Best Opening Line

I’ve said it before, but hearing certain bits of Shakespeare spoken aloud makes lightning bolts shoot straight up my spine.  It’s like my brain suddenly tells the rest of my body, “Listen up!  Something good’s happening!  Get on the edge of that seat!” This makes the opening lines particularly special, as those mean “You’re about to get that feeling for the next 2-3 hours.”  I’ve heard it said that the opening sets the tone for the whole play.  The simple “Who goes there?” in Hamlet turns it into a great ghost story once you realize that the wrong guard says it.  Macbeth’s wyrd sisters start the play by confusing audience expectations, asking “When shall we three meet again”, as if we’ve just been dropped into the end of their discussion rather than the beginning.  I think my favorite, though, might be Romeo and Juliet, because I can really bring it all the way back to the first two words:  Two households.  Maybe it’s the geek in me, but I like things binary.  Shakespeare starts out the play by taking the universe of what’s about to unfold and dividing it right down the middle. You’re gonna have the X’s over here, and the not X’s over there.  Everything else is irrelevant, they are effectively the same thing in all variables except for one.  In this case their name, although it dawns on me that decades of directors portraying the conflict as a racial thing seems to diminish the value of the “What’s in a name?” series of speeches.  (For some reason that makes me think of the Star-Belly Sneetches.) What’s your favorite opening scene, and how fast does it hook you?  Do you have to wait for the “good stuff” or is it lightning bolts and edge of the chair action from the first time somebody opens his mouth?

6 thoughts on “Best Opening Line

  1. The easy winner for me is Henry V…

    “O, for a muse of fire…”

  2. I can’t give you a single answer. It usually depends on the production, but I have a couple that usually have a “lighting bolt”, on the edge of my seat sort of beginning.

    I agree with Angela, Henry V is definitely high on the list. Especially in Branagh’s movie when Derek Jacobi is the chorus… I could just melt!

    The Tempest’s opening, if done well, can be a real attention getter. It’s like the start of an adventure story. A ship at sea, a huge storm, the crew scrambling, others arguing… it really starts off with a high energy, dramatic moment. The risks are great, lives are on the line (The King!), and I want to know more!

    I also really love Richard IIIs opening speech. Richard tells us what happened, how he feels, and what he’s going to do about all up-front. It’s a great hook. Now we’re anticipating the action, “how’s he going to do that? What’s gonna happen?”

    Shakespeare has a lot of great first scenes, but in production it’s really easy to let the energy and excitement go through the floor. Especially plays that start off in a King or Duke’s court/throneroom/etc. Even in Shakespeare’s slow openings, the good stuff is coming soon.


  3. All right then, Gedaly, let me rephrase it since you’re copping out of the question :). Which play are you willing to “cut the most slack”? You familiar with the pizza rule, about how “even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good?” Which openings are just so darned good that a production would really have to bend over backwards to screw it up?

    My initial query was actually about the words themselves, not so much about the production. Which ones are the openings where Shakespeare’s given us such powerful words that they are not bound by the actors’ ability to deliver them? Last week I watched an animated seal deliver the “plague on both your houses” line. It won’t exactly win an Oscar, but it’s still a great line. Know what I mean?

  4. If we’re going only by the opening line, let’s say to the first end stop, my favorites would be unlikely choices for other honors from me.

    Henry IV, Part Two starts with Rumor as Prologue who starts the play with “Open your ears; for which of you will stop/The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?” John Gower opens Pericles with a rhyme:

    “To sing a song that old was sung,
    From ashes ancient Gower is come,
    Assuming man’s infirmities,
    To glad your ear, and please your eyes.”

    Prologues aside, the curtain rises on Henry VI, Part One at the funeral of Henry V. Bedford makes his pronouncement:

    “Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!”

    Powerful stuff. But my favorite opening line is from one of my least favorite plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost:

    “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
    Live register’d upon our brazen tombs,
    And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
    When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
    The endeavour of this present breath may buy
    That honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge,
    And make us heirs of all eternity.”

  5. I’m famous for skating around a question. It’s how I made it through most of high school. :-p You’re really challenging me to pick just one, so I’ll give you one.

    I’ll have to go with the opening of All’s Well That Ends Well, when the Countess begins, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.”

    It’s one of those lines that makes one think, “Ooh! What’s going on? What happened? Tell me more!” It’s a good hook to get the reader or audience interested in the characters.


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