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In describing Shakespeare's openings, Arthur Colby Sprague borrowed a phrase from music, calling them "keynote scenes." (1) Sprague's term draws attention to the mood-setting purpose of Shakespearean beginnings, deemphasizing their expositional function. Hereward Price amplifies Sprague's assertion by pointing out that in the plays the relationship of part to part is not as important as the relationship of all the parts to a central idea. (2)
Although recent critical theory has challenged the assumption that Shakespeare's plays are driven by a central or controlling idea, there can be little doubt after seeing the openings of Richard III or King Lear that the playwright took special care to present scenes whose crucial intent determines much of what follows. Perhaps Kenneth Burke offers the best elaboration of Price's central-idea theory, speaking in the voice of Duke Orsino from Twelfth Night:
As the first speaker in a well-formed drama, I shall begin significantly--in the sense that I shall give the audience some inkling of my "program" forthwith--suggesting the quality which the subsequent events are to quantify. (3)
To proffer just two examples illustrating Burke's suggestion, consider the storm which begins The Tempest and Iago's waking of Brabantio in Othello. Many emotional "tempests" follow the initial illusory storm in The Tempest, and in each instance Prospero retains control over the "winds." The boatswain's valiant effort to keep his ship afloat and his passengers in their cabins deftly anticipates Prospero's feverish efforts to control the various rebels whom fate has wafted to his island. That the opening storm is itself an illusion seems to assure us of a happy resolution of the tempest within the mind of the hero.
When Iago and Roderigo wake Brabantio with news of Desdemona's escape, they too create a storm--of dog-like "barking." Working in the dark, playing upon the senator's superstition and the appearance of deception in Desdemona's absence, Iago practices (one is tempted to write "rehearses") the same technique on Brabantio that he will later use with great effect on Othello. Both civilized men give in to elemental passion, yielding to "honest" Iago when they are convinced that Desdemona …