when we consider that the medium of theatre also imposes a time constraint on the actors: if they are unsuccessful in engaging the audience within a fairly short period of time...


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