Shakespeare could have opened “Hamlet” with the ghost of his father and his demand for revenge. After all, “Hamlet” is a revenge tragedy. A play where revenge drives the plot. An eye-for-an-eye kind of thing. A play where the audience asks, “Will the main character do it? Will he get away with it?” Shakespeare had done it before with “Titus Andronicus”. But he wasn’t satisfied with just another revenge tragedy.
Instead Shakespeare has more irons in the fire than just revenge. He begins “Hamlet” with two simple words. “Who’s there?” Those words tell us that there are more things in the play than just getting even. It is about identity. It is about Hamlet finding out just who he is.
An opening scene in Shakespeare is like an opening act for a concert. It gives the audience a taste of what’s to come. It’s Joan Jett opening for The Who. It foretells what the is isn’t and what the is-not is. Sometimes it’s obvious what’s to come. Sometimes it’s not. Then you have to listen hard. Here’s some opening scenes.
“The Tempest”: Miranda needs a boy friend..
“Julius Caesar”: Not everybody likes J. C.
“Macbeth”: Don’t hang out with witches.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: One good Puck deserves another.
“Othello”: Iago does not like Othello.
“Twelfth Night”: Cross-dressing is in.
“As You Like It”: Cross-dressing is in some more.
“Romeo and Juliet”: This is the Hatfields and the McCoys Italian Style.
Later there’s a balcony scene.
Juliet. Romeo, Romeo, whereforth art thou?
Romeo: I’m down here.
“King Lear”: Cordelia does love her Daddy.
“Richard II”: It’s my throne. No, it’s my throne.
“Henry IV Part 1”: Let’s party hardy.
“Henry IV Part 2”: What do they see in this Hotspur anyway?
“Henry V”: It’s time to kick some French butt.
“All’s Well That Ends Well: What does she see in that guy anyway?
“Anthony and Cleopatra”: Don’t play with snakes.
“Richard III”: It is the winter of my discontent that I am not king. But, hey, I can fix that.
See what I mean. Easy peasy.