Music is pervasive in Shakespeare's plays. According to J. L. Styan (1988), approximately 32 plays and over 500 text passages make reference to music. The critic also notes that there are at least 300 musical stage directions found in Shakespeare's plays. Many scholars who comment on these instances discuss them in terms of Shakespeare's evident familiarity with classical and Neoplatonic views of the ethical or moral nature of music. As Catherine Dunn (1969) notes, these views were largely based on the musical theories of Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras and Plato, and the sixth-century Roman philosopher and theologian Boethius. According to Boethius' theory, there are three branches of music: musica mundana, meaning the music of the spheres or cosmic harmony; musica humana, signifying the rapport between human body and soul or between individuals and society; and musica instrumentalis, the composition and performance of vocal and instrumental music. The first two represent theoretical or speculative music, while the third represents practical music—which may induce personal and social harmony, but which is also capable of corrupting human nature. Indeed, Puritan writers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries regarded theatrical music as dangerous because they believed it promoted carnal pleasure. Most modern critics agree that even though Shakespeare incorporated classical and Neoplatonic theories in his plays, he also questioned the value and power of music.

Most scholars emphasize the importance of analyzing the songs in Shakespeare's plays in terms of their dramatic context. Commentators frequently treat Shakespeare's songs not as interruptions or delays in the dramatic action, but as a means of enhancing characterization and narrative development. W. H. Auden (1962) evaluates the dramatic effects of the words and moods of various songs upon onstage listeners as well as on theatrical audiences. Auden points out that Shakespeare frequently turned what might have served as merely a musical interlude into an element of dramatic structure. Thelma N. Greenfield (1966) similarly suggests that Shakespeare succeeded in making music a part of the narrative by using it to delineate character and augment thematic development. Concentrating on the military and ceremonial music of Shakespeare's English histories and Troilus and Cressida, R. W. Ingram (1971) finds an increasingly complex integration of music into the general design of Shakespeare's plays as the dramatist's artistry matured. David Lindley (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare's use of music reflects competing philosophical views of its constructive and destructive powers. He calls particular attention to Shakespeare's treatment of the Puritan linkage of music with effeminacy and irrationality. Some late twentieth-century studies of Shakespeare's plays have focused on music's effects in performance. Styan, for example, emphasizes the way Shakespeare exploited the disparate musical and theatrical effects of string, brass, and wind instruments. He further contends that each song and each dance is artfully designed to control audience response to the dramatic action. Commenting on “the remarkable similarities between Shakespearean and operatic style,” Gary Schmidgall (1990) urges actors and audiences to be attuned to the sound as well as the sense of the blank verse, contending that attention to its melodies and cadences is essential to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

When commentary turns from general or comparative analyses to the subject of individual works, The Tempest—frequently described as the most musical of Shakespeare's plays—receives more critical attention than any other. Theresa Coletti (1974) maintains that in this play, music is the means through which harmony emerges from disorder. Coletti also argues that the play serves as a medium for “suffering, learning, growth, and freedom.” By contrast, David Lindley (1984) calls attention to the abrupt and dissonant endings of the two masques in the play; he suggests that these discordant endings reflect Shakespeare's ambivalence toward the idea that music promotes human and social reconciliation. Lindley further contends that this ambivalence is related to the play's questioning of the efficacy and legitimacy of Prospero's art. Jacquelyn Fox-Good (1996) directly challenges what she describes as critics' “simplistic” identification of music with order—in this play as well as other Shakespearean works. She suggests that in The Tempest music is frequently subversive, employed by characters who have been relegated to the margins of society and who use songs to voice their grievances and protest their subjugation.

In an evaluation of Ophelia's songs in Act IV, scene v of Hamlet, Fox-Good (see Further Reading) again applies her arguments about the association of Shakespearean music with socially marginal characters. She concludes an intensive musical and literary analysis of these songs by suggesting that they represent the most expressive and rebellious aspects of Ophelia's madness. Leslie C. Dunn (1994) offers a comparable assessment of these songs, emphasizing the way their disruptiveness enhances the portrayal of Ophelia as a threat to patriarchal notions of social decorum. Indeed, the critic views the responses of the male characters who are on stage while Ophelia sings as a reflection of cultural anxiety not only about music but about female sexuality as well. In a 1995 essay, Dunn focuses on Lady Mortimer's song in Act III, scene i of Henry IV, Part 1, remarking on the contrast between this song's representation of domesticity and eroticism and the play's overwhelming concern with male power struggles. As with the songs of Ophelia and Desdemona, Dunn suggests, Lady Mortimer's Welsh tune underscores female powerlessness and marginality. Rosalind King (1987) contends that Desdemona's “willow song” in Act IV, scene ii of Othello functions as a harrowing expression of her confusion and helplessness in the face of the destruction of her harmonious marriage to Othello. King further calls attention to the distinction between private and public music in this tragedy, particularly the aubade at the beginning of Act III, scene i and the multiple effects of military music throughout the play.

Even a brief introduction to published commentary on Shakespeare's music would be incomplete without reference to Lorenzo's speech about music and harmony at the beginning of Act V, scene i of The Merchant of Venice. Greenfield offers a traditional reading of the passage, interpreting it as a Neoplatonic discourse, in lyrical form, on the correspondence between the music of the spheres and human virtue. She endorses the view that the moonlit night and the consort of viols that accompany these lines combine to present “a vision of human love and universal concord.” In sharp contrast, Marc Berley (2000) rejects the notion that Lorenzo's speech is a straightforward summary of standard theories of music, emphasizing instead its complex significance and Jessica's ambiguous response to it. He proposes that in this passage, Shakespeare mocked Neoplatonic musical theory and portrayed Lorenzo attempting to mislead Jessica through “false music.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

W. H. Auden (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “Music in Shakespeare.” In The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, pp. 500-27. New York: Random House, 1962.

[In the following essay, Auden surveys the dramatic relevance of vocal and instrumental music in Shakespeare's plays.]

Musick to heare, why hear'st thou musick sadly,
Sweets with sweets warre not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov'st thou that which thou receav'st not gladly,
Or else receav'st with pleasure thine annoy?


Professor Wilson Knight and others have pointed out the important part played in Shakespeare's poetry by images related to music, showing, for instance, how music occupies the place in the...

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Thelma N. Greenfield (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Greenfield, Thelma N. “Nonvocal Music: Added Dimension in Five Shakespeare Plays.” In Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, edited by Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, pp. 106-21. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1966.

[In the following essay, Greenfield discusses the integral function of music in several Shakespearean plays. She focuses on musical imagery in Richard II; Lorenzo's discourse on music in Act V, scene v of The Merchant of Venice; the disparate effects of martial music in Coriolanus; and the patterns of sound that accompany crucial episodes in Hamlet and the murder of Duncan in Macbeth.]

Inadequacies of...

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Catherine M. Dunn (essay date autumn 1969)

SOURCE: Dunn, Catherine M. “The Function of Music in Shakespeare's Romances.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20, no. 4 (autumn 1969): 391-405.

[In the following essay, Dunn analyzes the music of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in terms of the traditional philosophical concepts of musica mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis.]

Critics have frequently commented on the importance Shakespeare gives to music in his plays, but they vary considerably in their approach to the problem. The earlier critics tend to assign a social cause, and stress the place of music in Renaissance society.1 On the other hand, more...

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R. W. Ingram (lecture date 1971)

SOURCE: Ingram, R. W. “Music as Structural Element in Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, Vancouver, August 1971, edited by Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson, pp. 174-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1971, Ingram explores Shakespeare's unconventional use of military music in the English history plays, especially Henry VI, Part 1. He also examines the way that parodic or ironic music underscores the dissonance between pretense and reality in Troilus and Cressida.]

My texts are taken from Thomas Heywood and Hereward T. Price. In his...

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J. L. Styan (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Styan, J. L. “Shakespeare's Fusion of the Arts.” Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 10-27.

[In the following essay, Styan reviews many occasions of music and dance in Shakespeare's plays, arguing that their principal function is to manipulate audience response.]

My first premise is that Shakespeare was a Renaissance man, with all the magic connotations of that term, and that he was therefore familiar with all the arts. My second and perhaps more important premise is that his territory, the Elizabethan stage, was a Renaissance vehicle and equally magical, the pantechnicon of its time. The poet, his play, and his stage are inseparable, and the Renaissance concept of the...

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Gary Schmidgall (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Schmidgall, Gary. “Worlds of Sound.” In Shakespeare and Opera, pp. 17-25. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Schmidgall compares Shakespearean play texts to musical scores. Schmidgall argues that, like operas, Shakespeare's plays are designed to appeal to audiences more attuned to listening than viewing.]

Behavioral psychologists, especially those concerned with learning processes, have in recent years developed categories to describe an individual's dominant mode of sensual response. Thus, one might venture that a ballet audience will contain a high proportion of “kinaesthetic mode” dominants, an art gallery will be...

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Criticism: Themes

Theresa Coletti (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Coletti, Theresa. “Music and The Tempest.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays, edited by Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod, pp. 185-99. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Coletti describes how music informs the emotional, atmospheric, philosophical, and structural design of The Tempest.]

The vital center of The Tempest is its music. Pervading and informing the action of the play, music is always sounding, always affecting and shaping the lives of the characters. Often directionless and ambiguous in its meaning, the music of The Tempest provides a context for Prospero's magical machinations and becomes, through...

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Patricia K. Meszaros (lecture date 1981)

SOURCE: Meszaros, Patricia K. “Pericles: Shakespeare's Divine Musical Comedy.” In Shakespeare and the Arts, edited by Cecile Williamson Cary and Henry S. Limouze, pp. 3-20. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1981, Meszaros explores the significance of music in Pericles.]

In The Shakespearian Tempest (1932) and The Crown of Life (1947), G. Wilson Knight organized his interpretations of Shakespeare's last plays around their recurring, dichotomous images of tempests and music—the former representing ultimate disorder and chaos, the latter universal harmony. Knight's...

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David Lindley (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Lindley, David. “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest.” In The Court Masque, edited by David Lindley, pp. 47-59. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Lindley calls attention to the abrupt and dissonant endings of the two masques in The Tempest, and suggests that these discordant endings reflect Shakespeare's ambivalence toward the idea that music promotes human and social reconciliation.]

The Tempest employs more music than any other Shakespeare play. It is also the play that most insistently echoes the manner of the masque. Both these aspects of the work have been much commented upon, but in the...

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Peter Thomson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Thomson, Peter. “Twelfth Night: The Music of Time.” In Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari, edited by T. R. Sharma, pp. 211-21. Meerut: Shalabh Book House, 1986.

[In the following essay, Thomson links the music of Twelfth Night—its lyricism as well as its musical interludes, ballads, and catches—to the prominence of hypothetical speeches by various characters, contending that the multiple “if” clauses in the play are part of Shakespeare's orchestration of the dialogue.]

When Henry Irving, monarch of the late Victorian stage, revived Twelfth Night in 1884, the first night audience at the Lyceum was unimpressed. Some...

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Rosalind King (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: King, Rosalind. “‘Then Murder's out of Tune’: The Music and Structure of Othello.Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): 149-58.

[In the following essay, King traces a pattern of musical metaphors and connotations in Othello that underscores the disintegration of the harmonious partnership between Othello and Desdemona. She contends that Iago's two songs, the military drums and trumpets, and Desdemona's “willow song” are integral to the play's narrative, characterization, and thematic development.]

                                                            O, you are well-tuned now,
But I'll set down the pegs that make this music,
As honest as...

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Leslie C. Dunn (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Dunn, Leslie C. “Ophelia's Songs in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” In Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, edited by Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, pp. 50-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dunn construes Ophelia's songs in Act IV, scene v as emblematic of resistance to—and estrangement from—the patriarchal order that links music with female sexuality and emotional excess. Dunn also comments on the way the onstage auditors of these songs attempt to impose their own meanings on them in order to allay the threat they represent.]

In one of the most famous readings of...

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Leslie C. Dunn (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Dunn, Leslie C. “The Lady Sings in Welsh: Women's Song as Marginal Discourse on the Shakespearean Stage.” In Place and Displacement in the Renaissance, edited by Alvin Vos, pp. 51-67. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995.

[In the following essay, Dunn argues that Lady Mortimer's song in Act III, scene i of Henry IV, Part 1 represents a singular moment of a woman's domestic, erotic voice in a play dominated by male power struggle.]

The lady in question is Lady Mortimer, the daughter of Owen Glendower, who makes a brief appearance on the stage of English history in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV. Mortimer,...

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Jacquelyn Fox-Good (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Fox-Good, Jacquelyn. “Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest.Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 241-74.

[In the following essay, Fox-Good examines the subversive nature of music in The Tempest, and contends that music is employed by characters, such as Caliban and Ariel, who have been relegated to the margins of society and who use songs to voice their grievances and protest their subjugation.]

Sing, Ariel, sing
Sweetly, dangerously
Out of the sour
And shiftless water,
Lucidly out
Of the dozing tree,
Entrancing, rebuking
The raging heart
Of a smoother song
Than this rough world,
Unfeeling god.

—W. H....

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Pierre Iselin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Iselin, Pierre. “‘My Music for Nothing’: Musical Negotiations in The Tempest.Shakespeare Survey 48 (1996): 135-45.

[In the following essay, Iselin explores the relationship between music, myth, and politics in The Tempest, comparing classical and Renaissance views regarding the power and value of music and statecraft.]

In an early scene of Henry VIII (or All Is True), while denouncing the ‘spells of France’ displayed at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and the extravagant vanities imitated from the French, Sir Thomas Lovell rejoices in the recent prohibition of these foreign customs and deplores their efficacy in the...

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Marc Berley (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Berley, Marc. “Shakespeare and the ‘Sweet Power of Music.’” In After the Heavenly Tune: English Poetry and the Aspiration to Song, pp. 83-140. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Berley focuses on the dramatic context of Lorenzo's speech about music and harmony in Act V, scene i of The Merchant of Venice.]

Shakespeare put into dramatic conflict all of the competing theories considered in the previous chapter. Platonic speculation, Aristotelian ars, and Neoplatonic magic all have a place not only in dramatic and lyric poetry, Shakespeare knew, but in the contemplation and enjoyment of life itself. Living in...

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Further Reading


Chickering, Howell. “Hearing Ariel's Songs.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24, no. 1 (winter 1994): 131-72.

Evaluates the musicological and dramatic effects of Ariel's songs “Full fadom five” (I.ii) and “Where the bee sucks” (V.i).

Cholij, Irena. “‘A Thousand Twangling Instruments’: Music and The Tempest on the Eighteenth-Century London Stage.” Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 79-94.

Charts the production history of The Tempest from 1667 to 1800, with particular emphasis on Davenant and Dryden's adaptation. During this period, Cholij points out, musical elements...

(The entire section is 1252 words.)