Good writers typically save their best for last. But Shakespeare was all about breaking the rules. To start out his early history play, Henry V, he sends out a single actor to announce to everyone that this play is big business–so big that the paltry stage he stands upon can in no way do it justice. He apologizes to the audience for the lack of grandeur and setting, but then pleads the audience for their imagination. But here’s the trick: the language is so stunning, so spectacular and powerful that in the hands of a great orator or actor, this prologue sweeps up the audience into a grand illusion of history:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
—Henry V, Act I, Prologue
Technically, this kind of intro is called an ‘Invocation of the Muse’, a trope Shakespeare borrowed from the Classical Greeks. But no one ever did it like Shakespeare–before or after.
Please read this aloud–and you’ll hear the imagery leaping to life, even as the chorus asks the audience to please use their imaginations. Thus we step into the miracle of live theatre.
The image is of Kenneth Branagh as King Harry, in his quite excellent movie of the play from 1989.