This website attempts to identify every music reference in context in each play and in a number of poems where they occur. Music in Shakespeare is a wide-ranging subject embracing terms and phrases of many differing kinds and definitions. For the purposes of this website, ‘music’ has been interpreted as relating to sound (instruments, voice and vocalization, noise such as shouting and ordnance, natural phenomenon such as tempests, thunder, wind, etc ), theory and philosophy (pedagogy, rudiments, neo-classical philosophy and ideas), dance (accompanied by instruments), military cues (alarum, march, retreat, parley, usually or notionally involving an instrument such as trumpet or drum), expressive or ‘emotional’ terms (sigh, doleful, mournful, etc), generic terms (anthem, ayre, madrigal, etc), performative procedures (strike drums, wind horns, blow trumpets, touch the lute, sing a song), and miscellaneous or stand-alone terms which may have only an oblique connection with music but which nonetheless support a musical context—Shakespeare tends to cluster musical references rather than present them in isolation.
- Musical Instruments
- Song Birds
- Instrumental Cues
- Musical Philosophy
- Musical theory and pedagogy
- Emotional Words
Musical references occur in every play and in a comparatively large number of poems by Shakespeare. There are over 2000 references occurring in varying densities either throughout a play, as in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew; or confined to certain acts and scenes, as in The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure. Even in musically-rich plays such as Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, the effect of music is marked not only by its signification but also by how and where it occurs. Its absence can be sometimes as telling as its presence. The first half of The Winter’s Tale does not contain any music, except for two brief allusions. In Twelfth Night, after a musically intense opening two acts and successive musically inclusive final acts, act 3 is devoid of music, except for a brief exchange at the opening between Viola and Feste. The same is true for Julius Caesar, act 3. Throughout the complete works almost 400 separate terms relating to music are used. ‘Music’ itself is to be found in every play except Henry VI part 3 and King John. There are a large number of vocal songs (c.100) and references to songs, often in groups or clusters at various points. References to musical instruments, ensembles (consorts, music in parts), genres and dance, performers and performance, technical terms from theory, philosophy and pedagogy, emotional words (particularly expressing grief or melancholy), terms with military and civic associations (tucket, sennet, flourish), stage cues and a number of individual terms pervade Shakespeare’s work.
References to the musical instruments of court and country, war and peace, home and tavern recur frequently. Amongst the art-music instruments, Shakespeare alludes to the lute—the instrument itself, its symbolic associations, its method of playing—more than contemporaneous, comparable instruments such as viol or virginal. Up to the end of the 1590s, the lute was the essential instrument of educated Elizabethan England, found in courtly and domestic environments played by both male and female practitioners. How it was tuned and learnt offers Shakespeare the opportunity to exploit puns and associations. Its distinctive shape and stringing does not escape Shakespeare’s allusory attention. Its ravishing sound affords passionate images and musical fancy. The lute began to be displaced at court and to a certain extent in the stately home after 1600 by the viol. There are surprisingly few references to the viol, even in the later plays. The most telling reference occurs in Twelfth Night, usefully dated 1601/2, interestingly to the ‘masculine’ viol de gamboys. Others are found in Pericles (1607) and obliquely in King Lear (1605). The keyboard virginal/virginals is even scarcer. The virginal was a common household instrument in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and music written for it by, prominently recusant, composers the most prolific and progressive in Europe. Queen Elizabeth herself is thought to have been an accomplished player. The instrument itself is not mentioned directly by Shakespeare but coy puns on the manner of its playing occur in The Two Noble Kinsmen (3.3), The Winter’s Tale (1.2) and Sonnet 128. Among other courtly instruments, the violin does not feature but fiddle—a term frequently but by no means exclusively used to indicate a member of the violin family—is used. It often had a disparaging connotation and this is how Shakespeare employs it, for example, in The Taming of the Shrew (2.1) and Henry VIII (1.3). Also mentioned in dismissive terms is the recorder when Prince Hamlet berates Guildenstern for his inability to play this simple pipe. Its accessibility and common association with children learning to play an instrument is essential to Hippolyta’s metaphor when she compares Quince’s acting ability to a child playing the recorder in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1).
The clamorous instruments of war in early modern Europe were non-art, signalling instruments notably trumpets and drums. Cues specifically for trumpeters to play are comparatively few but both implicit and explicit indications in both text and stage directions pervade the Shakespeare canon. Flourishes, tuckets and sennets involved trumpets as did retreats and parleys. It has been argued that particular trumpet signals identified the rank of the person being introduced (for example Othello’s arrival in Cyprus (Oth 2.1)). This however is not consistent throughout the plays and in the indoor theatres hoboys and cornetts often replaced trumpets. The most ‘connotative military instrument’ of Elizabethan England, the drum, invariably signalled alarums and marches and was generally associated with the infantry whereas the trumpet was customarily a cavalry instrument. Sometimes drums and trumpets combine; elsewhere shrill fifes and whistles substitute for trumpets. Whatever their signification, it is clear that brazen trumpets and fearful drums were intended to bring loud noise to the Elizabethan playhouse.
Among rustic, non-art instruments the pipe and tabor—the Elizabethan one-man band—is most often employed. The tabor was a small drum carried by the player commonly used to accompany popular dancing, usually also with a pipe, played by the same person. That the player was called a taborer and not a piper (for example in The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen) emphasises the role of the drum. The famous Shakespearean actor, William Kempe records in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600) how he morris danced to Norwich accompanied by his taborer, Thomas Slye. Shakespeare effectively employs the rustic/domestic peaceable associations of the pipe and tabor to contrast in several cases with the military, war context of the trumpet and drum, as in Much Ado about Nothing (2.3). When Shakespeare does mention pipes and pipers he intends among others, the bagpipe. In The Winter’s Tale (4.4), the rustic connections of the instrument are confirmed when it is associated with the tabor and pipe and popular dance. In 1Henry 4 (1.2), the melancholy, love-sick Falstaff is compared among other ‘unsavoury similes’ to ‘the drone of the Lincolnshire bagpipe’. The crude sound and visually suggestive image of the bagpipe is contrasted with the sophisticated and refined quality of stringed instruments at various stages in Othello. The ‘opposition of the two musics’, the strings representing order and virtue, the pipes disreputable chaos emanates from late Medieval and Renaissance neo-Classical philosophy. The generic term, ‘pipe’, is used to denote a wide range of differing instruments from the simple whistle and fife to recorder, shawm and organ pipe. In several cases, it refers to the human voice as for example when Orsino observes of Viola’s voice in Twelfth Night (1.4) that it is ‘shrill and sound’. Philomel’s ‘pipe’ in Sonnet 102 is conventionally high-pitched aptly reminding the reader of her violent fate.
Ensembles of families of instruments such as recorders, viols, violins, shawms, and mixtures of instruments, notably flute, treble viol, bandore, lute, cittern and bass viol were known as ‘consorts’. The term is thought to have been first used with its musical meaning in Gascoigne’s description of the Entertainment at Kenilworth in July 1575, The Princelye Pleasures (1576). The ‘mixed’ consort is the ensemble Thomas Morley addresses in his Consort Lessons (1599), as does Philip Rosseter in his Lessons for Consort (1609), leading commentators to suggest the mixed consort was common in the theatres of the day. Shakespeare puns on both the associative meaning of the word—to keep company—and its musical significance, for example, in Romeo and Juliet (3.1) when Tybalt accuses Mercutio of fraternizing with Romeo and receives a defiant response from Mercutio. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.2), Proteus advizes Thurio to employ a consort of instruments to serenade Silvia in the hope of winning her affections.
Songs accompanied by consorts, specifically consorts of viols and known today as ‘consort songs’, were not employed in Shakespeare’s theatre whereas they were essential to the music of the choirboy plays. Shakespeare does, however, refer to the more popular ‘music in parts’, partsongs such as catches, canons, rounds as in Twelfth Night (2.3) and The Tempest (2.3). Such songs were invariably spontaneously performed by three participants, generally male. In The Winter’s Tale (4.3), in preparing for the sheep-shearing feast, the Clown observes that his sister, the ‘mistress of the feast’, has made nosegays for the sheep-shearers who sang three-part songs, though he regrets most of them are lower voices—means and basses—lacking countertenors or trebles. According to Charles Butler, Principles of Musik (1636), the mean is so called, ‘because it is a middling or mean high part, between the Countertenor, (the highest part of a man) and the Treble (the highest part of a boy or woman:) and therefore may bee sung by a mean voice’ (p. 42). In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1.2), Lucetta advizes Julia that Proteus’ song will not sound very good because it lacks a mean. She says that singing a ‘descant’ will not make up for its absence.
Performing improvised embellishments—‘descants’, ‘divisions’—on a simple melody was a practice common among accomplished musicians in Shakespeare’s time. A leading Elizabethan theorist and composer, Thomas Morley, defined ‘descant’ in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) as ‘singing a part extempore upon a playnesong’ (p. 70). He also notes that when the voice parts do not exceed three, the treble is sometimes known as the descant. Shakespeare uses the term to denote extempore singing upon a plainsong, as in Richard III (1.1; 3.7) and The Rape of Lucrece. Divisions are embellishments usually associated with instruments, especially the lute and viol, and sometimes to vocal performance. The ability to ‘ravish’ the listener with excitingly skilful divisions was a feature of stylish lute-playing and observed by Shakespeare for example in Henry IV part 1(3.1). The morning lark sings her divisions when Juliet and Romeo painfully realise they must part and so signifies their impending separation (RJ 3.5).
In addition to the lark mentioned under 'Embellishments' Shakespeare birds that sing include the nightingale, song-thrush, blackbird, finch, sparrow, cuckoo, wren, robin, and the more raucous raven, crow, magpie and screech-owl. The swan sings once only, just before she dies. The nocturnal vocal habits of the nightingale are purposefully recorded by Shakespeare, for example in Romeo and Juliet (3.5), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1), or The Merchant of Venice (5.1) where Portia observes that if the nightingale sang during the day, ‘when every goose is cackling’, its musical attributes would not be so noticeable. The lament of the nightingale or philomel, as she is known in her classical sources, is poignantly referenced in Titus Andronicus (2.3) and The Rape of Lucrece (1128-34). A host of birds perform in Bottom’s song, ‘The woosel cock so black of hue’ (MND 3.1). The ‘plainsong’ (narrowly repetitive) voice of the cuckoo is mentioned in this song. The cuckoo is known as the harbinger of Spring but its habit of laying its egg in another bird’s nest, alluded to in Antony and Cleopatra (2.6), also gives it a bad reputation, as noted in the epilogue song at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The distinctive voice of the cuckoo is heard loud and clear when it arrives in April but by mid-summer it is not so distinctive, a feature observed by King Henry in Henry IV part 1 (3.2). The vocal attributes of the robin-redbreast are also noticeable, a fact Speed has recourse to relate in trying to convince Valentine that he is in love (TGV 1.2).
In contrast to the song-birds are the ‘black’ birds of night, ‘messengers of woe’, gloom and doom. For the despondent King Richard, shrieking night-owls have replaced morn-rising larks (R2 3.3), as he muses on his precarious situation and loss of authority. The association of the owl with night and graveyards is evocatively observed by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.2). The same image cluster (owl-night-death) is invoked in Macbeth (2.2) when Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to go ahead with his dreadful crime. When Edward, Duke of York demands that the fatally wounded Clifford be brought forward he alludes to the owl as harbinger of death (3H6 2.6). Shortly before his murder, King Henry VI recalls the ominous portents surrounding the birth of Richard of Gloucester and prophesies his ruinous downfall in black, night-bird imagery, namely owls, crows, raven, and chattering magpies (3H6 5.6).
Performed songs and allusions to song pervade the Shakespeare canon. There are about 100 vocal songs and a large number of references to popular songs and types, such as catches, rounds, ballads and subsidiary kinds (roundels, snatches, etc). There are also about half a dozen ‘lost’ songs. Performed songs are either formal—‘called for’—or improvised, a division which was thought to reflect the distinction between art and popular songs in Shakespeare but which turns out to be inconsistent. Formal songs such as the pages’ song in As You Like It (5.3), Feste’s ‘O mistress mine’ and ‘Come away, death’ in Twelfth Night, Queen Katherine’s attendant’s song ‘Orpheus with his lute’ in Henry VIII (3.1) or Ariel’s songs in The Tempest are indentified in the surrounding dialogue as ‘called for’. On-stage instrumental accompaniment, such as lute or tabor, can also mark them out as formal. The explicit stage direction in Q1 Hamlet (1603), ‘Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing’ (G4v) is problematic since this song and her others are spontaneous, alluding to popular sources. References to the lute are omitted in subsequent printed texts (Q2 1604/5 and F 1623). This may be a practical consideration but it also concurs with the function of Ophelia’s songs in her distracted state. The mimetic quality of the formal performed songs varies between the loosely integrated occurrences in the early comedies and ‘Henry’ plays to the dramatically integral songs of the late romances.
The extent to which Shakespeare was immersed in the popular culture of his day has been the subject of extensive discussion. His use of contemporary popular songs bears witness to this. The drinking songs in Twelfth Night, Othello, or The Tempest derive from the actual tavern songs of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare is specific about the types of song certain characters perform. It is no accident that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste indulge in a ‘catch’ during their drunken debauchery in Twelfth Night (2.3). A catch was a semi-improvised song in which three or four participants imitated each other’s vocal part at the same pitch or an octave lower. Often the preserve of the alehouse, it was a song for male company with its bawdy and lewd innuendo. It is not surprising Malvolio took exception to the nocturnal performance of such a song. A drink-abuse context is similarly the cue for a catch in The Tempest (3.2), when Caliban encourages his co-conspirators Stephano and Trinculo to indulge and be merry.
Another kind of imitative song or ‘song in parts’ is the ‘round’. It was a slightly more sophisticated musical form than the catch and usually lacked bawdy content. Implicit links with dance types and dancing are contained in references to rounds, either as dance songs or songs for dancing. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a number of references relate to fairies dancing and Puck’s seminal role in the plays’ centric allegorical dance. Other dual-meaning terms include carol, roundel, ballet or ballad. In a pastoral context the round or roundelay became synonymous with the ‘shepherd’s jig’.
Both popular and courtly dances and dancing feature in the Shakespeare canon. Distinction is made between formal, stylized dances and more exuberant, quasi improvised kinds. In Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice advizes Hero on the advantages and disadvantages of love and marriage, likening ‘wooing, wedding, and repenting’ to ‘a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinqepace’ (2.1). The first is a lively ‘country’ dance; the second is the more formal, stately social dance; the last is a quicker, triple-time dance. The cinquepace (sink-a-pace), mentioned several times by Shakespeare, applies to the five dance steps of the galliard and tordion (twist). These dances together with a number of associated types occur in one scene in particular in Twelfth Night (1.3) when Sir Toby mockingly reviles Sir Andrew concerning his boastful claims about his accomplishments in courtly dancing. In contrast to the stylized dances of Twelfth Night are the variable country dances of The Winter’s Tale. An old English ‘country dance’ of shepherds and shepherdesses, led by Florizel and Perdita, opens the rustic feast in 4.4. Autolycus, the seedy pedlar, interrupts the proceedings with his ballads. Then comes the dance of the twelve countrymen, costumed as satyrs, symbolising disorder. No specific kind can be applied to the satyrs’ dance; it is intended to be a one-off, grotesque dance characterised by stop-starts and balletic leaps. It may be Shakespeare’s satyrs’ dance is linked to the antimasque of unruly satyrs in Ben Jonson’s masque, Oberon, The Fairy Prince, performed at court on 1 January 1611, not long before Shakespeare’s play was completed. That Shakespeare was aware of this kind of courtly entertainment with its stylized dances, is attested to in masque allusions in Romeo and Juliet (1.4-5) Love’s Labour’s Lost (5.2) and late plays including Timon of Athens (1.2), The Tempest (4.1) and Henry VIII (1.4). The social dance which comes early on in Romeo and Juliet (1.5) is symbolically ambivalent and serves as the backdrop to the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers. It is also one of the earliest examples of on-stage dancing in a Shakespeare play.
The actual dancing in this scene in Romeo and Juliet is signalled by an explicit stage direction for musicians to play: ‘Music plays’. There are a large number of explicit and implicit instrumental cues in Shakespeare. Ceremonial entries and exits of royal, noble and high military figures are marked usually by trumpet cues such as ‘flourishes’ and less often by ‘sennets’ and ‘tuckets’. Cornetts sometimes replace trumpets in the later indoor plays. Drums ‘strike up’ when a military event is signalled, conventionally associated with the infantry. Certain trumpet and drum cues, arguably signify rank and position of persons being announced; their occurrence, however, is not entirely consistent across the Shakespeare canon. In some specific usages, for example with regard to tuckets and sennets, their identification is almost certainly purposeful. When explicit stage directions are not used, cues in the dialogue suggest the presence of on- and off-stage sounds.
Cues for characters such as Feste and Ariel to play instruments on stage are clear. More ambiguous are cues such as Q1 Hamlet (mentioned under 'Songs') where Ophelia is instructed to enter with a lute. It is not clear why she should accompany herself, if that is what is intended . Off-stage cues are usually indicated as ‘within’ or ‘afar off’. The first refers to the area within the tiring house, out of sight of the playgoer, as Alan Dessen and Leslie Thomson explain in their A Dictionary of Stage Directions (Cambridge, 1999). The second is a more general indication that the sound comes from somewhere off-stage, usually behind the tiring-house wall. Battles, commotions (‘alarums’), riots and other noisy happenings connected with momentous situations can be suggested in the limited confines of the Elizabethan theatre, allowing the audience to imagine a scene of much greater scale than is practicable in the theatre, as the prologue to Henry V exhorts.
Practical music such as performed songs and instrumental cues is contrasted with imagined music, suggested or informed by Renaissance philosophy, associations and allusion. The ‘music of the spheres’ and allusions to the affective power of music, so eloquently articulated by Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice (5.1), is a commonplace in Elizabethan literature and often discussed by modern commentators. The neo-Platonic ‘music of the spheres’ in its Christianised version(s)—Shakespeare refers for example to angels singing in the heavenly music—had become outmoded by the end of the sixteenth century as scientific explanations of the universe evolved and changed, notably influenced by Copernicus and his challenge to earth-centric theory. Implicit in the ordered music of the heavens was the ‘concord of well-tuned sounds’, emblematic of celestial and worldly harmony, the philosophy of musica mundana explicated by Boethius in the sixth century in his De Institutione Musica, printed in 1491-2. The motions of the stars and planets resulted in harmonious music, a sound not audible to mere humans as Pericles speculates towards the end of the play (Per 5.1) when having recovered his sanity he finds that his daughter Marina is still alive, but which affects the ‘harmony’ of the world, musica humana. The harmony in human beings—concord—is contrasted with disorder, strife and unpleasantness—discord. ‘Sweet music’ is preferred to music that ‘jars’, that is harsh and dissonant, music that is ‘well tuned’ as opposed to music that is out-of-tune. Shakespeare also exploits music theory relating to composition, acoustics and intervals, musica instrumentalis.
Musical theory and pedagogy
Terms from Elizabethan music theory and pedagogy occur in a number of instances. Contemporary music treatises invariably set out in their opening material the theory of note identity, the ‘naming of notes’ of the gam-ut or hexachord. It is also evident that learning to play the lute, generally from about the age of 13 in certain echelons of Elizabethan society, required a knowledge of music notation involving the hexachord. These givens are manifest in the music lesson in The Taming of the Shrew (3.1). Before teaching her how to play the lute, Hortensio/Licio attempts to instruct Bianca in the rudiments of music theory. He meets with feisty opposition in Bianca and makes little progress in his amatory deceit. References to the notes of the hexachord (a term in fact not used by Shakespeare) occur in Love’s Labour’s Lost (4.2) when Holofernes hums the six-note scale to himself out of sequence; in F King Lear when Edmund vocalises four notes; and in Romeo and Juliet (4.4) when Peter cites two notes as he rebukes the musicians.
If discussion of the gamut relates to both theory and pedagogy, then the application of other terms such as degree, key, mode (mood), proportion (rhythm), and aspects of pitch (tessitura) allude to ‘rudiments of art’. It is clear Shakespeare possessed a clear and accurate knowledge of music theory in the judicious way he involves terms and their usage.
Not only does Shakespeare use terms of musical theory skilfully, but a similar aptitude is found in Shakespeare’s involvement of words to express emotion evoked by music in an early modern context. The most incisive application of these words connects with sorrow and grief, loss and despair (in love). Prince Henry alludes to the ‘doleful hymn’ the swan sings once only at its death as he reflects on the impending demise of his father, King John (5.6.20-4). In Romeo and Juliet (4.4.148-50), ‘doleful dumps the mind oppress’ as Peter cites the opening stanza of ‘When griping grief the heart doth wound’ from The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576) as the tragic ending of lovers’ plight unfolds towards the end of the play. The conventional melancholic ‘sigh’ of love-sickness characterizes Armado’s emotional attempt to woo Jaquenetta, urged on by Moth, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (3.1.10-11). Similar melancholic exhortations are recommended by Proteus as he prompts Thurio to ply Silvia with ‘wailful sonnets’ and emotional music (TGV 3.2.81-6). Balthasar implores the ladies, deceived by men, to ‘sigh no more’ and to ‘sing no more/Of dumps so dull and heavy’ (Ado 2.3.64-5). Slow, sad ‘dumps’ were songs of with funereal associations. Similarly the dirge was a doleful hymn used to accompany the burial procession, either as a texted vernacular lament or as an instrumental dead-march, customarily found at the end of Elizabethan tragedies such as Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1602). In Shakespeare, a dead-march concludes Coriolanus (5.6) as the body of Martius is borne out; at the end of King Lear, a dead-march accompanies the removal of Cordelia’s and the King’s dead bodies; unusually, a dead-march opens Henry VI part 1 as the funeral procession for King Henry V is attended on by the Duke of Bedford, Gloucester and other significant players. In Cymbeline (4.2.259), a texted dirge ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ is performed as a dialogue by the king’s sons, Arviragus and Guiderius, as the former bears the body of the disguised Fidele. This song is intended to heighten the emotional intensity of the scene. Whether or not it is sung has been the debate of some modern criticism. Similar emotional songs sung at the approach of death are exploited, famously, in Othello (4.3)—Desdemona’s ‘Willow song’, and Hamlet (4.5)—Ophelia’s ‘mad’ songs’.
It has been noted by a number of modern commentators that Ophelia expresses in music what she is unable to say in words, that singing gives her an emotional and political voice she would otherwise be denied (in Elizabethan society). It can be argued that Shakespeare’s extensive use of music in the plays both as aural prompt and imagined signifier adds an important dimension to his verbal dialogue and dramatic intent and acts as a vital ingredient in his theatrical technique. In the poetry it contributes a rich and incisive element to his diverse poetic voice.