As part of a casual course on Shakespeare I’m taking in Coursera, which encourages but does not require some form of public responses to its content, I’m going to share some thoughts on a few first lines from the Bard’s plays. The snippets are presented by the course, and the reader is asked to divulge some brief thoughts on them. My girlfriend, not as big a Shakespeare fan as myself, also gave it a go.
Romeo & Juliet
“Two houses, both alike in dignity”
As a way of quickly and definitively setting up the central struggle of the play, this opening does quite well. Before we hear any talk of star crossed lovers, we immediately picture in the mind’s eye two competing families, opposed to each other. We can infer much from those seven words, most pertinently that the two houses or families, while set up to be enemies (because of course they will be), are probably more alike than they would care to admit, and not just “in dignity”. Hearing these words, the picture of the stage is of a central forlorn narrator, with families arraigned on both sides, at the edge of vision, but drawing ever closer. We have our factions, and the question is what will draw them against each other in a decisive way. My girlfriend’s thoughts were of two royal families that are rivals to each other, and it struck me afterwards that the word “houses” in this context does have that noble feeling to it.
Much Ado About Nothing
“I learn in this letter”
Hearing this, I cannot help but picture a lordly man, the head of his household, standing before his family and hangers on, a letter in one hand raised while everyone listens enraptured. He is a figure of respect, familiar with being listened to so intently that it is normal for him to declare the contents of his correspondence to people around him. And so he must be important, a man who receives letters containing items of great interest or consequence. My girlfriend had an image of a man looking directly at you while holding this letter, with the scene taking on the form of private gossip, between this man and the viewer.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace”
This is the only one of the four that names a character, the exotically titled “Hippolyta” immediately creating images of a woman from another, more ancient, world. She is addressed by her husband to be, a man of charming words who cannot say something as simple as “We’re getting married soon” without twists of evocative verbiage. He seems to have affection for his fiancée, or at least for her beauty. The action of the play is set-up immediately: it will surround weddings and union, soon to be completed. My girlfriend had a slightly different picture: she imagined a man saying the words with his back turned to his bride, with a loud voice as if trying to impress her or build excitement.
Boatswain: “Here Master: what cheer?”
A very different opening to the others. Here are just two men working on a dock or ship from their titles, but their ranks are established instantly. I picture an older, well-set men thundering out a demand in the first line, looking for assistance, answered by a younger, slightly sarcastic man in the second, who describes his employers annoyance or desperate tone as “cheer”. The indicated loudness of the first line tells us that something serious has occurred or is about to occur, something that the Boatswain may not be fully aware of. My girlfriend’s thoughts are similar, she imaging a “cranky looking captain” looking to set some task on a sailor. Interesting, we both pictured the Boatswain as the younger man.
It’s always interesting to pick apart opening lines, since they are our introduction to any work and there is an expectation that the author is trying to say something with them (1984 was always my personal favourite: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”). But while there is merit in such a course, I do think that it is important to relent on occasion: the amount of essays written on the opening line of Hamlet – “Who’s there?” baffles me. But still, this was a fun little exercise, and hopefully I ll get the chance to do a few more.