Richard Sheridan Willis as the Chorus in a 2013
Folger Theatre production of Henry V.
We might suppose that choruses, and characters who serve as choruses, always speak with this kind of courtesy, but two of Shakespeare's actually insult their audiences: the character who delivers the epilogue in Troilus and Cressida says that he will transfer his venereal diseases to the audience's many pimps and prostitutes; and the chorus of 2 Henry IV delivers a prologue implying that the audience is a mob, a "blunt monster with uncounted heads." These speeches implicate their audiences in the vices portrayed in their plays. Troilus and Cressida depicts weakness and corruption, which are well symbolized by V.D., while 2 Henry IV depicts the power of rumor, which spreads through mobs.
Henry V's prologue serves a different purpose: to inspire the audience. Though the Chorus begins by saying that the play's subjects can't be presented in this theater, halfway through his speech he makes a U-turn. The clash of kingdoms can be fully recreated, he says: "two mighty monarchies" and a "perilous narrow ocean" can appear "within the girdle of these walls," and huge armies can battle on this stage—if the spectators use their imaginations. Like Henry rallying his men in his "Once more unto the breach" and "band of brothers" speeches, the Chorus rallies the audience, urging them to marshal their "imaginary forces" (a metaphor that connects their imaginations to the armies at Agincourt). When you see an actor holding a pike, he tells them, visualize a thousand soldiers like him. When you hear an actor talk about horses, "[t]hink . . . that you see them / Printing their proud hooves i'th' receiving earth."
Let the play's words conjure images in your minds. This appeal, which could preface all of Shakespeare's plays, points to one of the main reasons why they make great movies. Other plays also make great movies, of course. Theater and cinema are closely related art forms, and the same features that make a great play—rich characters, exciting conflict, insight into life—will, with the right director and actors, make a great movie. Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire, for example, is a superb play that became a superb movie. But a play like Streetcar differs from a play like Henry V in that less of it was written to take place in the audience's imagination. In some ways, every play takes place in the audience's imagination: we imagine that we're seeing the play's characters, not actors; we imagine that the play's conflicts are real, not acted; we imagine that we're looking at real places, not stage sets. Yet when watching Streetcar, what we imagine is inspired by what we see, and though we entirely imagine offstage scenes like Stanley Kowalksi's rape of Blanche DuBois, most of their confrontation is performed onstage.
In Henry V, most of the war between France and England is created by Shakespeare's words acting on our imaginations. England's feverish preparations, its fleet crossing the turbulent Channel, its king's triumphant return—these scenes appear only in the Chorus's speeches, which also flesh out onstage scenes like the siege of Harfleur and the night before the Battle of Agincourt. Though that battle is performed onstage, one of its most memorable scenes, two dukes dying in one another's arms, takes place entirely in another duke's poetic description. Poetry and poetic prose—Henry's speech to the terrified citizens of Harfleur, a common soldier expressing his fears on the night before the Battle of Agincourt, a French herald's description of the battle's gruesome aftermath—convey images of war's cruelties and miseries better than any onstage action. The same is true of Shakespeare's other depictions of war; in Julius Caesar, for example, the speech I mentioned earlier—Antony's soliloquy over Caesar's body—conveys war's horrors, and the suffering of ordinary Romans, better than anything else in the play.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Meeting of Antony and
Cleopatra, 41 BC (1883) recreates Enobarbus's description,
in act 2, scene 2, of the Egyptian queen and her barge.
Image from Shakespeare Illustrated.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-52).
When we call Shakespeare a playwright and poet, we sometimes mean simply that he wrote both plays and poems (145 sonnets and two long narrative poems that we know of). But the plays are themselves poems, not just in the sense that they're "verse drama," meaning that parts or all of them are in verse, but in the sense that their dramatic and poetic qualities are inseparable. In performance, they combine theatrical arts—acting, effects, costumes, music—with poetry that creates images in our minds.
Ophelia (Jean Simmons) drowning in
Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet.