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  • On Shakespeare’s Playwriting:Opening Strategies
  • Joel Benabu (bio)

Every speech has its meaning or effectiveness according to the circumstances in which it is spoken, how it is instigated, how heard or not heard, and whether it satisfies or frustrates the expectations that Shakespeare has raised by the plotting of his story.1

—John Russell Brown, William Shakespeare: Writing for Performance

Theatre performance, which is subject to the limits of time and place, is largely dependent on the simultaneous response of spectators. In sixteenth-century open-air playhouses, the groundlings stood in close proximity to the players, from where they could wreak havoc with the progress of a performance. While little is known with any degree of certainty about the social composition and behavior of early modern spectators, and even less about their horizon of expectations or the ways they might have reacted to a play in performance, for instance, daily contact with spectators must have deepened a playwright’s understanding of the methods by which an effective plot could be designed and performed.

This article explores the topic of opening strategies in plays and their relation to spectator immersion. By advancing theoretical observations about openings, I seek a broader understanding of how Shakespeare organized his plots with the aim to engage spectators at the opening and guide their expectations about the ensuing action. The result is a glimpse into Shakespeare’s complex playwriting strategies. With a view to unraveling these strategies, I explore the structures and functions of several well-known play openings. In so doing, I refer to narrative scholarship in order to support my theory of Shakespeare’s construction of openings.2 This theory offers an explanation as to why many Shakespearean plays, at the start, present actions that are only partly developed and remain unresolved until the main action unfolds. To elucidate this argument, I analyze Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which illustrate in very different ways how opening strategies function. [End Page 65]

Toward a Definition of Shakespeare’s Strategies of Play Opening

An opening is a slippery term that has been used loosely, often interchangeably with beginning.3 Is it a prefatory device? Is it the first scene in the play-text? Or are there other viable categories of openings that are not explicitly demarcated on the page? Over the decades, Sprague, Willson, Greenfield, and most recently, Bruster and Weimann have presented interesting studies of certain components of early modern play-openings.4 However, critical interest in these studies has focused largely on describing the dramatic forms that typically set plays in motion (i.e., prologue and induction). Clearly, all plays must open regardless of whether they contain prefatory devices or not, and as I have demonstrated elsewhere, an opening may extend well beyond the first scene.5 Moreover, unlike earlier scholarship, the meaning given to an opening in this article refers not to any textual marker, such as the first few words, lines, or scenes in the play-text. Rather, it refers to playwriting strategies that leave a spectator curious about how the plot may develop, but then suspend the suggested development.

Narrative scholarship contributes to this study of opening strategies by illuminating the “deep structures” of early modern plot construction. Barbara Hardy has argued, along similar lines to David M. Bevington’s argument, that Aristotle’s pronouncements on the elementary structure of “plot” are, in large part, incongruous with Elizabethan drama, finding a complex interplay between narrative forms that gives rise to the narrative whole.6 Hardy maintains that the sequences of early modern plays may relate to one another structurally, thematically, and rhetorically, even though these internal relations are often extremely difficult to decipher because of a diversity of forms.7 This idea has found favor with other Shakespearean scholars who have tested it in their respective analyses of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Echoes Inhabit a Garden: The Narratives of Romeo and Juliet,” Jill L. Levenson, for instance, has extended Hardy’s argument through an analysis of narrative forms in Romeo and Juliet. Referring to the deep structure of narrative in the second quarto of 1599, she writes: “structural repetitions of all kinds can interrupt a given...


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pp. 65-75
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