We’re not talking about chess openings here, albeit those can be similar. Bobby Fischer described the chess opening of e5 for white (pawn to king four as it was described in older times) as “best by test”. On a Go board, black moves first, and the player usually takes positions on the corners as quickly as the player can. But here, we’re talking about literature. About stories. Poetry. Plays.
Shakespeare. Writers. Storytellers. Stories.
Sweet or foul, every story has an opening. Although time itself seems to be a cycle, when we record history, fictions, plays, poems, and even essays, all have a starting point, even if the starting point lies in the middle of thoughts or events. Beginnings set tone, establish character and situation, ask questions, and establish a sense of placement while pitching our perspective and our expectations forward into the coming tale.
Shakespeare’s tales begin variously, tending to lead us onward to realisation, transformation, or even transcendence, and this can happen slowly or quickly. Consider Sonnet 29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
We begin with a life’s vintage gone sour, and for the first eight lines, we wonder at what went wrong–why we don’t have friends like others, why we don’t look like them or have their prospects. Disgraced in human society and beset with ill fortune, our life evidently looks bleak. There appears to be little light, little hope, and we feel very sorry for ourselves.
Then, in the middle of the sonnet at the ninth line, the word “Yet” appears like a lightning bolt. Suddenly, the world changes with a thought, with the thought of “thee”. How dedicated love changes everything in an instant! At the moment of thinking on this “thee”, the narrator’s state “[l]ike to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate”. How marvelous to live in a state so gracious that “then I scorn to change my state with kings”!
So much of life lies in how we see things, and changing perspective may take more or less time depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, an opening may play with our expectations, misdirecting us a bit in order to increase the impact of what follows. Just as the nose upon opening a bottle of wine may hint at more or less mineral, fruit, or pepper in a wine, a story’s opening tends to suggest a direction. Where will the first mouthful take us? How will that be sustained as the company shares the bottle–or the story experience–ahead of us?
Shakespeare’s play, A Comedy of Errors, begins with a character who has been described as seeing himself in a tragedy when he is really in a comedy.
Entering with his jailer in scene presided over by the Duke of Ephesus, Egeon says:
EGEONThe Comedy of Errors 1.1.1-2.
Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,
And by the doom of death end woes and all.
This opening line is followed by several pages of Egeon’s monologue (interspersed with a few prompts by the interested Duke) about how his family was lost in a shipwreck, and how fortune has brought him to his doom. We can hardly blame Egeon for his perceptions though. He seems to have been on the wrong end of events for much of his life, and the play’s opening, which consists of several pages of exposition, initially makes things look bleak for him.
Yet, of course, unbeknownst to Egeon, his family lives. His twin sons, and their twin servants, are BOTH in Ephesus even as he speaks of being alone and friendless there. Shakespeare subsequently unfolds the old Plautus style Roman comedy devices of mistaken identities with his two sets of identical twins.
Egeon’s opening monologue has been described as a weak opening, but is it? In the long history of Egeon’s misfortune, a particular tone is established, and a particular kind of expectation as well. By setting the dramatic developments firmly in the past, the monologue seems to lull us into a kind of quietude. We sit or stand listening to the character catalogue his woes and a decided, even pronounced passivity sweeps over us. The effect sets us up for the ensuing comic antics like the rule of threes in telling jokes.
Three strings walk into a tavern. . . the first asks for a drink and is summarily refused. “We don’t serve your kind in here!” the surly barkeep snarls.
The second is rebuked as well. “Listen, no strings! We don’t serve strings in here!”
The third ties himself in a knot and unravels his top, then goes for a drink. The barkeep is in no mood for more of this, and his response is a growl. “Hey! Aren’t you a string!?”
The third string responds, “Nope. I’m a frayed knot.”
As the opening line suggests, the joke employs the classic humour pattern often called “the rule of threes”. The first two strings set up an expectation which the third shatters. Egeon’s long speech, which the Duke punctuates periodically with protests about how he cannot alter the law, or with requests for more information, becomes like the setup in a protracted joke. The woeful Egeon sees his own case as hopeless, and the Duke repeatedly says that, even though he is sympathetic, he is neither free nor inclined to fudge on the letter of the law. Egeon must produce the penalty fee or die.
The opening of Shakespeare’s Othello sets it up as a tragedy too. The initial exchange between Iago and Roderigo (whom he is manipulating) begins this way:
RODERIGO: Tush, never tell me! I take it much unkindlyOthello 1.1.1-9
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
IAGO: ’Sblood, but you’ll not hear me!
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
RODERIGO: Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
IAGO: Despise me
If I do not.
Iago’s opening line begins with an expletive, and compounds a series of negatives to express the idea that Roderigo isn’t listening to him. This is characteristic of Iago, an accomplished parasite and mental predator who lives in a universe of the negative, and who expresses himself only in half truths.
When Orson Welles adapted Othello to film, he felt compelled to change it. He said:
A movie has to have a great opening. It must command attention. The opening of OTHELLO is written for an audience that is just getting quiet. Like all openings in a play, because you don’t want to ever open a play at the top of your bent. But a movie should open at the top of it’s bent, it must, because this damn thing (points to the screen) is dead. The only living thing are the people sitting out here. It’s a projected image, and you cannot bring the thing alive unless you seize the people at the beginning. The riderless horse has to come in. The funeral of Othello and the lynching of Iago, is the riderless horse. It’s as simple as that.*
Here is the opening of the cinematic version:
Where Shakespeare begins his play with Iago’s manipulation of Roderigo, as a kind of preface to events, Welles opens his film with an aftermath, with Othello’s funeral and Iago’s imprisonment. The staged contrast of Iago’s negativity with those around him is transformed into a cinemascape of light and dark in stark contrast.
We can also the contrast between the small and fragile human world and a kind of vast emptiness in which human events take place. This idea appears in many other cinematic openings as well. Here is the opening sequence to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Il Buon, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo):
This is the cinematic equivalent of James M. Cain’s opening line “They threw me off the hay truck at around noon.” It is ‘ugly’ Tuco’s “Call me Ishmael” moment, establishing who, what, and where he is. Questions abound, this sequence gives us a good idea of where the horse may be taking Tuco, and where the film may take us.
For the cliché is true that each film, play, story, poem really is a journey. The Spanish early modern playwright, Lope de Vega opened The Knight from Olmedo with Don Allonso (the titular knight) saying, “Let no one speak the name of Love/Who does not eagerly respond to it;/And yet, who is there on this earth/Of ours whom it has left untouched?” (1.1-4)** Clearly, this will be a play about love–and in the best of romantic literary tradition, it is. Star crossed and all.
But what happens if the love and the great emptiness get confused? Or what if they are participatory–even to the point of being part of each other?
Here is Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 4”
Amazing to believe that nothingness
Surrounds us with delight and lets us be,
And that the meekness of nonentity,
Despite the friction of the world of sense,
Despite the leveling of violence,
Is all that matters. All the energy
We force into the matchhead and the city
Explodes inside a loving emptiness.
Not Dante’s rings, not the Zen zero’s mouth,Jarman, Mark. Questions for Ecclisiastes. Storyline Press, 1997.
Out of which comes and into which light goes,
This God recedes from every metaphor,
Turns the hardest data into untruth,
And fills all blanks with blankness. This love shows
Itself in absence, which the stars adore.
“Amazing” is the opening word, followed by “believe” and then “nothingness”. The progression has a kind of orgiastic freedom, an orgasmic sense of letting go, of the “matter” transcending the “friction” of the world of sense–even to the point where it “Explodes inside a loving emptiness.”
Of course, we can go on for more than a lifetime looking at such openings.
Yet, it behooves us to bear openings, prefaces, preludes, first words, first chapters, and first acts in mind. Especially now with such a year as we have all known now showing some signs of possibly shifting. Spring may come quickly, but this shift will take more time, and we remain impatient. The pandemic has been a year long season of loss and shadow, of fear, retreat, and deep concern.
Now, there are vaccines, and new leaves are budding on the trees. We see them curling against the blue spaces of the sky.
For this is a kind of opening too. Not for the ones we’ve lost, but for those of us left behind. And now, as we gather our old lockdown linen spirits together for a wash, we must look ahead of ourselves. We have the opportunity for renewed vision. What kind of world do we really want? What kind of world will we choose to forge for ourselves, and for the future? Where will this opening take us?
* Orson Welles in a question and answer session after his film of Othello premiered in Boston.
**Vega, Lope de. The Knight from Olmedo (El caballero de Olmedo) in Lope De Vega: Three Major Plays. Translated by Gwynne Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 83.