Life to the Image, Death to the Word

Amit Majmudar
February 19, 2013
Comments 0

Sometimes a specific, historical incident has the interpretability of a parable. An example: How the cannons in Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s last play (actually a collaboration with John Fletcher), set off a fire that burned down the original Globe theater in 1613. Of course, it wasn’t the last time poetry would be heard on the English stage; Racine wasn’t yet born, and the Globe itself was rebuilt; but the heyday of English verse drama, in historical retrospect, finished with Shakespeare’s departure from the stage, and the Ragnarok-like destruction of the Globe.

The interest point is how that fire came as a result of the special effects. Because special effects of one form or another have allowed poetry to wither away from the drama. They exist, but separately. Universally, across cultures, we prefer our movies and TV shows in prose, and often quite simple prose at that. The reason isn’t mass appeal; verse drama has had mass appeal in the (distant) past, across social classes, in both European and Asian societies. What killed dramatic poetry was the use of something other than language to conjure reality or communicate emotion: That is, the special effects: The descendants of the cannons in Henry VIII. When Shakespeare first started writing for the stage, the stage was quite bare, physically; metaphor and meter were his scenery and stage machinery; language was the poor man’s Industrial Light and Sound, and Shakespeare was London’s shoestring-budget George Lucas, developing this cutting-edge new verse technology called iambic pentameter.

Incidentally, George Lucas himself has mentioned how he is more interested in the imagery or visual impact of his movies than in the writing or dialogue. He has every reason to exclude elaborate imagery from his screenplays; he doesn’t need it; why tell when you can show? Shakespeare didn’t have that luxury, and he knew it:


O For a Muse of Fire, that would ascend

The brightest Heauen of Inuention:

A Kingdome for a Stage, Princes to Act,

And Monarchs to behold the swelling Scene.

Then should the Warlike Harry, like himselfe,

Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heeles

(Leasht in, like Hounds) should Famine, Sword, and Fire

Crouch for employment. But pardon, Gentles all:

The flat vnraysed Spirits, that hath dar’d,

On this vnworthy Scaffold, to bring forth

So great an Obiect. Can this Cock-Pit hold

The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme

Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes

That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?

O pardon: since a crooked Figure may

Attest in little place a Million,

And let vs, Cyphers to this great Accompt,

On your imaginarie Forces worke.

Suppose within the Girdle of these Walls

Are now confin’d two mightie Monarchies,

Whose high, vp-reared, and abutting Fronts,

The perillous narrow Ocean parts asunder.

Peece out our imperfections with your thoughts:

Into a thousand parts diuide one Man,

And make imaginarie Puissance.

Thinke when we talke of Horses, that you see them

Printing their prowd Hoofes i’th’ receiuing Earth:

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings….


That’s Henry V, written roughly fourteen years before Henry VIII. Those Globe-incinerating (“Some say the world will end in fire,” as another poet would have it) cannons carry a load of symbolic import, to my mind. The use of a brute blast (instead of futile speech) to express the explosion: To use the cannon to express a cannon: To obviate even the need to call a spade a spade by producing a spade: This is the curse-blessing of the on-location camera and the green screen: Life to the image, death to the word.



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