William Shakespeare Music

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 117,131 words.)