Prologue, Henry V

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. —William ShakespearePrologue, Henry V (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

This fall, I’ll be teaching a survey of drama course, covering from the ancient Greeks to the present. I’ve taught it before, but not at SHU. It will be packed with first-semester freshmen.

I think I’ll begin the course with this passage, to drive home the point that reading a playscript is an extension of the co-creative, interpretive act for which Shakespeare here calls.

It’s also not a bad metaphor for close reading, or, by extension, education in general. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. I don’t have the budget of George Lucas, the background dancers and laser shows of Britney Spears, or the time to wordsmith 50-minute lectures (like the ones delivered by my own professors, who taught only two classes each term, with graduate students to run the discussion sections and mark the papers).

I don’t even have the pretty colored pie charts, like their $85 science textbooks do.

But somehow, I’ve got to compete for their attention, against all the pleasures of their newfound freedom. And the contents of their iPods.

Of course, I’ve got some pretty good course material to work with. I can show video clips. I can invite drama majors to do scene work. If the classroom dynamic is good, we can even do impromptu staged readings.

I also have the benefit of the knowledge that I will probably see most of these freshmen again, in another class, perhaps even the following semester.

Shakespeare’s audiences probably included many who sought escapist entertainment, just as some of the incoming freshmen will think of college as their own escapist playground. I think the key here lies in the Chorus’s efforts to align the audience and the players on one side — united in imagination and possibility, against the limitations of form and dreary reality on the other side.