Since I said my opening lines in my previous post, I thought it was only natural to discuss Shakespeare’s own in a countdown of his best.
As we know, opening lines are the hook to any fiction since they are what cause us to keep reading. If the beginning doesn’t grab us, we usually lose interest. Whether its some food for thought, a character’s introduction, laying the scene, or igniting the tension, the opening line often embodies the whole text. The length of the opening lines will also vary depending on the play. These are the key factors in my ranking, and of course, this is only personal opinion. So let’s get started!
Honourable Mentions: The Tempest, Pericles, Taming of the Shrew.
These plays just miss the mark, but I rate them more for the aesthetic of how they begin rather than the lines that start the plays themselves. I mean, the storm in The Tempest is great, but the line ‘Boatswain’? Less so.
No. 10 – Henry VIII
“I come no more to make you laugh:”
Talk about a killjoy of a line, Shakespeare’s Prologue keeps it simple, direct, and sombre here. If we take into account that an Early Modern audience would revel and party during the action of the scene, this immediately grabs the attention of that kind of audience. It’s a great line, but the play unfortunately does not live up to the power of the words in this opening.
No. 9 – Henry VI Part III
“I wonder how the king escaped our hands.”
What makes this opening line of Warwick’s so great is that it comes straight off of the ending of Henry VI Part II. The King and Margaret are on the run; the Yorkists has taken the throne; and Somerset’s decapitated head is revealed by a familiar hunchbacked villain. This opening line may be fueled by the prequel, but the dramatic tension is through the roof at this point, and Henry’s escape only makes it escalate.
No. 8 – Romeo and Juliet
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,”
Another Prologue, these lines are so iconic at setting the scene of such a famous tragedy that I feel there’s almost little in novelty to say at this point. I will say tis however: although these lines clearly locate the reader and audience, the theme of vengeance is already addressed in ‘both alike in dignity’. Immediately we know that the Capulets and Montagues have more in common than their rivalry suggests. Once again, Shakespeare establishes character, setting and the themes of the story within the first two lines. Two lines!
No. 7 – Comedy of Errors
“Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall
And by the doom of death end woes and all.”
For a comedy so much about slapstick and farce, Ageon’s sentence and morbid acceptance of execution to ‘end woes and all’ is such a shocking contrast to the rest of the play. It’s this blend of tension and inquisitiveness towards Ageon in the scene that is needed, for if anyone whose read Comedy of Errors is aware, Ageon helps lay down the exposition needed for rest of the play through his explanantion of his past. It’s a scene of danger and dread at first glance, but only as a precursor to the bizarre antics that follow.
No. 6 – Merchant of Venice
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:”
This line just rolls off the tongue in sibilance and simplicity. But with such merriment from his companions, we can’t help but just ask the question: why is Antonio sad? Why doesn’t he know? But it’s never revealed. Shakespeare seems to have pulled of a proto-What Masie Knew here – our attention is drawn in to discover Antonio’s melancholy, but so much unfolds in the story that we never get the chance to really find out. And maybe that ambiguity is for the better.
No. 5 – Henry V
“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,”
And at number five is King Henry V which has, without a doubt, the best chorus in Shakespearean canon. It’s the only play that begins with an exclamation, which immediately gets your interest; but the uncommon admission of the stage, especially at the beginning of the play, ignites this ‘Muse of fire’ within us. The Chorus apologises, and screams frustration at depicting such an epic tale, but this only draws us into the story more, and gives the reader (or viewer) the power to build the world of the play.
No. 4 – Macbeth
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Imagine seeing this on the stage: three witches walk through a desolate plain of Scotland, speaking in rhyme and discussing their next scheduled creepfest. There’s something eerie, unsettling, about this line, read or seen. It makes the uncanny atmosphere that lingers throughout the play, and gives us bad omens of what’s to come for our titular character. It also gets bonus points for being a visual opening hook for the play, as well as on page.
No. 3 – Twelfth Night
“If music be the food of love, play on,”
Orsino is wonderfully introduced by Shakespeare as a Romantic. His words are poetic, but there’s clearly a fallacy to the words and heartache of Viola’s heathrob. He’s not in love with Olivia, but in love with love; and as beautiful the line is, Shakespeare uses it ironically in presenting the foolishness of Romantic love. The fact that there’s music to introduce the play in this scene, playing behind Orsino’s musings, helps too.
No. 2 – Hamlet
What is perhaps the longest knock-knock joke of all time, these two words put together are the words from a paranoid, disquieted, uneasy world such as Elsinore. Bernardo is the replacement for Francisco, yet both are unsure of each other. The looming threat of Fortinbras or the Ghost doesn’t help either. But the greatest part of the line is that its so existential, so open ended, it fits within the world of Hamlet like a jigsaw puzzle. And this is just a watchman, we haven’t even met the star of the show yet!
No. 1 – Richard III
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;”
Of course it’s Richard III. The phrase ‘winter of discontent’ is so iconic it has actually become a political idiom (quite appropriate). The pathetic fallacy tied into politics here immediately dives us into a world of Shakespearean House of Cards. But as poetic as the lines are, they work so well in rounding up the character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to a T. He’s ambitious, he’s political, he’s smart – but most of all, he’s funny. The word play of ‘sun’ and ‘son’ subvert the villainous exterior of Richard and make him charming to the audience. It’s Machiavellian brilliance with the Shakespearean touch.