What were some of the purposes of song and music in Shakespeare's plays?

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wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Surprisingly, more than half of Shakespeare’s plays call for a song somewhere in the action.  Because play performance was a public affair, the appeal of live music turned the performances into variety shows; troubadors were street performers and Shakespeare used them as characters.  Usually the songs were part of the entertainment in the mise-en-scene—at court or at a wedding or festival occasion.  Other times, Shakespeare inserted songs, especially lyrics, as clues in the plot.  A famous example is in Merchant of Venice (III, ii) when Portia sings as Bassanio decides which casket to choose:  “Tell where is fashion bred, / Or in the heart or in the head?”  Portia is giving Bassanio a hint, because the lead casket (rhymes with “bred” and “head”) is the right pick.  While the music is seldom preserved, Shakespeare used common folk song tunes, inserting his own lyrics.