Shakespeare and Music

“If music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night, 1.1.1-7)

Music and Shakespearean Theatre. The two art forms go hand in hand, like hot chocolate on a snowy day.

Shakespeare embraced the use of music, and saw its transformative potential to take stage drama to a deeper level of meaning. He held access to a treasure chest of music at his very doorstep, since Elizabethan culture was steeped in popular ballads, madrigals, church chorals, and courtly arias (to name a few). And he carefully chose songs and musical styles to suit character development.

In terms of vocal music, Shakespeare penned his own lyrics, as well as made use of pre-existing songs. The singing roles in his plays are mostly given to minor characters, clowns, ruffians, and servants. The principal characters never sing (imagine Hamlet breaking into song and dance! *gasp* :O), with the exception of heroines, Ophelia (Hamlet) and Desdemona (Othello). In Desdemona’s case, Shakespeare borrows an existing 16th Century song for her to sing called ‘The Willow Song‘. The tune is slow and lyrical, and provides a lamenting undertone in preparation for her death (IV.iii):

DESDEMONA.

[Sings.]

“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;–“

Instrumental music is also integral to Shakespeare, and there are quite a number of stage directions in the plays that signal musicians to perform either on stage or off to the side. Textual cues like ‘A Flourish, Trumpets!’ (Richard III, IV.iv.149) are used to signal stately entrances of royal characters. While ‘Hoboys and torches. Enter King Duncan…’ (Macbeth, I.vi) brings a foreboding quality with the oboe’s (hoboy’s) haunting tone.

In addition, music is also used to accompany characters in dance, such as the Capulet Ball scene in Romeo and Juliet (I.v). Although no specific dances are mentioned in the stage directions, Shakespeare would’ve preferred dance styles popular to the time period. The Coranto, Pavane, or Galliard – like the one featured below – would’ve all been fair game for a courtly dancing scene ~

By Vineeta Moraes

Advertisements

4 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s