illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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...

(This entire section contains 1084 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 inThe 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.”

Theresa Coletti (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the course of the play, a powerfully evocative symbol of this magic. In The Tempest music is the medium through which order emerges from chaos; it is the agent of suffering, learning, growth, and freedom.

Critics who have noted the pervasiveness of music, songs, and musical allusions in Shakespeare's drama1 have often attempted to extrapolate from the canon of his work and posit a distinct philosophy of music which they insist he was trying to communicate in his plays. This is most easily accomplished by rather vague references to Renaissance ideas of divine harmony and the “music of the spheres,” that macrocosmic heavenly order of which this worldly microcosm was thought to be a reflection. It has also been pointed out that during the Renaissance, music came more and more to be associated with a “rhetoric of emotion,” a kind of language of the heart in which man could express his inmost feelings and communicate them to others.2 Though neither of these notions can account for our experience of a play as musically rich as The Tempest, together they can provide us with helpful tools for understanding how Shakespeare employed music in his drama. For from ideas of order we can derive principles of structure, and if there is a providential design in The Tempest, it is certainly an artistic and a musical one. Furthermore, this design manifests itself in the manner in which it speaks to deep human feelings; it is meaningful in the extent to which it can express the “language of the heart.” In The Tempest these two modes of interpretation form a unity from which music emerges as an emotional and philosophical idea. Embodying its own conceptual integrity, music becomes a force that transcends its power as melos, or in the case of song, as melos and lexos, to achieve its status as the play's presiding symbol of both feeling and form.3

This explanation will account, I hope, for what may appear to be my subsequent neglect of the melos of The Tempest's music. From contemporary song books of the period one is able to conclude with a certain amount of assurance that some of the play's actual music still survives. Peter Seng points out the existence of possible original melodies for two of the songs, “Full fathom five” (I, ii, 397) and “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” (V, i, 88).4 That the evidence for the remaining body of the play's music is sparse gives us, I think, license to employ our “imaginative” ears to evoke in our own minds the presence of those “strange and solemn airs” that pervade The Tempest. The absence of considerations of melody in my discussion of the songs will not, I hope, be perceived as an oversight, but rather as a methodological step necessitated by my thesis that the ontology of music in The Tempest is an ideational as well as a melodic one.

If we want to examine music as an informing idea in The Tempest, we can begin by looking at a play with which it has many affinities, As You Like It. One can view The Tempest and As You Like It as companion plays in more than one sense. In terms of plot they share many common elements. Each begins in medias res; Duke Senior and Prospero have both been deposed before the plays' actions begin. Each drama presents a principal figure whose machinations orchestrate events to bring about a desired end; Rosalind wishes to win Orlando and Prospero to recover his dukedom. Both plays juxtapose groups of good and bad characters; there are the evil-doers and the victims of evil. The primary actions of The Tempest and As You Like It unfold in artificial worlds where the old exigencies of court life do not obtain. Prospero's island and the Forest of Arden become places of self-discovery where new standards of behavior are learned. Each play's deepest concern is with the process of recognition of error and regeneration, and finally, each abundantly employs music as a vehicle for commenting upon this process or for helping to bring it into being.

As You Like It is richer in music than the plays that preceded it. From his experience with the earliest comedies Shakespeare had probably learned the value of music as an important dramatic device. Here the songs are more carefully integrated, reinforcing and illuminating the themes of the play. The first song, “Under the greenwood tree” (II, v. 1), portrays the life of the exiles in the Forest of Arden and focuses their dramatic situation. Cast from their position of security at court, the new inhabitants of Arden are learning that nature supplies a home that is in many ways far superior to the one they have left behind: “Here shall he see no enemy / But winter and rough weather” (II, v. 6-7).5 A musical statement of one of the themes of the play, the beneficent effect of nature on man, the song also reveals the character of its two singers, Amiens, the cheerful exile, and Jaques, the melancholy cynic. This is a fine instance of music as dramatic economy. Simultaneously fulfilling two functions, the song delineates the import of the play's action and displays antithetical responses to it.

The placement of the songs in As You Like It also intensifies the play's dramatic movement. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” (II, vii, 174) repeats the theme of the first song, but it is more caustic, more explicit in its comment. The implications of this song, which contrasts winter's natural violence with the violence that human beings inflict upon each other, are undercut by its dramatic position. Coming directly after Orlando carries in his faithful but debilitated servant Adam, the song becomes an ironic comment upon itself, for we have just seen an example of friendship that is not “feigning,” of loving that is not mere “folly.” We have also discovered that Duke Senior's attachment to Orlando's father survives in his kindness to the son. Like Jaques' misanthropic speech on the ultimate insignificance of human life, the song makes a point which the events of the play qualify, and the agent of this qualification is the very benignity of nature itself.

One final instance of the use of music in As You Like It is worth noting. While perhaps bearing no explicit relationship to the progress of the plot or the nature of character, the song “It was a lover and his lass” (V, iii, 5) has an evocative power that imbues the entire conclusion of the play. Celebrating a life of love and springtime, the song by contrast reminds us of the winter of exile and misfortune that has just passed. It looks ahead to the marriages that are about to take place and brings a sense of freshness to inform the repentance that Duke Frederick and Oliver experience. More atmospheric than thematic, this song suggests a new order of living and being; it transcends the events of the play to provide a context that expresses their fullest meaning. In this sense it comes closer than any other song in the play to the use of music that Shakespeare employs in The Tempest.

This brief discussion of As You Like It illustrates how important to a drama music and song can be. Taken together, the songs of As You Like It form more than a decorative enhancement of the action. Amiens' simplicity and energetic gaiety are so closely connected to its progress that it is very difficult to imagine the play without him or his songs. The music of As You Like It moves with the play as an analogous structure of mood and motive. It does not, however, become the structural principle of the play itself. This is where The Tempest takes its crucial departure from a play with which it otherwise shares many similarities.

The difference between the two plays is, of course, the chronological fact of twelve or thirteen years. Historical considerations of dramatic presentation—the acquisition by the King's Men of the Blackfriars Theatre—can, in part, account for the unique use to which music was put in The Tempest. But the deepest distinctions between The Tempest and As You Like It are those that point to profounder questions of ethics and the nature of freedom and responsibility. The answers supplied by As You Like It are essentially those of the comic vision—that human nature is susceptible to goodness and that man, if not perfectible, is at least reformable. But Shakespeare's romances follow the writing of the tragedies, and they are caught in a delicate balance between the affirmation of the earlier plays and the dark and ponderous probings of Macbeth and King Lear. And if they are able to sustain or even suggest a positive vision, it is only after an excess of suffering and the painful passage of time.

The divergent attitudes toward time that As You Like It and The Tempest reveal are perhaps a key to understanding the very different roles that music takes in each of these plays. In one sense, time seems to be of little significance in As You Like It. Duke Senior and his company regret their unfortunate exile, but the Forest of Arden has a medicinal effect that tempers the burden of the past and makes the present livable, even enjoyable. The future, too, looms in their consciousness as neither a promise nor a threat. There is in the play, however, the repeated appearance of what I call “the salutary moment,” those unique instants when men and women fall in love and when wrong-doers recognize their errors and seek forgiveness. This is the “love at first sight” of Rosalind and Orlando, of Celia and Oliver. It is also the instantaneous conversion of Duke Frederick by his encounter with a religious hermit and the quick reformation of Oliver when saved from the devouring jaws of a lion by the intervention of his brother. Time, then, in As You Like It is fragmented and dispersed; it is important insofar as it coincides with certain significant incidents. Helen Gardner, speaking of the “unmeasured time” of this play, points out that comedy by its very nature makes use of changes and chances which are not really events but “happenings.”6 Comedy exploits adaptability; it tests a character's willingness to grasp the proper moment and fashion it to his own end. Briefly, it dramatizes Rosalind's advice to Phoebe: “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” (III, v, 60). This carpe diem attitude toward living, which depends on the coincidence of situation and desire, posits a sense of time that locates value in the particular moment. Time's effect, then, is not cumulative but instantaneous; it is not the fulfillment of destiny but life lived “as you like it.”

I stated earlier that the music of As You Like It formed a structure analogous to the movement of the play, and I think my point is reinforced if we notice that the songs tend to embody this special “momentary” quality as well. They either occur in relatively short scenes devoted to the consciousness of “having a song” (II, v; IV, ii; V, iii), or they exploit a significant moment by providing an ironic or thematic comment (II, vii; V, iv). The possible exception is “It was a lover and his lass” (V, iii), the import of which has already been discussed.

If the musical instances in As You Like It parallel in theme and tone the movement of the play, the music of The Tempest orchestrates its developing action at every point. The songs of As You Like It are largely situational; for the most part, they do not require a comprehensive view of the drama to render them meaningful. They do not depend upon time as a moving force that brings events and feelings to a certain issue. Time, however, is of utmost importance in The Tempest. Prospero has four hours to complete his magic revels; this sense of time (and timing) thus makes every moment meaningful. An intuition of urgency, a recognition of catastrophe just barely avoided, imbues our experience of The Tempest. Our perception of time in the play includes both a sense of the “proper moment” and a feeling of necessary duration. Ariel saves Gonzalo and Alonso from the swords of Antonio and Sebastian in “the nick of time,” but Alonso saves himself by enduring a period of suffering. And I think, too, we can see how the shape of time in The Tempest is largely coextensive with its music. For music informs the play not only as an agent of the “proper moment”; it also directs and integrates all of the play's moments into the total vision that is the play. The Tempest could not exist without its music, whether it is the strange and solemn airs that accompany the magic banquet, the sprightly singing of Ariel, or the drunken cavorting of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. All of these bear an intimate relationship to each other; all relate to Prospero's one significant action—his effort to recover his dukedom and to bring his enemies to a recognition of their past and their errors.

Ultimately one's view of the importance of music in The Tempest will depend upon what one thinks the play's dramatic import finally is. If one believes that Prospero's island is an harmonious one where redemptive grace allays and triumphs over evil, one is apt to find its music symbolic of a celestial concord which will eventually obtain on earth. It is true that The Tempest's music revolves around the opposition of concord and discord and that the agents of these two modes of being respond (or do not respond) to it in their respective ways. But rather than seeing the play as the victory of harmony over disorder, I think The Tempest suggests how very difficult it is to bring order into being and that order, once achieved, is indeed a fragile thing, precariously balanced between the violent past from which it has emerged and the threatening future which may consume it. Music, then, assists at the birth of this tentative order, and Prospero's music must be considered in terms of both the extensions and limitations of his art.7

The first song of the play is Ariel's “Come unto these yellow sands” (I, ii, 375), which he sings to a grieving Ferdinand. The tempest has finally subsided, and Ariel's song celebrates the simplicity of the calm earth into which Ferdinand has been transported. As an invitation to the dance, “then take hands,” the song looks ahead to that moment at the end of the play when all of its characters are joined inside Prospero's magic circle. The magic which Prospero had used to invoke the tempest now enchants Ferdinand, drawing him further into the island and toward Miranda. This is the first crucial step toward their marriage, which will in part resolve the parental strife that had been Prospero's cause for raising the tempest. One critic has suggested that this song is the musical counterpart of the sweet-singing Sirens' invitation. “The island has all the magical charms of Circe's island: strangers from afar have been lured to it and Prospero provides a magical banquet and charms his visitors by music's powers, so that they are no longer able to obey their reasoning powers.”8 Here Prospero's more benevolent powers replace the lust and destruction of the Sirens, and the music leads Ferdinand, not to an easy satisfaction, but to a test of discipline and faithfulness. Ferdinand's response to the song, “Where should this music be? I' th' air or th' earth?” (I, ii, 388), establishes the magical quality of this island, where the very air is music. W. H. Auden has written that “the song comes to him as an utter surprise, and its effect is not to feed or please his grief, not to encourage him to sit brooding, but to allay his passion, so that he gets to his feet and follows the music. The song opens his present to expectation at a moment when he is in danger of closing it to all but recollection.”9

As Ferdinand follows this elusive music, Ariel begins his second song, “Full fathom five thy father lies” (I, ii, 397). Probably no song of The Tempest is so well remembered and perhaps no other is thematically so important. Ferdinand is made to believe that his father is dead; similarly, Alonso will believe that Ferdinand is dead, and in that belief he will undergo the madness, the “sea change” of grief and humility, from which he will emerge transformed. The poetry of the song transports Alonso from the world of mutability and flux to a kind of permanence. His bones and eyes become coral and pearls; the “sea” gives form to what was subject to decay.10 Thus the song reminds us that the life of Milan—the disordered world of usurpation and potential tyranny—is now under the shaping influence of Prospero's art. Ferdinand reacts to the song not with grief but with awe: “This is no mortal business, nor no sound / That the earth owes” (I, ii, 407-408). The music, in the play's first triumph over history, moves Ferdinand to accept his past and leads him to the future—and Miranda.

The swift agent of Prospero's well-timed music, Ariel plays a “solemn strain” (II, i, 178) that lulls the Milan travelers to sleep. Gonzalo, in his simplicity and warm-heartedness, submits most easily, but Alonso soon follows. Sebastian and Antonio, however, are significantly exempted from the effect of the music. Prospero's magic has no power over them. Their own imperviousness to this music, their inability to hear it, contrasts sharply with Caliban, who, even in his vile earthiness, is subject to the music's seduction. “The isle is full of noises,” he tells Stephano and Trinculo, “Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (III, ii, 132-133). When Sebastian and Antonio plot to take the lives of Alonso and Gonzalo, Prospero's music urgently intervenes. Ariel sings a warning song, “While you here do snoring lie” (II, i, 290), into Gonzalo's ear, and the sleepers awake. The music that had induced their slumber becomes the agent of their deliverance; Alonso and Gonzalo escape catastrophe.

One of the primary distinctions to be made about music in The Tempest is, of course, that there is Ariel's music and there is Caliban's music. And while there is that moment when Caliban seems to come close to understanding both of these musical languages, he remains, for the most part, on the side of the raucous and the bawdy. This is the music of Stephano and Trinculo as well. Stephano's first two songs, “I shall no more to sea” (II, ii, 41) and “The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I” (II, ii, 45), are indeed the “scurvy tunes” that he calls them. The songs are a kind of comic diversion and an introduction to the buffoonery of the three that is to follow. Their lustiness and earthiness offers a clear antithesis to the obedient chastity of Ferdinand and Miranda, who are learning that fulfillment must be by desert and not demand.

Caliban, now under the influence of his new god “sack,” raises his own voice in song. His “Farewell master” (II, ii, 173) and “No more dams I'll make for fish” (II, ii, 175) signalize his revolt from Prospero. The latter song ends with a call for freedom, reminding us, perhaps, of Ariel's behest early in the play that Prospero release him. Ariel must work for his freedom; Caliban expects his to fall into his lap. It is important, too, I think, and perhaps ironically significant that the only two characters in the play who ask for freedom are the non-human ones, while all the other characters are very much involved in a struggle to be free from history, from each other, and from themselves. Caliban's “scurvy song” heralds the delusion he is about to come under in thinking Stephano and Trinculo the vehicle through which his freedom may be realized. Together the comrades plot to kill Prospero and take the island, and they seal their bargain with their song “Flout 'em and scout 'em” (III, ii, 118). Caliban remarks, “That's not the tune” (121), and Ariel enters with his tabor and pipe and a wholly different kind of music. This evokes different responses from the three; Stephano thinks it the devil, Trinculo expresses penitence, but Caliban counsels them not to fear this intervention. Curiously, the two scenes of the drunken songs frame the scene of log-bearing Ferdinand, engaged in his trial to prove to Prospero his fitness for Miranda. Ferdinand's sobriety in performing his task and his willingness to accept control and responsibility—his efforts to bring about his own freedom—are thrown into relief by this contrast with desire run wild. This reminds us that Prospero's attempt to bring a new order into being is threatened on all sides by strongly motivated self-satisfaction and potential anarchy.

Ariel's music, then, has intervened a second time to hinder the enactment of a plot hatched to assassinate a ruler. Similarly, shortly after the maneuvers of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban to do away with Prospero, we see Antonio and Sebastian once again involved in machinations to kill their king. Again Ariel interrupts, this time with “solemn and strange music” (III, iii, 18), and he produces the dance of the strange shapes and their banquet. Alonso and Gonzalo admire the apparition, calling it “harmony” and “sweet music.” Antonio and Sebastian, still beyond the pale of the island's music, can only relate the phenomenon to mundanities of geography and travelers' tales. Gonzalo thinks the shapes' “manners” more gentle than human kind, while Sebastian wants to eat the food they have placed in front of him. Like Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, his earthly-mindedness has no access to the beauty that affects Gonzalo and Alonso.

Ariel enters again, this time disguised as a harpy, and the banquet disappears. He explains to them the initial effect and purpose of his music: “you 'mongst men / Being most unfit to live, I have made you mad” (III, iii, 57-58). Ariel reminds them of their deposition of Prospero and promises them “lingering perdition” unless they are able to experience “heart's sorrow / And a clear life ensuing” (82). Ariel is telling the representatives of Milan that they must submit to the music of the island and endure the pain that the achievement of freedom involves or continue to be agents of chaos and evil. This is the point where the powers and limitations of Prospero's art merge. While it is true that the play has revealed that there are those amenable to order and those that are not, Prospero can only use his music to bring his captives to a consciousness of their own disordered, threatening behavior. His music cannot perform that transformation by itself. As Ferdinand had to choose whether or not he would undergo the ordeal of log-bearing, Alonso must choose whether or not he will repent. In doing so he must experience a depth of despair as a necessary prelude to his recovery: “My son i' th' ooze is bedded; and / I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded / And with him there lie mudded” (III, iii, 100-102).

Perhaps the most magnificent use of music in The Tempest is that which introduces and informs the masque that Prospero produces as a wedding blessing for Ferdinand and Miranda. The song “Honour, riches, marriage, blessing” (IV, i, 106) looks forward to the happy union of the couple. Yet while the song of Juno and Ceres bespeaks a life of plenty, this is not the same kind of richness that Gonzalo had envisioned when he dreamed of his ideal commonwealth: “Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; / … all men idle, all” (II, i, 148, 150). Juno and Ceres sing of the bounty that is the result of cultivation: “Barns and garners never empty, / Vines with clust'ring bunches growing” (111-112). This copiousness is the result of dedicated work, of nature and nurture, and the dance which concludes the masque is one of nymphs and “August-weary” reapers. We should remember, too, that Prospero's magic is also the outcome of his hard “labours.” If we would chide Gonzalo for his innocent simplicity in imagining a golden world, the masque song balances his dream with one that must admit the necessity of the human work that brings fruitfulness and bounty.

This masque is perhaps revelatory of Prospero's imaginative desire to see order and goodness, but it expresses this goodness as the result of meaningful human effort. The frailty of this vision, however, shows itself by rapidly dissolving as Prospero remembers Caliban's “foul conspiracy” against his life.11 Jan Kott has called this play “the great Renaissance tragedy of lost illusions,”12 and while one may hesitate to see it as the dark and murky drama which he thinks it is, one must, I think, give credence to the sense of incompleteness that emerges as the play comes to a close. For there are gaps, empty spaces in our perception of the human lives we have seen portrayed, which we suspect even Prospero's finest magic and greatest music cannot touch. His famous “Our revels now are ended” speech (IV, i, 148) seems, in fact, to point to the limitations of the musically enchanted spectacle he has produced. Just how fragile it really is is evidenced by its ambiguous effect on Prospero himself. For he has yet to be reminded by Ariel that “the rarer action” is one of loving forgiveness, and there is that crucial moment when it seems as if his “nobler reason” will be as baseless as the fabric of his vision. When “the insubstantial pageant” fades, what is left is Prospero and his beating mind.

His labors, however, are not without positive issue. Prospero's music had made Alonso and his company mad, yet that madness was a necessary prelude to their recognition of guilt and repentance. If Prospero's music led the shipwrecked travelers to an awareness of their own history, it also provided a vehicle through which this awareness—this madness—could be healed. They enter Prospero's magic circle to a “solemn air … the best comforter / To an unsettled fancy …” (V, i, 58-59). Yet if they have attained a freedom from madness, it is a freedom that must accept the burden of responsibility for its past and future. In this context, Ariel's final song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” (V, i, 87), is significant. One critic has suggested that this song, which is about Ariel's freedom, is really a lyric coda to the entire play, celebrating the attainment of freedom on the part of all who have been involved.13 I think the song has a different and greater function. As it suggests Ariel's approaching happiness, it points to the world beyond the play, the world which must remain that of our imaginings. And in going beyond the world of the play, we must inevitably consider not only the “cowslip's bell” and the merry summer that Ariel looks forward to with delight, but also Milan and the world to which the reinstated Prospero must return. Ariel's song most poignantly reminds us that his freedom is not the freedom of a Prospero or an Alonso, that only a spirit can be free to the four elements. For the court of Milan freedom must now reside in responsible action emerging from the recognition of the pain of history.

Throughout The Tempest Prospero's art—his music—had been the measure of the shaping influence he had on the lives of other people. Its power finally, I think, must be as tentative as the conclusion to which it brings us. It has united Ferdinand and Miranda and created a new future for Alonso, but Antonio is still trapped in vile self-seeking, and the cases of Sebastian and Caliban are questionable. Music has helped to bring about some order in what had been chaos, some concord from what had been discord.14 But Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book, and thus he abandons his music as well. There is the suggestion, I think, that from now on the attainment and preservation of freedom and forgiveness will be a thoroughly human effort in which music can no longer intervene.


  1. Works often cited are: John Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: A Study of Music and Its Performance in the Original Production of Seven Comedies (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1955); John Robert Moore, “The Function of the Songs in Shakespeare's Plays,” Shakespeare Studies by Members of the Department of English of the University of Wisconsin (Madison, 1916), pp. 78-102; Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Use of Song with the Text of the Principal Songs (London: Oxford University Press, 1923).

  2. John Stevens, “Shakespeare and the Music of the Elizabethan Stage,” Shakespeare in Music, ed. Phyllis Hartnoll (London: Macmillan & Co., 1964), p. 48.

  3. I am grateful to Professor Jarold Ramsey of the University of Rochester for pointing out to me this distinction between melos and lexos and for his helpful advice throughout the preparation of this paper.

  4. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 256-57, 271.

  5. All line citations are from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  6. “As You Like It,” More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1959), pp. 21-22.

  7. Rose Zimbardo in her article “Form and Disorder in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 49-56, very capably notes that the opposition of order and disorder is the crucial tension set forth in the play and suggests that Prospero's art must be seen in terms of this opposition. My intention is to show how the play's use of music augments this tension dramatically and symbolically at every point of the action.

  8. John Cutts, “Music and the Supernatural in The Tempest: A Study in Interpretation,” Music and Letters, 39: 4 (October, 1958), p. 348.

  9. “Music in Shakespeare: Its Dramatic Use in the Plays,” Encounter, 9 (December, 1957), p. 43.

  10. Zimbardo, p. 51.

  11. Zimbardo, p. 56.

  12. Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), p. 271.

  13. Seng, p. 271.

  14. Zimbardo, p. 55.

W. H. Auden (essay date 1962)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 cluster of good symbols which is held in the bad cluster by the symbol of the Storm.

His fondness for musical images does not, of course, necessarily indicate that Shakespeare himself was musical—some very good poets have been musically tone deaf. Any poet of the period who used a musical imagery would have attached the same associations to it, for they were part of the current Renaissance theory of the nature of music and its effects.

Anyone at the time, if asked, “What is music?” would have given the answer stated by Lorenzo to Jessica in the last scene of The Merchant of Venice. Mr. James Hutton in an admirable article in the English Miscellany on “Some English Poems in praise of Music” has traced the history of this theory from Pythagoras to Ficino and shown the origin of most of Lorenzo's images. The theory may be summarized thus:

  • 1) Music is unique among the arts for it is the only art practiced in Heaven and by the unfallen creatures. Conversely, one of the most obvious characteristics of Hell is its discordant din.
  • 2) Human reason is able to infer that this heavenly music exists because it can recognize mathematical proportions. But the human ear cannot hear it, either because of man's Fall or simply because the ear is a bodily organ subject to change and death. What Campanella calls the molino vivo of the self drowns out the celestial sounds. In certain exceptional states of ecstasy, however, certain individuals have heard it.
  • 3) Man-made music, though inferior to the music which cannot be heard, is a good for, in its mortal way, it recalls or imitates the Divine order. In consequence, it has great powers. It can tame irrational and savage beasts, it can cure lunatics, it can relieve sorrow. A dislike of music is a sign of a perverse will that defiantly refuses to submit to the general harmony.
  • 4) Not all music, however, is good. There is a bad kind of music which corrupts and weakens. “The Devil rides a fiddlestick.” Good is commonly associated with old music, bad with new.

Nobody today, I imagine, holds such a theory, i.e., nobody now thinks that the aesthetics of music have anything to do with the science of acoustics. What theory of painting, one wonders, would have developed if Pythagoras had owned a spectroscope and learned that color relations can also be expressed in mathematical proportions.

But if he has never heard of the theory, there are many things in Shakespeare which the playgoer will miss. For example, the dramatic effect of the recognition scene in Pericles.

But what music?
                                                  My lord, I hear none.
None! The music of the spheres! List, my Marina!
It is not good to cross him: give him way.
Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
                                                  My Lord, I hear.

(Act V, Scene 1.)

or even such a simple little joke as this from Othello:

If you have any music that may not be heard, to't again; but, as they say, to hear music the general does not greatly care.
1ST. Mus.:
We have none such, sir.

(Act III, Scene 1.)

Music is not only an art with its own laws and values; it is also a social fact. Composing, performing, listening to music are things which human beings do under certain circumstances just as they fight and make love. Moreover, in the Elizabethan age, music was regarded as an important social fact. A knowledge of music, an ability to read a madrigal part were expected of an educated person, and the extraordinary output of airs and madrigals between 1588 and 1620 testifies to both the quantity and quality of the music making that must have gone on. When Bottom says, “I have a reasonable good ear in music: let's have the tongs and the bones,” it is not so much an expression of taste as a revelation of class, like dropping one's aitches; and when Benedick says, “Well, a horn for my money when all's done,” he is being deliberately épatant.

Whether he personally cared for music or not, any dramatist of the period could hardly have failed to notice the part played by music in human life, to observe, for instance, that the kind of music a person likes or dislikes, the kind of way in which he listens to it, the sort of occasion on which he wants to hear or make it, are revealing about his character.

A dramatist of a later age might notice the same facts, but it would be difficult for him to make dramatic use of them unless he were to write a play specifically about musicians.

But the dramatic conventions of the Elizabethan stage permitted and encouraged the introduction of songs and instrumental music into the spoken drama. Audiences liked to hear them, and the dramatist was expected to provide them. The average playgoer, no doubt, simply wanted a pretty song as part of the entertainment and did not bother about its dramatic relevance to the play as a whole. But a dramatist who took his art seriously had to say, either, “Musical numbers in a spoken play are irrelevant episodes and I refuse to put them in just to please the public,” or, “I must conceive my play in such a manner that musical numbers, vocal or instrumental, can occur in it, not as episodes, but as essential elements in its structure.”

If Shakespeare took this second line, it should be possible, on examining the occasions where he makes use of music, to find answers to the following questions:

  • 1) Why is this piece of music placed just where it is and not somewhere else?
  • 2) In the case of a song, why are the mood and the words of this song what they are? Why this song instead of another?
  • 3) Why is it this character who sings and not another? Does the song reveal something about his character which could not be revealed as well in any other way?
  • 4) What effect does this music have upon those who listen to it? Is it possible to say that, had the music been omitted, the behavior of the characters or the feelings of the audience would be different from what they are?


When we now speak of music as an art, we mean that the elements of tone and rhythm are used to create a structure of sounds which are to be listened to for their own sake. If it be asked what such music is “about,” I do not think it too controversial to say that it presents a virtual image of our experience of living as temporal, with its double aspect of recurrence and becoming. To “get” such an image, the listener must for the time being banish from his mind all immediate desires and practical concerns and only think what he hears.

But rhythm and tone can also be used to achieve nonmusical ends. For example, any form of physical movement, whether in work or play, which involves accurate repetition is made easier by sounded rhythmical beats, and the psychological effect of singing, whether in unison or in harmony, upon a group is one of reducing the sense of diversity and strengthening the sense of unity so that, on all occasions where such a unity of feeling is desired or desirable, music has an important function.

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds
By unions marred do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing;
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee, “Thou single wilt prove none.”

(Sonnet VIII.)

The oddest example of music with an extramusical purpose is the lullaby. The immediate effect of the rocking rhythm and the melody is to fix the baby's attention upon an ordered pattern so that it forgets the distractions of arbitrary noises, but its final intention is to make the baby fall asleep, that is to say, to hear nothing at all.

Sounds, instrumental or vocal, which are used for social purposes, may of course have a musical value as well but this is usually secondary to their function. If one takes, say, a sea-shanty out of its proper context and listens to it on the gramophone as one might listen to a lied by Schubert, one is very soon bored. The beauty of sound which it may have been felt to possess when accompanied by the sensation of muscular movement and visual images of sea and sky cannot survive without them.

The great peculiarity of music as an art is that the sounds which comprise its medium can be produced in two ways, by playing on specially constructed instruments and by using the human vocal cords in a special way. Men use their vocal cords for speech, that is, to communicate with each other, but also, under certain conditions, a man may feel, as we say, “like singing.” This impulse has little, if anything, to do with communication or with other people. Under the pressure of a certain mood, a man may feel the need to express that mood to himself by using his vocal cords in an exceptional way. If he should sing some actual song he has learned, he chooses it for its general fitness to his mood, not for its unique qualities.

None of the other arts seem suited to this immediate self-expression. A few poets may compose verses in their bath—I have never heard of anyone trying to paint in his bath—but almost everyone, at some time or other, has sung in his bath.

In no other art can one see so clearly a distinction, even a rivalry, between the desire for pattern and the desire for personal utterance, as is disclosed by the difference between instrumental and vocal music. I think I can see an analogous distinction in painting. To me, vocal music plays the part in music that the human nude plays in painting. In both there is an essential erotic element which is always in danger of being corrupted for sexual ends but need not be and, without this element of the erotic which the human voice and the nude have contributed, both arts would be a little lifeless.

In music it is from instruments that rhythmical and tonal precision and musical structure are mostly derived so that, without them, the voice would have remained tied to impromptu and personal expression. Singers, unchastened by the orchestral discipline, would soon lose interest in singing and wish only to show off their voices. On the other hand, the music of a dumb race who had invented instruments would be precise but dull, for the players would not know what it means to strive after expression, to make their instruments “sing.” The kind of effect they would make is the kind we condemn in a pianist when we say: “He just plays the notes.”

Lastly, because we do not have the voluntary control over our ears that we have over our eyes, and because musical sounds do not denote meanings like words or represent objects like lines and colors, it is far harder to know what a person means, harder even for himself to know, when he says, “I like this piece of music,” than when he says, “I like this book or this picture.” At one extreme there is the professional musician who not only thinks clearly and completely what he hears but also recognizes the means by which the composer causes him so to think. This does not mean that he can judge music any better than one without his technical knowledge who has trained himself to listen and is familiar with music of all kinds. His technical knowledge is an added pleasure, perhaps, but it is not itself a musical experience. At the other extreme is the student who keeps the radio playing while he studies because he finds that a background of sound makes it easier for him to concentrate on his work. In his case the music is serving the contradictory function of preventing him from listening to anything, either to itself or to the noises in the street.

Between these two extremes, there is a way of listening which has been well described by Susanne Langer.

There is a twilight zone of musical enjoyment when tonal appreciation is woven into daydreaming. To the entirely uninitiated hearer it may be an aid in finding expressive forms at all, to extemporise an accompanying romance and let the music express feelings accounted for by its scenes. But to the competent it is a pitfall, because it obscures the full vital import of the music, noting only what comes handy for a purpose, and noting only what expresses attitudes and emotions the listener was familiar with before. It bars everything new and really interesting in a world, since what does not fit the petit roman is passed over, and what does fit is the dreamer's own. Above all it leads attention, not only to the music, but away from it—via the music to something else that is essentially an indulgence. One may spend a whole evening in this sort of dream and carry nothing away from it, no musical insight, no new feeling, and actually nothing heard.

(Feeling and Form, Chap. X.)

It is this kind of listening, surely, which is implied by the Duke in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on,” and by Cleopatra, “Give me some music—music, moody food / Of us that trade in love,” and which provoked that great music-lover, Bernard Shaw, to the remark, “Music is the brandy of the damned.”


Shakespeare uses instrumental music for two purposes: on socially appropriate occasions, to represent the voice of this world, of collective rejoicing as in a dance, or of mourning as in a dead march and, unexpectedly, as an auditory image of a supernatural or magical world. In the last case the music generally carries the stage direction, “Solemn.”

It may be directly the voice of Heaven, the music of the spheres heard by Pericles, the music under the earth heard by Antony's soldiers, the music which accompanies Queen Katharine's vision, or it may be commanded, either by spirits of the intermediate world like Oberon or Ariel, or by wise men like Prospero and the physicians in King Lear and Pericles, to exert a magical influence on human beings. When doctors order music, it is, of course, made by human musicians, and to the healthly it may even sound “rough and woeful,” but in the ears of the patient, mad Lear or unconscious Thaisa, it seems a platonic imitation of the unheard celestial music and has a curative effect.

“Solemn” music is generally played off stage. It comes, that is, from an invisible source which makes it impossible for those on stage to express a voluntary reaction to it. Either they cannot hear it or it has effects upon them which they cannot control. Thus, in Act II, Scene 1 of The Tempest, it is an indication of their villainy, the lack of music in their souls, that Antonio and Sebastian are not affected by the sleeping-spell music when Alonso and the others are, an indication which is forthwith confirmed when they use the opportunity so created to plan Alonso's murder.

On some occasions, e.g., in the vision of Posthumus (Cymbeline, Act V, Scene 4), Shakespeare has lines spoken against an instrumental musical background. The effect of this is to depersonalize the speaker, for the sound of the music blots out the individual timbre of his voice. What he says to music seems not his statement but a message, a statement that has to be made.

Antony and Cleopatra (Act IV, Scene 3) is a good example of the dramatic skill with which Shakespeare places a supernatural musical announcement. In the first scene of the act we have had a glimpse of the cold, calculating Octavius refusing Antony's old-fashioned challenge to personal combat and deciding to give battle next day. To Octavius, chivalry is one aspect of a childish lack of self-control and “Poor Antony” is his contemptuous comment on his opponent. Whereupon we are shown Antony talking to his friends in a wrought-up state of self-dramatization and self-pity:

                                                                                          Give me thy hand,
Thou hast been rightly honest; so hast thou;
Thou—and thou—and thou; you have serv'd me well.
                                                                                          Perchance to-morrow
You'll serve another master. I look on you
As one that takes his leave. Mine honest friends,
I turn you not away; but like a master
Married to your good service, stay till death:
Tend me to-night two hours, I ask no more,
And the gods yield you for't.

We already know that Enobarbus, who is present, has decided to desert Antony. Now follows the scene with the common soldiers in which supernatural music announces that

          The god Hercules whom Antony lov'd
Now leaves him.

The effect of this is to make us see the human characters, Octavius, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, as agents of powers greater than they. Their personalities and actions, moral or immoral, carry out the purposes of these powers but cannot change them. Octavius' self-confidence and Antony's sense of doom are justified though they do not know why.

But in the ensuing five scenes it appears that they were both mistaken, for it is Antony who wins the battle. Neither Octavius nor Antony have heard the music, but we, the audience, have, and our knowledge that Antony must lose in the end gives a pathos to his temporary triumph which would be lacking if the invisible music were cut.

Of the instances of mundane or carnal instrumental music in the plays, the most interesting are those in which it is, as it were, the wrong kind of magic. Those who like it and call for it use it to strengthen their illusions about themselves.

So Timon uses it when he gives his great banquet. Music stands for the imaginary world Timon is trying to live in, where everybody loves everybody and he stands at the center as the source of this universal love.

Music, make their welcome!
You see, my lord, how ample y'are beloved.

(Timon of Athens, Act I, Scene 2.)

One of his guests is the professional sneerer, Apemantus, whose conceit is that he is the only one who sees the world as it really is, as the absolutely unmusical place where nobody loves anybody but himself. “Nay,” says Timon to him, “an you begin to rail on society once, I am sworn not to give regard to you. Farewell, and come with better music.”

But Timon is never to hear music again after this scene.

Neither Timon nor Apemantus have music in their souls but, while Apemantus is shamelessly proud of this, Timon wants desperately to believe that he has music in his soul, and the discovery that he has not destroys him.

To Falstaff, music, like sack, is an aid to sustaining the illusion of living in an Eden of childlike innocence where nothing serious can happen. Unlike Timon, who does not love others as much as he likes to think, Falstaff himself really is loving. His chief illusion is that Prince Hal loves him as much as he loves Prince Hal and that Prince Hal is an innocent child like himself.

Shakespeare reserves the use of a musical background for the scene between Falstaff, Doll, Poinz, and Hal (Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene 4). While the music lasts, Time will stand still for Falstaff. He will not grow older, he will not have to pay his debts, Prince Hal will remain his dream-son and boon companion. But the music is interrupted by the realities of time with the arrival of Peto. Hal feels ashamed.

By heaven, Poinz, I feel me much to blame
So idly to profane the present time. …
Give me my sword and cloak. Falstaff, good-night!

Falstaff only feels disappointed:

Now comes in the sweetest morsel of the night, and we must hence, and leave it unpick'd.

In Prince Hal's life this moment is the turning point; from now on he will become the responsible ruler. Falstaff will not change because he is incapable of change but, at this moment, though he is unaware of it, the most important thing in his life, his friendship with Hal, ceases with the words “Good-night.” When they meet again, the first words Falstaff will hear are—“I know thee not, old man.”

Since music, the virtual image of time, takes actual time to perform, listening to music can be a waste of time, especially for those, like kings, whose primary concern should be with the unheard music of justice.

Ha! Ha! keep time! How sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But, for the concord of my time and state,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.

(Richard II, Act V, Scene 5.)


We find two kinds of songs in Shakespeare's plays, the called-for and the impromptu, and they serve different dramatic purposes.

A called-for song is a song which is sung by one character at the request of another who wishes to hear music, so that action and speech are halted until the song is over. Nobody is asked to sing unless it is believed that he can sing well and, little as we may know about the music which was actually used in performances of Shakespeare, we may safely assume from the contemporary songs which we do possess that they must have made demands which only a good voice and a good musician could satisfy.

On the stage, this means that the character called upon to sing ceases to be himself and becomes a performer; the audience is not interested in him but in the quality of his singing. The songs, it must be remembered, are interludes embedded in a play written in verse or prose which is spoken; they are not arias in an opera where the dramatic medium is itself song, so that we forget that the singers are performers just as we forget that the actor speaking blank verse is an actor.

An Elizabethan theatrical company, giving plays in which such songs occur, would have to engage at least one person for his musical rather than his histrionic talents. If they had not been needed to sing, the dramatic action in Much Ado, As You Like It and Twelfth Night could have got along quite well without Balthazar, Amiens and the Clown.

Yet, minor character though the singer may be, he has a character as a professional musician and, when he gets the chance, Shakespeare draws our attention to it. He notices the mock or polite modesty of the singer who is certain of his talents.

DON Pedro:
Come, Balthazar, we'll hear that song again.
O good my lord, tax not so bad a voice
To slander music any more than once.
DON Pedro:
It is the witness still of excellency
To put a strange face on his own perfection.

He marks the annoyance of the professional who must sing for another's pleasure whether he feels like it or not.

More, I prithee, more.
My voice is ragged: I know I cannot please you.
I do not desire you to please me: I desire you to sing. Will you sing?
More at your request than to please myself.

In the dialogue between Peter and the musicians in Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene IV, he contrasts the lives and motives of ill-paid musicians with that of their rich patrons. The musicians have been hired by the Capulets to play at Juliet's marriage to Paris. Their lives mean nothing to the Capulets; they are things which make music: the lives of the Capulets mean nothing to the musicians; they are things which pay money. The musicians arrive only to learn that Juliet is believed to be dead and the wedding is off. Juliet's life means nothing to them, but her death means a lot; they will not get paid. Whether either the Capulets or the musicians actually like music is left in doubt. Music is something you have to have at a wedding; music is something you have to play if that is your job. With a felicitous irony Shakespeare introduces a quotation from Richard Edwardes' poem, “In Commendation of Musick”

When gripping grief the heart doth wound
And doleful dumps the mind oppress
Then music with her silver sound—
Why “silver sound”? Why “music with her silver sound”?
What say you, Simon Catling?
1ST Mus:
Marry, sir, because silver hath a sweet sound.
Pretty! What say you, Hugh Rebeck?
2ND Mus:
I say, “silver sound,” because musicians sound for silver.

(Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene 5.)

The powers the poet attributes to music are exaggerated. It cannot remove the grief of losing a daughter or the pangs of an empty belly.

Since action must cease while a called-for song is heard, such a song, if it is not to be an irrelevant interlude, must be placed at a point where the characters have both a motive for wanting one and leisure to hear it. Consequently we find few called-for songs in the tragedies, where the steady advance of the hero to his doom must not be interrupted, or in the historical plays in which the characters are men of action with no leisure.

Further, it is rare that a character listens to a song for its own sake since, when someone listens to music properly, he forgets himself and others which, on the stage, means that he forgets all about the play. Indeed, I can only think of one case where it seems certain that a character listens to a song as a song should be listened to, instead of as a stimulus to a petit roman of his own, and that is in Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 1, when Katharine listens to Orpheus with his lute. The Queen knows that the King wants to divorce her and that pressure will be brought upon her to acquiesce. But she believes that it is her religious duty to refuse, whatever the consequences. For the moment there is nothing she can do but wait. And her circumstances are too serious and painful to allow her to pass the time daydreaming:

Take thy lute, wench; my soul grows sad with troubles;
Sing and disperse them, if thou canst; leave working.

The words of the song which follows are not about any human feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, which might have some bearing on her situation. The song, like Edwardes' poem, is an encomium musicae. Music cannot, of course, cure grief, as the song claims, but in so far that she is able to attend to it and nothing else, she can forget her situation while the music lasts.

An interesting contrast to this is provided by a scene which at first seems very similar, Act IV, Scene I of Measure for Measure. Here, too, we have an unhappy woman listening to a song. But Mariana, unlike Katharine, is not trying to forget her unhappiness; she is indulging it. Being the deserted lady has become a rôle. The words of the song, Take, O take, those lips away, mirrors her situation exactly, and her apology to the Duke when he surprises her gives her away.

I cry you mercy, sir; and well could wish
You had not found me here so musical:
Let me excuse me, and believe me so—
My mirth it much displeas'd, but pleas'd my woe.

In his reply, the Duke, as is fitting in this, the most puritanical of Shakespeare's plays, states the puritanical case against the heard music of this world.

'Tis good; though music oft hath such a charm
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.

Were the Duke to extend this reply, one can be sure that he would speak of the unheard music of Justice.

On two occasions Shakespeare shows us music being used with conscious evil intent. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus, who has been false to his friend, forsworn his vows to his girl and is cheating Thurio, serenades Silvia while his forsaken Julia listens. On his side, there is no question here of self-deception through music. Proteus knows exactly what he is doing. Through music which is itself beautiful and good, he hopes to do evil, to seduce Silvia.

Proteus is a weak character, not a wicked one. He is ashamed of what he is doing and, just as he knows the difference between good and evil in conduct, he knows the difference between music well and badly played.

How do you, man? the music likes you not?
You mistake; the musician likes me not.
Why, my pretty youth?
He plays false, father.
How? Out of tune on the strings?
Not so; but yet so false that he grieves my very heart-strings …
I perceive you delight not in music.
Not a whit, when it jars so.
Hark, what a fine change is in the music!
Ay, that change is the spite.
You would have them always play but one thing?
I would always have one play but one thing.

(Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act IV, Scene 2.)

The second occasion is in Cymbeline, when Cloten serenades Imogen. Cloten is a lost soul without conscience or shame. He is shown, therefore, as someone who does not know one note from another. He has been told that music acts on women as an erotic stimulus, and wishes for the most erotic music that money can buy:

First a very excellent, good, conceited thing; after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich words to it, and then let her consider.

For, except as an erotic stimulus, music is, for him, worthless:

If this penetrate, I will consider your music the better; if it do not, it is a vice in her ears which horse-hairs and calves' guts, nor the voice of the unpaved eunuch to boot can never amend.

(Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 3.)


The called-for songs in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night illustrate Shakespeare's skill in making what might have been beautiful irrelevancies contribute to the dramatic structure.

                                                            Much Ado About Nothing
                                                                      Act II, Scene 3.
                                                  Song. Sigh no more, ladies.
Audience. Don Petro, Claudio, and Benedick (in hiding).

In the two preceding scenes we have learned of two plots, Don Pedro's plot to make Benedick fall in love with Beatrice, and Don John's plot to make Claudio believe that Hero, his wife-to-be, is unchaste. Since this is a comedy, we, the audience, know that all will come right in the end, that Beatrice and Benedick, Don Pedro and Hero will get happily married.

The two plots of which we have just learned, therefore, arouse two different kinds of suspense. If the plot against Benedick succeeds, we are one step nearer the goal; if the plot against Claudio succeeds, we are one step back.

At this point, between their planning and their execution, action is suspended, and we and the characters are made to listen to a song.

The scene opens with Benedick laughing at the thought of the lovesick Claudio and congratulating himself on being heart-whole, and he expresses their contrasted states in musical imagery.

I have known him when there was no music in him, but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. … Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?—Well, a horn for my money when all's done.

We, of course, know that Benedick is not as heart-whole as he is trying to pretend. Beatrice and Benedick resist each other because, being both proud and intelligent, they do not wish to be the helpless slaves of emotion or, worse, to become what they have often observed in others, the victims of an imaginary passion. Yet whatever he may say against music, Benedick does not go away, but stays and listens.

Claudio, for his part, wishes to hear music because he is in a dreamy, lovesick state, and one can guess that his petit roman as he listens will be of himself as the ever-faithful swain, so that he will not notice that the mood and words of the song are in complete contrast to his daydream. For the song is actually about the irresponsibility of men and the folly of women taking them seriously, and recommends as an antidote good humor and common sense. If one imagines these sentiments being the expression of a character, the only character they suit is Beatrice.

She is never sad but when she sleeps; and not even sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dream'd of happiness and waked herself with laughing. She cannot endure hear tell of a husband. Leonato by no means: she mocks all her wooers out of suit.

I do not think it too far-fetched to imagine that the song arouses in Benedick's mind an image of Beatrice, the tenderness of which alarms him. The violence of his comment when the song is over is suspicious:

I pray God, his bad voice bode no mischief! I had as lief have heard the night-raven, come what plague could have come after it.

And, of course, there is mischief brewing. Almost immediately he overhears the planned conversation of Claudio and Don Pedro, and it has its intended effect. The song may not have compelled his capitulation, but it has certainly softened him up.

More mischief comes to Claudio who, two scenes later, shows himself all too willing to believe Don John's slander before he has been shown even false evidence, and declares that, if it should prove true, he will shame Hero in public. Had his love for Hero been all he imagined it to be, he would have laughed in Don John's face and believed Hero's assertion of her innocence, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, as immediately as her cousin does. He falls into the trap set for him because as yet he is less a lover than a man in love with love. Hero is as yet more an image in his own mind than a real person, and such images are susceptible to every suggestion.

For Claudio, the song marks the moment when his pleasant illusions about himself as a lover are at their highest. Before he can really listen to music he must be cured of imaginary listening, and the cure lies through the disharmonious experiences of passion and guilt.

                                                            As You Like It
                                                            Act II, Scene 5.
                              Song. Under the Greenwood Tree.
                                                            Audience. Jaques.

We have heard of Jaques before, but this is the first time we see him, and now we have been introduced to all the characters. We know that, unknown to each other, the three groups—Adam, Orlando; Rosalind, Celia, Touchstone; and the Duke's court—are about to meet. The stage is set for the interpersonal drama to begin.

Of Jaques we have been told that he is a man who is always in a state of critical negation, at odds with the world, ever prompt to strike a discordant note, a man, in fact, with no music in his soul. Yet, when we actually meet him, we find him listening with pleasure to a merry song. No wonder the Duke is surprised when he hears of it:

If he, compact of jars, grows musical,
We shall have shortly discord in the spheres.

The first two stanzas of the song are in praise of the pastoral life, an echo of the sentiments expressed earlier by the Duke:

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?

The refrain is a summons, Come Hither, which we know is being answered. But the characters are not gathering here because they wish to, but because they are all exiles and refugees. In praising the Simple Life, the Duke is a bit of a humbug, since he was compelled by force to take to it.

Jaques' extemporary verse which he speaks, not sings, satirizes the mood of the song.

If it so pass
That any man turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please,
Ducdamé, ducdamé, ducdamé:
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he,
An if he will come to me.

At the end of the play, however, Jaques is the only character who chooses to leave his wealth and ease—it is the critic of the pastoral sentiment who remains in the cave. But he does not do this his stubborn will to please, for the hint is given that he will go further and embrace the religious life. In Neoplatonic terms he is the most musical of them all for he is the only one whom the carnal music of this world cannot satisfy, because he desires to hear the unheard music of the spheres.

                                                            Act II, Scene 7.
                    Song. Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
                    Audience. The Court, Orlando, Adam.

Orlando has just shown himself willing to risk his life for his faithful servant, Adam. Adam, old as he is, has given up everything to follow his master. Both were expecting hostility but have met instead with friendly kindness.

The Duke, confronted with someone who has suffered an injustice similar to his own, drops his pro-pastoral humbug and admits that, for him, exile to the forest of Arden is a suffering.

The song to which they now listen is about suffering, but about the one kind of suffering which none of those present has had to endure, ingratitude from a friend. The behavior of their brothers to the Duke and Orlando has been bad, but it cannot be called ingratitude, since neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver ever feigned friendship with them.

The effect of the song upon them, therefore, is a cheering one. Life may be hard, injustice may seem to triumph in the world, the future may be dark and uncertain, but personal loyalty and generosity exist and make such evils bearable.


I have always found the atmosphere of Twelfth Night a bit whiffy. I get the impression that Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when he was in no mood for comedy, but in a mood of puritanical aversion to all those pleasing illusions which men cherish and by which they lead their lives. The comic convention in which the play is set prevents him from giving direct expression to this mood, but the mood keeps disturbing, even spoiling, the comic feeling. One has a sense, and nowhere more strongly than in the songs, of there being inverted commas around the “fun.”

There is a kind of comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Importance of Being Earnest are good examples, which take place in Eden, the place of pure play where suffering is unknown. In Eden, Love means the “Fancy engendered in the eye.” The heart has no place there, for it is a world ruled by wish not by will. In A Midsummer Night's Dream it does not really matter who marries whom in the end, provided that the adventures of the lovers form a beautiful pattern; and Titania's fancy for Bottom is not a serious illusion in contrast to reality, but an episode in a dream.

To introduce will and real feeling into Eden turns it into an ugly place, for its native inhabitants cannot tell the difference between play and earnest and in the presence of the earnest they appear frivolous in the bad sense. The trouble, to my mind, about Twelfth Night is that Viola and Antonio are strangers to the world which all the other characters inhabit. Viola's love for the Duke and Antonio's love for Sebastian are much too strong and real.

Against their reality, the Duke, who up till the moment of recognition has thought himself in love with Olivia, drops her like a hot potato and falls in love with Viola on the spot, and Sebastian, who accepts Olivia's proposal of marriage within two minutes of meeting her for the first time, appear contemptible, and it is impossible to believe that either will make a good husband. They give the impression of simply having abandoned one dream for another.

Taken by themselves, the songs in this play are among the most beautiful Shakespeare wrote and, read in an anthology, we hear them as the voice of Eden, as “pure” poetry. But in the contexts in which Shakespeare places them, they sound shocking.

                                                            Act II, Scene 3.
Song. O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
Audience. Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Taken playfully, such lines as

What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty.
Youth's a stuff will not endure

are charming enough, but suppose one asks, “For what kind of person would these lines be an expression of their true feelings?” True love certainly does not plead its cause by telling the beloved that love is transitory; and no young man, trying to seduce a girl, would mention her age. He takes her youth and his own for granted. Taken seriously, these lines are the voice of elderly lust, afraid of its own death. Shakespeare forces this awareness on our consciousness by making the audience to the song a couple of seedy old drunks.

                                                            Act II, Scene 4.
                    Song. Come away, come away, death.
                    Audience. The Duke, Viola, courtiers.

Outside the pastures of Eden, no true lover talks of being slain by a fair, cruel maid, or weeps over his own grave. In real life, such reflections are the daydreams of self-love which is never faithful to others.

Again, Shakespeare has so placed the song as to make it seem an expression of the Duke's real character. Beside him sits the disguised Viola, for whom the Duke is not a playful fancy but a serious passion. It would be painful enough for her if the man she loved really loved another, but it is much worse to be made to see that he only loves himself, and it is this insight which at this point Viola has to endure. In the dialogue about the difference between man's love and woman's which follows on the song, Viola is, I think, being anything but playful when she says:

We men say more, swear more; but, indeed,
Our vows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.


The impromptu singer stops speaking and breaks into song, not because anyone else has asked him to sing or is listening, but to relieve his feelings in a way that speech cannot do or to help him in some action. An impromptu song is not art but a form of personal behavior. It reveals, as the called-for song cannot, something about the singer. On the stage, therefore, it is generally desirable that a character who breaks into impromptu song should not have a good voice. No producer, for example, would seek to engage Madame Callas for the part of Ophelia, because the beauty of her voice would distract the audience's attention from the real dramatic point which is that Ophelia's songs are to the highest degree not called-for. We are meant to be horrified both by what she sings and by the fact that she sings at all. The other characters are affected but not in the way that people are affected by music. The King is terrified, Laertes so outraged that he becomes willing to use dirty means to avenge his sister.

Generally, of course, the revelation made by an impromptu song is comic or pathetic rather than shocking. Thus the Gravedigger's song in Hamlet is, firstly, a labor song which helps to make the operation of digging go more smoothly and, secondly, an expression of the galgenhumor which suits his particular mystery.

Singing is one of Autolycus' occupations, so he may be allowed a good voice, but When daffodils begin to peer is an impromptu song. He sings as he walks because it makes walking more rhythmical and less tiring, and he sings to keep up his spirits. His is a tough life, with hunger and the gallows never very far away, and he needs all the courage he can muster.

One of the commonest and most deplorable effects of alcohol is its encouragement of the impromptu singer. It is not the least tribute one could pay to Shakespeare when one says that he manages to extract interest from this most trivial and boring of phenomena.

When Silence gets drunk in Shallow's orchard, the maximum pathos is got out of the scene. We know Silence is an old, timid, sad, poor, nice man, and we cannot believe that, even when he was young, he was ever a gay dog; yet, when he is drunk, it is of women, wine, and chivalry that he sings. Further, the drunker he gets, the feebler becomes his memory. The first time he sings, he manages to recall six lines, by the fifth time, he can only remember one:

And Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John.

We are shown, not only the effect of alcohol on the imagination of a timid man, but also its effect on the brain of an old one.

Just as the called-for song can be used with conscious ill-intent, so the impromptu song can be feigned to counterfeit good fellowship.

The characters assembled on Pompey's galley at Misenum who sing Come, thou monarch of the Vine, are anything but pathetic; they are the lords of the world. The occasion is a feast to celebrate a reconciliation, but not one of them trusts the others an inch, and all would betray each other without scruple if it seemed to their advantage.

Pompey has indeed refused Menas' suggestion to murder his guests, but wishes that Menas had done it without telling him. The fact that Lepidus gets stinking and boasts of his power, reveals his inferiority to the others, and it is pretty clear that the Machiavellian Octavius is not quite as tight as he pretends.

Again, when Iago incites Cassio to drink and starts singing

And let the can clink it

we know him to be cold sober, for one cannot imagine any mood of Iago's which he would express by singing. What he sings is pseudo-impromptu. He pretends to be expressing his mood, to be Cassio's buddy, but a buddy is something we know he could never be to anyone.


Ariel's songs in The Tempest cannot be classified as either called-for or impromptu, and this is one reason why the part is so hard to cast. A producer casting Balthazar needs a good professional singer; for Stephano, a comedian who can make as raucous and unmusical a noise as possible. Neither is too difficult to find. But for Ariel he needs not only a boy with an unbroken voice but also one with a voice far above the standard required for the two pages who are to sing It was a lover and his lass.

For Ariel is neither a singer, that is to say, a human being whose vocal gifts provide him with a social function, nor a nonmusical person who in certain moods feels like singing. Ariel is song; when he is truly himself, he sings. The effect when he speaks is similar to that of recitativo secco in opera, which we listen to because we have to understand the action, though our real interest in the characters is only aroused when they start to sing. Yet Ariel is not an alien visitor from the world of opera who has wandered into a spoken drama by mistake. He cannot express any human feelings because he has none. The kind of voice he requires is exactly the kind that opera does not want, a voice which is as lacking in the personal and the erotic and as like an instrument as possible.

If Ariel's voice is peculiar, so is the effect that his songs have on others. Ferdinand listens to him in a very different way from that in which the Duke listens to Come away, come away, death, or Mariana to Take, O take those lips away. The effect on them was not to change them but to confirm the mood they were already in. The effect on Ferdinand of Come unto these yellow sands and Full fathom five, is more like the effect of instrumental music on Thaisa: direct, positive, magical.

Suppose Ariel, disguised as a musician, had approached Ferdinand as he sat on a bank, “weeping against the king, my father's wrack,” and offered to sing for him; Ferdinand would probably have replied, “Go away, this is no time for music”; he might possibly have asked for something beautiful and sad; he certainly would not have asked for Come unto these yellow sands.

As it is, the song comes to him as an utter surprise, and its effect is not to feed or please his grief, not to encourage him to sit brooding, but to allay his passion, so that he gets to his feet and follows the music. The song opens his present to expectation at a moment when he is in danger of closing it to all but recollection.

The second song is, formally, a dirge, and, since it refers to his father, seems more relevant to Ferdinand's situation than the first. But it has nothing to do with any emotions which a son might feel at his father's grave. As Ferdinand says, “This is no mortal business.” It is a magic spell, the effect of which is, not to lessen his feeling of loss, but to change his attitude towards his grief from one of rebellion—“How could this bereavement happen to me?”—to one of awe and reverent acceptance. As long as a man refuses to accept whatever he suffers as given, without pretending he can understand why, the past from which it came into being is an obsession which makes him deny any value to the present. Thanks to the music, Ferdinand is able to accept the past, symbolized by his father, as past, and at once there stands before him his future, Miranda.

The Tempest is full of music of all kinds, yet it is not one of the plays in which, in a symbolic sense, harmony and concord finally triumph over dissonant disorder. The three romantic comedies which precede it, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, and which deal with similar themes, injustice, plots, separation, all end in a blaze of joy—the wrongers repent, the wronged forgive, the earthly music is a true reflection of the heavenly. The Tempest ends much more sourly. The only wrongdoer who expresses genuine repentance is Alonso; and what a world of difference there is between Cymbeline's “Pardon's the word to all,” and Prospero's

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them; and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore.

Justice has triumphed over injustice, not because it is more harmonious, but because it commands superior force; one might even say because it is louder.

The wedding masque is peculiar and disturbing. Ferdinand and Miranda, who seem as virginal and innocent as any fairy story lovers, are first treated to a moral lecture on the danger of anticipating their marriage vows, and the theme of the masque itself is a plot by Venus to get them to do so. The masque is not allowed to finish, but is broken off suddenly by Prospero, who mutters of another plot, “that foul conspiracy of the beast Caliban and his confederates against my life.” As an entertainment for a wedding couple, the masque can scarcely be said to have been a success.

Prospero is more like the Duke in Measure for Measure than any other Shakespearian character. The victory of Justice which he brings about seems rather a duty than a source of joy to himself.

I'll bring you to your ship and so to Naples
Where I have hope to see the nuptials
Of these our dear-beloved solemnis'd
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.

The tone is not that of a man who, putting behind him the vanities of mundane music, would meditate like Queen Katharine “upon that celestial harmony I go to,” but rather of one who longs for a place where silence shall be all.

Patricia K. Meszaros (lecture date 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 reading of the romances as immortality myths in which restoration and reconciliation are symbolized by the final victory of music over tempest has informed nearly all subsequent criticism, and although John Hollander has rightly pointed out that Knight's “insistence on symbolic music ignores conventions of musical imagery and exegesis in Renaissance literature,”1 it is nevertheless true that Knight's initial premise, that tempest and music are the two poles of a single force, is valid in terms of Elizabethan thought about music. In the work of Hollander and others, moreover, we now have studies of the music in Shakespeare's plays which go well beyond the symboliste suggestiveness of Knight's analyses to satisfy both the historian of the theater (not to mention the modern director) and the historian of ideas—studies of what the Elizabethans would have called musica practica, and of what they would have called musica speculativa.2

Among the discussions of the music called for in the last plays, however, and of what its being there means, there is none which to my mind satisfactorily resolves one of the problems about the nature and meaning of music in Pericles. I refer to the oddly anticlimactic sequence of recognition and reconciliation scenes in Act V, in which Pericles, after being reunited with his daughter Marina, seems to hear the music of the spheres, then has a vision of the goddess Diana (accompanied by music), and only then, after receiving the goddess' instructions, is reunited with his wife Thaisa, whom he had believed dead and buried at sea. The problem of the music of the spheres in Pericles has both speculative (i.e., critical) and practical (i.e, theatrical) dimensions. The first is a matter of placement and causality: if the music of the spheres expresses universal harmony, why does Pericles hear it after the lesser miracle but before the greater; that is, before the theophany and before his wife is restored to him? The second is a matter of staging, but one of interpretive significance: clearly Pericles is the only character on stage who hears the music of the spheres, but does the audience hear it with him, and if so, what does it sound like? Both dimensions of the problem must be considered together, and the problem itself must be considered with reference to other instances of music in the play, and within the context of the play as a whole.

This last is not easy to do, given doubts about the play's authorial integrity and the degree and nature of the corruption of the 1609 Quarto text. As the author of the most recent detailed textual study of Pericles concludes, the text we have is “made up of material of varying authority and diverse origins” into a “difficult manuscript” which was also “printed carelessly.”3 Yet we know that Pericles, probably presented at the Globe in a form bearing a close resemblance to the Quarto text, was among the most popular plays of its time (more popular, apparently, than was King Lear), and we also know that it has been revived occasionally in recent years with considerable success, as a triumph of stylized and self-reflexive theater. It seems reasonable, therefore, to set aside for the moment vexed questions of authorship and textual validity, and to adopt instead an audience-centered approach to the play, following the text we have.4 I should like us to imagine, then, a performance of Pericles in the Globe Theatre, following the text from the 1609 Quarto, as prepared by James G. McManaway for the Pelican Shakespeare.5 It is obvious that the words of the text must be supplemented by the spectacle and music that are integral to the play's effect, and yet it is not at all clear that the generalized pattern articulated by Knight, “from normality and order, through violent conflict to a spiritualized music and thence to the concluding ritual” comfortably fits the play.6 We shall see.

“To sing a song that old was sung”: the first words we hear are chanted, in sing-song tetrameter, by a figure dressed in a cloak and carrying bays.7 He is the long-dead poet Gower, returned “from ashes,” he tells us, “To glad your ear and please your eyes.”8 All his emphasis is on the antiquity of the story (he himself has read it in the work of other authors) and on the refined pleasure it will bring us (lords and ladies have read it “for restoratives”). Yet the tale Gower narrates in his archaic rhythm, with an occasional awkward shift for a line or two into iambic pentameter (as if the immediate seriousness of the material will break through), is a horrifying story of incest and murder, and the first spectacle he calls to our attention to “please” our eyes is the “grim looks” of the severed heads of unsuccessful suitors upon the walls of Antioch. We must trust the authority of the poet, of antiquity, and of tradition, but how is this tale, this spectacle, to edify and please us? Almost before we can formulate the question, Gower himself seems to abandon his professed cause. No longer chanting, he tells us in an iambic pentameter couplet that we must depend on what he calls “the judgment of your eye” (I.Cho.41) from this point onward.

But in fact another of our senses is called upon. No sooner have the identities of Antiochus, the incestuous king, and Pericles, another in the succession of suitors, been introduced in a few lines of dialogue than we have an opportunity to listen to music, commanded by Antiochus (I.i.6) for his daughter's entrance.9 Since she is “clothed like a bride” (I.i.7)—that is, a virgin—and since Antiochus asserts that the planets themselves, from her conception to her birth, “did sit / To knit in her their best perfections” (I.i.11-12), the music arranged by her father to accompany her appearance must be not the earthly, sensual music of reed and wind instruments, but the heavenly, spiritual music of strings, probably a consort of viols.10 As we know (because we have heard Gower's introduction), but as Pericles does not, the music masks and falsifies the reality of father-daughter incest, providing a setting for the daughter's beauty that encourages the innocent suitor to find in her “every virtue [that] gives renown to men!” (I.i.15). But this ethereal music, invented by man in imitation of divine harmony, can also be used by man as he sometimes uses language and costume (and as Antiochus does here), to whiten the sepulchre—to lie. Thus, when Pericles reads aloud the riddle that blatantly reveals the ugly truth hitherto so artfully concealed, he recoils in disgust not only from the fact itself but also from the shock sustained by his aesthetic sensibilities. In a brief, meditative aside before he responds to Antiochus, Pericles dwells upon the way in which the riddle's revelation has violated the evidence of his eyes and ears. The daughter still appears to him to be a “fair glass of light” (I.i.77) and a “glorious casket,” but one “stored with ill” (I.i.78). The musical setting for the woman's appearance leads him to reflect in a more extended metaphor:

You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings;
Who, fingered to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heaven down, and all the gods, to hearken;
But being played upon before your time,
Hell only danceth to so harsh a chime.


As we witness Pericles' confusion and empathize with his shocked revulsion, we ourselves are more than ever confused by Gower's promise to delight our eyes and ears and by his injunction that we rely upon the “judgment” of our eyes. The scene we have just witnessed has demonstrated that delights for the eyes and ears mislead us; truth appears in a gnomic riddle that places the only character with whom we can identify in a classic “double bind”: not to “solve” the riddle is to incur execution as punishment, but to interpret it aloud will also mean certain death. Gower's introduction to his tale thus at this point seems quite inadequate—the story is neither pleasant nor edifying, and its “truth” is both figuratively and literally unspeakable. So far, Gower seems to be something of an “unreliable narrator.”

Since escape from Antioch is the only course of action available to Pericles, the audience is called upon now to follow a plot of flight and pursuit through a series of scenes (from the end of I.i. through I.iv.) in which new characters and situations are introduced abruptly and as quickly dropped, so that we have time to register our perceptions only in the simplest abstract terms—the loyalty of Helicanus; the treachery of Thaliard; the destitution of Tharsus (to be contrasted, perhaps, with the corrupt opulence of Antioch). Still unable to exercise the “judgment” Gower has recommended, we experience instead bewilderment and disorientation mirroring Pericles' own. It is with something akin to relief, therefore, that we hear Pericles' decision to accept Cleon's welcome, to “feast here awhile, / Until our stars that frown lend us a smile” (I.iv.106-07). Perhaps we will see more of Pericles now, listen to his thoughts about the harrowing experience he has just gone through, get to know him better.

The impatience we feel, however, when it is Gower and not Pericles who returns, seems to have been anticipated by the old poet, who tells us to “Be quiet then, as men should be” (II.Cho.5), just as Helicanus had earlier counseled patience in adversity to Pericles. In the same chanted tetrameter we heard earlier, Gower summarizes, hints at a moral—“I'll show you those in trouble's reign, / Losing a mite, a mountain gain” (II.Cho.8-8)—calls upon spectacle (this time a dumb show) to supplement his words, and finally, having described a storm and shipwreck to which Pericles has fallen victim, excuses himself.

The following scene with Pericles and the fishermen offers the most sustained dialogue of the play to this point, and full of the conventional wisdom of the common folk as it is (“I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale”), puts us ashore on familiar dramatic territory. There is talk about happy kings and good government, and the well-known parallels are drawn between the commonwealth and the order of nature. Thematically oriented at last, we can reflect upon the wickedness of Antiochus and the goodness of Pericles. We can also move with ease and assurance into the next scene, in which another princess is presented by her father with music and pageantry. What a satisfying repetition! What a satisfying contrast to the scene in Antioch, for this princess is all that she appears to be on the surface—not only beautiful but also virtuous—and learned as well, to judge from her skill in heraldry and her ability to interpret the mottos in Latin and Spanish upon the knights' shields. The tournament, an honest contest unlike the travesty arranged by Antiochus, naturally and satisfyingly results in the triumph of Pericles, the knight in rusty armor.

Significantly, the tournament is followed by the first music we have heard since the introduction of Antiochus' daughter: Simonides' court is all art and elegant ceremony representative of the harmony of the well-ordered state under a benign ruler. This music (presenting another contrast with the treacherous world of appearances in Antioch) is exactly right for the audience and the occasion. First, all the knights who had participated in the tournament perform a soldiers' dance, or almain,11 followed by a dance performed by the soldiers and ladies together, and joined by Pericles and the lady Thaisa at the urging of her father. The old king, with his rough humor and his “Unclasp, unclasp!” (II.iii.106), is completely in control of the action, so that the banquet hall represented by the stage becomes a microcosm of world order. The king calls for music and sets his guests to dancing, just as the Creator ordered the cosmos and set the planets in a dance.

In this scene of social grace and harmony we find such a satisfying sense of rest and closure that we are not distressed when we are called upon next to give our attention once again to Helicanus. His news, indeed, adds another important element of resolution: Antiochus and his daughter are dead, consumed by a fire from heaven. Pericles need no longer flee the assassin; he can return to Tyre, taking Thaisa with him as his bride.12

So, as Gower had promised, an early misfortune has been overshadowed by subsequent and unexpectedly great good fortune; the bride Pericles has won incomparably exceeds in merit the one he initially sought. As Gower had predicted, too, our eyes and ears have indeed been delighted by spectacle and music. He is not such an unreliable narrator after all. When he makes his third appearance, a familiar and more trustworthy figure now, his tetrameter couplets and archaic diction seem just right for the little epithalamion he recites.

But then we are thrown badly off-balance again, as the happy sing-song tetrameter turns by degrees into another tale of woe. The stability and calm produced by the music, the dancing, and the plot resolutions of the preceding scene have left us unprepared for what follows now. Nothing in the play so far, in fact, has prepared us for the drama, the poetry, of the scene in which Pericles, amidst a storm at sea, greets his newborn child and prepares to commit the body of his wife to the deep. It is as if we have been leafing through an album of snapshots, to come suddenly on an unsettling close-up, a portrait blazing with character and pain. The desire we felt earlier to know Pericles better, and which we have since forgotten, is now unexpectedly fulfilled. We hear the intimate voice of the private men:

A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire, Th' unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly. …


Almost immediately, however, our renewed interest in Pericles is diverted again, this time to the physician Cerimon and his wonderful skill, as the sounds of tempest give way to the sounds of music.

This is medicinal, restorative music, played by a viol (III.ii.89) because the vibrating string is most like the veins and nerves of the body, and because strings produce the most ethereal music accessible to mortals, thus calling the spirit back to the body and composing the senses. But that single viol, theories about music aside, also strikes an echo from the harmonies of the court of King Simonides, and that in itself may be a restorative for Thaisa. In any case, the music is efficacious: after calling, “The music there!” Cerimon says, “I pray you, give her air. / Gentlemen, this queen will live” (III.ii.93-94).

In the first movement of the play, we can see in retrospect, evil and treachery forced Pericles to take ship, but a storm at sea brought him to good. Now, it seems, we are witnessing an opposing sequence: a happy series of events having brought Pericles to sea again, disaster and then more treachery follow, this time in Tharsus, with the abortive plot of Dionyza to have Marina murdered. The audience can watch these new events with some equanimity, however, because we have come to accept the play's pattern of discontinuous scenes broken by the dumb shows and Gower's appearances, because we have come to trust Gower, and most of all because we share with Gower a knowledge superior to that of Pericles—neither Thaisa nor Marina is dead. The latter, indeed, clearly bears a charmed life. So much attention is given by Gower to her graces and accomplishments that she seems a paragon, and although she is captured by pirates and sold into a brothel, the comic tone of these scenes tells the audience that she is never really in danger.

Like her father, Marina is a talented musician: “by Cleon trained / In music's letters” (IV.Cho.7-8); according to Gower, “She sings like one immortal, and she dances / As goddess-like to her admired lays” (V.Cho.3-4). It seems not only right but inevitable, then, that Pericles in his wanderings should eventually arrive at Mytilene, and that Marina should be brought before him to sing, in an attempt to arouse him from the deep melancholy and silence into which he has fallen upon being told by the false Cleon and Dionyza that his daughter is dead.13

Pericles seems to those watching on stage not to hear Marina's song, but in fact the audience sees that he is rapt, concentrating totally on his attempt to recall an almost-forgotten melody and the larger harmony it evokes. Marina next resorts to speech, and her powers of persuasion (as we know from the brothel scenes) are as impressive as her musicianship. Still, it is what she says that restores Pericles to health; here music is only an ancillary restorative. Marina's song has aroused in Pericles the memory of harmony, but her story renews his faith in harmony. Convinced at last that she is his own child, he calls her “Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (V.i.195), stating a paradox that is the antithesis of the paradox of Antiochus' riddle. Indeed, the therapeutic harmonies of Marina's musical performance have finally countered the dissembling harmonies of the music which had been used to introduce Antiochus' daughter, and the silence with which Pericles was forced to respond in untying the riddle of her relationship to her father is countered in the speech by means of which he and his own daughter untie the riddle of their relationship. We remember that Pericles has been speechless since hearing of his daughter's supposed death, and we realize that in this play silence (i.e., the absence of music and language) as well as tempest can be a manifestation of the forces of chaos. But in Marina's song and her marvelous story, Pericles has found good and harmony and order enough to balance the evil and chaos he has known in the world.

As for the audience, it has once again had its faith in Gower confirmed, and has been delighted and edified by spectacle and poetry, and especially by music. Moral and physical evil have occurred repeatedly without rational motivation or apparent cause in the world of the play, but human speech rises above the noise of the storm and untangles the knots of unhappiness wrought by human malice, and recurring music as outward manifestation of internal social harmony and as restorative of physical and mental health prevails again and again over chaos.

Pericles himself, however, now attains a degree of awareness of universal harmony transcending that of the audience, for it is granted to him to hear the music of the spheres. Originating with Pythagoras, adopted by Plato, and kept alive in Christian neoplatonic tradition, the concept of the music of the spheres was the central image of the doctrine of universal harmony prevalent in Shakespeare's time. In the Pythagorean sense, music is mathematical proportion bearing no resemblance to earthly music except as that music also is based upon proportion and degree; the music of the spheres comes from the vibrations of the planets moving at varying distances from each other, proportional to musical ratios. Symbols of this divine harmony, strictly speaking, are to be found only in such phenomena as “the … variety of Seasons, the concorde of the Elements … the politike Lawes … the love of the King” (Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579); the divine harmony itself is not directly accessible to fallen humanity. In the words of Shakespeare's Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice,

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


That a living man should hear the music of the spheres is thus exceedingly unlikely. Such an experience could probably come only to a good and noble man with an understanding of all the manifestations of earthly harmony, and then only at a moment when that man's spirit was peculiarly sensitive to the existence of a sublime and perfect harmony transcending that of this world. To hear the music of the spheres is to have a mystical experience. Obviously, Pericles alone of all characters on stage is capable of such sensitivity to harmony, and the text is clear on the point that he alone hears it:

Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But hark, what music?
Tell Helicanus, my Marina, tell him
O'er, point by point, for yet he seems to doubt,
How sure you are my daughter. But what music?
My lord, I hear none.
The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.
It is not good to cross him. Give him way.
Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
Music, my lord? I hear.
                                                                                Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto list'ning, and thick slumber
Hangs upon mine eyes. Let me rest.


The responses of the bluntly honest Helicanus (229) and the more politic Lysimachus, who thinks it best to humor Pericles with a “white lie” (232, 234) are evidence that they hear nothing. The short lines (229, 230) are silences to be filled by intent listening, spaces into which both the characters on stage and the audience pour their collective concentration, trying to experience what Pericles experiences.

Having come this far with Pericles, having empathized with his sufferings and rejoiced at his reunion with Marina, bearing the knowledge that more happiness is to come (for Pericles still does not know what the audience knows, that his wife, too, is alive), the audience is nevertheless cut off from sharing with Pericles this transcendent experience. We shuffle our feet restlessly: what are we to make of this moment? Our rapport with the character is momentarily broken; the play has left us once more, unexpectedly, without bearings.14

But then Pericles, exhausted by emotion, falls asleep. One by one the other characters leave the stage, and almost inaudibly at first, then gradually louder, the sound of broken chords on lutes and harps is heard, introducing the goddess Diana, who instructs Pericles to repair to her temple at Ephesus to sacrifice and to tell his story.15 These sounds, however celestial, cannot be more than a pale shadowing forth of the total divine harmony of the spheres, for they accompany the earthly appearance of only one of the goddesses in the pantheon. Nor is it possible for Pericles to remain permanently attuned to the celestial harmony. Man cannot remain long in a state of spiritual ecstasy, but the memory of such a state can sustain and uplift him long after the experience is past. Pericles' sublime experience has reassured him that the world is ordered harmoniously. Thus, though he no longer hears the music of the spheres, he is receptive to divine guidance from the goddess.

If the audience cannot share Pericles' mystical experience, we can nevertheless share his dream-vision, and we have, moreover, regained our bearings, for we know why the goddess directs Pericles toward Ephesus. Our recent momentary confusion put aside, we reveal in pleasurable anticipation of the reunion of Pericles and Marina with Thaisa. The sense of power which our knowledge of the outcome seems to confer on us is reinforced by Gower, who addresses us this time to flatter us by reminding us of the control we exercise through our imaginations. It is we who

                                                                                aptly will suppose
What pageantry, what feats, what shows,
What minstrelsy and pretty din
The regent made in Mytilin
To greet the King.


It is also our imaginations that will encompass the time and space necessary to bring Pericles and his company to the temple of Diana at Ephesus:

That he can hither come so soon
Is by your fancies' thankful doom.


It is significant, perhaps, that Gower began his addresses to the audience by promising us edification and pleasure, as if we had to be coaxed into paying attention, and by asking us to listen and watch patiently and passively, but that he ends by praising our imaginations and by inviting us to participate more actively in bringing the story to its conclusion.

For the audience, Pericles has been an experience by turns bewildering and satisfying. We have been asked to attend to a succession of shifting scenes and characters, often following one upon another without apparent reason, but we have also found moments of delightful repose in musical harmony and of intense emotion expressed in moving language. We have been led to expect a moral, but none has been pointed, and no obvious one has emerged. We have followed the fortunes of the hero at varying distances—watching him objectively at the beginning as he learns the horrible truth we ourselves have only just learned, feeling with him intensely as he buries his wife at sea and again as he finds his lost daughter, observing him from a superior distance as he is brought innocently toward the reconciliation we ourselves have long anticipated. Occasionally, as an audience, we feel secure in our imaginative understanding of the unfolding story. Most strangely, however, we have not been able to share with Pericles the experience that might have been the climax of the play: we have not heard the music of the spheres.

Perhaps it is somewhat comforting, given our inability to make of Pericles a coherent play and our lack of understanding of one of its crucial episodes, to have a fall-back position in which we remind ourselves that Shakespeare probably took over the authorship of a botched play at about III.i., and that even in writing the remainder he paid scant attention to the sections that did not readily excite his interest; this way we can reject everything except those parts that remind us most of what we think a Shakespearean play should be. This argument, too, gives us authority for imagining the play as something other than it is. If only the music of the spheres occurred at the end of the play, for instance, we could view the play as an allegory of man's progress from earthly passion to divine love and harmony. Or if interludes of peace and harmony did not so prominently figure at the center of the play, we could find satisfying Knight's formula of normality—violent conflict—ritualized, spiritualized order. And if the formula still did not fit Pericles very well, we could say that the author was only practicing to write The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.

But these attitudes (which I have presented only a little unfairly, and which do inform much criticism of Pericles) seem to me to be false to our theatrical experience of the play. That experience, always interesting and occasionally quite moving, is difficult to describe because it cannot be summarized or organized as a unity. Again and again we have seen that events in this play are not linked causally, that Pericles does not suffer because of a tragic flaw or even because of any wrong action. His suffering carries no moral overtones; indeed, it is so painful to see partly because it is (to borrow the phrase A. C. Bradley applied to Desdemona) mere suffering. Lacking causality and motivation, the play's sequence of events denies the coherence of beginning, middle, and end. The culminating spiritual event of Pericles' life is from an aesthetic point of view anti-climactic, and his reconciliation with his wife, though prompted by a goddess, is carried out without the appearance of supernatural harmony. A better or more attentive playwright, we might conclude, would have arranged things more logically. But a perceptive comment by Clifford Leech rings more true to our experience of the play. The ending, he says, “is not truly a point of finality.” Pericles has won no immunity to fortune. “We have the sense of a life-cycle,” Leech goes on, “which can be repeated both in other lives and, in its essentials, in the same life if our vision is extended.”16

What Gower has presented, then, has been a “pattern” (in the sense of a universal or archetypal model) of “painful adventures,” a parable of a life apparently as formless as the sea on which so much of it is lived, alternately wracked by storms and calmed by music, not subject to the false coherence of narrative or dramatic form, but presented, nevertheless, through the powerful magic of a poet musician.17 In this setting, man's best virtue both as actor and as spectator is patience, fortified by faith in the real and eternal harmony underlying and ultimately transcending temporary chaos. The deliberate confrontation of evil and chaos with the formal beauty of art—ceremony, poetry, dance, music—is an act of faith in the victory of harmony over chaos. Gower lets the audience discover that fact, and then sets it free to perform its own act of faith through the exercise of its creative imagination.

Some readers of King Lear—a play whose relationship to Pericles has not yet been adequately examined—find it intolerable to believe that Lear, when his “untun'd and jarring senses” have been restored to order through reunion with his daughter and through the therapeutic use of music, only to be finally destroyed by the most heartless evil of all, does not attain a single glimpse in this world of a transcendent justice and harmony. But audiences who watch and listen hear no music, and see only Lear dead, with the body of Cordelia in his arms. Pericles offers a degree of reassurance. Though man's life is as a lasting storm, there is evidence that harmony is real and unconquerable. Yet in this play, so much of which is concerned with art, particularly music, as an act of faith in harmony in the face of chaos, the audience itself is called upon to participate in an act of faith and imagination, for it must be willing to believe that Pericles has heard the music of the spheres, and yet it is not assured that the painful adventures of the Prince of Tyre have come to an end. We might paraphrase Jesus: “Blessed are they that have not heard, and have believed.” For Pericles requires of us the virtues of its hero—faith in an ultimate harmony, courage and imagination to imitate it as best we can on earth, and patience to wait for its full revelation until the revels are ended.


  1. The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 147.

  2. See, for example, John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Final Comedies (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1961); Gretchen L. Finney, Musical Backgrounds for English Literature: 1580-1650 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962); F. W. Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); Shakespeare in Music, ed. Phyllis Hartnoll (London: Macmillan, 1964).

  3. S. Musgrove, “The First Quarto of Pericles Reconsidered,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (Summer 1978), 406.

  4. I am indebted for method to the brilliant essay by Stephen Booth on another textually (and otherwise) problematic play: “On the Value of Hamlet,” in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama: Selected Papers from the English Institute (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 137-76.

  5. Pericles, revised edition (New York: Penguin, 1977).

  6. The Crown of Life (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 336.

  7. Gower appears this way on the title-page of George Wilkins' The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre (1608). The conventional elements in the presentation of Gower are discussed by Walter F. Eggers, Jr., “Shakespeare's Gower and the Role of the Authorial Presenter,” Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 434-43.

  8. I.Cho.4. All quotations and line numbers are from the McManaway edition cited above.

  9. Some editors interpret the first word of Q's “Musicke bring in our daughter” as a stage direction rather than as a command. The effect of either, from the audience's point of view, is the same: the music does begin at this point, and Antiochus is clearly acting as stage manager.

  10. The Jacobean audience would probably have been quite familiar with this distinction, which, according to Sternfeld's Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, was commonly made in the Renaissance and earlier (p. 227).

  11. See Long, pp. 40-41.

  12. In the scene in which Simonides gives Thaisa to Pericles in marriage, he also refers to the musical entertainment Pericles had provided on the previous evening, saying, “Sir, you are music's master” (II.v.30). Although this passage may be a vestigial remnant of an episode from the real Gower's “Apollonius of Tyre” in which Apollonius gives the princess a music lesson, it is possible that Pericles as acted contained an interlude between II.iii. and II.iv. in which Pericles, represented as being alone in his chamber, plays the lute and sings, to the delight of Simonides, who overhears him. Wilkins' prose version, which was very likely based on the play as performed, contains such a scene. There is certainly charm in the idea that Pericles is himself a musician, and appropriateness in the setting: a gentleman would not perform in public before strangers. If such an interlude is added, the sense of a restoration of peace and harmony through music will be even more pronounced than that I have noted.

  13. The text gives no indication about the song Marina is to sing; it may be that she sings a contemporary popular song instead of one written for the play. In this case my own favorite candidate is “Come, heavy Sleep,” from Dowland's First Book of Ayres (1597). It would be especially appropriate if this song had been sung earlier by Pericles in an interlude following the banquet in II.iii., as I have proposed.

  14. My interpretation of this scene places me in a distinct minority, for most editors interpolate at V.i.225 a stage direction for music. In the New Arden Edition of Pericles, for example (London: Methuen, 1963), F. D. Hoeniger says that the music of the spheres “must be shared by the audience from the beginning, to avoid the absurd impression of Pericles being deluded” (p. 153). In generalizing about instances of celestial music in the Renaissance theater, on the other hand, F. W. Sternfeld concludes that it was played by theater musicians only when it was heard by all characters on stage (p. 246). I argue that everything in the play up to this point directs us toward an interpretation of the music of the spheres as inaudible to everyone but Pericles, in a deliberate temporary alienation of the audience—a daring coup de théâtre, perhaps, but one that is not inconsistent with other strange touches in this odd, possibly experimental play. Some indirect support, moreover, may be found in Inga-Stina Ewbank's convincing argument pointing out that Marina's therapeutic use of language here has provided a “unique demonstration of the power of words,” since Pericles “begins as an apathetic deaf mute and ends up hearing the music of the spheres.” Professor Ewbank concludes that this is “a scene about the readiness to accept the impossible, a scene hinting at knowledge which passes understanding.” (See “‘My name is Marina’: The Language of Recognition,” in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and G. K. Hunter [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980], p. 115, p. 129.) My staging of the scene, I believe, would best convey to the audience that sense of a “knowledge which passes understanding.”

  15. The music to accompany a theophany, unlike music of the spheres, has justification in Shakespearean stage convention. John H. Long observes that the appearance of the supernatural in Shakespeare's plays is usually preceded and accompanied by stage directions for music (p. 47).

  16. “The Structure of the Last Plays,” Shakespeare Survey, 11 (1958), 22.

  17. Others have also recently noted the degree to which Gower's presence organizes and unifies our experience of the play. Eggers, for instance, remarks on his “almost continuous control” (p. 438) and on the fact that his eight appearances give him a more dominant role than any other authorial presenter in an Elizabethan play. In a tantalizing brief summary of a paper given at the 1975 MLA meeting, F. D. Hoeniger is reported to have departed sharply from the Introduction to his own New Arden Edition to argue that “a dramatic decorum for the differences in [the play's] style can be experienced, on the stage at least, once one becomes fully aware of Gower's dominating role from beginning to end.” The summary of the talk, “Gower's Dramaturgy fitfully improved by Shakespeare,” is by David Bevington, in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 19 (1976), 1-2. A promised longer essay by Hoeniger on the subject has to my knowledge not yet appeared.

Thelma N. Greenfield (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Elizabethan play productions, like the inadequacies of Elizabethan play audiences, doubtless have a firmer basis in persistent myth than in historical truth. The popular picture of the Elizabethan actor ranting his lines on a poor bare stage with only his words to provide scenery, sound, and atmosphere hardly agrees with the almost incredible riches recognized elsewhere in Elizabethan life. Actually, in the theater there was much to look at: gorgeously attired actors, the rush-and flower-strewn stage, the richly painted arras, the elegantly decorated “heavens,” and a variety of properties. We know that the actors further occupied the eye with processionals and intricate dances, fencing matches and battles, spectacular ascents and descents from the upper and nether worlds, and with such things as fire and brimstone and disappearing ghosts. And there was much to hear besides the spoken lines: we find directions for peals of ordnance, ringing of bells, thunder, wind, the barking of dogs. We find also extensive use of music and great versatility in its employment. The variety of songs comes first to mind: mad songs, drinking songs, rounds, art songs, street songs, vendors' cries, and so forth. The musical instruments ranged from the various strings of the “broken consort” to drums; from the most impressive wind instruments to the simple rustic pipe; while in the popular theater, the musicians stationed themselves variously in the special chamber constructed for them, on stage with the actors, or “within” or even beneath the stage.

Shakespeare exploited brilliantly the possibilities of enrichment that lay in the use of music. His knowledge of the subject is astonishing, his allusions to it “… more numerous than those in the works of other Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatists, and they are handled with a rare knowledge of the art.”1

Nearly all considerations of Shakespeare's music have emphasized his careful adaptation of music to the moment in the play, although, understandably, more attention has been given to his use of songs than to his nonvocal music. My purpose is to call attention to Shakespeare's use of nonvocal music in several plays representing several periods in his career as playwright: first, the accompaniment with strings of lyrical and philosophical passages in two plays dating presumably from the mid-1590s; second, the signal and ceremonial effects which emphasize the structure and nature of the conflicts of a late tragedy; and, finally, in two plays of Shakespeare's great tragic period, his use of continuities of sounds, not all technically music, which function as a musical reinforcement of various elements in the plays.

Much more than “mood music,” the nonvocal music Shakespeare calls for in certain lyrical and meditative passages unites with both language and action and often relates to character as well. An example here is the famous meditative speech in Richard II, spoken by the King as he consoles himself in prison. What Shakespeare does with the music here is doubtless partly within the Elizabethan habit of mind of “moralizing,” comparable to Jaques “moralizing” the stricken deer, or Touchstone the time of day, or Feste a drunken man, with the phenomenon expanded, philosophized, applied this way and that to human behavior and conditions. As Richard manufactures parallels and figures of speech to express his fallen fortunes, part of the passage (about twenty lines) is accompanied by music and Richard's language turns to musical allusions.2 Although the musician or musicians are not seen, the playing of the music and the sound of the music become part of the dramatic fabric of the play. In terms of the action, the music comes unexpectedly, played to bring solace to the king and followed by the entrance of the still-faithful groom, who perhaps has furnished it. In terms of character, the music provides Richard with more opportunity to be himself: to indulge his impulse to talk, to draw comparisons, to air his artistic sensibility. “Keep time,” he cries irritably when the rhythm falters, and he remarks on his own “daintiness of ear.”3 Picking up the concept of time in music, he continues his everlasting parallels, making the music a part of the play's impressive imagery and turning it to embody the theme of kingship:

And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string;
But, for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;


The King's duty, the needs of his country, Richard's mistakes—the music becomes a point of departure for comment on all of these.5 Richard, impelled here as always to verbalize, goes on for sixteen more lines to speak of time and music, all the while with an actual audible referent for his figures of speech in the music that we hear. Mood, character, action, theme, and imagery all build from the music played in the scene.6 Structurally the scene precedes Richard's death.

Musical imagery has twice before in the play been associated with characters' disappearances from the scene, first with Mowbray's being banished for life; and then with the death of John of Gaunt. These occurrences share certain features. Both times the musical imagery is connected with death. (Although, of course, Mowbray's death does not occur until later, Holinshed mentions it at this point in his account and Shakespeare gives Mowbray, banished forever, the phrase “speechless death” to describe the sentence Richard has pronounced upon him.) Both passages speak of music stilled to express metaphorically the loss of speech. Mowbray in foreign lands will find his tongue thrice useless like “an unstringed viol or a harp, / Or like a cunning instrument cas'd up / Or, being open, put into his hands / That knows no touch to tune the harmony” (I.iii.162-165). Gaunt, dead, has said all, “His tongue is now a stringless instrument; / Words, life, and all, old Lancaster hath spent” (II.i.149-150). In both cases, the lines are addressed to Richard, who both times responds with deliberate cold indifference; the two speeches are wasted words. The statement of Gaunt's death, furthermore, is in the form of a reminder that his words to Richard were always to no avail. That audible music in Richard's prison precedes his death, the stilling of his fluent voice, is an ironic climax to the series of images. It is poetic justice that he thinks here in musical terms of his own wasted past, but these thoughts are now as much wasted as the earlier poignant musical images were lost upon his careless ears. Now, Richard's time, not only wasted, is completely run out; that the music is unannounced and the source of it unseen heightens our sense of its being an omen (like the supernatural music which announces Antony's coming disaster).

Music as a metaphor for speech is especially appropriate in light of Richard's way of insisting on finding eloquent words to capture an understanding of concepts and events. The “audible image” of music at this point in Richard II comes as a culmination of a surprisingly large number of tangible references that support several of the great metaphors of the play: the garden imagery is spoken by gardeners in a garden; Richard actually sifts the dust of England through his fingers as he greets his homeland soil. When he considers his exterior aspect to see what he is when he is no longer king, he literally looks into a mirror. When he capitulates to Henry at Fleet Castle, he reinforces the sun image which expresses his fall from power by descending from the wall as he speaks the line, “Down, down, like glistering Phaeton I come.” (I disagree with editors who mark an exit and re-entry here; it seems to me that Richard descends in full view of the audience.) And the actual playing of music in ill-kept time while Richard thinks of his own wasted time is the last of the series. These scenes are often called symbolic of themes, but I should like to emphasize, too, their relation to Richard's typical response. A valuable effect of this concretizing of the play's important images is to intensify our sense of Richard's peculiar relation to the concrete—his acute awareness of it plus his splendid and fatal impulse to verbalize it and to substitute verbalization for the more practical virtues.

Of something of the same kind is the use of music in the last act of The Merchant of Venice, in the melting love scene of moonlight and lovers' sighs. Here, too, Shakespeare's music becomes a part of the story, partly by expansion of it, partly by reference to what has been going on. Auden's definition of music as presenting “… a virtual image of our experience of living as temporal, with its double aspect of recurrence and becoming” squares well with Shakespeare's use of music to relate to already established elements in the play and to provide a new dimension.7 In Merchant, as is Shakespeare's frequent practice, his characters account for the playing of the music; they comment upon it while it plays; and they finally explicitly bring it to a halt. In Richard the musical theme is time and kingly responsibility; in Merchant it is harmony, universal and human, enforced by associations of music and light. Lorenzo, calling for music, gives us a lyrical philosophical discourse:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.(8)
Come, ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.
                                                                                                              Play music


Moonlight, sweet harmony, the starry heavens, the music of the spheres—we move from the perceived beauties to harmonies too perfect for human apprehension. As the music plays, Lorenzo goes on to speak of the “sweet power of music” and “the concord of sweet sounds” that soothes the wild beast and moves the human mind; he warns against “the man that hath no music in himself” and ends, “Hark the music.”

Like the passage from Richard II, these lines have been the subject of exhaustive commentary. A valuable article by James Hutton places the speeches of Lorenzo in the laudes musicae context of Shakespeare's time and relates the English type to its Continental sources. By tracing the development of the praise of music tradition from the ancients through the Renaissance Neoplatonists, Hutton shows that Lorenzo's discourse “… not only contains traditional topics, but that the arrangement is traditional and one part implies the presence of others—in short that we have here to do with a coherent literary theme that Shakespeare has taken bodily into his play.”9 When Lorenzo moves from the music of the spheres to the human condition, he is following a part of the tradition, for there is a correspondence between the realms. The healthy soul is “harmonious” or “symphonic.”10 In the soul of each man is a small scale equivalent to “… the mightier revolutions in the soul of the world, which are just the paths of the heavenly orbs.”11 Since Shakespeare is writing a play, he can give his philosophical discourse added dimension by having music actually played while the lines are spoken.

Shakespeare's mingling of music and light in this scene is in keeping with the various correspondences worked out by Dante and the Neoplatonists between the nine spheres and the nine orders of angels.12 Light, like music, an emanation of the Divine, is of course inherent in the conception of the music of the spheres and as we are aware of the actual playing of music in the last act of Merchant, we have also a strong illusion of actual moonlight and starlight to which is added the little candle shining from Portia's window. The visual effect comes first, before the music, when the scene is ushered in with “The moon shines bright,” an illusion which is impressed upon us by eight iterations of the phrase “on such a night,” as Jessica and Lorenzo match stories of lovers' nights, ending finally with themselves “on such a night.” Lorenzo also describes the stars, and Portia and Nerissa, entering at a distance, introduce candlelight. Like the music, the light of the candle is connected with human morality: “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” There appear to be inconsistencies in the handling of the elements of light in this scene: although the moon is bright, the stars are out in full force, and the moon itself seems to set and rise again within the space of thirty-five lines.13 But the philosophical significances are consistent.

This scene of soft lyricism, of heavenly music and heavenly lights, perhaps sits oddly in a play that has heretofore dealt largely with merchant vessels, monetary transactions, the city and the law. What do these have to do with the music of the spheres? The particular emphases given in common to both the music and the light help formulate the contrast between Venice and Belmont. The correspondence between music and light and human virtue is one of the main points made by the speakers in this part of the scene. The condition most suitable to perception of music and light is the second important point. Both are better apprehended in the quiet dark: “soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony”; “When the moon shone we did not see the candle”; “Methinks it [music] sounds much sweeter than by day. / Silence bestows that virtue on it …” These and similar lines relate to Lorenzo's discussion of the music of the spheres, which can be heard by immortal souls but not, alas, by the immortal souls of men. The playwright makes this scene itself a distillation of the elements that provide for the best perception of harmonies. If these people caught in the spell of earthly music and moonlit darkness cannot actually hear the heavenly music they are at least profoundly in tune with it. Shakespeare's use of actual music (a string consort) for some forty-two lines is a literal dramatic element of the scene and an auditory symbol of the universal harmonies sensed by human beings in special moments when their perceptions are refined by the proper environment and mood. The commercial world of Venice allows for little perception of that sort.

Our sense of the harsh, busy outside world is kept alive in this episode by other musical sounds. Bassanio's arrival from Venice is announced by a trumpet fanfare which comes as rather startling ten lines after the consort ceases. And before the musicians play for Lorenzo and Jessica, Launcelot, with a message of Bassanio's coming, gallops in, hallooing for half a dozen lines in what is usually interpreted to be an imitation of a post horn.14 These contrasting sounds of music heighten our response to the difference, often noted, between the world of Belmont and the world of Venice.

Sir Israel Gollancz saw this musical scene not as a filler for a fifth act but as extremely important to the play in presenting a vision of human love and universal concord after the inhumanity of the Shylock story.15 That it is enacted in large part by the Jewess Jessica and the Gentile Lorenzo is, he felt, significant. Probably he was right.

In these two plays, then, the music comes late but is not, as I hope I have shown, wholly unrelated to what came earlier in the plays. I shall turn now to a later play in which musical effects, used throughout, point up the dramatic structure. Coriolanus offers an example of Shakespeare's use of that specialized kind of unsung music called upon for signal and ceremonial effects: the drum for the alarum, for the flourish the trumpet; these were indispensable to Elizabethan plays, dealing heavily, as they did, in battle and ceremonial scenes.16 Too often we read absently past the musical directions for flourish, tucket, retreat, sennet, alarum or dead march, without trying to realize what the audience actually heard at that point or without trying to comprehend the total effect of music, words, and movement.

In a sense, Coriolanus is a most unmusical play and the music it has is simple and loud. The play itself, one of the most classically structured of Shakespeare's works, is at the same time one of his noisiest, depicting loud quarrels at home and the rage of battle abroad. Rowdy conflicts dramatize the people's dilemma over the hero, Coriolanus, whom they find intolerable at home but so strong as to be indispensable in foreign affairs. The settings in the play divide into those inside Rome and those outside, as the play moves back and forth between Rome's internal and external troubles. The dramatization of both fighting and victorious jubilation is helped along in large measure by musical effects. The drawn out warfare of Act I (seven scenes of it, according to modern text division) owes much of its impetus and emotional pitch to the drum and trumpet. Their harsh sounds unite with the great warrior voice of Coriolanus himself in a paean to the glory of battle; they tell the story of the losses and gains. There are no less than fourteen directions here for alarum, flourish, parley, retreat, et cetera, no two of them exactly alike, several of them indicating continuous sounding, and all revealing discrimination in the particular effect: for example, distance in “alarum continues still afarre off”; or, as the great generals bare their heads before Coriolanus, a particularly long trumpet flourish; or a cornet (instead of the trumpet) as the Volscian Aufidius enters to reveal his sinister intention to destroy Coriolanus by foul means.

After the fighting, in Act II, numerous indications of sounds of trumpet and cornet mingle with shouts to accompany Coriolanus' triumphal entry into Rome, providing a loud, ironic prelude to his sudden terrible disgrace and banishment. Even louder is the music of celebration when Coriolanus saves Rome in the final act. Here the music reaches a crescendo, playing “full-power” as the Elizabethans would have expressed it. The stage direction is for “trumpets, Hoboyes, Drums beate, altogether,” and the lines describe a host of instruments suggestive of the Elizabethan municipal band:

                                                                                          Why, hark you!
The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries, and fifes,
Tabors and cymbals and the shouting Romans
Make the sun dance.


Here, at the end of the play, Coriolanus has another triumphal entry, now into Antium among the Volscians. “Drummes and trumpets sounds, with great showts of the people”—“Splitting the air with noise,” remarks a disgruntled observer. Doubly ironic is this celebration; for Coriolanus will again quickly become an object of the people's hatred. People of Antium are as fickle as people of Rome, confronted with unvarnished truths of the sort that Coriolanus is always impelled to utter. In a breath, the cries of welcome turn to shouts of “kill, kill,” and this time his enemies accomplish his death. Volumnia has spoken of her son more profoundly than she knew: “Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.”

The play demonstrates particularly careful and discriminating use of musical effects that might seem at first glance purely mechanical. They give us the noise and progress and fervor of battle, the only place where Coriolanus is really at home; musical effects loudly bespeak the formality of the proceedings which are to make Coriolanus a consul and thereby emphasize the people's violent, confused upsetting of that formality; music embodies perfectly the wild hero-worship, so excessive and so brief; it points up the structural repetitions of the play. It suggests the empty, fickle nature of public opinion. That last loud Roman full-power celebration, for example, says much, for the Roman people have solved their dilemma at last. They finally have got it both ways. Their unmanageable savior has preserved Rome and destroyed himself simultaneously. The Romans really have something to celebrate.

In addition to lyrical and ceremonial and battle effects there is a third kind of Shakespearean music which I want to illustrate—perhaps not technically music at all. But to call these powerful continuities of sound simply sound effects is inadequate, for in the usual sense a sound effect is merely the duplication of a noise the audience expects to hear as a result of a particular action or under certain conditions. It is a naturalistic device. Shakespeare, however, though he uses naturalistic sound effects, also employs sound effects with design, a design that is akin to the design and pattern found in music, much the same as is the design of some poetry. When there is design and pattern in the use of nonvocal sound, the use of that sound is under an artistic control more stringent than that exercised over the ordinary naturalistic sound effect, the dramatic employment of which is governed less by the artist than by what is naturally expected by the audience. Shakespeare's use of patterned nonvocal sound, notably in King Lear and Hamlet, transcends the naturalistic and becomes an artistic device in support not only of action but of theme. It is, in its broadest sense, another kind of musical accompaniment.

The most obvious example of these patterned continuities of sound is the storm in King Lear, which continues through four scenes. Less obvious but important is the firing of artillery in Hamlet. Hamlet makes much use of conventional music, too, but I shall give attention to the firing off of cannon, near the beginning and end of the play, both times at Claudius' command.17 In each case, Claudius pretends to be celebrating his approval of Hamlet by drinking toasts and with the sound of cannon. The first time, in the first act, before Hamlet has anything more than an intuition of his uncle's wickedness, Claudius describes his joy and the coming celebration thus:

This gentle and unforc'd accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart; in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the King's rouse the heaven shall bruit again,
Respeaking earthly thunder.


Predominant in the passage is the image of sound rising to the heavens and resounding back again. Two scenes later the described celebration is enacted but off-stage. We hear it, through the stage direction, “A flourish of trumpets and 2. peeces goes of” (Q2), and through Hamlet's description:

The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.


Kettle drum, trumpet, and cannon reappear in the lines and actually sound again, in the final scene of the play, when the crafty Claudius for the last time pretends friendship toward his nephew-son. It is a noisy scene: “Trumpets the while.” Once more the sounds are associated with drink. The stage direction indicates stoups of wine as well as drum and trumpets. Claudius calls for wine; and for Hamlet's successes in the fencing match with Laertes, the King commands:

Let all the battlements their ordnance fire;
                                                  … Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without
The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth,
‘Now the King drinks to Hamlet.’

(V.ii.281, 285-289)

When Hamlet, in the fatal match, makes the first touch, the King drinks and offers a stoup of poisoned wine to him, while the stage direction reads: “Drum, trumpets and shot. Florish, a peece goes off” (Q2). The Prince refuses to drink; Gertrude does it for him to find that she has partaken once too often of the cup Claudius has to offer.

Drinking is important in the play. In the first act it demonstrates Claudius' crude indulgence, described in other terms in the bedroom scene when Hamlet berates his mother for her unbefitting physical passion. In view of the early carousing there is additional irony when, with drink, Claudius, thinking to poison his step-son, accidentally poisons his wife, reveals publicly his own villainy, and dies with Hamlet forcing that final toast of his own preparation down his throat. The importance and similarity of both drinking episodes are loudly signalized not only by the usual drum and trumpet but by the firing of cannon as well. That the sound of the cannon is described both times as rising to the heavens and then returning to earth suits the many things in the play that take flight only to fall back upon their source: “purposes mistook / Fall'n on th'inventors' heads,” as Horatio says of Claudius' last coup; or the prayers of Claudius which refuse to rise along with the empty words; or the machinations of Polonius, who is stabbed while at his pet practice of eavesdropping, or the deaths of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, who are executed by the letters they themselves carry, or Laertes, caught “as a woodcock to mine own springe.” In keeping with the cannon, the most famous of these images of plans backfiring is the military one of the “enginer hoist with his own petar,” the planter of an explosive mine becoming his own victim.

Although much of Hamlet is dramatized in terms of a secret family struggle, there are many references to national military activities throughout. In the background are the battles and warlike appearance of the elder Hamlet, the hasty military preparations of Denmark—casting of “brazen cannon,” building of ships, trafficking in “implements of war”—and always there are the restless goings-on of militant young Fortinbras. At Hamlet's death, Fortinbras comes to the front, heralded in the stage directions by sounds of shot and the approaching drum. The last words of the play, as Prince Hamlet's body is borne out, are, “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” The play ends with a dead march and one last “peale of ordenance.”

Emphasis and structure, the delineation of character, the nature of the conflict, and the theme of destiny unexpectedly shaping ends regardless of the engineer's intentions, these things in the play are underscored by the literal firing of artillery in Hamlet. The unretarded upward movement of the flights of angels bringing Hamlet to his final rest sets him as a character apart from those others who have received unexpected returns from the heavens and brings release from the ironically circular motion of many of the actions and images of the play.

One last example, from Macbeth, of music not technically music. One of the most decisive and dramatically effective episodes in Macbeth is not enacted on stage. I speak of the murder of Duncan, which although not seen, towers in importance and horror above the murders of Banquo and Macduff's child, both done on stage. There are many reasons why this is so. But a major contribution to the power of this “scene”—which the audience imagines but does not see—is a hair-raising death symphony, some of it heard and some of it not, which is played as the murder proceeds in our imagination. The sequence begins and ends with the ringing of a bell, the first a soft but inexorable summons:

I go, and it is done. The bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.


Macbeth is the one summoned to hell. The little bell has decided his future in this life and in the next. As Macbeth performs his bloody act off stage, Lady Macbeth stands on stage straining to hear some sound. We listen with her, surely the tensest scene in Shakespeare. The concern is almost exclusively with sound. The tension tightens, relaxes, tightens again through a variety of heard and described sounds: night creatures, several speakers, real and unreal. Lady Macbeth, listening, exclaims:

                                        Hark! Peace!
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night.


From off stage, Macbeth's voice interrupts the silence at the very time when he should be most quiet. We hear him call out, “Who's there? What, ho!” When he reappears, he barely mentions the accomplished murder before demanding, “Did'st thou not hear a noise?” His wife replies, “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. / Did you not speak?” Macbeth echoes her earlier “Hark!” He then begins to rehearse the performance of the murder, mostly, we notice, in terms of sounds of voices, first human: a laugh, a cry, a prayer, and his own terrifying inability to answer “amen” when the sleepers “did say ‘God bless us!’”—then of the hallucinatory speaker who cries,

                               … ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house;
‘Glamis hath murther'd sleep …’


As Macbeth's attention turns at last from the sounds he has heard to the color he sees on his hands, there finally comes a noise from the outside. The pounding at the gate begins—the stage direction repeated nine times—as if the heavens themselves, moved by Duncan's murder, were demanding retribution; and in a sense they are, for the knocker is Macduff, Macbeth's ultimate destroyer. When Macduff discovers the murdered body of Duncan he calls for the alarm to be rung and the sequence ends as it began, with a bell, but this bell is loud, “… a hideous trumpet [calling] to parley / The sleepers of the house,” and signalling the commencement of the reign of terror which will last until Macduff bears in Macbeth's severed head to announce “the time is free.”19

To enact the unseen murder Shakespeare has depended mainly on aural effects, sounds of omen and prophecy, of death, heaven and hell, of summons and alarm.20 The most frightening of all, however, is the most ordinary of all, Macduff's persistent knocking at the gate to waken Duncan. Macduff comes from the normal, ordinary world that expects Duncan to be alive that morning. Macduff embodies the ordinary virtues of the world: decency, love of family, country, king and fellow men and he will be the world's agent for expelling the dark passions, obsessions, and aberrations of the play's hero. The sound of his knock is a clearer prophecy than all the witches' riddling but it comes at a time when we have so far accepted Macbeth's world of blood-stained hands and visionary daggers that the normality it represents seems terrible, nearly unbearable. We are almost at one here with Macbeth's “How is it with me when every noise appals me?” The intensity of our identification with Macbeth's horror is achieved by our hearing either actually or in imagination the sounds that he hears, sounds which in their arrangement follow the pattern of the crime, moving from soft summons to prophetic noises of the night, from sleepy voices to cries of protest, loud knocking and clamorous alarm. That Macbeth hears cries unheard by others, that every noise does appall him, is a kind of reversal of the music of the spheres, unheard because we are too sinful. Macbeth can hear this death music because he is so steeped in guilt.

Examination of these five plays shows that in four of them Shakespeare uses musical effects especially toward the end. In the earlier dramas he accompanies lines of dialogue with conventional music, which is introduced into the statement of the play in what we might call in general an illustrative function. In the later plays studied here, the music, made from less likely materials, becomes a language of its own, structured, and telling the story in its own way. Thus, when we hear music in a Shakespearean play we are very likely to hear it (in a manner of speaking) twice, because in addition to the actual sound of music, the language of the play reiterates and shapes it. We form an intellectual conception of the sound beyond our initial apprehension, and we see it further in dramatic operation—in a large structural embracement in at least one play—sometimes with greater emphasis upon theme, and sometimes with its significance apparently limited to a given scene, though even there one can suspect larger applications.


  1. Frederick W. Sternfeld, “The Dramatic and Allegorical Function of Music in Shakespeare's Tragedies,” Annales Musicologiques, III (1955), 265.

  2. For identification and explanation of the musical terms in this passage see Edward W. Naylor's excellent discussion in Shakespeare and Music (London, 1896), pp. 32-33.

  3. Sternfeld suggests that perhaps the music played at this point should not actually falter, but falters only in Richard's imagination. Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1963), p. 202.

  4. Quotations from Shakespeare's plays are from the Kittredge edition (Boston, 1936), except where references to F and Q stage directions seems advisable.

  5. W. H. Auden explains the upshot of the passage thus: “Since music, the virtual image of time, takes actual time to perform, listening to music can be a waste of time, especially for those, like kings, whose primary concern should be for the unheard music of justice.” “Music in Shakespeare: Its Dramatic Use in His Plays,” Encounter, IX (Dec. 1957), 36.

  6. This passage is often discussed in conjunction with the reconciliation scene in King Lear: Richard exclaims, “This music mads me … / For though it hath holp madmen to their wits, / In me, it seems it will make wise men mad.” See G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, 3rd ed. (London, 1951), pp. 360-361, and Foster Provost, “On Justice and Music in Richard II and King Lear,Annuale Mediaevale, Duquesne Studies II (1961), 55-71.

  7. Op. cit., p. 33.

  8. After line 65, Kittredge inserts the stage direction, “Enter Musicians.

  9. “Some English Poems in Praise of Music,” English Miscellany, X (1951), 3. He adds that Puritan attacks on music, especially instrumental, lent a special impulse to the English poems de laudibus musicae.

  10. Leo Spitzer, “Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word Stimmung,Traditio, II (1944), 421. Spitzer sees a musical connection between Shylock and Chaucer's “Prioress' Tale.”

  11. John Burnet, “Shakespeare and Greek Philosophy,” in Essays and Addresses (London, 1930), p. 164.

  12. See Hutton, pp. 23-25. E. M. W. Tillyard believes that Shakespeare here refers not to the spheres in general but specifically to the Starry Firmament, the particular sphere of the Cherubim. The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1948), pp. 38-39.

  13. The new Arden editor attempts to solve the problem by interpreting the sleeping moon to mean Jessica or as an extension of “How sweet the moonlight sleeps …,” p. 131, note to lines 109-110. He does not, however, explain Nerissa's earlier “When the moon shone …”

  14. The new Arden editor (p. 127, note to line 39) identifies his noise as hunting cries. I think Launcelot's “… there's a post come from my master, with his horn full of good news …” (lines 46-47), very likely supports the post horn interpretation.

  15. Allegory and Mysticism in Shakespeare: A Medievalist onThe Merchant of Venice” (London, 1931).

  16. Military music on the Elizabethan stage is treated in Paul A. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley, 1956).

  17. Sternfeld discusses this aspect of the play in Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 210-212.

  18. Roy Walker comments on the bell sequence, taking it back to Duncan's first appearance (I.ii), which is preceded by “Alarum within.” The Time Is Free: A Study of Macbeth (London, 1949), p. 76. There, however, the word alarum refers to a drum roll and I think is no more related to the bell sequence than the trumpet flourish which begins I.v, or the “hautboys” that announce Duncan's arrival at Inverness.

  19. G. R. Elliott in his Dramatic Providence in Macbeth (Princeton, N.J., 1960), p. 85, connects the “hideous trumpet” with the Doomsday trumpet.

  20. Webster's mention of bell and “Scritch-Owl, and the whistler shrill” in connection with the death of the Duchess of Malfi is worth comparing here. F. P. Wilson connects the bell to a certain public practice instituted in 1605 for condemned prisoners of Newgate: “Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama” in R. J. Kaufmann, ed., Elizabethan Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism (New York, 1961), p. 19; reprinted from Wilson, Elizabethan and Jacobean (Oxford, 1945).

Catherine M. Dunn (essay date autumn 1969)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 modern critics see the music as a specifically dramatic device. There are numerous studies of this kind, ranging from Richmond Noble's discussion of the use of song for revealing character or furthering the plot2 to Caroline Spurgeon's comments on the musical imagery.3 Some, like Edward J. Dent,4 describe the instruments Shakespeare must have required for certain scenes or effects, while John H. Long attempts to trace the actual music used or to suggest substitutes suitable for contemporary performance.5 But until quite recently there has been insufficient attention given to Shakespeare's relation to the complex musical ideology of his time.6 Because the Romances incorporate so much of this philosophy, a survey of some of the basic concepts is a necessary preface to any consideration of the plays themselves.

In the compendia of Renaissance thought, music played a vital role. As J. M. Nosworthy explains it, “The place of music in the Elizabethan scheme of things [was] … not simply as a diversion but as an act of faith, and as something no less essential to the overall pattern than the concepts of degree, the body politic, the elements and humours, and the like.”7 This cosmological view was based to a considerable extent on concepts derived from the Greek philosophers, notably Pythagoras and Plato, and later syncretized by Boethius and the Christian philosophers. Pythagoras was especially influential. As a result of his experiments in applying mathematical principles to music, he formulated the fundamental notion of perfect and imperfect consonance. To him also should be attributed the theory of the music of the spheres.

Closely related to these concepts was the tripartite division of music formulated by Boethius in the early sixth century, but accepted as canonical well into the sixteenth. According to his scheme, there were three branches of music: musica mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis. By musica mundana Boethius meant the order and proportion of the heavens and the elements, both in their properties and in their movements—the “harmony of the universe”, as seen, for example, in the rhythm of the seasons and the music of the spheres. It is as part of this concept that the myths relating the power of music to control material objects and elemental forces first appeared. Thus Orpheus is fabled to have had such skill in song as to be able to animate lifeless objects and tame wild beasts; Amphion supposedly erected the walls and towers of Thebes from scattered stones which flew into place; and Arion was said to have calmed the sea and charmed a dolphin into carrying him on his back to safety.

By musica humana Boethius denoted the rapport existing between the parts of the body and the faculties of the soul, particularly the reason, a relationship which paralleled cosmic music in causing a blending of the body's elements. This concept gave rise to the notion of “temperament”, based on the effects of the harmonious or inharmonious “tuning” of the four humours, the three parts of the soul, or the soul and the body. Such a belief provided both public as well as private reasons for the importance given to the study of musica instrumentalis8 in the education of the Renaissance gentleman. For by imitating in the musica instrumentalis the ideal order of the musica mundana, man might again achieve the perfection of musica humana which had been impaired by the Fall. Thus music was the key to gaining a harmony among the contradictory aspects of the personality.

This led to important ethical and political implications, for, by extension of the thought, the state and society also would prosper only when the various elements were progressing in rhythmic concord, or, in the words of Bruce Pattison, “when the different interests in it danced to a common tune.”9 It is this attitude which underlies most of the discussion on music in the courtesy books.

There was one further theory about musica humana that generated considerable medical and psychological lore: the widespread belief in music's curative powers. This concept was derived ultimately from the Greek theory of ethos, which ascribed to each of the various modes a distinctive character capable of producing specific and unique emotional effects.10 Certain of these modes, often the lower pitched ones, were said to have therapeutic value. Thus Sir John Davies in Orchestra, or a Poeme of Dauncing (1596) addresses “sweet Musicke” as “the soft mind's Paradice, the sicke mind's leach”. But the most extensive Renaissance treatment of the subject was that of Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Citing from classical and Biblical sources, Burton asserts that:

Musica est mentis medicina mœstæ … affecting … the very arteries, the vital and animal spirits; it erects the mind, and makes it nimble … This it will effect in the most dull, severe, and sorrowful souls, expel grief with mirth, and if there be any clouds, dust, or dregs of care yet lurking in our thoughts, most powerfully it wipes them all away. … [It] doth extenuate fears and furies, appeaseth cruelty, abateth heaviness. … In a word, it is so powerful a thing that it ravisheth the soul. … Scaliger … gives a reason for these effects, because the spirits about the heart take in that trembling and dancing air into the body, are moved together, and stirred up with it, or else the mind, as some suppose, harmonically composed, is roused up at the tunes of musick.

Later in the same section Burton mentions several Christian parallels:

Who hath not heard how David's harmony drove away the evil Spirits from King Saul, 1 Sam. 16; and Elisha, when he was much troubled by importunate Kings, called for a Minstrel, and, when he played, the hand of the Lord came upon him, 2 Kings 3.11

This quotation also reflects the Renaissance practice of attempting to give Biblical justification to the classical theories. There were, of course, some in this era who rejected the entire notion of iatric music. But for the most part belief in music's fabled ability to manipulate human behavior formed an important aspect of music's role in the general cosmological scheme.

Shakespeare makes considerable use of music in the comedies and tragedies. Many of these references are to practical music and are quite conventional. In fact, music is frequently regarded just as a regular part of human activity. However a definite use of the principles of speculative music occurs in the comedies and tragedies. For example, in The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo alludes to the music of the spheres:

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

(V. i. 60-65)

Elsewhere he describes the power of music over brute creation:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood.
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music.

(V. i. 71-79)

And in Richard II, the King is referring to the medical powers of musica humana when he says:

This music mads me, let it sound no more,
For though it have holp mad men to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.

(V. v. 61-63)

These are some of the more important allusions to speculative music; others appear also as relatively isolated examples.12 However, in the Romances Shakespeare makes much more consistent use of the theoretical aspects. Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and especially The Tempest reveal a world which operates largely according to Neoplatonic principles. This world is like a gigantic instrument upon which the gods play. When it is in tune, there is peace and harmony; when it is “dis-tempered”, or out of tune, there is discord and disorder. And the final transformation and reconciliation of the characters is frequently effected by music, just as it is usually paralleled or symbolized by changes in the physical universe and in the accompanying music.

In Pericles, apparently the first of the romances to be written, the references are chiefly to musica humana, although one celebrated instance of musica mundana does occur. The allusions to musica humana are of two types. The simpler ones are concerned with the notion of temperament, i.e. with the harmonious or inharmonious tuning of the bodily elements and humours to produce a certain character. The others deal with the power of music to achieve physical and psychological cures.

The first mention of “temperament” occurs at I. i. 81-85. Having resolved the riddle given him by Antiochus, Pericles says in an aside:

You are a fair viol and your sense the strings,
Who, fingered to make man his lawful music,
Would draw Heaven down and all the gods to hearken,
But being played upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.

There is the obvious sexual pun. But in addition Pericles is saying that because of her unruly passions the daughter is “out of tune” or lacking in proper concord; as such she is comparable to disordered viol music. For the viol, and the string instruments generally, most often symbolized order and harmony; therefore a discordant viol—as a fair but incestuous daughter—is doubly to be condemned.

A second very brief example occurs later in the same scene. Antiochus remarks to Pericles:

Yet hope, succeeding from so fair a tree
As your fair self, doth tune us otherwise.


That is to say, hope changes his “temperament”; it achieves a different harmony and causes him to be merciful and generous. This attitude is only feigned by Antiochus, but the theoretical basis is not therefore denied.

In the same vein is the question of Lysimachus in V. i. 27: “Upon what ground is his [Pericles'] distemperature?” Such a question gives evidence of just how completely the Neo-Platonic theories of speculative music had permeated Elizabethan life, for Pericles' madness is spoken of in musical terms. The implication behind the question is that the madness results from a constitutional or psychological imbalance, and that therefore he may be said to be “dis-tempered”, or out of tune.

Based on a similar rationale are two quotations which refer to Marina. Gower states in the Chorus to Act IV that she has been trained in music and is the wonder of all (7-11). In Act V he adds that

She sings like one immortal, and she dances
As goddesslike to her admired lays.


However, since Marina has never “disordered” her soul, the study of music has helped to maintain the harmony of her being, her musica humana. Her ability as performer is just further proof that she is “in perfect tune” with the musica mundana, the ideal and ordered perfection of the universe.

There are several instances of music used for physical and psychical therapy. The first mention occurs in II. iii. 90-95. Simonides, noting that Pericles is moody and silent, calls on dancing as a remedy:

Now, by the gods, I pity his misfortune,
And will awake him from his melancholy,
Come, gentlemen, we sit too long on trifles,
Even in your armors, as you are addressed,
Will very well become a soldier's dance.

His dependence on dancing—and of course the inseparable music—is natural because he believes that dancing enables one to participate in the universal order of the musica mundana, and will therefore induce a corresponding order in the dancer. This is to effect a “cure”, since disharmony of being is illness, but harmony is health.

In his credence, Simonides—and Shakespeare—is echoing a very definite tradition. Sir John Davies had defended dancing in parallel arguments in Orchestra. And later Robert Burton was to attribute this power to music in general:

But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine Musick, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, it is a sovereign remedy against Despair and Melancholy, and will drive away the Devil himself.13

So Simonides is simply relying on a proven method of curing Pericles of his “disharmony”. That he succeeds is only implied, though the audience would certainly have had no doubts.

Much more spectacular are the events in III. ii. Cerimon, a man noted as a scholar of the “secret art of physic” and by his own statement familiar with “the disturbances / That nature works, and of her cures” (37-38), calls for music to revive the supposedly dead Thaisa:

The rough and woeful music that we have,
Cause it to sound, beseech you.
The viol once more. How thou stirr'st, thou block!
The music there!


It is quite possible that Shakespeare was simply combining and expanding several current notions. For Renaissance thinkers made much of the correspondences between the systole and diastole of the human hearbeat and the alternation of upbeat and downbeat in musical rhythm. They were already convinced of music's therapeutic value, and they were also aware of the phenomenon of sympathetic vibration in two perfectly attuned strings. Therefore, a plausible Renaissance explanation for the “miracle” could argue that the “rough” music called for meant strongly rhythmic music, that its tempo approximated the pulse beat of Thaisa's heart, and that by means of sympathetic vibration her heart began to beat again. Thus the viol, the symbol of order and harmony, induced the order and harmony of life once more into Thaisa's being.14 The “fire and cloths” were necessary because Thaisa would have been in her winding sheet and would have been chilled from the ocean. But it seems clear that the chief restorative is the music.

It is important to note that Shakespeare relies heavily on speculative music at the climax of the play. Thus in addition to its basic function of adding a philosophical framework for the plot, music also serves as a dramatic device to intensify the climax of the action, and as a unifying device, since most of the major episodes leading to the climax are in some way concerned with Platonic musical theory.

Shakespeare also prepares for the climax with several instances of speculative music. Beginning in the first scene of Act V, Pericles is once again “distempered”. Lysimachus sends for Marina, that “with her sweet harmony” she may “make a battery through his deafened parts, / Which now are midway stopped” (45-48). When she arrives, he promises her:

If that thy prosperous and artificial feat
Can draw him but to answer thee in aught,
Thy sacred physic shall receive such pay
As thy desires can wish.


After this Marina sings. Since her soul has never been “disordered”, her music is in perfect harmony with the musica mundana. Thus her song is able to penetrate Pericles' trance-like state and to draw his attention.15 Having thus initiated his recovery with music, Marina continues her “cure” by speaking to him. That it was her “sacred physic” which was effective is attested to by Pericles in the lines:

                                                                                Oh, come hither,
Thou that begett'st him that did thee beget.


It is worth noting at this point that song was considered by the Greeks to be the most perfect form of music, since, according to Aristotle's De anima (420b-421a), it was rational music, i.e. music produced by a “sounding instrument with a soul”, and ordered by language. Consequently, it was the most potent therapy. This led the Renaissance theorists to strive to achieve the perfect union of the two arts that had supposedly been the attainment of Greece. Even as early as 1516 Sir Thomas More (Utopia, Book II) evaluates the quality of music according to this standard of music-text union. Speaking of the Utopians he says:

But in one thinge doubtles they goo exceding farre beyonde us. For all their musike bothe that they playe upon instrumentes, and that they singe with mannes voyce dothe so resemble and expresse naturall affections, the sound and tune is so applied and made agreable to the thing, that whether it bee a prayer, or els a dytty of gladnes, of patience, of trouble, of mournynge, or of anger; the fassion of the melodye dothe so represente the meaning of the thinge, that it dothe wonderfully move, stirre, pearce and enflame the hearers myndes.

And later, in the Preface to Psalmes, Sonets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588), William Byrd states, “There is not any other Musicke of Instruments whatsoever comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men. …”

At the actual dramatic climax it is interesting that Shakespeare presents the only example of musica mundana, almost as if by positioning it here he is suggesting a solution to Man's problems. Pericles has just been healed of his madness, for (to paraphrase a 1525 gloss to the Orpheus myth)16 “thys Marina by the swetnesse of her singing hath broght his soule into the rule of reson.” When his soul is in perfect tune with the universal order, and only then, Pericles hears the music of the spheres.

                                                                                I embrace you.
Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But, hark, what music?
Tell Helicanus, my Marina, tell him
O'er, point by point, for yet he seems to doubt
How sure you are my daughter. But what music?
My lord, I hear none.
The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.
It is not good to cross him. Give him way.
Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
                                                            My lord, I hear. [Music.]
Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto listening, and thick slumber
Hangs upon mine eyes. Let me rest.

(V. i. 223-236)

The line “I am wild in my beholding” could refer to Pericles' unkempt appearance, and most critics seem to regard it so. However, it could also indicate that Pericles is in a state of near-mystical rapture, which would be appropriate to his hearing the music of the spheres and to the vision of Diana which follows. This interpretation is not so far-fetched as it might at first seem. The Oxford English Dictionary lists as early variants for “beholding” the meanings, “images”, “spectre”, and “vision”. While the literary documentation is slight, this general meaning could possibly be applicable here—in fact, it would be quite appropriate, considering the presence of musica mundana and the succeeding vision of Diana. Nor is the notion of “visions” without parallel. Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream (V. i. 4-6) observes:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The instances cited in the preceding discussion cannot be dismissed simply as convenient, conventional allusions or as sensational theatricality. They follow too specifically the Neoplatonic notions of music's nature and function: the idea of temperament in reference to the harmony of body and soul; Marina's perfect virtue symbolized in her musical skill; the power of music to cure sickness and madness or to raise the dead to life. By their very number these examples combine to provide an intrinsic philosophical basis for the action.

There are fewer references to music in Cymbeline, and of these one can be treated cursorily. For Belarius' “ingenious instrument” (IV. ii. 188), despite its intriguing curiousness, must be considered in the realm of musica instrumentalis as having the simple function of drawing attention to an important dramatic episode and highlighting its pathos. As such it is outside the concern of this discussion. However, the lovely song, “Hark, Hark, the Lark”, and the music of the aubade in II.iii are at least suggestive of the notion of musica humana, for Cloten hopes that they will “tune” Imogen to a more favorable aspect. He says:

I would this music would come. I am advised to give her music o' mornings. They say it will penetrate. [Enter Musicians.] Come on. Tune. If you penetrate her with your fingering, so. We'll try with tongue too. If none will do, let her remain, but I'll never give o'er. First, a very excellent good-conceited thing; after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich words to it; and then let her consider.


While Cloten himself seems to place little credence in the power of music to manipulate human emotions, he is nevertheless relying on someone else's belief. The “very excellent good-conceited thing”, because of its elaboration and probable lightness, would be expected to move Imogen to joyous spirits, while the “wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich words to it” would aim at a dual influence—the text to appeal to her reason, the tune to her emotions. These ideas form the tradition behind the aubade. That the music fails in its purpose is undoubtedly due to Cloten's misdirected motives.

A possible passing reference to musica humana is found in IV.ii at line 48, when Aviragus comments of Fidele, “How angel-like he sings!” It will be remembered that Marina's singing also was compared to that of a supernatural being. Again the implication seems to be that the virtuous Imogen is in such harmony with the universe that she echoes the singing of the angelic intelligences which govern the spheres.

The solemn music accompanying the vision has several functions. As an instance of musica instrumentalis it provides a background for the dumb show that is the first part of the apparition and also emphasizes in the usual manner the supernatural element. But there is the further suggestion of musica mundana throughout the whole scene. Posthumus is overcome with guilt; his conscience is “fettered” and he beseeches the gods to give him “the penitent instrument to pick that bolt” (8-10). There is apparently a pun on “instrument”. In one sense, it refers to a tool or device, i.e. the grace of true penitence which will free his conscience. But it also suggests a musical instrument and by association the theories of music's powers to heal the disordered soul, in this case by inducing penitence. It is after this that the vision occurs. Posthumus, having become “penitent” enough to seek “penitence”, is now in a favorable state to commune with the supernatural, an idea symbolized by the solemn music.

Another hint of musica mundana occurs at the very end of the play. The various characters have come to wisdom through their sufferings and are at last reconciled. There is once again political, social, and personal order. At this point Philarmonus (meaning “lover of harmony”), the soothsayer, observes:

The fingers of the powers above do tune
The harmony of this place.

(V. v. 466-467)

What he is saying is basic Platonic doctrine: the world is but an instrument upon which the gods play. When it is in tune, there is “the harmony of this peace”.17

The Winter's Tale is unique among the romances in that all but two of the musical allusions are concentrated in two closely related scenes and all but one are instances of practical music. However, the lone example of musica humana at Hermione's “resurrection” in V.iii is given great emphasis because of its dramatic position as the climax of the play. In this respect it exactly parallels the other romances, thus emphasizing again a basic function of the music—to intensify both dramatically and philosophically the moments of highest tension. To ensure the effectiveness of this final scene, the disclosure in scene ii of Perdita's true identity and the subsequent reconciliation are only narrated. Then Paulina's long preparation skillfully builds up the feeling of suspense and magic until the actual transformation is signalled by the music:

                                                                                                    Music, awake her, strike! [Music]
'Tis time, descend, be stone no more, approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I'll fill your grave up. Stir—nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs.


The use of music here could be considered also as a typical use of musica instrumentalis to underscore a dramatic climax. But it is, of course, as an example of music's restorative powers that it gains its chief importance. Just as Cerimon depended on music to revive Thaisa in Pericles, so Paulina calls for it to “awaken” Hermione.18 She relies on the credence of Leontes and the others who assume it is a statue and not a spectacular trick.19 Were this notion of music as cure not a firmly entrenched tenet of current Renaissance philosophy, this credence would not be possible.

Like Marina and Imogen, Perdita also can sing and dance superbly. However she is not specifically associated with the supernatural (i.e. angels and goddesses) as they were. Florizel rhapsodizes about her (IV.iv.135-146), but the viewpoint of the passage is that of a young lover finding perfection in his beloved. This tends to offset any possible suggestion of musica humana, that Perdita's ability in music is a reflection of her ordered soul. She is, of course, continually pictured as virtuous and fair, but the Platonic concept does not seem to underlie the characterization.20

In The Tempest music is woven into the very fabric of the play. It contributes to the dramatic unity, to the setting and characterization, to the pageantry, and especially to the symbolism. In no other play does Shakespeare make it such a dominant element.

The obvious function of much of the music is practical, although there are often overtones of Neoplatonic theory.21 For instance, the snatch and the bawdy song of Stephano in II. ii are apparently rather typical examples of musica instrumentalis:

          [Enter Stephano, singing, a bottle in his hand]
                                        “I shall no more to sea, to sea,
                              Here shall I die ashore—”
This is a very scurvy tune to sing at a man's funeral.
Well, here's my comfort.          [Drinks. Sings.]
          “The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
                    The gunner, and his mate,
          Loved Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
                    But none of us cared for Kate.
                    For she had a tongue with a tang,
                    Would cry to a sailor, Go hang!
She loved not the savor of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch.
                    Then, to sea, boys, and let her go hang!”
This is a scurvy tune too, but here's my comfort.


Fulfilling a practical purpose, the music adds color and comedy to Stephano's entrance. But the words also reveal his gross nature, suggest a rowdy “disordered” type of tune, and prepare for the later disclosure that he is an element of disharmony on the island. This is also evidenced by Caliban's drunken “howl”, which even Trinculo recognizes to be the unmusical noise of a monster:

“Farewell, master, farewell, farewell!”
A howling monster, a drunken monster!

(II. ii. 182-183)

Still more disordered is the attempt by the three to sing a catch, the simplest kind of part-song:

Thou makest me merry, I am full of pleasure.
                    Let us be jocund. Will you troll the catch
                    You taught me but whilere?
At thy request, monster, I will do reason, any reason.—
                    Come on, Trinculo, let us sing.
[Sings.] “Flout 'em, and scout 'em,
                              And scout 'em and flout 'em.
                              Thought is free.”
That's not the tune.
                    [Ariel plays the tune on a tabor and pipe.]
What is this same?
This is the tune of our catch, played by the picture of Nobody.

(III. ii. 125-136)

Coupled with the practical function is an apparent hint at speculative music's theory of temperament. For as they cannot sing individually, so they cannot sing in concert. As there is chaos in their individual lives, there will be confusion and failure in their joint conspiracy to murder Prospero. The notion is implicit in the music, though at this point it is mainly a foreshadowing.22

Functioning with more explicit overtones of Neoplatonic theory is the musica instrumentalis for the wedding masque in IV. i, which was evidently intended primarily as a compliment to the Princess Elizabeth and the Elector of the Palatinate. It was noted earlier that when the musica instrumentalis reflects the musica mundana, the harmony achieved partakes of the divine order of the universe. This idea might be operating here to make possible the appearance of the goddesses. If this is the case, when Prospero later tells Ferdinand and Miranda,

Hush, and be mute,
Or else our spell is marred. …


he is warning them that talking would produce a discordant note and destroy the harmony necessary for the vision.

The entrances of Iris, Ceres, and Juno are followed by the wedding hymn (“Honor, riches, marriage blessing”, 106-117). This song could probably be accounted simply as musica instrumentalis were it not that it, too, at least suggests echoes of musica mundana. For here Juno, the goddess of marriage, and Ceres, the goddess of fertile fields, join in harmony to bless Ferdinand and Miranda, whose lives are characterized by the harmony of love. Then the blessing is paralleled by a dance of Naiads, water nymphs who are guardian goddesses of marriage, and reapers, the mortal servants of Ceres. Their dance seems a kind of wedding of human and divine set to the rhythm of the seasons. The music thus symbolizes the perfect macrocosm-microcosm relationship so praised by Renaissance theorists.23

Numerous references to musica humana occur throughout the play. Two of these are too brief for extended analysis, and so may be grouped together. In Act I, Prospero tells Miranda that Antonio “set all hearts i' the state / To what tune pleased his ear …” (I. ii. 84-85). This statement equates the state with an instrument which Antonio makes play at will, a common sixteenth-century image. As John Hollander states, “An intermediary stage between microcosm and macrocosm … was that of the body politic. The political aspects of musical speculation involved [the notion of] the State treated as a harmonious organism” (p. 47).

And secondly, in IV. i. 132-133, Iris commands:

Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love.

The nymphs are summoned to perform the dance because they are “in tune”, i.e. their souls and bodies are in harmony. This should be compared with the fact that Venus and Cupid are not invited, because they, being ruled by passion, would therefore bring discord to the scene.

The other references in the early acts are predominantly concerned with music's power to control human behavior. It is by this means that Ferdinand, having been separated from his father and comrades by Prospero's magic, is led to shore. Ariel, joined by various spirits, plays (probably a lute) and sings “Come unto these yellow sands” (I. ii. 376-386). After this Ferdinand expresses the ideas of musica humana quite specifically:

Where should this music be? I' th' air or th' earth?
It sounds no more, and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o' th' island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air. Thence I have followed it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.


Ariel continues to play,24 calming Ferdinand's grief and bringing him to Miranda. There, enchanted by the music, he addresses Miranda as: “Most sure, the goddess / On whom these airs attend!” (421-422) The music affects Miranda as well, and is responsible for their falling so quickly in love.

A second episode of musical importance occurs in Act II, scene i. Again Ariel plays, but this time it is solemn music which brings sleep to everyone but Antonio and Sebastian. The scene raises the question: why does the music not affect Antonio and Sebastian? (“Why doth it not then our eyelids sink?” 200-201.) There is perhaps an answer. Gonzalo, the most “innocent” of the group is one of the first to succumb. Alonzo, guilty of serious sin but coming to repentence through suffering, responds last. But Antonio and Sebastian still are prone to evil. The disordered state of their souls makes them remain unmoved by the music. Later Ariel must return to waken the sleepers before the would-be murderers accomplish their plot (300-305). He sings in Gonzalo's ear, again probably because he is the most “innocent”, the most “harmonious temperament” of the group.

The strange banquet in Act III, scene iii, also provides examples of musica humana. After line 17 “solemn and strange music” is indicated. Alonzo asks, “What harmony is this? My good friends, hark!” To which Gonzalo adds, “Marvelous sweet music!” After “several strange Shapes” have brought in the banquet, Ariel appears like a harpy:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny—
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in 't(25)—the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you. And on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit—you 'mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad. …


When Ariel finishes his rebuke, the Shapes re-enter to “soft music” and carry out the table. Prospero then comments on the results:

                                                                                          My high charms work,
And these mine enemies are all knit up
In their distractions. They are now in my power,
And in these fits I leave them while I visit
Young Ferdinand. …


This episode provides another instance of music's power to control human behavior. But it would seem to contradict the important belief that music is a remedy to disordered minds, for here music is used as a distraction not a remedy.26 The most plausible solution is probably to be derived from the Greek notion of ethos. Just as certain modes were considered to be ennobling or relaxing, so others were conducive to wildness and irrationality.

The play's most dramatic presentation of speculative music occurs in Act V, again at the climax, as in the other Romances. When Prospero breaks the spell controlling his prisoners he is relying on musica humana:

                                                                                                    But this rough magic
I hereby abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music—which even now I do—
To work mine end upon their senses, that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.                                        [Solemn music]
                    [Re-enter Ariel, then Alonzo, etc.]
A solemn air, and the best comforter
To an unsettled fancy, cure thy brains,
Now useless, boiled within thy skull!
… The charm dissolves apace,
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason. …
… Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy.

(50-60, 64-68, 79-82)

The quotation exemplifies fully the common theory of iatric music referred to, for example, in the citations from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and observed in Pericles. Again it is a case of relying on harmonious or consonant music to induce order into the disordered mind, thus “tuning” it until the harmony of reason is achieved. The effect can be seen in Alonzo's recognition of his wrong.27

Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat
Thou pardon me my wrongs.


Musica mundana is felt as a presence during the entire play. Even Caliban is aware of it:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

(III. ii. 144-152)

Despite criticism to the contrary, it is perfectly natural for even a “brutish monster” like Caliban to feel the music's force. For part of the Neoplatonic tradition of musica mundana dealt with such as the Orpheus, Amphion,28 and Arion myths, in which various creatures and inanimate objects were charmed by music.

That the musica mundana was sometimes heard as the sound of a tempest is suggested by two different remarks. In Act II Trinculo says:

Here's neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all, and another storm brewing, I hear it sing i' the wind.

(II. ii. 19-20)

A fuller statement is made by Alonzo in Act III:

                                                                                Oh it is monstrous, monstrous!
Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it,
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper. It did bass my trespass.

(ii. 95-99)

It was earlier explained that the Renaissance concept of musica mundana meant the harmony of the universe, including of course such notions as the music of the spheres and the rhythm of the seasons. Taking this into account, it seems plausible to consider the storm as “disordered” musica mundana, symbolic of the evil deeds and intentions—the disharmony—of Alonzo, Antonio, and Sebastian, as well as of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. This would interpret the play metaphorically, then, as one long concert, with Prospero as the director, in which the discordant elements of nature are gradually resolved into concord, reflecting and causing the transformation of all the conspirators from disharmony to the harmony of love and reason.29

The Tempest, then, marks the climax of Shakespeare's use of speculative music. However there was not a steady development through the Romances. For, despite the criticism of J. M. Nosworthy (p. 66) that Pericles is “retrogressive in the sense that such music as [it] contain[s] is a separable element whose total omission would make little or no essential difference”, the play makes consistent and specific use of philosophical concepts of music.

This is not true of Cymbeline, for the references are neither so numerous nor so definite. Music is ultimately woven into the play at the conclusion as a symbol of reconciliation, both human and divine, since the Platonic image of the world as an instrument played by the gods appears then. But proportionately more attention is directed to the more traditional pastoral elements.

The music in The Winter's Tale, as in Cymbeline, is organic, but predominantly in the realm of practical music rather than theoretical. To try to account for the music in the last two acts, except for Hermione's resurrection, as a symbol of the restoration and reconciliation which is soon to take place, is to read philosophy where there is none.

And finally, once again The Tempest must be characterized as the culmination of Shakespeare's musical philosophy. In incorporating the Neoplatonic doctrine of the divine order of the universe, a doctrine consistently expressed as a musical analogy, he is only following a deeply rooted Renaissance tradition. And in presenting a picture of music and dance shaping chaos into love and harmony, he is only expressing man's eternal dream of a “brave new world.”


  1. The best of these is Edward W. Naylor, Shakespeare and Music (London, 1896).

  2. Shakespeare's Use of Song (Oxford University Press, 1923).

  3. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge University Press, 1935).

  4. “Shakespeare and Music”, in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison (New York, 1960).

  5. Shakespeare's Use of Music. 2 vols. (University of Florida Press, 1955, 1961).

  6. F. W. Sternfeld's Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1963) treats of several aspects of speculative music, along with a full discussion of music's integral part in the dramatic structure.

  7. “Music and Its Function in the Romances of Shakespeare”, Shakespeare Survey II (1958), p. 60.

  8. A general term including all the “practical” aspects of music as opposed to the “speculative”, whether they refer to singer, instrumentalist, or composer.

  9. Music and Poetry of the English Renaissance (London, 1948), p. 1.

  10. For example, the manly Dorian mode is conductive to sober reason, good government, stability of soul, and chastity. The Phrygian leads to religious and poetic enthusiasm, but is also dangerous as it sometimes arouses the passions. Plato considered the Lydian mode voluptuous and sensual, and therefore enervating (Republic, III. 398-404). In fact, Plato attached such importance to this notion that he linked it with the future welfare of the country, and sincerely believed that by changing a mode the very foundations of the state might be undermined. This point is discussed by Bruno Meinecke in “Music and Medicine in Classical Antiquity”, Music and Medicine, ed. Dorothy M. Schullian and Max Schoen (New York, 1948).

  11. Part 2, Sect. 2, Memb. 6, Subs. 3.

  12. See Sternfeld, especially Chapters IV, VIII, and IX.

  13. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Part 2, Sect. 2, Memb. 6, Subs. 3.

  14. Sternfeld would emend “rough” to “still” by analogy with a parallel passage in George Wilkins' Pericles, on the grounds that “rough” makes no sense. It seems better to account for “rough” by some explanation such as that tentatively suggested.

  15. Sternfeld states: “In his mature plays Shakespeare uses song in two forms: songs to express the character of the singer or the dramatic situation; and songs to influence the disposition, that is, magic songs” (p. 79). In Marina's song these functions seem to be interwoven.

  16. “Thys Orpheus by the swetnesse of hys harpe / that ys to say bestly men and savage broght into the rule of reson.” Quoted in John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 168-169.

  17. As Sternfeld points out, “Whether the poets praise a Christian Saint or a pagan god, divine order and its reflection in human order are at all times associated with tuning …” (p. 236). For a more extensive discussion see John Hollander.

  18. Again as in Pericles the music called for was probably a consort of viols, since the command “strike” was usually associated with stringed instruments.

  19. Paulina is careful to forestall possible charges of black magic: “… those that think it is unlawful business / I am about, let them depart” (96-97).

  20. All the remaining examples of music occurring in Act IV, scenes iii and iv, provide a brief but jolly sampling of the informal music of the period, but there are no philosophical implications involved. The usual conclusion that Shakespeare withheld music until this point to effect the change from tragic to comic is perhaps correct, although this is not the procedure in the other romances. John Long (pp. 74-78) claims that the songs and dances determine Polixenes' attitude toward Perdita in the rest of the scene. Regarding her first as a pretty “low borne lass”, too noble for the country, he comes, under the influence of the dance of the lustful satyrs, to look upon her as a conniving seductress exerting her witchcraft upon poor Florizel. Such an interpretation would make this music somewhat akin to musica humana in its negative light. The Elizabethans also believed that discordant music could likewise influence human behavior, but for ill, by disturbing the body's harmony. However, this theory does not seem to apply in this case. Polixenes speaks to Florizel immediately after without any condemnation of Perdita. In fact, it isn't until Florizel begins to discuss his father that Polixenes becomes really angry, and even then he does not refer to Perdita as carnal.

  21. Probably the closest to a pure example of musica instrumentalis is Ariel's song, “Where the bee sucks” (V. i. 88-94). This charming lyric is for sheer delight, although it is also autobiographical and helps to fill the interval during which Prospero dons his Milanese clothing.

  22. When Ariel leads the three away (158-160, and further described at IV. i. 175-184), it becomes an example of musica humana.

  23. It is interesting to note that the vision vanishes “to a strange, hollow, and confused noise.” In Renaissance terminology, the word “noise” often signified either low tavern music, or music poorly played. Thus it would most likely be both out of tune and out of rhythm. This kind of discord may be what is meant here, as it mirrors Prospero's “distempered”—i.e. out of tune—state of mind that causes him to dismiss the spirits.

  24. While the lute is not specifically mentioned, it would have been the normal instrument to accompany airs such as the two Ariel sings. As a string instrument it would be symbolic of order and harmony, and so would be suited to the function suggested for the music.

  25. This image is actually musica mundana: the world is an instrument upon which Destiny (Providence) plays.

  26. Shakespeare had used a somewhat similar situation in Richard II, V. v. 41-44, 61-63.

  27. The music seems not to have reformed Antonio and Sebastian. Perhaps Shakespeare is recognizing and tacitly accepting that some evil in the world is not susceptible of amelioration. It exists and probably always will. A “brave new world” will keep it under as much control as possible, but it cannot be obliterated from the human condition.

  28. A reference to this myth occurs in the play at II. i. 86-88.

  29. This differs from the earlier Romances, in which music reflected the transformation and reconciliation, but did not cause it. The only partial exception is Pericles, since Marina's music produced the initial impetus for the conclusion, and therefore was a kind of cause.

David Lindley (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 general revaluation of The Tempest which has seen the older view of it as a celebration of reconciliation replaced by a critical consensus stressing its inconclusiveness, ambiguity, and doubt, the music has consistently been accepted as imaging and enacting ideals of harmony and concord, whether or not those ideals are finally attained.1

This attitude to the play's music rests upon the view that Shakespeare was employing the standard Renaissance theory that earthly music reflected the celestial harmony of the spheres, and by that analogy was empowered to affect and influence humankind. There can indeed be no mistaking the fact that the power of Ariel's music to allay the fury of the elements and to calm Ferdinand's passions in Act I or to heal the perturbed minds of the noble lords in Act V are fully comprehensible only in a context where an audience might readily supply this symbolic significance to the music they hear. Nor can one doubt that the failure of Antonio and Sebastian to hear and respond to the music that lulls the other lords to sleep in Act II, Scene i is emblematic of the moral disharmony of their natures.

But music in the theatre need not summon up this kind of symbolic significance, for, as Duke Vincentio recognises, ‘music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good and good provoke to harm’.2 We have to recognise that music may delude or spur illicit passions as well as cure, heal, and restore. We do not applaud Orsino's indulgence of appetite with music's moody food, for example.

In the experience of a theatre audience music is much too varied in its stimulus and dramatic significance to be tidily packaged in a neo-Platonic wrapper. But in the world of the court masque the power of music and its emblematic significance is much more firmly controlled and directed. Part of the argument of this essay is precisely that The Tempest exploits and explores the tensions between these different dramatic possibilities.

Some of these tensions are apparent in the play's final song, ‘Where the bee sucks’. Critics have been moved to eloquence by it. ‘Ariel's song is pure lyric and pure joy’, writes Mary Chan, while Seng claims: ‘For the brave new world of redeemed man which is to succeed on the old one of crime and punishment there could hardly be a better hymn of praise than Ariel's song of summer and freedom.’3 But these and many other determined efforts to bestow symbolic significance on this song fail to attend to its actual effect in its dramatic context.

Prospero has called for a ‘solemn air’ to restore the unsettled minds of the nobles. As the charm begins to work he resumes the mantle of his lost dukedom. This is the climactic moment of the story that The Tempest narrates. Prospero has successfully courted his ‘most auspicious star’, has regained the lost dukedom, ensured political harmony by betrothing his daughter to the son of his former opponent, and yet to accompany the gesture that signals this triumphant conclusion we are offered no ceremonious fanfare but a song about lying in cowslips.

The disparity between the song and the dramatic action it accompanies forces the audience into reflection. At first the close juxtaposition of the song with the curative heavenly music suggests that they both belong to the same symbolic realm, but as the words of the song register, the difference between them is sharply established. One is the impersonal sonority of the heavens, the other entirely personal and spontaneous song. This is the first time that Ariel has sung his own words, and their self-indulgence links it with other ‘unscripted’ songs in the play, Stephano's ‘The master, the swabber, the bosun and I’ and, more obviously, Caliban's song of freedom, ‘No more dams I'll make for fish’.

For all the differences between these singers, the fundamental similarity of the songs cannot be ignored. They alert us to a different musical possibility from that allowed by a neo-Platonic theory. Music here is an outburst of individual feeling, a gesture whose expression is entirely circumscribed by the individuality of the singer. Such song, as Mark Booth has pointed out, invites us as audience to submerge ourselves in an indentification with the singing voice, hence the appeal of the simple, quasi-pastoral lyric that Ariel sings. But at the same time, the failure of the song to support the action for which it is the incidental music confirms the truth of Booth's observation: ‘A song, set in a play, but set out of the play too by its music, facilitates our indulgence in feelings that may be undercut before and after the music plays’.4 Here it is not so much the feeling itself that is undercut, as the disparity between Prospero's abandonment of magic and return to the real world and Ariel's fugitive fantasy that is highlighted. When one adds to this the fact that Ariel, the singer whose feelings we have briefly been persuaded by their musical utterance to take as our own, is an insubstantial figure (quite unlike the obstinately corporeal Stephano and Caliban) then the unsettling elusiveness of this song is plain.

Uncertainty of response is a characteristic effect of most of the musical events in the play. The first song is ‘Come unto these yellow sands’. Ferdinand concludes that its music ‘waits upon / Some god o' th' island’, and reinforces his attribution of celestial origin by his account of its power:

This music crept by me on the waters
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow'd it
Or it hath drawn me rather.


No neo-Platonist could wish for better demonstration of the potential of music, no Orpheus could work more marvellously than the singing Ariel. We are willing as an audience to consent to the power Prospero exercises through music precisely because we are able to supply for it the necessary conventional symbolic significance.

Yet there is an unease about the song. Though it sounds fine at first, the burden of the song, sung by ‘watch-dogs’ and ‘Chanticleer’, jars with the lyric's romantic opening. A sense of discomfort is fully justified when, at the end of the play, the sprites who sang ‘bow-wow’ appear in doggy habit to chase Stephano and Trinculo from Prospero's cave. The refrain of the song hints at the capricious, even malevolent side of Prospero's magic and its instruments, demonstrated clearly when he orders his spirits to ‘hunt soundly’ the conspirators. The ‘god o' th' island’ can threaten as well as invite, as Ferdinand himself is soon to realise.

The celebrated ‘Full fathom five’ follows almost at once. Much can be said about this exquisite and potent lyric, its proleptic significance in imaging the ‘sea-change’ the characters experience, its immediate effectiveness in preparing Ferdinand for his meeting with Miranda, or the way its eerie transformations bespeak the power of the art which contrives it. But at the same time an audience must realise that at the simplest level the words of the song are untrue. Already assured that ‘there's no harm done’, we are uncomfortably aware that Ferdinand's statement, ‘this ditty doth remember my drowned father’ reflects an understanding of events entirely contrived by Prospero.

We are caught, therefore, in a double response to this song. Persuaded by Ferdinand's attitude, we accept the emblematic significance that music always possesses as a potential in Renaissance drama; but at the same time our superior awareness of the true narrative state of things makes us uneasily conscious of the compromise with truth that Prospero's designs necessitate.

In two other episodes later in the play there is a similar compromising of music's symbolic significance as it is subordinated to Prospero's designs.

Ariel's music charms Alonso, Gonzalo, and others to sleep in Act II, Scene i apparently only so that Antonio's and Sebastian's conspiracy might have space to declare itself. Prospero's magic arts thus create the conditions for the instigation of vice as well as for the harmonising of discordant passions. More significant is the episode in Act III, Scene ii, where the tune of the catch ‘Flout’ 'em and scout 'em’ is taken up by Ariel's pipe, much to the amazement of Stephano and Trinculo. They, like Ferdinand, follow the celestial music, only to be led into a bog.

However one might contain these episodes within a standard view of music's symbolic significance, by pointing out that where the virtuous Ferdinand is rewarded the base conspirators are duly punished, this should not obscure the fact that by responding to music Alonso and his followers are rendered vulnerable (though by music also they are preserved) and Stephano and Trinculo are reeking of horse-piss. For the audience, and indeed for the characters on stage, the music that lulls the nobles to sleep and the transformed music of the vulgar catch are the same as the music of Ferdinand's song. What distinguishes one from the other is not the nature of the musical harmony, nor the effects they have, but the consequence Prospero derives from his manipulative power.

As will become clear later this focussing on music as a means of power is of great significance for the play as a whole, and for its use of the masque genre in particular. For the moment we might turn from Ferdinand's wonder at the celestial music to Caliban's celebrated response to the island's sound. He tells Stephano and Trinculo:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again.

(III.ii. 133-41)

The fact that his response is so similar to Ferdinand's complicates the simple moral scale where sensitivity to music is a mark of virtue. It suggests a moral neutrality in music's effects. For if, in the myth most often used to support the neo-Platonic view of music, Orpheus made rocks, stones, and trees move, it says much for music's power, but indicates also the involuntariness of response to it, and therefore the potential danger of its effects in the hands of an unscrupulous manipulator. But the most important aspect of this speech is Caliban's account of the way music persuades him to sleep and to dream of innumerable riches, only to wake and, waking, to cry to dream again. For it is this pattern of response that underlies the two biggest set-pieces of the work, the two masques which immediately follow this speech.

In the first a banquet is laid before Alonso and his company. As Prospero watches, his spirits enter to ‘solemn and strange music’. Unlike Stephano and Trinculo the nobles are not frightened, but respond to the sweetness of the sound. They, like the dreaming Caliban, are offered riches in the form of food that they desperately need. But just as Caliban can never capture his dream-treasure, so they are denied their banquet as it is taken away ‘by a quaint device’ and Ariel rebukes the ‘three men of sin’.5

No sooner is this scene over than Prospero prepares for the next Masque. He addresses Ariel:

Thou and thy meaner fellows your last service
Did worthily perform; and I must use you
In such another trick. Go bring the rabble,
O'er whom I give thee power, here to this place:
Incite them to quick motion; for I must
Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple
Some vanity of mine Art: it is my promise,
And they expect it from me.


The connection between this and the previous device is unambiguously made; performed by the same spirits, it is ‘such another trick’. The oddity that Prospero introduces what should be one of the play's central emblematic statements with such apparent contempt may be left on one side for future consideration.

The masque proceeds. Iris, Ceres, and Juno gravely meet and promise richness and fertility to the betrothed couple. Iris then summons the ‘Naiads of the windring brooks’ and ‘sunburn'd sicklemen’ to dance before the couple. Since there are no courtiers on Prospero's island, it is the spirits who must take the place of masquers and perform the dance which, in Jonson's phrase, may ‘make the beholders wise’.6 The conjunction of watery female semi-deities and fiery male reapers draws upon the conventional symbolism that Jonson, for example, uses in Hymenaei:

Like are the fire, and water, set;
That, ev'n as moisture, mixt with heat,
Helps everie naturall birth, to life;
So, for their Race, joyne man and wife.(7)

The dance, therefore, suits well with the promise of fertility that the three goddesses make in their song to the couple.

Anthony Stafford's gloss on this symbol reveals a further appropriateness to the concerns of the masque. He writes:

To the same ende did the Romanes of old, carrie before the married couple, fier, and water (the former representing the man; the later, the woman,) what else signifying, then that the woman should expect till heate bee infused into her by her husband? it being as much against the nature of an honest spouse, as of the coldest water, to boile of her selfe; and on the contrarie side, that the bridegroom should distill warmth into his own water and heate it, but not over-heate it.8

Prospero at the beginning of the act had warned the couple against anticipation of the wedding night, and then returned to the theme as he sternly rebukes Ferdinand:

                                                  do not give dalliance
Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw
To th'fire in th' blood: be more abstemious,
Or else, good night your vow!

Ferdinand replies:

                                                                                                              I warrant you, sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

(IV.i. 51-6)

This ideal control, imaged in snow and fire, is sustained throughout the masque (from which Cupid is excluded) and is symbolised in the graceful dance of the temperate nymphs and sunburned sicklemen.

Through this masque Prospero enforces upon Ferdinand and Miranda the difference between a chaste conjunction issuing in happy fertility and the beastly lust that would have peopled the isle with Calibans, or brought forth Stephano's ‘brave brood’. The urgency of his warnings to the couple before the masque begins suggests that Prospero is by no means certain that, without the persuasive effect of his ‘harmonious vision’, he can trust them to understand the difference.

The entertainment, then, works according to the ideal prescription for the masque, leading the spectators to fuller understanding through their contemplation of an image which impresses itself upon them by the power music, dance, and word have to imitate the deeper harmonies of the universe. But though these spectators are of a morally unblemished nature, this show, like the lords' banquet, is snatched away as with ‘a strange, hollow and confused noise’ the spirits ‘heavily vanish’. On their departure Prospero launches into the play's most famous speech, fusing the terminology of masque and reality to remind his audience that the vision, however harmonious, must fade, and they, like Caliban, may cry to dream again.

The pattern of these two scenes is further emphasised by the last trick of Prospero's devising, as Ariel loads a line with glistering apparel to distract Caliban and his fellow conspirators. This illusory richness (which has no real narrative necessity, since Prospero could simply have set his dogs on them when they arrived) is functionally the same as the two shows that precede it. This offering of the island also proves a false treasure.

The frustration common to all these scenes might indeed be held to form the ‘deep structure’ of the play (to borrow a linguistic term). It is realised in many of the surface incidents of the play. Ferdinand is offered Miranda, but then reduced to servitude; Caliban mistakes the promise first of Prospero and then of Stephano to his discomfiture; the villainous Antonio and Sebastian have Alonso presented to them as a victim, only for him to wake up before they can seize the prize. Most notably, Prospero himself has sought the goal of wisdom only to lose his dukedom in the process, and then, on regaining the dukedom must resign the art he has devoted his life to acquiring.

It is the omnipresence of this pattern that helps to account for the uncertainty of the play's effect upon an audience, since it belongs to tragedy rather than to romance. Unease is clarified in the emphasis the pattern receives in the three masque-like episodes, for masques are by their very nature affirmative offerings, made to a married couple, a patron or a monarch, and their standard pattern moves from inhibition to celebration. In standing on its head the masque genre that it employs The Tempest examines the problematic nature of the form, and articulates many of the difficulties and dilemmas that attended it throughout its life.9

The Jacobean court masque was continually under attack, most frequently on the grounds of its excessive expense and vainglorious display. The standard defence was an appeal to the notion of princely magnificence: conspicuous consumption is a sign of the richness and importance of a court that would be demeaned by anything less than elaborate and costly show. In The Tempest there is the paradox that all its goodly visions issue not from the self-projection of a rich and stable court, but from the power of a magician who inhabits a ‘full poor cell’ on a desert island. The actors are not the lords and ladies of James's court, whose richness and magnificence might properly become them, but spirits. The play seems to insist that the true riches of the island are the quick freshes and the fruits that Caliban showed to Prospero, rather than the sumptuous banquet that the lords reach for in vain. One might, indeed, see the relationship between the first two set-pieces as antimasque and masque making precisely that point by their juxtaposition. But Prospero's masques are, from this point of view, vanities indeed, having no basis in economic and political reality. Their defence must be sought elsewhere.

Jonson saw the heart of the masque, and its most serious validation, in its capacity to ‘lay hold on more remov'd mysteries’.10 But making this claim raises further problems. In the first place the arcane hieroglyphs of the masque, since they are comprehensible only to the learned, could make little impression upon the actual audience of Jacobean courtiers, preoccupied with the elegant trappings of ostentation. Secondly, the ideal relationship of performer and role, where the noble personage became (in both senses of the word) the part that he played, was always vulnerable to the uncomfortable knowledge that the glorious surface only partly concealed a less than ideal reality.

As more and more people became disillusioned with the excesses and corruptions of James's court, the gap between the masque ideal and the reality it was supposed to reflect became ever harder to paper over, and the educational potential of the masque less and less easy to credit. Writers both for the court and for the public theatre were moved to explore that gap. Tragedians used the discontinuity between image and reality to bitter satirical ends; Daniel expressed increasing disquiet at the vanity of masques; Jonson attempted to take on critics directly in works like Love Restored, and Campion in The Lords' Masque anxiously insisted upon the necessity of the masquers remembering the significance of the roles they played as they returned to their normal world.11

The Tempest grows out of this general disquiet, and attempts itself to grapple with the problems it raises. While the characters in the play are not themselves participants in the masque, yet the final scene of the play does approach indirectly the question of the relationship between a masquer and the role he enacts. For Prospero arranges as the conclusion of his work of reconciliation a masque-like emblem as he discloses Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. He promises to requite Alonso's restoration of his dukedom with ‘as good a thing’; he will, in terms that echo masquing vocabulary, ‘bring forth a wonder to content ye’. The emblematic use of the loving couple is very like Campion's later use of the figures of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick Elector Palatine as the concluding symbol of his Lords' Masque, but whereas in Campion's work the masquers and audience turn to do homage to the couple sitting in state, Shakespeare's lovers are preoccupied with each other, and their ideal status is immediately undermined by Miranda's challenge, ‘Sweet lord, you play me false’. Whatever the precise significance of the exchange which follows, it is obvious that Ferdinand and Miranda resist the possibility of being subsumed into an iconic gesture.

This resistance accords with Miranda's own modest deflection of Ferdinand's attempt to turn her into a masque-like goddess at the beginning of the play. It also fits into the way the final scene as a whole plays with the masque's climatic moment of disclosure. When Alonso first sees Prospero he cries out:

                              Whether thou be'st he or no,
Or some enchanted trifle to abuse me,
As late I have been, I do not know.

(V.i. 111-3)

(The paradox of trifles that torment is itself a record of the play's deeply ambiguous attitude to the status and effect of theatrical illusions.) But then Miranda herself looks at the ‘goodly creatures’ before her as if they were a masquing company. The ingenuousness of her amazement is obvious to the audience, and ironically underlined by Prospero's ‘'Tis new to thee’. Thus, where the court masque moves securely and triumphantly from the world of illusion to the court reality it had translated, transcended, and imaged, Shakespeare's dissolution involves a blurring of realms, and much more uncertainty about the boundaries of the too easily opposed worlds of illusion and reality. In so doing it unsettles the audience's response. Are we to be glad that Ferdinand and Miranda are human in a way that Campion's Frederick and Elizabeth are inhibited from being, and do we therefore register this conclusion as a satirical barb aimed at the insulations of the court masque? Or do we regret that Miranda's naïveté, like the optimistic idealism of Gonzalo, is bound to founder on the ambitious pragmatism of Antonio and Sebastian? The problem is not merely an intellectual one, but a dilemma of feeling and response, a dilemma that is most pressingly active in our response to music. For music's capacity to work directly upon feeling is, in the masque, sanctified by its necessary connection with the divinely harmonious universe. In The Tempest we respond as fully to music's lure, but the rightness of our submission is continually questioned.

But though the ending of the play, with its ambiguous relationship to a masque's dissolving, follows upon scenes which have asserted the impossibility of a masque's converting the truly wicked and indicated the frailty of such visions even for the morally unblemished, the play does not therefore retreat to the cynicism of Bacon's verdict; ‘these things are but toys’.12 For though Prospero had introduced his betrothal masque as a vanity, yet he is concerned enough about its effect to command the spectators' attention, ‘Or else our spell is marr'd’. He stresses, as Jonson so often does, the importance of the spectator's conspiracy in enabling the masque to work.

It is through the presentation of the dilemmas of Prospero, the maker of masques and convenor of the company of musical sprites, that Shakespeare tests the importance and the limitations of the masque genre. For though the constant state of tension in which Prospero exists throughout the play may be explained by the narrative necessity he is under to seize this one opportunity to regain his dukedom, his emotional state can best be understood as arising from a desperate sense of the fragility of the power his art gives him, coupled with an equally urgent sense of the significance of that art.

The outbursts of anger that structure the long second scene of Act I are all aroused by the failure of others to observe a properly obedient attitude towards him. This is not mere despotism, but a precarious fear that those over whom he can or should exercise control resist or abuse the roles he fashions for them. Throughout the play Ariel, executant of Propero's designs, is continually checked up on, commanded to faithful reproduction of his script, overlooked in performance, commended for actorly success. Prospero is as anxious as Hamlet in his producer's guise, as nervous as any caricatured author on the first night of his play.

Prospero cares so intensely not primarily because he himself stands to gain from his magic (the lack of triumph at his resumption of the ducal mantle is, however disconcerting, in accord with the lack of real ambition in Prospero's character), nor even because of his love for his daughter and hope for her future, but essentially because the efficacy of his art is itself to be the validation of a lifetime spent in acquiring it. This is the first and only time that his magic is put to the real test of confronting the complexities of human wickedness, desire, and frailty. Compared to this his past magical exercises, retailed in Act V, are mere sideshows, and his Medean speech not the triumphant assertion of theatrical power that Kernan describes13 but a frenzied effort to boost his own confidence before he turns to undo the charm upon the nobles and finds out whether his magic has actually worked upon stubborn human nature. Prospero's anxiety raises precisely the question of the capacity of masque image to work upon an audience that the masque itself resolutely sidestepped and contained.

But if it is the sense of the fragility of his powers that troubles Prospero, the audience's response is further complicated by the fact that they are unsure, during the course of the play, exactly what purpose Prospero intends to serve. At times he seems only to exult in revenge and to be persuaded to forgiveness by Ariel very late in the play. But yet he takes care for the future of his daughter and troubles to attempt to induce repentance in the minds of the lords.

This is a highly significant complication since it establishes as a central issue in the play the responsibility of the poet in constructing his work to some purposeful end. Merely to exercise power, to perform tricks, would indeed be a vanity. Magic power exists to be harnessed, but it is the nature of the magician's designs that determines the moral value of that power. Under Prospero the island resounds to sweet noises, where for the witch Sycorax the only music was the shriek of the imprisoned Ariel. Prospero must liberate the lords from their charmed imprisonment as he had earlier released Ariel if we are not to condemn him as he condemns Sycorax.

In The Tempest, therefore, the masque genre is subjected to a double examination. On the one hand its moral effectiveness is determined (and circumscribed) by the nature and limitations of its beholders; but on the other hand it is also vitally dependent upon the nature and purposes of its contriver. It reflects the sensitivity of Ben Jonson both to the ignorance of his audiences and to the vanity of Inigo Jones, a contriver of masques who (in Jonson's view) saw no further than ‘shows, shows, mighty shows’.14

The radical element in Shakespeare's work is the recognition, through the examination of Prospero's predicament, of the fundamentally rhetorical nature of the masque. It is an instrument of power, of coercion and manipulation, resistible and corruptible. It is not enough simply to lay hold on some neo-Platonic idea, and, by reproducing it claim that it will therefore ‘work’.

This understanding corresponds very significantly with the new view of music and its effects that was at this time taking hold. For the older, idealist notion of music's correspondence with the music of the spheres was being replaced by a rhetorical model of its affects. Monody and declamatory song were the vehicles of this change, and it was especially in the masque with its professional virtuoso singers that the style flourished.15 To see rhetoric and neo-Platonism as opposites is of course a far too crude distinction. Nonetheless it is the element of persuasion that rhetoric brings with it that threatens the security of the correspondence between ideal and human reality that sustained the masque and the theories of musica speculativa. It is our awareness that the songs Ferdinand hears are part of Prospero's rhetoric as well as the images of celestial harmony he takes them to be that opens up the play's enactment of the problems that attend the making of masque and music.

This does not, of course, deny the validity of masque or of music. Their power exists, and may be harnessed for good or for ill. The play as a whole interrogates a series of familiar Renaissance debating topics. Art versus nature, action versus contemplation, reality versus illusion are but some of the subjects the play considers, and for all of them no simple preference is established. Most significant for the question of the validity of transitory masque is the opposition between Caliban and Ariel, beast against spirit, earth and water versus air and fire, body against soul.

This last distinction is used by Jonson to characterise the masque, and to defend his part in it. The display is its body, the mystery the poet shadows is its soul, ‘impressing and lasting’.16 In a very similar analogy Renaissance musicians compared the words of a song to the soul, the musical notes to the body, for only through the words are the fluctuating and transitory impressions of sound given direction and lasting purpose.17

In The Tempest both these notions are severely tested. When the play ends it is not the spirit who remains, but the thing of darkness that Prospero must acknowledge his and transport back to Milan. In the final scene it is the instrumental music that is curative, and Ariel's last song that slips into solipsism.

Conventional justification of masque and of music is therefore questioned. The self-regarding, inconsequential beauty of ‘Where the bee sucks’ signals the basic fact that music, like the magic powers it enables Prospero to deploy and the masquing visions he creates with its aid, is of itself nothing and the riches it promises an illusion. Prospero's shaking of the earth is similarly a self-indulgence unless it is played to some purpose before an audience, just as Ariel's singing acquires a positive function only when scripted by Prospero and directed to human listeners.

But to recognise, as the play does, that it is the body we are stuck with, the life of action that must ultimately claim us, does not mean that music and the masque must be dumped, valueless, into the sea along with the books of magic. For the power of art is perenially available. Prospero denies himself the means of access to magical powers, not the validity of their exercise. For all their inadequacies music and masque have succeeded in bringing Alonso to repentance, and have imaged the love of Ferdinand and Miranda as something more than mere political convenience. Furthermore, as an audience we cannot deny the power of theatrical illusion when it is only through the masque-play that Prospero creates that we can encounter the meditation upon the limitations of masque and music that Shakespeare offers to us.

Stephen Orgel has rightly suggested that The Tempest is the ‘most important Renaissance commentary’ on ‘court masques and plays’. Mary Chan claims that it ‘shows the validity of the masque's conceptual basis’, while, by contrast, Ernest Gilman calls it ‘a delicately subversive maneuver staged in the enemy camp and hinting at the bedazzled, insulated self-regard of such entertainments’.18 The truth is that The Tempest resists such simplification of its stance, presenting instead a multi-layered and deeply ambivalent attitude.

It does so because, though it reflects many of the substantial uncertainties about the masque genre current at the time of its composition, it actively involves the spectator in feeling, not merely contemplating the problems. Thus we, like the spectators on stage, are frustrated and disappointed as harmonious visions end in discord. We recognise the compromises that follow upon Prospero's manipulative aims, yet we respect the urgent desire that led him to a life of contemplation to secure the power he exercises. At the end of the play Prospero's wistful farewell to Ariel is echoed by our own regret as we tender the applause that releases Prospero from his island, but banishes us from the theatre. But perhaps most important of all in engendering the audience's complicity in the play's paradoxical statement is the music. Not only are the characters on stage pushed hither and thither by Prospero's music, but it works its end upon our senses also, with an undeniable insinuation. The symbolic view of music is comprehensible as an attempt to validate morally the experiential truth of music's power. The Tempest, by unpicking without ever quite denying that analogy does not merely reflect a historical moment, the time of ‘the untuning of the sky’, but forces us as an audience to go beyond a simple criticism of the fragility of the world of the stage. The Platonic theories that sustain a Sidneyan belief in art's golden world are crumbling, but we are left ‘wishing it might be so’.


  1. One of the most persuasive comments on the play's darknesses is W. H. Auden's poetic descant, The Sea and The Mirror. A characteristic early statement of changing attitudes is Rose Zimbardo, ‘Form and Disorder in The Tempest’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 16 (1963), pp 49-65. A traditional view of the music is articulated by John P. Cutts, ‘Music in The Tempest’, Music and Letters, 39 (1958), pp. 347-58. A less straightforwardly symbolic reading informs Theresa Coletti, ‘Music and The Tempest’, in Shakespeare's Late Plays, ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod (Athens, Ohio, 1974), pp. 185-99.

  2. Measure for Measure, IV.i. 14-15.

  3. Mary Chan, Music in the Theatre of Ben Jonson (Oxford, 1980), p. 328; Peter Seng, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 271.

  4. Mark Booth, The Experience of Songs (New Haven and London, 1981), pp. 14-23; 118.

  5. For a study of the manifold implications of the banquet see Jacqueline E. M. Latham, ‘The Magic Banquet in The Tempest’, Shakespeare Studies, 12 (1979), pp. 215-27.

  6. Ben Johnson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols (Oxford, 1925-1952), 7, p. 489. [Hereafter referred to as ‘Herford and Simpson’].

  7. Herford and Simpson, 7, p. 215.

  8. Niobe (1611) sig. C2-3.

  9. Ernest B. Gilman discusses the manipulation of the masque genre in his ‘“All eyes”: Prospero's Inverted Masque’, Renaissance Quarterly, 33 (1980), pp. 214-30, though he sees the conspirators as an ‘antimasque’, and does not discuss the other shows.

  10. Herford and Simpson, 7, 209.

  11. See Inge-Stina Ewbank, ‘“These pretty devices”: A Study of Masques in Plays’, in A Book of Masques, ed. T. J. B. Spencer and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 405-48; Ralph Berry, ‘Masques and Dumb Shows in Webster's Plays’, The Elizabethan Theatre, 7 (1981), pp. 124-46, and, in the same journal, pp. 111-23, Cyrus Hoy, ‘Masques and the Artifice of Tragedy’; Jeffrey Fischer, ‘Love Restored: A Defense of Masquing’, Renaissance Drama, 7 (1977), pp. 231-44; David Lindley, Thomas Campion (Leiden, forthcoming), Chapter 4.

  12. Francis Bacon, ‘Of Masques and Triumphs’, in Essays (London, 1625).

  13. Alvin B. Kernan, The Playwright as Magician (New Haven and London, 1979), p. 143.

  14. ‘An Expostulation with Inigo Jones’, The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 346.

  15. See John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton, N.J., 1961) passim; James Anderson Winn, Unsuspected Eloquence (New Haven and London, 1981), Chapter 4; and for the music, Ian Spink, English Song, Dowland to Purcell (London, 1974).

  16. Herford and Simpson, 7, 209.

  17. See, for example, Monteverdi's observation that musical pieces without words were ‘bodies without soul’, in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950), p. 406.

  18. Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1975), p. 45; Chan, Music in Ben Jonson, p. 330; Gilman, ‘“All eyes”’, p. 220.

Peter Thomson (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of them even hissed. For Clement Scott, reviewing the production of ‘this extremely difficult work’, the audience's response was proof of the fact that Twelfth Night ‘is rather for the book-worm than the playgoer’ and whatever blame was to be attached to the proceedings ‘belonged to the play, and decidedly not to its interpreters’. Irving's Malvolio, looking like ‘some grey and crafty old fox’, was categorized by Scott as ‘quaint’, and Ellen Terry's Viola, ‘an admirable blending of poetic fancy and unforced humour’, was ‘enchanting’.1 But the Victorian temper could not accommodate Twelfth Night. The lack of credibility, which had attracted Dr Johnson's censure, was a major obstacle. Feste was another. Nineteenth century audiences could make very little of the Shakespearean Clown, occupationally alienated, alarmingly irreverent, often ribald and even socially subversive. But the sexuality of Twelfth Night may have been the major bugbear. The new permissiveness of Edwardian England had intervened by the time Granville-Barker staged his fine production at the Savoy in 1912, and later audiences have inherited an awareness that the play is one of Shakespeare's sure-fire theatrical successes. The sophisticated middle-class audiences who fill (or half-fill) British theatres in the twentieth century can accommodate more easily than their grandparents could the shocking fact that a love-play so utterly lacking in innocence can yet be lyrical.

Twelfth Night begins and ends with music. The first affective sounds of the play are not verbal but instrumental. The significance can be well appreciated if we attempt to reconstruct the opening moments of a performance at the Globe in the first decade of the seventeenth century. After the theatre trumpets and, perhaps, the knocking of the stage have alerted the audience to the actors' readiness, the musicians strike up behind or above the empty platform. They play ‘that lascivious, amorous, effeminate, voluptuous music’ which the disapproving William Prynne associated with the theatre of his time.2 After a few chords, a stage door opens, and the entrance of a group of extras in livery announces to the audience that the scene is set in a great man's house. The great man himself has the first words:

If music be the food of love, play on …

The conditional mood takes account of a renaissance debate about the nature of music, of the links between the music of the spheres and the musica humana of a well-ordered commonwealth. But the amorous Orsino's interest is less highminded. What he is questioning is the capacity of musica instrumentalis to stir the human spirit. ‘Just as certain foods delight the palate, so in music diverse consorts stir up in the heart diverse sorts of joy, sadness, or pain,’ wrote Thomas Wright in his treatise on The Passions of the Mind (1604). The ‘overture’ to Twelfth Night prepared its first audience more concretely than it can hope to prepare a modern audience for a play whose tone would encompass romantic extremes of joy and anguish. As he listens to the music, Orsino experiences the longing for release from love (but not quite yet, please), as well as a premonition of the emptiness that follows release. His progress through the play is foreshadowed in the music that introduces it. The highly wrought language of his first speech is designed to be a verbal accompaniment to the melody, and the melodic pull on the words continues even when the music has been silenced. In Twelfth Night's main plot, an aspiration towards harmony challenges, and eventually triumphs over, the logic of cause and effect. Against this lyrical urge, the sub-plot provides a counterpoint of bawdy ballads, catches, and discords; whilst Feste, licensed by his singing ability to establish a mood in extension, or even in contradiction, of the dreamily conditional, provides a sung commentary on mutability and evanescence.

The effect on an audience of so considerable a reliance on music is incalculable, although it is the task of those who manage the performance—in the modern theatre, composer, director and designer—to calculate it. What we can say with some confidence about Twelfth Night, as we can say, for example, about the calling to life of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale or of so much of The Tempest, is that Shakespeare envisaged and was prepared to exploit the sensual invasion of what is increasingly known, in clumsy modern parlance, as ‘music theatre’. It is not only in its songs and consorts that Twelfth Night declares its reliance on music. Emrys Jones has brilliantly analysed the movement of the latter scene (II. v.), for example, observing its timing ‘musical in its strictness’, and ‘the abrupt scuffling interjections of the concealed spectators, who supply a kind of comic bassoon accompaniment to Malvolio's unctuous ‘cello’.3 The play has contrasting vocal parts, whose observance in performance is almost compulsory; Sir Toby and Malvolio in the bass/baritone range, Sir Andrew a nasal tenor against the purer tenors of Orsino and Sebastian, Olivia, reaching for contralto but startled by love into her true soprano, Viola mezzo-soprano throughout, however as Cesario she may cling to the lower register, and Maria, whose voice must be comically linked to her diminutiveness, either squeaky or improbably gruff in one so small. At its lyrical heights, the language of love moves through recitative to aria, as when Viola/Cesario expresses to Olivia her own concealed desire on Orsino's behalf:

If I did love you in my master's flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.
                                                            Why, what would you?
Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out, ‘Olivia!’

(I. v. 285-95)

It is not adequate to say of this that Viola is speaking blank verse. Musical notation would be almost as helpful as scansion in persuading the actress to understand its possible impact.

I have already noted that Twelfth Night begins in the conditional mood. We can go further. The conditional, either directly or ironically deployed, is the fundamental mood of the play. After the opening scene has explored the territory of Orsino's love-sickness (‘If I could control Olivia as I can control my music …’), I. ii. poses and only half rejects a possibility, ‘If Sebastian were alive …’. ‘Your niece will not be seen,’ complains Sir Andrew Aguecheek at I. iii. 114-15, ‘or if she be, it's four to one she'll none of me’ The odds are longer than Sir Andrew allows, but ‘if Sir Toby can influence Olivia …’. By this flimsy conditional, Sir Andrew's behaviour—and his expenditure—are motivated throughout the play. At I. iv. 19-20, Viola/Cesario warns Orsino: ‘If she be so abandoned to her sorrow / As it is spoke, she never will admit me.’ In the next scene(s)he is admitted. Olivia is not so abandoned to her sorrow as she thought she was. But, far from being destroyed, the conditional mood is intensified ‘If you were the devil, you are fair,’ Viola admits (I. v. 272), and she begins her exquisite wooing with ‘If I did love you in my master's flame …’ (I. v. 285). But Olivia's mind is firm, unless … ‘Unless the master were the man …’ (I. v. 315). In II. i., Viola's speculation is answered, for the audience at least. Sebastian is alive, though wishing he were not. It is Antonio who provides the disquieting conditional here: ‘If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant’ (II. i. 36-37). The conditional clause may sound like a throw-away, but III. iv. will bring it perilously close to fulfilment. Olivia's ring contributes a physical aspect to the conditional mood in II. ii. Malvolio introduces it by dropping the love-token; ‘If it be worth stooping for, there it lies in your eyes; if not, be it his that finds it’ (II. ii. 16-17). As a ring, it is presumably valuable, but Viola/Cesario shares with the audience the secret knowledge that it is worthless as a love-token. II. iii. ends with a flurry of conditional clauses, identifying the carelessness with which Sir Toby gulls Sir Andrew:

SIR Andrew:
If I cannot recover your niece, I am a foul way out.
SIR Toby:
Send for money, knight: if thou hast her not i' the end, call me cut.
SIR Andrew:
If I do not, never trust me, take it how you will.

(II. iii. 203-8)

Irony dominates the conditionals of II. iv., from Orsino's ‘if ever thou shalt love …’ (II. iv. 15) to Viola's:

My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship—

(II. iv. 109-111)

It is this irony that double-dyes the second half of the play, supplying the drama in Olivia's elliptical conditional:

But would you undertake another suit,
I had rather hear you to solicit that
Than music from the spheres.

(III. i. 120-122)

and the whole ensuing dialogue, as well as in Sebastian's euphoric:

What relish is in this? how runs the stream?
Or I am mad, or else this is a dream:
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep:
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

(IV. i. 64-67)

I have the impression that the word ‘if’ occurs with suggestive frequency in Twelfth Night. Outside the work of Chekhov, few successful plays have relied so heavily on the peculiarly evasive conditional mood; and it is no accident that Chekhov's delicately textured tragi-comedies have been so often discussed in musical terms. The conditional mood, because of its tendency to float towards silence, reaches out in the direction of music.

My belief is that Shakespeare, having tackled the theatrical problems of providing Twelfth Night with effective musical interludes, found his attitude to his material changed. An episodic story became in his mind a thing of dreams and themes, its title borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of a mysterious revelation generously offered and joyfully received. It was not a matter of conscious decision so much as an exercise of the free imagination. It would be anachronistic to ascribe to Shakespeare a musical sophistication beyond his age's scope. We will not find in Twelfth Night, as some have found in Chekhov, an approach to symphonic form. But it is worth observing, and observing to the point of ‘finding strange’, that the play begins and ends with music. My final contention is that the conduct of the story is consistent with this musical framing.

Two themes, crudely divisible into an ‘Olivia’ theme and a ‘Viola’ theme, are repeated with variations through the play. The boldly dominant one, almost from start to finsih, is the Olivia theme. Olivia is, after all, the declared romantic centre, ‘loved’ by three men (Orsino, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolio), loving a fourth (Cesario), and the eventual love-prize of a fifth (Sebastian). I. ii. introduces the Viola theme in a minor key, and circumstances conspire to keep it there. But Viola, not Olivia, is the true centre of the play. That centrality will be confirmd in the final act, but we know it by II.iv., when her delicately poised responses to Orsino lift her out of Olivia's range. What we may not remember in the pressing world of the theatrical present is how we found it out. Shakespeare has worked openly, but with discretion. The ordering of the scenes in Act One has silently advised us:

  • Scene 1—We meet Orsino. He talks of Olivia.
  • Scene 2—We meet Viola. She talks of Sebastian and Orsino.
  • Scene 3—We meet Olivia's household, but not yet Olivia.
  • Scene 4—Viola talks with Orsino about Olivia.
  • Scene 5—Viola talks with Olivia about Orsino.

From now on, the Olivia theme can never be played in isolation from the Viola theme. An Act which has seemed to be dominated by the ill-starred love of Orsino and Olivia, has been, in subtle fact, dominated by Viola/Cesario. Her dominance is never as sure as Rosalind's in the Forest of Arden, largely because Viola spends most of the play on the verges of misery, but her hold grows stronger with the unfolding action. It is the Olivia theme that has receded to a minor key for its last appearance in Act Five, out-manoeuvred even by the ‘recognition-music’ of Viola and Sebastian. Beneath that recognition-music, the Viola theme reasserts itself, now in the major key, as she reverts to the womanhood that completes the story. Shakespeare's extraordinary achievement here is to make Sebastian, whom we have scarcely seen, the instrument of Viola's reversion, not as a deus ex machina but as a legitimate part of the play's orchestration. His method can be briefly outlined.

We first hear about Sebastian when the Captain tells Viola:

                                                            I saw your brother
Most provident in peril, bind himself
(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)
To a strong mast that liv'd upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin's back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

(I. ii. 10-16)

The association with Arion, whose music charmed the dolphin that saved his life, follows appropriately on the consort of the previous scene as well as offering Sebastian a part in the music of the play. But it is very much a solo part. Until Act Four he is held in isolation from all but Antonio, himself an isolate, and he lives in a time-scheme that has not even a fictional reality. II i., Sebastian's first scene, is structurally linked to I. ii., Viola's first scene. In the silent cinema, they might have been connected by an admonitory, ‘Meanwhile, on another stretch of Illyria's sea-coast …’. But within the duration of the play Viola has already had time to establish herself as Orsino's favourite, and to flutter the sad heart of Olivia before Sebastian passes through the stage door into the story. If there is any explanation for his delayed arrival in Illyria, Shakespeare has not troubled to give it. Clearly he felt no need to. The play is not ready for Sebastian until it has established Viola. His introduction is timed by the story, not by the clock. The Globe audience could accommodate the disparity between Viola's time and Sebastian's. It is asked to do so throughout the play. They have to be held apart until the story allows their bringing together. At the end of II. i., Sebastian tells Antonio, ‘I am bound to the Count Orsino's court’ (II. i. 45). If he were to go straight there, the play could end in II. ii., or certainly in II. iv. Instead, he disappears until III. iii. Logic would demand some explanation of his failure to reach Orsino's court. Shakespeare ignores it, turning Sebastian, in the period that has elapsed during his off-stage scenes, from a purposeful visitor to an idle tourist: ‘what's to do? Shall we go see the reliques of this town?’ (III. iii. 18-19). Once again, Shakespeare offers no explanation for the apparent discrepancy. The scene serves only two ends. It keeps the audience aware of Sebastian's proximity to the leading characters, and it permits the exchange of a property that will be important later—Antonio's purse. The first is the more essential. In the timing of the story, Sebastian must be gathered in towards the denouement. He has so far inhabited only his own places in only his own time. The setting for III. iii is singular, a somewhere-street occupied by the play's two strangers It is not until IV. i. that Sebastian strays into the time and place of the other characters. Antonio beats him to it by about eighty lines, and perhaps (at the Blackfriars, if not at the Globe) an interval. What has become, for the audience, the ‘real’ world is a bewilderment to the two time-travellers. Antonio thinks himself rejected by his friend. Sebastian is quizzed by a jester who claims to know him, struck by a gangling idiot he has neither seen nor spoken to before, and invited indoors by a beautiful woman who shows every outward sign of loving him. ‘Are all the people mad?’ (IV. i. 29). Sebastian's resolution to accept ‘this accident and flood of fortune’ (IV. iii. 11) provides the solution Viola had hopelessly hoped for in the soliloquy that concludes II. ii. … The words of that scene's final couplet are significant: ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie’. It is Sebastian who does time's job. Mysteriously out of time with the play's events until his final entrance, he then harnesses time and introduces harmony. He is crucial to the play's dramatic syntax, and astonishingly at ease—the only character other than Feste who is.

Before turning to Sebastian's final entrance—the moment at which time will stand still and yield to harmony—we have two small irregularities to consider. They take us back to the parting of Sebastian and Antonio in III. iii., and to their surprisingly detailed plans; surprising, that is, in a play not much concerned with details of time and place. This is how the scene ends:

                              Hold, sir, here's my purse.
In the south suburbs, at the Elephant,
Is best to lodge. I will bespeak our diet
Whiles you beguile the time, and feed your knowledge
With viewing of the town. There you shall have me.
Why I your purse?
Haply your eye shall light upon some toy
You have desire to purchase; and your store,
I think, is not for idle markets, sir.
I'll be your purse-bearer, and leave you for
An hour.
                    To the Elephant.
                                                                                I do remember.

At the Elephant in one hour. Nothing could be more specific. But Antonio does not stay at the Elephant. Half an hour later by his own timing (V.i. 96), he has found his way to Olivia's house, rushed to protect ‘Sebastian’ from Sir Andrew Aguecheek only to be denied, and have his purse withheld, by ‘that most ingrateful boy’ (V. i. 81). Poor Antonio, after stalking through the comedy like a grumbling bass in search of escape into a grand opera, has stumbled into a farce and tipped it towards tragedy. Meanwhile the real Sebastian is looking for him:

                              Where's Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant,
Yet there he was, and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.

(IV. iii. 4-7)

It is the only occasion in the Sebastian/Antonio sub-plot on which Shakespeare has attempted to cover his tracks. If it is a pandering to plausibility, it seems scarcely worth the effort. The only effect, perhaps it is the intended one, is to make the previous timelessness and placelessness of the pair stand out in clearer relief. The second irregularity comes with the entrance of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby at V. i. 175. When are we to suppose that Sebastian gave Sir Toby ‘a bloody coxcomb too?’ Not in IV i, when Sir Andrew is soundly beaten, unless Sir Toby is uncomplainingly bleeding through IV. ii. … An off-stage battery so soon after the splendid on-stage confrontation of IV. i., is a strangely tired device. All that can be said is that it allows Sebastian to make his magnificently timed final entrance with an easy excuse for noticing no one but Olivia: ‘I am sorry, madam, I have hurt your kinsman’ (V. i. 219). But a better pretext for this important blinkering would not have been hard to find. It seems likely that Shakespeare was careless of all but the entry itself.

This is one of the magical stage moments in the history of English comedy. Wycherley's The Country Wife has one which operates in reverse, and which may serve to illustrate by contrast Shakespeare's achievement. The concern in Wycherley's play is to avert the threat of sudden illumination. Its focus is Margery Pinchwife, innocent among sophisticates, fresh from the discovery of sex that her husband could not provide, dancing dizzy to the tune of Horner's whore-pipe—and here they all are, saying that Horner is impotent. Why are they telling lies? How can Dorilant, who ought to know better, call Horner ‘an arrant French capon?’ She can stand it no longer: ‘'Tis false, sir, you shall not disparage poor Mr Horner, for to my certain knowledge …’. ‘Oh, hold!’ shouts Lucy. ‘Stop her mouth!’ whispers Mrs Squeamish. And the country wife is forced to participate in the face-saving lie. It is a tableau of deceit, magnificently painted. Had Margery Pinchwife completed her sentence, she would have ‘created’ two cuckolds, two fornicators, two adulteresses and a lecher. The society of the play could not bear so much truth. Quite differently in Twelfth Night, everyone looks at Sebastian. His entrance removes the scales from the eyes of all the on-stage characters. The question we ask just after that magical frozen moment in The Country Wife is ‘what would have happened if Margery Pinchwife had completed her sentence?’ The question we ask in Twelfth Night is ‘what would have happened if Sebastian had not arrived?’. So much of this final scene has nudged improbably close to utter disaster. Orsino's turning on Cesario/Viola is as savage as Oberon's on Titania—and with a vital difference. Unlike the Indian boy, Viola is a character we know and love, but like him she is the innocent victim of a lovers' vicious quarrel. What is threatened as Orsino holds his Cesario before the woman who claims Cesario as hers is the kind of crossfire death which can, in O'Casey and other Irish dramatists, turn hilarity into horror:

But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master's spite.
Come, boy, with me, my thoughts are ripe in mischief.
I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love
To spite a raven's heart within a dove.

(V. i. 123-129)

For fifty lines or so, with the tethered Antonio standing like Iago silent at the side, there seems an outside chance that an Arcadian romance may terminate in an Illyrian bloodbath. So much of the play has circled round the anguish of rejection: Olivia rejects Orsino, Sir Andrew and Malvolio; Viola rejects Olivia and Antonio; Feste as Sir Thopas rejects Malvolio; we have just witnessed the rejection of ‘Cesario’ by Orsino and of Sir Andrew by Sir Toby: now the rejections are over. Twelfth Night is full of occasions on which one human being moves in hope towards another only to be met by a rebuff. They speak to our experience where memory least likes to linger. But all that is suddenly changed when the stage door opens, and Sebastian walks onto the platform. His own obliviousness of the desperate tension which he breaks is a masterly embellishment, but the entrance itself is the true mark of the actor-dramatist. It is based on an apprehension of the difference between the actor within the tiring house waiting for his cue, and the actor opening the door to show himself to an audience. The effect need not be lost on modern stages, but the arrangement of the Globe platform, and the time it took for an actor to travel from the stage door, must have enhanced it. When Sebastian is suddenly slotted into the whole scheme of the play, time has, as Viola said it must, untangled the knots. It is a conclusion as musically satisfactory as mathematics, as mathematically precise as music.


  1. Clement Scott, FromThe Bells’ toKing Arthur’, London, 1897, pp. 267-73

  2. Prynne's Histriomastix was published in 1632

  3. Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare, Oxford, 1971, pp. 24-7

R. W. Ingram (lecture date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 An Apology for Actors (1612), Heywood wrote that ‘a description is only a shadow received by the ear but not perceived by the eye; so lively portraiture is merely a form seen by the eye, but can neither show action, passion, motion, or any other gesture, to move the spirits of the beholder to admiration.’ A soldier may be described, he may be painted, but only an actor can let an audience ‘see a soldier shaped like a soldier, walk, speak, act like a soldier’ (B3v). The art of the theatre appeals to the eye and the ear at the same time; the dramatist demands to be seen and heard. In plays, one thing at a time is not the rule, certainly not one thing in one way at a time. Music is but one element in the compound dramatic experience which is presented on the stage. It is an element, however, whose particular contribution is more likely to be overlooked than most outside the theatre.

After Richard II has surrendered to Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, he observes:

For do we must what force will have us do.
Set on towards London. Cousin, is it so?
Yea, my good lord.
Then I must not say no.
                                                  (Flourish. Exeunt.)


For the reader the scene is over, his eyes skim over the stage-direction: ‘Flourish. Exeunt’ and take up ‘the play’ again in the Duke of York's garden where the Queen and her ladies wonder what sport may be devised ‘to drive away the heavy thought of care.’ In his study the stage is too likely to be cleared by the period at the end of Richard's last speech. In the theatre they order this matter better. There the conventional but splendid sound of the flourish of trumpets proper to a king rings out with ironic impartiality for both Richard and his cousin as they lead their parties out: for the actual king and for the real ruler who knew ‘the strong'st and surest way to get.’ They were last seen together in act I when Richard sat in royal judgment over Bolingbroke and Mowbray in the lists at Coventry. There the sonorous ritual of pageantry and trumpets had been concluded by Richard throwing his warder down and ordering ‘let the trumpets sound’ which they did in a ‘long flourish’ after which he gave his ruling. Now the positions are reversed. The flourish at Flint Castle is part of that pageantry which Richard knew as his prerogative, and relished so much at Coventry, turned sour: now the decision has been rendered against Richard and the flourish marks the end of his effective rule. In the theatre it indicates the sway of power, the glory as well as the danger and uncertainty of royal authority: not with obtrusive blazon but with far more effectiveness than the casual eye taking in the expected punctuation of ‘Flourish. Exeunt’ might at first allow.

Kings, noblemen, and armies are leaving a crowded stage and such music is proper to the occasion according to social custom; it is also theatrically useful in adding a strong decorative sound to an impressive visual moment. All of this is ordinary; what is not is the thought that has gone to add something extra to the ordinary. ‘The point that I want to make’ (in the company of Hereward T. Price, whose words, from his invaluable essay on ‘Construction in Shakespeare,’ I quote) ‘is that Shakespeare had an eminently constructive mind. He was disciplined; he was neither wild nor lazy nor sloppy. … He interrelates part to part, as well as every part to the whole. His inner idea is manifested in an action, with which it is intimately fused, so that the crises in the action which move us most deeply reveal at the same time most clearly the inner core of Shakespeare's thought’ (pp.16-17).2 He wrote of Hamlet: ‘It just will not do to tear a motif—the feigned madness—out of the play and consider it all alone by itself. We must see its connection with the whole play as one of several repeated elements, different but all alike in being linked to the central idea’ (p.16). On this occasion I want to substitute ‘music’ for ‘feigned madness’ and consider music's connection with the whole play as one of several repeated elements linked to a central idea. My illustrations are taken from I Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, and Troilus and Cressida, plays dealing with war, politics, and public events and using such ‘conventional’ music (most of it drum and trumpet) that they could hardly be thought of as among Shakespeare's most musical plays.

The world of these plays is chiefly that of court and battlefield and its incidental music conventional and seemingly unimaginative and limited. The term ‘incidental music’ lends itself to misinterpretation. It is not an indication of music introduced automatically and casually. The facile playwright is, of course, known by his dull acceptance of and numbing reliance upon convention so that his music is very likely to be incidental in the pejorative sense. Shakespeare naturally accepted conventions, but as useful aids not necessary crutches. This being understood, it should nevertheless be noted that good incidental music is often just that, good and necessary but something heard rather than listened to in the same way that there are actions seen on the stage as well as actions that are watched. None of them should be carelessly treated. If they seem not always to be noted when present, they are at once missed when absent. At such rare times the careful playwright provides explanations. When Heywood wrote The English Traveller, for instance, his prologue warned that:

A strange play you are like to have, for know
We use no drum, nor trumpet, nor dumb show;
No combat, marriage, not so much to-day,
As song, dance, masque, to bombast out a play;
Yet these all good, and still in frequent use.(3)

The point being, Heywood continued, that he wanted to see ‘if once bare lines will bear it.’ More recently Ingmar Bergman dispensed with background music in his film The Silence and the curious unease of the audience was remarkable and very noticeable. Much incidental music gains its purpose and strength from being expected and accepted. However, it is the expected and accepted that lend themselves especially well to those slight displacements of expectation that often lead to uneasy incursions of the odd (as Alfred Hitchcock has continually reminded us). This is especially true of the music of court and battlefield.

When Shakespeare deals with domestic and foreign wars drums and trumpets inevitably are heard. Since Morgann the very words have been a stick to beat the plays with: ‘that Drum and trumpet Thing’ as he called 1 Henry VI.4 The noise will help entertain those poor devils, the groundlings, who attend the theatre, at no slight cost to their slender purses, to snatch a quarter of an hour or so of entertainment by way of noise, smut, and vulgarity from the two hours' traffic passing before them. This military music is too easily, and too frequently, relegated to cheapness, an empty blare and rattle to please the ignorant. Of course it can be brash and vulgar when it is abused by excess, as Shakespeare is well aware. Ajax can too pompously vaunt his challenging trumpets:

Now crack thy lungs, and split thy brazen pipe.
Blow, villain, till thy sphered bias cheek
Outswell the colic of puffed Aquilon.
Come, stretch thy chest, and let thy eyes spout blood.


Richard II can stretch the rhetoric in the fashion of a man overplaying a role when he talks of ‘the boist'rous untuned drums, with harsh-resounding trumpets' dreadful bray’ (I.iii.134-5). And in the courtly round Hamlet can comment disdainfully on Claudius' crassly overwhelming use of flourishing noise. But usually the tone is that of the saner challenge, the proper spirit of confidence, as is Richmond's before Bosworth:

Sound drums and trumpets boldly and cheerfully:
God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!


Some of the disesteem felt for this typical histories' music is due to a certain unease displayed about what, loosely, I will call patriotic plays. During time of war and national stress more of such noise and boisterousness, even vulgarity in the sense of serving the vulgar—the great crowd—is called for and is supplied in public entertainments. The film industry supplied it in the 1940s and at times during his career Shakespeare helped to supply it in order to satisfy needs roused by the strain of war, the threat of invasion, the danger of dissension at home, conditions prevalent during much of his working life. Thus, in Henry V, the earnest critical search that descries the man as an inhumane politician, an international villain, or a cynical warmonger, should not completely shroud the fact of his plainer and simpler appeal to patriotic English feelings. Patriotism is not necessarily the last resort of a dramatist.

Shakespeare was as sensitive of the horror as he was of the heroism of war and his plays are far from being conventionally patriotic. The drums and trumpets heralded the parade of cannon-fodder as well as the ‘culled and choice drawn cavaliers,’ of those who went ‘like horse leeches the very blood to suck’ as well as those in whose breasts ‘reigns solely honour's thought.’ At times it is the impartiality of the battle's music that helps to underline these crucial distinctions and comparisons. The wry-necked fife is Othello's instrument, it is Alcibiades', yet it is also Falstaff's. That cold dealer, John of Lancaster, can chide the Archbishop of York for ‘Cheering a rout of rebels with your drum’ and, minutes later, give the order: ‘Strike up our drums, pursue the scattered stray’ of those rebels just sent marching home happily cheering and shouting (2 Henry IV, IV.ii.9, 120). The two aspects are telescoped even more dramatically in the first part of Henry IV when Hotspur, with infectious heroism before his last battle, rallies his friends in their treacherous cause:

Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace;
For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such a courtesy.
          (Here they embrace, the trumpets sound.)


Here drum and trumpet connect with the whole play as one of several repeated elements linked to a central idea. Shakespeare does not always turn convention to such imaginative use; he is often unexceptional (though never unintelligent) in his handling of them. His histories contain much military and court music which is necessary and useful but serves no subtler dramatic purpose. These unexceptional soundings of music, however, gain, not only from the customary care with which they are nonetheless used, but from those other soundings which do inform on more than the informational level.

The early Henry VI, for instance, swells almost joyously with a young man's sense of power, a flexing of dramatic muscles that even this early are apt to answer any calls made on them very confidently. In 1 Henry VI Shakespeare tries out several musical effects and goes far beyond mere drum and trumpet stuffing of a bombastic warplay. The structure of the play, forcefully expounded by Hereward T. Price and admirably supported by Cairncross in his Arden edition (pp. lii-liii),5 is strengthened by music. The three interrupted ceremonies at the beginnings of the first, third, and fourth acts—the funeral of Henry V, the proceedings in the Parliament House, and the coronation of Henry VI, all have their pageantry partially evoked by music. They are all spectacular but each has its own manner and mood. As the Dead March of the funeral contrasts with the flourishes accompanying the parliamentary scene and the coronation, so all three stand in excellent contrast to the sharper exchanges of sounds heard on the battlefields.

The action is boldly accentuated by loud music. In the first two acts, for instance, the contrasts between domestic quarrels and foreign warfare are as much musical as anything else. The scuffle between Gloucester's and Winchester's men in London is more disturbing for being a battle without music sandwiched between clangorous battles before Orleans. Shakespeare freely adds thunder, lightning, and peals of ordnance at times but even then he exploits his devices dramatically rather than abuses them for cheap theatrical ends.

Shakespeare's handling of some of the music in this play initiates a series of experiments to extend the range and power of musical conventions that continue throughout his career. He is well aware, for instance, that the impact of significant visual moments—pageantry, processions, tableaux—can be strengthened by the sound of music. This theatrical effect is raised to the dramatic, however, by his alert recognition of the fact that the strains and discords that ritual and ceremony tend to cover over may be pointed up by the suggestive sound of music, especially if it is deliberately augmented. Such a moment occurs at the end of the first scene of act III. After turbulent skirmishes Winchester and Gloucester make a grudging peace and the civil dissension is falsely subdued in the feigned amity surrounding Henry's creation of Richard ‘princely Duke of York.’ The ‘Sennet. Flourish’ rings out too brazenly for an empty accord as King and court leave the Parliament House, leaving only the distrustful Exeter behind to comment on what such ‘base and envious discord’ will breed. Harbingers of more far-reaching explorations can be found in the opening and closing passages of the play.

All Shakespeare's histories open arrestingly, and the three very different beginnings he devised for the three parts of Henry VI finely illustrate the variety and energy he could command in them. More significant in the development of his dramaturgy, however, is the way in which the black-hung funeral with muffled drums beating, the traditional conclusion of tragedy and tragic history, is used in 1 Henry VI to begin a play. This bold reversal of device heralds later manipulations with traditional conclusions, as in the tragic ambiguity of the marches at the end of Troilus and Cressida. More notably in the dying falls of Love's Labour's Lost, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the traditional joyful harmonies—symbolic and literal—of the marriage ceremony are not the last exultant sound heard. These variations pave the way for the vision scenes of the last plays which bring promise of love and forgiveness, and of a fulfilment perhaps richer than that of the simple hopes of young lovers to live happily ever after, but which still, at the last, in the revels called up by Prospero, celebrate, on one level, a betrothal. In the vision scenes the experiments made with a traditional concluding device coalesce with another series of experiments in musical structuring involving what I have elsewhere called ‘the musical pause.’6 The musical pause comes usually towards the end of the fourth act and brings a lull in the visible action, a lessening of excitement, a momentary easing of tension, after which the final catastrophe follows more forcefully. Its purposes are better fulfilled in tragedy than comedy, but in the histories too with their often strong demands upon emotional response they may be found. In 1 Henry VI this device appears in crude archetype as less a pause than a change in tone and pace. In the third scene of the fifth act amid wild alarums and excursions, and to the accompaniment of thunder, various fiends appear to Joan La Pucelle. This is undoubtedly rough magic but it worked on in Shakespeare's imagination. As a distinct change of pace before the final action it was moved about in later plays until it evolved into the musical pause: examples are found in Julius Caesar when Lucius plays a ‘sleepy tune’ to Brutus (IV.iii), and in 2 Henry IV when a ‘dull and favorable hand’ is asked to ‘whisper music’ to Henry's ‘weary spirit’ and he is lulled into that sleep which Hal mistakes for death (IV.v). The intrusion of the mysterious and the supernatural into the everyday world, especially in the latter part of the play, was yet another device which Shakespeare was to develop further, notably in Macbeth (IV.i) and in Antony and Cleopatra (IV.iii). In the last plays it also contributes importantly to the vision scenes. Closer in time to 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare tried other versions of this ending in the abrupt change of mood in the last scenes of Richard II and the double dream-visions offered to Richard III and Richmond on the night before Bosworth. I do not want to read too much into one early history play, merely to suggest the significance that music has in it. The design of the play, says Cairncross, ‘follows precise patterns of contrast; repetition of theme, often with increment; rise, climax, and fall’ (p. lii). The music, sometimes a little unsophisticatedly, contributes importantly to this design. The musical part of a play's design is itself a theme that Shakespeare develops with increment of subtlety and power in sequent plays.

In Richard III the divorce between the musical ceremony of power and the King's person is explored. A loud flourish announces the first entry of Edward IV (II.i) but, instead of the resplendent figure suggested by the music, a dying man is borne in. The aural symbol is contradicted by the visual fact. In a broad sense the discrepancy between reality and illusion is marked by disease and rancour contrasted with stability and grandeur evoked by the musical pageantry. Thus the royal flourishes which welcome Prince Edward are misleading: as Frances Shirley notes, ‘the doomed prince, powerless in the hands of his uncle Richard, goes to the Tower with a sennet ringing in his ears.’7 Later Richard enters ‘in pomp’ with a similar elaborate sennet and mounts the throne to renewed trumpet-calls in a moment of grandiose show that anticipates Claudius' over-practice of regal noise. Richard's words at this time underline the clash of symbol and fact:

Thus high, by thy advice
And thy assistance, is King Richard seated:
But shall we wear these glories for a day?
Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?


The theme of Richard's loud misuse of music is brilliantly varied when he meets the curses of the three queens. He enters with ‘his Train marching, with Drums and Trumpets.’ To bully them down he commands angrily:

A flourish, trumpets! Strike alarum, drums!
Let not the heavens hear these telltale women
Rail on the Lord's anointed. Strike, I say!


The music is his prerogative as ruler and general, but he stretches claims too far when he so insists upon his right, the more so as his vaunt that he is the Lord's anointed only reminds his hearers strongly that he is not. On another level he is reduced in stature in having to use the ‘clamorous report of war’ to ‘drown the exclamations’ of women. The propriety of the music and its regular meaning thus subverted are made the core of an intensely dramatic moment and a part of Richard's general perversion of custom and ritual. At the opening of the play Richard scathingly denounced the fact that

Our stern alarums [are] changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.


The changes he makes are as bad. The dramatic possibilities of directly acting upon these words uttered by Richard are, however, reserved by Shakespeare for their richest development later, markedly in Troilus and Cressida, where, also, it will be Pandarus who ‘capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / To the lascivious pleasings of a lute’ (I.i.12-13).

In Richard II the movement is from Richard's splendid pomp and circumstance as public monarch to his miserable death as a lonely private man. The musical progression is from the deliberately rich regal flourishes of Richard's court and the lists to the quiet intimate music which he overhears from prison at the end; from trumpets to strings, from public music to private, from bold straightforward rhythms to the more intricate and sophisticated ones at Pomfret.8 At the glorious beginning Richard had no call to muse on the symbolic meaning of music or the deeper meanings of the art. It is Mowbray, after being banished for life, who expands a musical figure:

The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo;
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.


The dying Gaunt talks of ‘tongues of dying men’ enforcing ‘attention like deep harmony,’ and of ‘harmony at the close’ (II.i.5-6, 12). It is only when Richard himself is banished to Pomfret at the close of his life and, like his uncle, must breathe his words in pain, that he too comes to the theme of ‘the music in men's lives’:

                    How sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But, for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.


Verbal image and music heard work thus together throughout the play. The musical contrast is not ended with Richard's speech, however, for as Exton heaves the dead Richard off at one door there enters at the other, with customary royal flourish, Bolingbroke as King.

We may look forward from Richard II and the consideration of the place music has in its over-all design to later plays where music and sound are matched to the progress of the action in other ways. The structure of Julius Caesar has always been difficult to appraise, but musically it moves from the cheerful flourishes and shouts of approval for Caesar as king, through the fiercely ominous roar of the thunderstorm only briefly interrupted, as it were, by the flourish that brings Caesar to the Senate House, to the renewed shouts of the crowd as they move from approval of Brutus to a howling for blood under the incitement of Mark Antony. This pattern of ceremonial sound and crowd voices and thunder is concluded by the resolution on the battlefield amid the military marches and alarums. The musical respite in this clamorous sequence comes in the quiet, even poignant, song of Lucius in Brutus' tent. In Coriolanus, with its emphasis on military prowess and the importance of people's voices, the mingled shouts, cries, and tremendous outbursts of drums and trumpets in battle, doubly redoubled in the hugely triumphant welcome to the conquering Coriolanus in Rome, fall away to the dreadful hooting that sends Coriolanus into exile. Then there is relative quiet (broken only by the offstage convivial banquet music at Aufidius' palace which is the musical pause in the action and effective, as Lucius' song was, partly for being the only private music heard amid louder public music), which gives way at the end to the repetition of the earlier clamour as ‘drum and trumpets sound’ and, ‘with great shouts of the people,’ Coriolanus enters Corioli again, now into a city of friends yet there to be treacherously slain. A bolder musical pattern that extends the movement in Richard II from pageant to private music can be found in Timon of Athens and The Winter's Tale. In these plays music helps to emphasize the two-part structure of the plays. The first part of Timon of Athens is loud with music. Timon's own entry is heralded by trumpets as though he were a king, and it may be that their sounding is meant to underscore both his state and his presumption. His first feast is accompanied by ‘hautboys playing loud music’ and garnished by an exotic ‘Masque of Ladies as Amazons with lutes in their hands, dancing and playing’ and led by Cupid (I.ii).9 The second banquet is more loudly graced by trumpets: ‘Feast your ears with the music awhile, if they will fare so harshly o' the trumpets sound’ ( It may be recalled that Queen Elizabeth was fond of having the hall resound with her trumpets for a while before dining.10 In the latter part of the play, during Timon's exile and until his death, only the uncompromising music of Alcibiades' army is heard. The aural contrast is explicit and sharp. In The Winter's Tale the division is marked in an opposite manner: it is the second part of the play that is musical in a rich variety of ways.

Troilus and Cressida uses music as a structural element rather differently. It is the most imaginative drum and trumpet thing. The dissonances engendered by the conflict between bifold authority of the heart's credence and th'attest of the eyes and ears, the untuned discord of an anarchic world, are not easily resolvable into a pleasing cadence. That the play offers no such resolution is both its problem and its attraction. During its action music is continually used to mark the abrasive clash between appearance and reality, between the opposing poles of that greater struggle that encompasses the lesser one of Greek against Trojan.

Pandarus' song for Helen exemplifies the play's musical pattern. It is a parody love-song in a parody romantic scene. Paris, ‘besotted’ on ‘sweet delights,’ and his ‘sweet queen’ are unattractive lovers; Pandarus' attentions further degrade them. He is, in fact, a pander, and his song, all compact of depressing innuendo far removed from the direct appeal of ‘O mistress mine’ or ‘Sigh no more ladies,’ is very much a brothel song, of that love which, as Helen says, ‘will undo us all’ (III.i.102).11

Throughout the play the clash between the chivalric pretence and the political reality is brilliantly marked by the clear interjections of the trumpet. A motto for these sounds might be found in Troilus' assertion that ‘the busy day, Waked by the lark, hath roused the ribald crows’ (IV.ii.8-9). The play's musical imagery draws on the theme of harmony and well-tuned notes while the world about is all too visibly at discord. Even the most ordinary image is coloured by this. ‘Stop my mouth,’ says Cressida. ‘And shall, albeit sweet music issues thence’ replies Troilus (III.ii.126-7). Stage clichés for lovers, but not quite so here. It is not so for an audience that brings to the play its own preformed opinion of Cressida as the type of faithless lover. Whether she is, even within those limits, presented as an innocent or weak girl overborne by circumstance or, more corrosively, as an amoral pleasure-seeker, there are overtones of more than a simple romantic exchange. In the one case there is something that is ‘out of tune,’ in the other something that more harshly urges the thought that when she opes her jaws there will be heard music that differs in degree rather than in kind from that which Thersites' mastic jaws make.

In the opening scene the abrupt sound of an alarum interrupts Troilus' passionate but somewhat immature ardours with a rude reminder of war. It is a sound that Troilus dismisses unheroically: ‘Peace, you ungracious clamors! Peace, rude sounds!’ (I.i.85). At the end of the play he will last be seen as the warrior on the battlefield calling for the drums to strike a march. My reading of the play is more satirical than tragic, my assessment of Troilus' character less favourable than some, especially in the early passages of the play. Nonetheless, if Troilus' romantic passion is taken at a more serious value and its heroic rather than its immature ardour stressed, there still remains the intrusive quality of the battlefield alarum. Such calls are continually to be heard sounding thus awkwardly across the more secluded rooms and orchards where love's battles range. Troilus returns to his romantic theme, and twice more alarums interrupt him. The contrast is maintained in the next scene. The favourite comedy routine of the young girl reviewing a parade of suitors is presented by Cressida and Pandarus as they watch, too gaily, the return of the Trojans from the field. A retreat is sounded and the fighters enter, but from a real battlefield, not a place of ornate ritual combat: ‘Look you what hacks are on his helmet. … There's no jesting; there's laying on. … Look you how his sword is bloodied’ (I.ii.193-5, 220-1).12 The frivolity as well as the seriousness of love must contend as best it may in this sterner world of bloody warfare. After Pandarus has sung his song the sound of the retreat again signals a return from the field and finely cuts across the sensuous and corrupt atmosphere evoked in Paris' apartments. The talk slides easily, if not glibly, to war as if it were some amusing game, the uneasy juxtaposition excellently caught in the image of Helen's white fingers working the stubborn buckles of Hector's armour. The climactic scene of Troilus' and Cressida's night meeting and all its evocation of uneasy romantic love is followed at once by the flourish announcing the entry of the Greek leaders to talk with Calchas. As lovers exit, politicians enter: the oaths of love are set off against the sounds of the political world and its promises.

The most sustained motif is Hector's challenge, and its music relentlessly reverberates the central ideas of the play. It is introduced with much pomp of trumpets and flowery language into the debate of the Greek High Command on dissension within their ranks. Ulysses has dominated the proceedings, but, before anything resembling a plan of action to be taken can be introduced, a tucket interrupts and Aeneas enters to play his ornate and ironic little comedy of being uncertain which noble man is Agamemnon. Then, with a vigorous trumpet-call as preface, he delivers Hector's challenge. It is a challenge in the vein of knights' jousting for the honour of their ladies:

He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did compass in his arms.


It is an odd claim to advance before this company during this war. It sorts oddly with the debate that went before as well as with the hard political discussion of how best to handle it that follows between Ulysses and Nestor. Its music is next heard in the fourth act. Cressida has been handed over to the Greek envoys after an anguished farewell from Troilus. His ardent praise of her to Diomedes echoes the terms of Hector's challenge and catches closely its mode:

                              I tell thee, lord of Greece,
She is as far high-soaring o'er thy praises
As thou unworthy to be called her servant.
I charge thee use her well, even for my charge.


As Troilus, Cressida, and Diomedes walk aside, Hector's trumpet proclaims his challenge. It reminds the Trojans they are late and they hasten away, Aeneas with a singularly inapt figure—‘Yea, with a bridegroom's fresh alacrity’ (144)—urging speed and a reliance upon Hector's ‘fair worth and single chivalry’ (147). His worth and chivalry is fact and stands out on the tarnished battlefield, but to rely on their power in physical struggle will prove wrong. He asserts an idealism that is, in his challenge, a little strained, and in the whole context of the war fatal. The contradictions it contains are pointed up by the way in which the Greek trumpets answer Hector's; Ajax giving the order in hollow Marlovian ranting vein, coarsely egged on by Agamemnon. This vulgar clamour of words and trumpet cheapens the design of the challenge. There is a dramatic pause after the Greek trumpet sounds, broken by Ulysses saying: ‘No trumpet answers’ (IV.v.11). Then comes the cynically inappropriate and unlooked-for answer: Diomedes, rising on the toe in sprightly fashion, brings in Cressida. The futility of the romantic ethos of the challenge is underscored by the tawdry kissing game of the generals that follows. Ulysses savagely sums up this sour picture of fair worth:

                              … set them down
For sluttish spoils of opportunity
And daughters of the game.


At this instant comes the Trojan answer to Ajax' ‘brazen pipe.’ ‘Enter all of Troy, Hector, Paris, Aeneas, Helenus, Troilus, and Attendants,’ with an actual and symbolic flourish, superb and rich on the heels of the cheap comedy just played. The panoply of chivalry comes to defend the claims of lovely woman, with Cressida onstage and Paris to remind us of Helen. Seltzer notes in his Signet edition that the reaction line to the flourish announcing the Trojans: ‘The Troyans' trumpet’ becomes a pun in the theatre: ‘The Troyan strumpet’ (p. 143). It is an apt reminder of the play in performance and nicely marks the interpretation of this sequence of events as I have set it out. Here, and elsewhere in the play, the music keeps sounding to sharpen the point of the conflicts so relentlessly probed by Shakespeare. Thus the joust between Hector and Ajax, when finally it takes place, is brief and inconclusive, yet it is decorated with trumpet calls beyond its actual significance. In the same proud vein is the great bold exit of both sides from it, as though from some meaningful arbitration and settlement. Agamemnon commands:

Beat loud the tabourines, let the trumpets blow,
That this great soldier may his welcome know.


Hector's welcome from them at the hands of Achilles' myrmidons is foreknown, and, were it not, the exultant exit of the glorious Hector would be a visual and aural moment easily recalled a little later when he is meanly slain and dragged out.

The last battle is relatively brief, sharply punctuated with conventional signals: ominously, both sides simultaneously beat for retreat as Hector is killed and both armies, at the end, march away, the Greeks ‘patiently along’ though the victors (V.ix.6), the Trojans under Troilus' command:

Strike a free march to Troy. With comfort go;
Hope of revenge, shall hide our inward woe.


A triumphal march by the losers to cover their woe and replace the funeral march expected for Hector: the musical conclusion is ambivalent.

The straightforward sounds of the music in the play are continually heard for such reasons and in such situations that the audience is always aware of something ‘out o' tune thus.’ In Troilus and Cressida one can hear—and see—in the sounds of the drum and trumpet (and lute), in the presented vision of the splendour and the dirtiness of war, ‘action, passion and motion to move the spirits’ as Heywood sought, and witness an example of that interrelatedness of ‘part to part, as well as every part to the whole’ that Price rightly averred was the key to Shakespeare's sense of dramatic structure.


  1. All quotations and line references are to William Shakespeare, The Complete Works Alfred Harbage, general editor (Baltimore, Maryland 1969).

  2. Hereward T. Price, ‘Construction in Shakespeare’ University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology 17 (Ann Arbor 1951)

  3. The English Traveller J. Symonds and A. W. Verity, eds, Mermaid Edition (London 1888)

  4. ‘An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff’ in Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare D. Nichol Smith, ed (2nd ed Oxford 1963), 226

  5. The First Part of King Henry VI Andrew S. Cairncross, ed, Arden Edition (London 1962)

  6. R. W. Ingram, ‘Musical Pauses and the Vision Scenes In Shakespeare's Last Plays’ in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, eds (Eugene, Oregon 1966) 234-47

  7. Shakespeare's Use of Off-Stage Sounds (Lincoln, Nebraska 1963) 73

  8. In my interpretation of this scene Richard overhears consort music which is being played nearby in the castle. Its quieter timbre and subtler rhythms would contrast strongly with the louder sound and simpler, stronger rhythms of the conventional flourishes. This scene is commonly staged with Richard in rags in a comfortless prison cell: in this case the contrast between the setting and the sound adds to the over-all effect. However, I can see no reason why the scene should not be set with Richard comfortably dressed and housed in surroundings proper to his rank, in which case the contrast of setting and music would add an extra poignancy to the situation. In the disconcerting comfort of his prison—he is after all imprisoned—he overhears social chamber music that signifies ordinary social life elsewhere in the castle, life from which he is now cut off. In discussions following the paper at the Congress two comments were made on this scene. John H. Long (Greensboro College), a panel-member, argued for the likelihood of the music being supplied, offstage, by a single unsophisticated player, possibly by a lutenist but probably using some simpler instrument such as a gittern. This player, it transpires, is the Groom of the Stable who has offered the music as part of what small solace he can for Richard. Michel Podolski (Belgium), from the floor, on the other hand, allowed that some sort of consort music might have been intended, or lute music, but argued that it is Richard's mind that is out of time and that, therefore, the overheard music, instead of being syncopated and marked by subtle rhythmic effects, would be in the plainest duple or triple time so that its even metre would contrast with the disturbed musings of Richard. Whichever interpretation of the musical part of the scene is accepted, the overriding contrast would still be that between the quieter, intimate music and the louder public music, between music for Richard as king, and for Richard as lonely private man.

  9. M. C. Bradbook remarks of this music in Shakespeare the Craftsman (London 1969) that: ‘The first hint that Timon is being devoured by his friends echoes through the Banquet of Sense which follows, and the Masque to feast the eyes. It is a triumph of the element Air; the music of the lutes contrasted with the more gloomy hautboys; airy dances, airy promises—celestial but childish like blind Cupid, the presiding God’ (p.149).

  10. Paul Hentzner A Journey into England in the Year M.D.XC.VIII (Printed at Strawberry Hill, 1757) 53

  11. F. W. Sternfeld, ‘Troilus and Cressida: Music for the Play’ in English Institute Essays, 1952 Alan S. Downer, ed (New York 1954) 107-37. This informative essay deals at some length with Pandarus' song, its function and its music, as part of a general survey of the way music stresses the corruption of life in the play. There is a good deal of valuable musicological lore in this article also.

  12. The first two examples chosen by Heywood to illustrate his argument about the actor being able to walk, speak, and act like a soldier (quoted at the start of this essay) indicate how the first audiences of Troilus and Cressida took Pandarus' comments here, as well as suggesting the natural sympathy they had for the Trojans: ‘to see a Hector all besmeared in blood, trampling upon the bulks of kings. A Troilus returning from the field in the fight of his father Priam as if man and horse even from the steed's rough fetlocks to the plume in the champion's helmet had been together plunged into a purple ocean’ (B3v-B4r).

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 in the play were expanded by interpolating new songs, dances, and masques, and by rendering speech as recitative.

Doran, Madeline. “The Macbeth Music.” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 153-73.

Asserts that the language of Macbeth “makes its own music, if we listen.” Doran calls attention to reiterations of rhymes, words, and phrases; multiple cadences of the blank verse; the recurrence of dominant and minor themes; and the distinctive “voices” of the central characters.

Fox-Good, Jacquelyn A. “Ophelia's Mad Songs: Music, Gender, Power.” In Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, pp. 217-38. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Explicates the musical and literary semiotics of Ophelia's songs in Act IV, scene v of Hamlet, suggesting that the songs represent subversive expressions by a woman who has otherwise been silenced.

Hart, F. Elizabeth. “Cerimon's ‘Rough’ Music in Pericles, 3.2.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (fall 2000): 313-31.

Proposes that Cerimon's call for clamorous music as he prepares to revive Thaisa links him to the ancient priests of Ephesus, whose ritual celebrations in honor of the Mother goddesses Cybele and Diana featured the boisterous playing of percussion instruments, and who—like Cerimon—acted as intermediaries between the human and the divine.

Hoeniger, F. D. “Musical Cures of Melancholy and Mania in Shakespeare.” In Mirror up to Shakespeare, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 55-67. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Surveys classical and medieval views of the effect of music on persons suffering from mental illness, especially depression. Hoeniger finds evidence in King Lear, Pericles, and Richard II that Shakespeare understood that music could exacerbate emotional maladies as well as ease them.

Iselin, Pierre. “Music and Difference: Elizabethan Stage Music and Its Reception.” In The Show Within: Dramatic and Other Insets, edited by François Laroque, pp. 427-46. Montpellier: Université Paul-Valéry, 1992.

Analyzes the function of music in Shakespeare's plays in the context of sixteenth-century treatises on the moral and ethical effects of music.

———. “Myth, Memory and Music in Richard II, Hamlet and Othello.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 173-86. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Demonstrates how the music in three Shakespearean tragedies prefigures disorder and dissonance, stimulates memory, and encourages a retrospective view of time.

Knapp, Peggy Ann. “The Orphic Vision of Pericles.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15, no. 4 (winter 1974): 615-26.

Maintains that the myth of Orpheus, with its focus on the transforming power of music, is central to the structure of Pericles.

Lindley, David. “Shakespeare's Provoking Music.” In The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry, and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance, edited by John Caldwell, Edward Olleson, and Susan Wollenberg, pp. 79-90. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Contends that Shakespeare's complex use of music reflects diverse Renaissance views of its power to affect human passions.

Long, John H. “King Lear.” In Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Histories and Tragedies, pp. 162-81. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971.

Contrasts the stately instrumental music of the opening and closing acts of Lear with the disorderly scraps of songs sung by the Fool and Tom O'Bedlam in the scenes on the heath. Long also provides examples of traditional ballads and songs on which the play's vocal music may have originally been based.

Muller, Julia. “Music as Meaning in The Tempest.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 187-200. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

A discussion of musical elements in adaptations of The Tempest produced on the London stage between 1670 and 1806.

Neighbarger, Randy L. An Outward Show: Music for Shakespeare on the London Stage, 1660-1830. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992, 318 p.

A study of the music used in Shakespearean productions from the Restoration period to the early nineteenth century. Neighbarger links the different ways music and spectacle were featured in revisions of Shakespeare's plays to changes in literary and theatrical aesthetics during these years.

Ross, Lawrence J. “Shakespeare's ‘Dull Clown’ and Symbolic Music.” Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966): 107-28.

Maintains that the interlude at the beginning of Act III, scene i of Othello, featuring the Clown and Cassio's morning music, serves as an induction to the dramatic action that follows it. Ross provides an extensive survey of classical and Renaissance theories of music as well as traditional emblematic linkages of music, harmony, and love.

Sabol, Andrew J. “The Original Music for the French King's Masque in Love's Labour's Lost.” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 207-23. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996.

Describes five extant musical settings that appear to have been composed for late sixteenth-century performances of the masque of the Muscovites in Act V, scene ii of Love's Labour's Lost. Sabol's essay includes transcriptions of three of these settings.

Seng, Peter J. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Critical History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, 314 p.

A compilation of textual and analytic commentary, from the sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth, on lyric passages in twenty-one Shakespearean plays. Seng is particularly concerned with the songs' authenticity and their dramatic function.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Magic of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest.Comparative Drama 29 (1995-96): 61-90.

Focuses on analogies between Prospero and Orpheus, the mythical demi-god who employed music and eloquence to civilize brutish men and bring harmony to his kingdom. Simonds demonstrates the political symbolism of Orpheus in Renaissance iconography and reads The Tempest as centrally concerned with the art of governance.

Sternfeld, F. W. “Instrumental Music: Part One—Tamburlaine, Richard II, Troilus and Cressida.” In Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 195-209. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Contrasts the harsh trumpet calls that introduce the trial by combat in Richard II with the soft tones of stringed instruments the deposed king hears in the dungeon of Pomfret Castle. Sternfeld also remarks on the several instances of martial music in Troilus and Cressida.

———. “Instrumental Music: Part Two—Stringed versus Wind Instruments.” In Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 210-49. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Compares the different uses of musical passages as well as the contrasting effects of tuned and untuned instruments in the tragedies, particularly Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra. Sternfeld points out how different tone colors, sonorities, and traditional associations of stringed and wind instruments enhance characterization and underscore dramatic motifs.

Stevens, John. “Shakespeare and the Music of the Elizabethan Stage: An Introductory Essay.” In Shakespeare in Music, edited by Phyllis Hartnoll, pp. 3-48. London: Macmillan, 1964.

An overview of the dramatic function of music in Shakespeare's plays, including remarks on the kinds of instruments employed in Renaissance performances and the various musical resources available at public and private theaters. Stevens compares music used to reinforce atmosphere with music that enhances thematic or character development.

Wells, Robin Headlam, and Alison Birkinshaw. “Falstaff, Prince Hal and the New Song.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 103-15.

Calls attention to Falstaff's association in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 with musical instruments that traditionally symbolized lechery, gluttony, and drunkenness. This association, the authors contend, enhances the fat knight's emblematic relation to the unregenerate sinner described in St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians.

Rosalind King (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 I am.


Iago's commentary on the reunion of Othello and Desdemona on the island of Cyprus is more than just a fanciful statement of his intentions. Iago as a character deliberately sets out to destroy the harmony of love, but Shakespeare, the dramatist, presents his words and actions as part of an extensive pattern of musical images and effects. This pattern works integrally as a structural theme. It unites and expands the ideas of the play and provides the essential terms of reference for both aesthetic and moral judgement.

Othello probably makes more use of music than any other Shakespeare tragedy. Iago's two songs and Cassio's wind music are essential to the plot, while the ‘willow song’ expresses Desdemona's situation and her state of mind with accurate and agonizing economy.

Previous studies have demonstrated that Shakespeare knew and was using well-established musical theory.1 They show that the play contains passages which spring from such commonplaces as the superiority of string over wind instruments, the existence of ‘music that cannot be heard’ (the music of the spheres), and the continuing debate as to whether the performance of music was a suitable occupation for anyone who claimed to be a gentleman.2

Renaissance ideas of musical harmony were inextricably bound up with order and structure. Following the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato, Renaissance scholars believed that the simple mathematical proportions 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, which result in the intervals of perfect harmony in ancient music—the octave, the perfect fifth, and the perfect fourth—were also responsible for the beauties and numerical structure of the universe, from the ‘dancing’ of the tuneful planets to the form and constitution of man. Discounting folk-song and ballads, audible music on earth was considered as falling into two categories—public, outdoor ceremonial music played on ‘loud’ instruments by professional musicians and bandsmen (military trumpeters, drummers, and the like) and private, indoor music played on ‘soft’ stringed instruments (virginals, lutes, viols etc.), sometimes by professional musicians but often by members of the upper classes for the amusement of themselves and their friends. The music in Othello exists in all these forms: actual and metaphorical, public and private, folk-song and art-song. It is an essential part of the way Shakespeare illustrates both the initial harmony of Othello's and Desdemona's love and the manner in which they combine their official public roles with their private lives.

As a military commander and general, Othello's life is punctuated by musical sounds—mostly played on trumpets and drums—designed to regulate life in the garrison and give orders on the battlefield. During the course of the play, the trumpets announce the arrival of first Othello and later the Venetian senator, Lodovico, before summoning all the characters to a state dinner. The trumpet is a reminder of state, ceremonial, and duty. A public instrument, it was used for broadcasting information to large numbers of people and in contemporary art and iconography it had understandably become the identifying symbol for personifications of Fame.3

The first reference to trumpets in the play, however, comes from Desdemona. She uses it with the connotations of both ‘fame’ and the ‘military life’ to express her love for her husband and to convince the Venetian Senate that it is fitting that she should accompany him to Cyprus:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world.


The daughter ‘never bold’ that her father has described, demonstrates instead that she is the true partner of a man of action. She is no simple retiring maiden but a woman who is well aware of the consequences of her actions. She knows that Othello is a public figure and that by marrying him, particularly in such a ‘violent’ manner, she is likely to attract public attention to herself. She is not prepared to stay at home, a ‘moth of peace’, but is anxious to share her husband's life and to take an active role in it. Indeed, both lovers see their relationship as a reciprocal one, a partnership of mutual help and interest, and in these early scenes their descriptions of each other find similar and complementary expression:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.


Just as Desdemona demands to share her husband's life, so Othello—perhaps even more remarkably—is willing for her to do so. Throughout the first half of the play in every speech of more than half-a-dozen lines, he manages to combine with perfect ease the most earnest consideration of state affairs with equally earnest and loving reference to his wife. He too is anxious that she should accompany him on his expedition to Cyprus, and adds his voice to her request:

And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant
For she is with me.


Shakespeare twice adopts the point made in Cinthio's Introduction to Gli Hecatommithi,4 the major source of the play, that ‘he who wishes to form a true judgement of beauty must admire not only the body, but rather the minds and habits of those who present themselves to his view’. Thus, while Desdemona ‘saw Othello's visage in his mind’ (1.3.252), Othello wishes that the Senate be ‘free and bounteous to her mind’ (1.3.265) by allowing her to go with him to Cyprus. It is the similarity of thought and outlook, the bounty, the generosity, and the courage which each finds in the other that is important. This sharing of roles is further indicated when they meet after the storm on the island of Cyprus. He greets her as the soldier-hero and she him as the supporting lover: ‘My fair warrior … My dear Othello’ (2.1.180). The rarity of their thinking is emphasized by observations made by other characters on the same theme which are markedly rooted in sexual stereotypes. Cassio's description of Desdemona as ‘Our great Captain's Captain’ (2.1.74) is a recognition of Desdemona's powers in the terms of perfect woman-on-a-pedestal which in no way detracts from Othello's purely masculine authority, whereas Iago's very similar line, ‘Our General's wife is now the General’ (2.3.305), has exactly the opposite effect—and deliberately so. Instead of a unity in partnership, Iago depicts for his audience just another henpecked husband, harassed by an appalling wife.

From his observations about women to his thoughts on reputation, Iago consistently follows and exploits conventional beliefs about the way the world works. He thinks as Everyman thinks and Everyman is therefore bound to hold him in respect: ‘It would be every man's thought, and thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks’ (2 Henry IV, 2.2.52). It is this that makes him so powerful. Audiences do not stop to disapprove of his scheming—they are too excited by it—and every character in the play (not just Othello and Desdemona) is taken in by it because in the context of normal social behaviour everything he says appears reasonable and credible even when it is most lying and pernicious.

And what's he, then, that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking.


In supporting Desdemona's request to accompany him to Cyprus, Othello quite clearly is not thinking like Everyman, and it is Iago's constant task throughout the long scenes of 3.3 and 3.4 to manipulate him into thinking that way. Even after vowing to kill her for the personal injury supposedly done to him, Othello is still able to appreciate not only Desdemona's charm but also her immense capability—although, because now obsessed with her body, he can only regard her as a concubine:

O, the world has not a sweeter creature; she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks.


It is evident from Iago's relationship with his own wife and from his views expressed in the rhyming game he plays with her and Desdemona that his ideas on what might be possible within marriage are very different from Othello's. In his own marriage, petty wrangling and jealousy are the norm and he is thus understandably determined to destroy the harmony and accord that his black commanding officer has found. His manner of doing this is evidenced by his behaviour in the landing-in-Cyprus scene, which in many respects is a paradigm of the entire play since it shows the acute strategy with which he responds to different but similar situations. The stage picture of an overly courteous Cassio taking Desdemona ‘by the palm’ and kissing his fingers (in a manner still practised by Italians wishing to impress and still regarded with suspicion and derision by Englishmen) is instantly replaced by that of Othello and Desdemona in each other's arms. Iago is the commentator on both. He perverts the former innocent though overdone courtesies to a gross anal sexuality:

Yet again your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster-pipes for your sake.


However, when he likens the embrace between Othello and Desdemona to a well-tuned string instrument in the passage with which this article began, he is describing no more than the truth. He demonstrates that he is capable of appreciating the extent and quality of Othello's and Desdemona's love—an essential prerequisite to attempting to destroy it.

God's hand tuning the string of the universe is a fairly common Renaissance and Shakespearian emblem. In Troilus and Cressida (1.3.109) Ulysses uses the image of an untuned string to express political anarchy, and in Richard II the deposed king languishing in prison, considering the ‘music of men's lives’ (5.5.44ff), mentions the discord which results from a ‘disordered string’—one that is plucked out of time with the others. Iago does not mention a specific instrument, but the lute, a solo instrument with courses of strings tuned in consonant pairs so that two strings are plucked together and sound as one, lends itself admirably to an image of union in marriage. Such an instrument also forms the central image in Sonnet 8—one of the initial sequence urging love, marriage, and procreation—because the sound produced when both identically pitched strings are plucked together is far fuller and more resonant than either would produce singly:

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing.

The difficulty of tuning a lute and the horrible sound that can result even when only one string in one of those pairs is out of tune had become commonplace by the time Webster was writing The Duchess of Malfi:

                                                            'twas just like one
That hath a little fingering on the lute
Yet cannot tune it.


One of the ways in which Iago cultivates his appearance of honesty is by pretending to the practice of harmony, and it is through music that he effects the vital first stage of his plot, the undoing of Cassio. Despite Iago's disparaging remarks, Othello has undoubtedly made the right decision in appointing Cassio to the lieutenantship. As an ‘arithmetician’ (1.1.19) he should know something about recent revolutionary developments in the art of fortification.5 The defence of Mediterranean islands at this time centred on their fortified ports, thus, rather than requiring a soldier who can ‘set a squadron in the field’ (1.1.22), Othello needs someone to design and build the new star-shaped defences and to calculate the track of tunnels for the laying of mines. Cassio is not, however, completely ‘bookish’, for during the course of the play he proves himself to be an accomplished swordsman. Both Othello and the Venetian Senate have the greatest confidence in him, and at the end of the play the governorship of the island falls to him quite naturally. Unfortunately, he has two weaknesses—a bad head for drink and a basic insecurity regarding his position in society. He presents himself as a gentleman from Florence but is slightly uneasy in the role. In his description of Desdemona to Montano (2.1.61-87), and in his manner of greeting her when she lands in Cyprus, he is seen striving just a little too hard to be courtly, and it is this excess which gives Iago his chance: ‘Ay, smile upon her, do. I will gyve thee in thine own courtship’ (2.1.170). This social unease is further emphasized by his ambivalent attitude to Iago's songs on the Court of Guard. He is beguiled by the music but he is also wary of it. He is not sufficiently sure of himself and his own social standing to risk behaving in what some might consider to be an improper manner.

Fore God, this is a more exquisite song than the other.
Will you hear't again?
No; for I hold him to be unworthy of his place that does those things.


Roderigo has already drunk ‘potations pottle deep’, and Iago has ‘flustered with flowing cups’ the three remaining guards (2.3.47ff). By persuading Cassio to accept a drink, staging a rowdy drinking song and organizing a fight, Iago has corrupted the entire ‘Court and Guard of safety’. A single drunken man might be overlooked but not a noisy brawl involving all members of the watch. Othello has decreed that the island should be free to celebrate both the sinking of the Turkish fleet and his own marriage—again a perfectly balanced combination of the public and private life—but the islanders can only do this in safety if those on watch are keeping to their duty. The decree is made in the form of a direct address by Othello's herald to the audience—not a stage rabble as in most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions6—thus bringing that audience into some measure of active involvement in the situation.

The original audience cannot have been ignorant of the spectacular advances of the Turks in the Mediterranean, as they were a matter for public concern and well documented.7 Cyprus had in fact fallen to the Turks in 1571 and Hakluyt's Voyages includes an eyewitness account written by a Venetian nobleman.8 He tells how the Venetian garrison of Famagusta eventually surrendered after a siege lasting nearly six months on promise of a safe conduct to Candy (Crete), but that the promise was not kept. Almost the entire garrison was murdered or taken as slaves and one of its commanding officers skinned alive.

Appended to The Mahumetane or Turkish History published in 1600 are two short tracts, ‘The Narration of the Wars of Cyprus’9 and ‘The Causes of the Greatness of the Turkish Empire’. This last attempts an analysis of the reasons for Turkish success and concludes that, in contrast with the Turkish forces, the Christians at all levels of command were badly disciplined and too preoccupied with their own differences and jealousies:

we are desperately diseased, even to the death, our soldiers being mutinous, factious, disobedient, who fashioned by no rules of discipline, contained in duty by no regard of punishment … which is as common to the captains and commanders as the private soldiers, a number of whom studying their particular revenge, their private ambition or (than which with men of war there is naught more odious) their servile gain, betray their country, neglect their princes' command and without executing aught worthy their trust and employment cause often impediments through malicious envy of another's glory, to whatsoever might be worthily executed.

In this context, it becomes clear that Shakespeare's play is very much more than the ‘most famous story of sexual jealousy ever written’.10 Othello's and Desdemona's love is presented as quite inseparable from their management of state affairs, while Iago's jealousy of both Cassio and Othello, and the factious quarrel which he engineers on the Court of Guard, is part of an examination of the ways in which personal rivalries can affect and be affected by wider political issues. This marks a departure from Cinthio's story, in which the geographical change of scene from Venice to Cyprus is incidental and bears no stated military or political significance, and where no mention is made of the Moor's ability in his public life. Shakespeare presents a man who has been entrusted with a large measure of the safety and commercial interest of the Venetian state, and who, for the first half of the play, seems capable of fulfilling that trust. Iago's plan demands a reversal of Othello's values of love and loyalty, and the first stage of this plan is effected by the drinking song directed against Cassio.

The song instructs the drinkers to forget their public duty to the wider issues and longer time-scheme of the state and to concentrate instead on the personal pleasure that one man can snatch during a single lifetime:

A soldier's a man;
O, man's life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.


Cassio makes one last attempt to refer back to the public situation by proposing ‘the health of our General’, which Montano is quick to second; but Iago prevents the drinking of the toast by launching into a second song, ‘King Stephen’.

This song is a single stanza from the middle of a traditional ballad entitled ‘Bell, my wife’ or ‘The old cloak’ and survives in Bishop Percy's manuscript. The nineteenth-century editors of the manuscript, Furnivall and Hales, describe ‘a controversy between the spirits of Social Revolution and Social Conservatism. The man is anxious to better himself, no longer content to tend cows and drive the plough; his neighbours are rising and advancing around him; the clown is not now distinguishable from the gentleman.’11 The song takes the form of a conversation between the shepherd and Bell, his wife. She wants him to get up and tend the cow, taking his old cloak about him; he wants to improve his attire—and his social standing—and go to court. Eventually, to save an argument, he gives in.

It is one of Bell's stanzas stressing the need for order and degree that Iago is singing, but in the ballad the king in question is King Harry.12 Iago's change to King Stephen is interesting. Holinshed stresses that Stephen was a generous king but that he was directly responsible for the terrible civil wars that raged throughout his reign, ‘having usurped another man's rightful inheritance’. He had sworn an oath of allegiance to King Henry I's queen, the Empress Maud, but broke this oath because of an ‘ambitious desire to reign’. His arrival in England had been marked by a terrible thunderstorm which ‘seemed against nature and therefore it was the more noted as a foreshowing of some trouble and calamity to come’. Holinshed also explains Stephen's unusual generosity and his decisions not to collect taxes as a deliberate policy of buying support in preparation for the inevitable wars with Maud.13 Stephen's reign was, and still is, notorious as a time of civil strife and anarchy, yet Stephen himself has been placed within Bell's format of modesty and worthiness. Iago has turned Bell's words into a praise of anarchy and dubious virtue, while as always retaining his appearance of honesty. Thus Iago uses apparent harmony in order to start the process of setting down the pegs that make the music between Desdemona and Othello. By this time almost half the play has passed, and as yet Iago has not even started to work on Othello himself.

Having been undone in music, Cassio ironically reinforces his fall from favour in an attempt to create harmony. He takes it upon himself to provide the traditional musical awakening for the bride and groom on the morning after the wedding night and has hired musicians to perform this aubade. These musicians are playing wind instruments or ‘pipes’. This is a neat visual and aural pun on the ‘clyster pipes’ that Iago has already said should be at Cassio's lips, and the bawdy jokes made by the Clown on the nature of anal wind music in this scene indicate that the connection is deliberate:

O, thereby hangs a tail.
Whereby hangs a tale, sir?
Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know.


Whatever the exact identity of these musical pipes—and this of course would depend on the particular resources of the company—the instruments must have double reeds (like modern oboe reeds) which produce a nasal sound: ‘Why, masters, ha' your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' th' nose thus?’ (3.1.3). Instruments of this kind might be blown directly, or attached to a bag (i.e. a bagpipe). The latter might be implied by the Clown's line ‘put up your pipes in your bag’ (3.1.19), while the phallic imagery could be emphasized visually by means of the distinctive upturned shape of the crumhorn.

Cassio behaves correctly in considering that music is necessary for the occasion, but he displays an inordinate lack of taste in his choice of such music. The Clown's comments indicate that it is coarse and crude and not suitable as an aubade for the newly married pair, and reports that the General would only be happy if the musicians could play music that cannot be heard. Of course neither the Clown nor the musicians take this to mean any more than that they should pack up and go away, but the line refers back to Othello and his wishes. He enjoys music. Even at the height of his rage he can be moved by the recollection that his wife ‘sings, plays and dances well’ (3.3.189). In desiring music that cannot be heard he is demanding the music of the spheres which is inaudible to the ears of fallen man but which alone would be a suitable accompaniment to his love for his wife.14

As the audible music in the play gets noticeably falser, so both Othello and Desdemona find it progressively more difficult to effect the harmony of true partnership. As her husband becomes unaccountably difficult and distant, she admits to Cassio that her ‘advocation is not now in tune’ (3.4.124). Similarly, as Iago drives in the wedge that alienates him from his wife, Othello finds that without her the very sounds intrinsic to his life no longer have any meaning for him:

                                                            O, now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue. O, farewell.
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance, of glorious war.
And O ye mortal engines whose rude throats
Th' immortal Jove's dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell. Othello's occupation's gone.


The farewell to the type of music which, according to classical theory,15 had been thought capable of raising men to noble acts, the ‘spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife’ emphasizes Othello's rejection of his public duty and demonstrates that just as with Cassio on the Court of Guard, the attack on the private man is resulting in the destruction of the public one. The terror of his situation lies in the fact that he and Desdemona had been so close that they had become indeed the ‘beast with two backs’, the hermaphrodite image of perfect love of which Aristophanes speaks in Plato's Symposium (189ff) and which Iago parodies in sexual terms in the first scene of the play (1.1.118). Thus casting off Desdemona is like trying to cut himself in half—it inevitably leads to his own destruction. Everything that he had ever lived for, including his public life established before he met Desdemona, is gone. He feels that he no longer exists, and refers to himself in the third person as ‘Othello’. The long ‘temptation’ scene in which this speech occurs is preceded by a deceptively short and seemingly insignificant scene (3.2) in which Othello enters with his aides, dispatches a letter to the Senate, and then departs to inspect the fortifications. This is his last act of official business in the play, and it now becomes apparent that this six-line scene has marked the climax of Othello's career and that its position as the central scene of the play is a fitting one.

The fact that we, the audience, have already witnessed Iago's skilful manipulation of Cassio and Roderigo enables us to accept that his successful transformation of Othello is possible. The internal construction of act 3, scene 3 as a whole dramatizes the difficulty of Iago's task and shows the tightrope of expediency and luck on which he is walking. This scene is the longest in the play, and consists of constantly varying groups of characters: Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia, with Othello and Iago entering later; Othello and Desdemona with Iago looking on; Othello and Iago; Othello; Othello and Desdemona with Emilia; Emilia with the handkerchief; Emilia and Iago; Iago; Iago and Othello. Throughout the scene, Othello keeps reiterating his belief in his wife's fidelity, a belief which is always first welcomed and then deftly punctured by Iago. By the end of the scene, the man who had been seen combining his domestic and public life with such ease—receiving and giving orders with Desdemona by his side, controlling his men and inspecting defences with a quiet because absolute authority—can now think of nothing except his wife's body and her supposed faithlessness, which eventually he comes to ‘see’ as clearly as if he had indeed the ‘ocular proof’ which he demands from Iago. He is tortured as much by the true picture of her virtues as by the false picture of her adultery, for, as Iago implies, those very qualities which attracted him must now be being used to attract others.

Hang her. I do but say what she is: so delicate with her needle, an admirable musician—O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear—of so high and plenteous wit and invention.
She's the worse for all this.


Iago's disparagement and suspicion of Desdemona's musical and other qualities is almost immediately challenged by the sound of a Venetian trumpet. Desdemona enters, fulfilling both her official duties and her family ones by having received Lodovico who has brought a letter from the Venetian Senate and who is also her kinsman. The entire incident and her precedence is a threat to Iago's plan, and he abruptly interrupts their conversation, thus demonstrating that he now has Cassio's place and rank. The situation then turns back to Iago's advantage, for Desdemona seizes the opportunity to talk about Cassio, and Othello, whose language even while accepting the letter consisted of words with normally sexual connotations—‘I kiss the instrument of their pleasures’ (4.1.213)—now uses this ‘instrument’ merely as a prop to cover his eavesdropping on Desdemona's and Lodovico's conversation. Finally, private passion conquers duty altogether as Othello strikes his wife in public.

Desdemona is now naturally distraught. Their next meeting, the so-called ‘brothel scene’ (4.2), ends with an agonizing promise of reconcilation in which for a few moments it seems that Othello was about to accept Desdemona's protestations of innocence. His simple insult, ‘Impudent strumpet’ (l. 82), gives way to a progression of questions—‘Are not you a strumpet?’, ‘What, not a whore?’, ‘Is 't possible?’—which seems to display an increasing uncertainty concerning her guilt. This then prompts Desdemona's plea to heaven to forgive them both, which is probably best delivered as a renewed attempt to stress the equality of their relationship and the truth of their mutual love. For a brief moment he seems to concur in this image of forgiveness—‘I cry you mercy, then’—but this is an illusion. The admission of his mistake is merely ironical and the phrase which follows is a rejection of her and everything that she has just said: ‘I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello’ (4.2.90-1). For a second time he casts her away, and for a second time he calls himself by his name ‘Othello’. After he has gone, she summons Iago and asks him to mediate for her. The trumpets sound for an official dinner and he prompts her back to her public role with the promise ‘all things shall be well’ (4.2.172). The biblical echoes in this phrase are ironic. She has just been kneeling to him as Othello had knelt earlier,16 and Iago enjoys the role of father confessor.

In the next scene, as Lodovico takes his leave, Othello ‘looks gentler than he did’, but Desdemona, still with no clear conception of what is wrong, is haunted by the old song her mother's maid Barbary sang when her lover ‘proved mad, / And did forsake her’—the ‘willow song’.

The major significance of this scene is not so much that the song is sung as that it is broken off. The story of the song is too close to Desdemona's own situation to be borne, and she first muddles the order of the stanzas before finally stopping altogether, unable to go on. By this stage in the play, Desdemona is the only character who is still ‘in tune’. It is vital therefore that her song should be well performed. She is an accomplished musician and must be seen to be so, otherwise the double collapse of her song is meaningless or merely embarrassing.

One of the two possible settings of the song identified by Sternfeld17—and the one which bears the closest resemblance to the words as given in the Folio—contains some striking harmonic modulations in the lute accompaniment which greatly increase the impact of the tune, while cadences in the lute part sound through rests in the vocal line to give the effect of sighs. The music therefore performs the task of expressing Desdemona's misery. The boy actor is not required to contribute his own emotions. All he is asked to do is to sing and play—the music will do the rest.

The song has two important dramatic functions. It displays Desdemona's emotional state and manipulates the audience's response to her. In her previous conversation with Emilia she has reiterated her beliefs concerning her marriage to Othello, but the audience, who alone have the benefit of knowing exactly what is happening, may well be feeling that Emilia's worldly view is more sensible and pragmatic. The song has the effect of stripping away the accidentals in the current situation and reminding us not only of what love might be but also of the nature of Othello's and Desdemona's love before Iago set to work. It speaks directly to the hearts and minds of the audience, and has the effect of making us appreciate the absolute truth of what Desdemona represents as opposed to the worldly truth of Emilia's observations. This reaction to her is exactly the same as that which Othello has always experienced. He recognizes that she can ‘sing the savageness out of a bear’ and is afraid of the power of her words. He refuses to allow the rational force of words to interfere with his irrational passion. He is afraid that she will render him incapable of performing the task that he has set himself—the necessary, rightful killing of a woman who has wronged him: ‘I'll not expostulate with her lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again’ (4.1.200). But it is not her body and beauty which weaken his resolve, for he comes to her while she is asleep and kisses her, exulting in her beauty but still quite firm in his intentions. The act of expostulation of course necessitates talking to her, and this he is not prepared to risk. When she wakes, he stops her expression of pity and tenderness for his overwrought state and prevents her explaining her motivations and actions. She realizes her danger, and her line ‘Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight’ (5.2.84) is a last attempt to restore sanity to the situation. She knows that if only she could talk to him, all things would indeed be well; a brief moment is all that is needed, ‘But half an hour … But while I say one prayer’ (ll.86-8). But the entire play is organized so that there is not one scene which presents the two of them talking privately together, and part of the horrific quality of the ‘brothel’ scene arises from the fact that he has set up the interview in order to prove her guilt and is not talking to her but at her.

Othello takes his revenge, only to learn immediately that it is not after all complete and that Cassio is not dead: ‘Not Cassio killed? Then murder's out of tune / And sweet revenge grows harsh’ (5.2.118-19). For Othello at this instant, imbued with Iago's false music, harmony could only be achieved if both adulterous lovers had died.

It is left to Emilia, whose part is greatly strengthened in the Folio, to take over the feminine strength of the play after Desdemona's death18 to bring Othello to a recognition of the truth. With the dawning of understanding, Othello's language reverts to normal. For the first time since he came to suspect his wife he considers himself as a soldier rather than simply an aggrieved husband. Now, again, he is able to talk with some ease about the two things which were dearest to him—his profession and his love—but this time his rejection of Desdemona has been absolute and irreversible and for a third time he refers to himself in the third person: ‘Man but a rush against Othello's breast, / And he retires. Where should Othello go?’ (5.2.273-4), and then again some ten lines later: ‘That's he that was Othello; here I am.’

The very construction of Othello's final speech serves to underline all that is lost in the tragedy. His reminder that he has done the state some service gives way to personal thoughts both of Desdemona, the ‘pearl’ he has thrown away, and of his own nature. These are then combined as he repeats the service to the state which he had once performed in Aleppo by killing a foreigner who had harmed a Venetian.

And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th' throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him—thus.


On one level this is a vengeful triumph for Iago's white racism: the ‘old black ram’ has been justly punished for tupping the white ewe (1.1.90). On another, Iago as devil has achieved his ends, for according to conventional Christian belief both of his victims are damned—she for perjuring herself in laying claim to the sin of suicide (5.1.127) and he for the double sin of murder and self-murder. But neither of these possible views can be uppermost in the audience's mind. Emilia's swan-song, the ‘willow, willow’ refrain, reminds the audience of Desdemona's song and the dramatic reality which it created. The fact that love is unrequited is also proof that love exists. The protagonists of the play may be dead, but for those left alive—including those members of the audience who did not hang up their brains along with their hats on entering the theatre—the possibility of love remains. The tune that Iago was calling—the declaration that love is ‘merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will’ (1.3.333)—is broken not with the torture that Lodovico has ordered but by the results of what he himself has engineered. The ‘tragic loading of the bed’ is a positive reminder not only of what might have been, but of what might be.


  1. F. W. Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1963); Lawrence Ross, ‘Shakespeare's “Dull Clown” and Symbolic Music’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 17 (1966).

  2. Much of the confusion stems directly from Aristotle, The Politics, e.g. ‘We think it not manly to perform music, except when drunk or for fun’ (Book 8.4.7). ‘it is plain that music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it’ (Book 8.5.9): trans. H. Rackham (London, 1932).

  3. Cf. Geoffrey Chaucer, The House of Fame Book 3; ll.1237ff, ed. F. N. Robinson (London, 1957).

  4. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. vii (1973), p. 240.

  5. E.g. the bastioned trace developed by Italian engineers at the beginning of the sixteenth century—extremely thick walls with projecting bastions able to withstand artillery bombardment.

  6. Cf. Capell, ‘A street. People moving in it. Trumpets. Enter a Herald attended.’ Malone, ‘Enter a Herald with a proclamation; People following.’

  7. Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1589, enlarged 1598-1600); The Mahumetane or Turkish History, trans. R. Carr et al. (London, 1600); Richard Knolles, The General History of the Turks (London, 1603; subsequent editions 1610, 1621, 1631, 1638).

  8. Hakluyt, vol. 2.1.121ff (1599).

  9. The Mahumetane or Turkish History, Hh 4v.

  10. Publicity for RSC production of Othello, 1985.

  11. Ed. J. W. Hales and F. J. Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript (London, 1867-8), vol. 2, p. 320.

  12. Another version of the ballad, printed in Allan Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany (London, 1740), pp. 105-7, gives ‘King Robert’.

  13. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles, 2 vols (1577), pp. 365-94.

  14. Ross, Shakespeare Quarterly, 17, pp. 117-18. I am grateful to Mr Andrew Pinnock for drawing my attention to the fact that the Musician's reply ‘We have none such’ is also a contemporary musical joke, since ‘Nonesuch’ was the name of a popular tune.

  15. Modes, rhythms and instruments were all considered to be capable of affecting the human spirit either for good or bad; cf. Aristotle, Politics, 8.5.8-9.

  16. 3.3.464.

  17. The London Book, British Library Add. MS 15117, f. 18.

  18. E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘Shakespeare's revised plays: King Lear and Othello’, The Library Series 6, vol. 4 (London, 1982), p. 159.

All Shakespearian references are taken from the Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (Glasgow, 1951).

J. L. Styan (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 poet as maker embraces speech as well as words, song and dance as well as music, taking all the performing arts to a point where their edges are thoroughly blurred.

In practice, it is for us to recognize the form and shape of these arts of voice and body, ears and eyes, and to unblur their edges. More than this, the study of a play demands that we understand how they come together for the promotion of drama and performance. If a Shakespeare play works like no other ever written and performed, it should lead us directly to that other mystery, the nature of the Elizabethan theatre and stage itself. Its sheer emptiness—its “empty space”, to use the term with which Peter Brook enshrined it—places the emphasis on the embodiment of the arts in action, and on the processes of drama as a performing art.

The open stage has been said, with justice, to throw all the weight upon the actor and his power of speech and movement. If it is a bare stage, it also invites the participation of the audience, urging the laws of “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” to quote the ironic plea for help spoken by the Chorus in Henry V. Above all, the empty space makes of drama a direct and sensory experience: when Lear curses his daughter Goneril on the line, “Infect her beauty, / You fen-suck'd fogs,” our thoughts are less likely to be on Tudor notions of infectious disease than on the actor's spittle flying through the air from all those f's and s's; when Macduff hears of the death of his wife and children, the lines teach the actor how to speak them, since one word, “all,” is repeated and repeated until we hear it as both a cry of anguish and a call for revenge:

                                                            All my pretty ones?
Did you say all?—O Hell-kite!—All?
What all my pretty chickens … ?

(Macbeth, IV. iii. 216-18)

Say this more softly and we hear groans, more loudly and we hear yells; but the noise itself is doing the work.

The emptiness of the Elizabethan stage, however, carries another, more elusive, quality, one which has to do with the nature of Elizabethan dramatic illusion. The thrust of the platform precipitates the actor into the arms of his audience, and the intimacy of the tight-knit auditorium compels him to sense it physically all around, below, and above him. In turn, although the stage does not necessarily represent anything in particular, it refuses to allow us to slip away into the simple ease of make-believe, but constantly insists that we remember we are in a theater, as Dr. Johnson believed we do, and Bertolt Brecht desired we should, and that we have a constructive contribution to make in the creation of the play. In summary, the non-illusory quality which enabled an Elizabethan poetic play to work at maximum force was that of a ritualistic spirit shared by all parties to the play.

This alert and conscious quality of imagination characteristic of a Shakespeare play allows the arts to come together in performance in the way they do. The same freedom that encouraged the language of the stage to leap from prose to verse and back again, that enabled the action to slip from the realistic to the unreal and symbolic with the speed of a dream (or a nightmare), prompted the playwright to exploit in many hybrid ways the arts of music and song, and dance and pantomime, within the magic web of the theater. This paper will stay with music, song, and dance in the plays, and the way they are used within the play may reveal a little of how poetic drama does its remarkable work.

“Music plays” is the recurring stage direction throughout quarto and folio, and for years the more literary reader took this as a cue to let his eye run on to the next line of print. But we know too well what power music can bring to a scene: how many gunfights in the western movies of old would simply lack excitement, if not actual firepower, without the constant help of a full orchestra out there on the range; and how many bad actors and actresses have not had their performances vastly enhanced at moments of great emotion by a friendly violin or two (some years ago there was a pretty English starlet named Patricia Roc who received great praise for an emotional performance of watching her lover's airplane flying off to war; closer inspection of the shot reveals that the camera showed only the back of her head; music had done it all).

So the rule for an Elizabethan play should be that whenever we read the stage direction, “Music plays,” we should pay special attention, and at least determine what kind of music: a lute and strings proposing a love song will have a different effect from the drums and trumpets, hautboys and sackbuts, of a royal procession. Yet in Shakespeare there are some 300 musical stage directions, and at least 32 of the plays refer to music, with over 500 passages in the text making direct reference to it. The implication is that the musicians belonging to a company or hired for the occasion were always on hand, and that every play may be assumed to employ music. Every boy actor was trained, we know, in singing, and every company clown was expected to sing also; perhaps all Elizabethan actors had vocal gifts. Is this alarming? We always knew that Shakespeare wrote musical comedies; it now seems he wrote musical tragedies and histories too. It is for us to check the places where singing merges with speech, and song and dance with drama.

The gulling of Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, II. iii. offers a familiar instance of a Shakespearean song in action. As Benedick eavesdrops upon the Prince, Leonato, and Claudio (who, of course, know that he is listening), the trickery is begun appropriately with a love song, Balthasar's sweet and melancholy little ditty,

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
                              Men were deceivers ever.


This exactly captures the sentimental mood by which Benedick's transformation from misogynist to lover is to be managed, not impossible in the case of such a self-deceiver. It could well be that Shakespeare is really touching on the theme of deception in the play as a whole, especially preparing us for Claudio's rejection of Hero. He is thereby wasting no opportunity to work upon the audience's sensibilities as well as Benedick's, and casting over his comedy a little of the darker shadow of what is to come.

Yet that is not all there is to arranging a song for a play. In performance (as we know from modern musicals), a song lends a new dimension to the art and craft of the performer, and in this instance Benedick is enabled to use the time and style of the singing to convey the ridiculous change in his outlook. His attitude in his earlier lines was one of complete cynicism:

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviours to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love: and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife …


From this he passes to a certain grudging approval of the music he believes is being played to gratify Claudio's amorous desire:

Now, divine air! Now is his soul ravished! Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?


Benedick is by now showing two faces. What's more, a melancholy song has become a funny one. A student once asked me what was funny about the beautiful love song heard in Twelfth Night, “O mistress mine.” Of course, it is not the song that is funny, but its context, sung as it is to Andrew Aguecheek, who is lost in the throes of love and liquor. There is a Yorkshire dialect word that suitably describes the stupid expression on his face, the word “gormless,” and all Shakespeare has done is set a delightful song in brilliant counterpoint with a delicious performance of “gormlessness.”

However, no two songs in the plays have quite the same effect. We are not dealing with songs per se, songs-sung, but with songs-functional, songs-in-action, songs-in-the-service-of-the-play. It is possible to list the many and varied jobs that music and song may do in drama, like creating the mood and atmosphere of a scene, enhancing our perception of a character, marking an entrance perhaps, or, as in opera, developing a moment of feeling and emotion, and so on, but the constantly varying context of drama in performance will always defy any simple conclusions about its use of song.

Bassanio's song sung during his casket scene in The Merchant of Venice, III. ii, has another job to do, “the whilst Bassanio comments on the caskets to himself,” as the Quarto stage direction has it. The action seems uncomplicated. Portia called for a song earlier:

Let music sound while he doth make his choice,
Then if he lose he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.


Then she makes it clear that she would dearly like Bassanio to choose the right casket (that is, the lead casket, as by now we know), although she says she will not cheat, but hopes that love will find a way. Now we hear the song itself, with its tell-tale rhymes:

Tell me where is Fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?


Has Portia cheated? Granville-Barker does not think so, believing such a trick to be unworthy of her.1 John Russell Brown doesn't think so either, since it would not only belittle the lovers, but also cheapen the theme of the play.2 Yet “Fancy bred” … “in the head” … “nourished”, and more, all inescapably rhyme with “lead,” just as the verses in Morocco's casket showered him with “gold” and those in Arragon's were laced with silvery sibilants. One thing is clear, and that is that no audience can avoid the question, which has the effect of inviting us to join in a happy word-game, a kind of charade. More than this, the song also invites us to take Portia's position and share her problem. Even more than this, we are given another hint of her lighter, feminine side, since we are to be prepared for the play's ultimate game, chiefly characterized by the frivolous exchange of rings immediately following a deadly trial nearly involving murder, no less. The Shakespeare capable of the ironic twists of The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labor's Lost was certainly capable of a twinkle in the eye in The Merchant of Venice. Thus a song, by its placing in the action, can help manipulate our feelings and expectations about a whole play.

There are about 90 songs in the plays, and one or two other examples may suggest their range of dramatic possibilities. Perhaps the most moving of all is Desdemona's so-called “willow” song in Othello, IV. iii. The first point to make is that this song appears to have been a popular song of the time. We know that Shakespeare did not hesitate to “borrow” a lyric or a tune when it served his play, and “It was a lover and his lass” from As You Like It and “O mistress mine” from Twelfth Night were probably pop-songs of the day set to music by Thomas Morley. The willow song was another of these:

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 sentiment and the mood of poor Barbary's song of unrequited love are exactly right for Desdemona's scene:

                                                            that song tonight
Will not go from my mind … I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all on one side
And sing it like poor Barbary. …


Moreover, the fact that it was a well-known song suddenly changes our image of Desdemona back from Iago's portrait of a whore and Othello's monster of his imagination to the girl we admired in the beginning, the one who gave the Moor “a world of sighs” when she heard his story. We are indeed to perceive two images of Desdemona just before she dies, one through Othello's fevered brain and one through the sweet agency of song. The simple, lyrical image of her is supported by the fact that, where the original ballad was sung to a lute, Desdemona must sing it unaccompanied, and in the most natural fashion. She interrupts herself to give orders to Emilia (“Lay by these” at line 47 and “Prithee hie thee” at line 49) and she even forgets her lines (“Nay, that's not next” at line 51)—Shakespeare's charming touch of human nature. This song is to be so informal as to be an extension of the living character, and to the Elizabethan playgoer, Desdemona was to seem as familiar as a song heard in the streets.

At another extreme, how can criticism account for Pandarus' song in Troilus and Cressida, III. ii: “Love, love, nothing but love, still love, still more!”? This song to the ineffable Helen of Troy is also a love song, but a really smutty one. It appears to echo the sex act to the point of orgasm; I will not review the text. In its last line, “O ho, groans out for Ha, ha, ha!,” it even introduces the ironic suggestion of venereal disease, so foreshadowing the epilogue to the play with which Pandarus completes the picture. There cannot have been many more sexually obscene songs than “Love, love, nothing but love” before the rock songs of our own day sung to the phallic guitar. Pandarus' song sits at the epicenter of its play, and at the very least debases the cause for which the Trojan War is being fought. It also neatly sums up musically the interacting elements of sex and war that the play surveys: “Wars and lechery. Nothing else holds fashion” (V. ii. 193-4), and Thersites executes a perfect pun when he reports that the legendary heroes of Greece and Troy “war / whore for a placket” (II. iii. 21).

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the more musical plays in the canon. It enjoys several woodland songs like “Over hill, over dale” and “You spotted snakes with double tongue,” which, as seems appropriate, are given to fairies. However, there is one song that is not, perversely not. When Bottom the weaver, wearing his ass's-head, decides to sing so that his friends “shall hear I am not afraid” (III. i. 118), what song was Shakespeare to choose? In keeping with everything else in the wood near Athens, he decided to give him one about woodland birds. But Bottom is no fairy.

The ousel cock, so black of hue,
                    With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle, with his note so true,
                    The wren with little quill.


A pretty piece it is—until we hear it sung in Bottom's coarse voice, which may be presumed to be quite wrong to render delicate lines about bird-songs. Of course, there is another principle at work, one of ironic comedy, for Bottom's voice must also awaken Titania, who responds with all the enthusiasm that a drop of purple juice in the eye can bring:

What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?


As befits the Queen of the Fairies, Titania manages a perfect iambic pentameter. So Shakespeare marks the incongruity between his gross and earthy mechanical and his fragile Fairy Queen by the ridiculous contrast between their two voices.

The Tempest has more songs than any other play of Shakespeare's, and the spirit of the comic action seems to be marked at key points by the style of the singing. Some of the most lovely songs in the language belong to Ariel and express his special qualities of compassion: “Come unto these yellow sands” (I. ii. 377) seems to allay the storm, and “Full fathom five thy father lies” (I. ii. 399) comforts Ferdinand who thinks his father has drowned. Moreover, The Tempest may be identified by two kinds and styles of song, not only Ariel's, but also Stephano's, the clown who sings sea-shanties and catches like “I shall no more to sea, to sea” (II. ii. 43) and

The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
                    The gunner and his mate,
Lov'd Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
                    But none of us car'd for Kate. …

(II. ii. 47-50)

In a similar way an audience is guided gymnastically through Twelfth Night by the three sorts of song associated with Orsino, Sir Toby, and Feste.

The numerous occasions when Shakespeare uses instrumental music in his plays indicate further ways by which he enhances his scenes and reveals his sense of theatre. In an Elizabethan performance it would have been impossible for his audience not in some degree to have been aware of the musical side of his dramatic talent. At every level of society in sixteenth-century England there was a common experience of musical entertainment, and whether in court or tavern, music was a rich part of daily life. It might therefore be a fair guess that any striking musical reference or instance in the playhouse, whether touching the music of the spheres or merely cueing a trumpet-blast, would guide the audience towards a contributing perception.

The controlling power of music is used at many a moment of heightened emotion. In Much Ado about Nothing, V. iii., when Claudio comes to grieve for his dead Hero at “the monument of Leonato,” we should not be surprised to find “Balthasar and musicians” trailing behind him, ready to answer the clear injunction with some form of religious music,

Now, music, sound, and sing your solemn hymn.


Balthasar then sings “Pardon, goddess of the night” in the manner the song calls for, “heavily, heavily,” all in careful preparation for the moving disclosure of “another Hero” (V. iv. 62). That, too, by a kind of counterpoint, is a preparatory cue for the big change to come, and the last line in the play is Benedick's “Strike up, pipers!” as he calls for the dance which ends it on a joyful note of universal reconciliation.

This use of music is not there, of course, to support a character in the story, although the actor may react to it; like everything else in the play, in the last analysis it is there to manipulate the audience. During the beautiful scene in which Cordelia awakens her father from his madness in King Lear, IV.vii., Shakespeare ensures Lear's transfiguration, and our belief in it, by paying great attention to external detail. He gives the King a change of costume (“in the heaviness of sleep / We put fresh garments on him,” 21-22). He seems to change the (imaginary) lighting also, for after the darkness of the storm scenes, Lear is conscious of “fair daylight,” in line 52. And the poetry Lear is given to speak is reduced to simple monosyllables. Then, to crown the whole effect and complete the treatment, the Doctor calls for music with “louder the music there” (line 25). Even if we are not sure what kind of music is wanted to cure a king's madness and provide “the best comforter / To an unsettled fancy,” as Prospero calls it in The Tempest, V.i. 58-9, for the moment Lear's music makes us into doctors, just as Cordelia's kiss makes us daughters. Finally, when the old man wakes to new sanity, the same music magically makes King Lears of us all.

The supreme example of musically therapeutic witchcraft is heard at the end of The Winter's Tale, V. iii., when Paulina brings to life the statue of Hermione with the help of music:

                                                  Music, awake her, strike!
'Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come!


This is a little like the awakening of Pericles's queen Thaisa when she lies in her coffin in Pericles, III. ii.:

The still and woeful music that we have,
Cause it to sound, beseech you.
The viol once more; now thou stirr'st, thou block!
The music there!


As Paulina says, everyone's faith is wanted at moments when the dead are to come to life. Frequent playgoers, like frequent flyers, will know that when the music strikes up, all will be well.

Not all of Shakespeare's music is designed to cast a spell and put us into a trance; some of it wakes us up. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV. i., Theseus' “winding of horns” certainly wakes up the lovers after their long night's contest in the wood:

Go, bid the huntsmen wake them with their horns.
Good-morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past.


Accordingly, the Folio has “Wind horns. Shout within: they all start up.” Nevertheless, these same horns also have the important effect of waking the audience itself from its dream in the imaginary moonlight, for we have to be alert and ready for the comic ironies of the last act. So Theseus' horns are slightly sarcastic horns, akin to the alarums heard at the beginning of Troilus and Cressida when they blow raspberries at the lovesick Troilus:

Peace, you ungracious clamours! Peace, rude sounds!
Fools on both sides, Helen must needs be fair
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.
I cannot fight upon this argument;
It is too starv'd a subject for my sword.

(I. i. 89-93)

This protest by Troilus is answered by another blast on the trumpets.

Shakespeare's musical imagination is working to manipulate our attention when a deliberately discordant note is struck, the elements of the drama seeming to be in a state of fission rather than fusion. On the night before the battle in Antony and Cleopatra, the fearful stage direction in the Folio at IV. iii. 11 reads, “music of the hautboys is under the stage,” and the hautboys in Macbeth that accompany the ominous “show of eight kings” at IV.i.106 are hardly intended to put us to sleep.

In some of the comedies, another sort of counterpoint is practiced. In The Merchant of Venice, the mercenary world of Venice is set at odds with the sweet music of Belmont. In As You Like It, the contentious world of the court is balanced against the singing heard in the Forest of Arden. In Twelfth Night, the sensuous palaces of Illyria are undercut by the drinking songs associated with Sir Toby in the so-called “kitchen scene,” with Feste the clown subversively passing freely between all parties.

Twelfth Night opens with “Orsino” music, but “the food of love” is evidently rather sickly, to be surfeited, if not actually thrown up. The same music is heard again in II. iv.:

                                        That piece of song,
That old and antic song we heard last night;
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times.
Come, but one verse.


So the tune is played again, and before we are allowed to know its melancholy words, we are told more about it:

Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it. …


Our wonder at such strange properties prepares us finally to receive its alarming ideas:

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.


This was the very song I was required to read as a schoolboy of fourteen from Palgrave's famous anthology of 1861, The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, always known as Palgrave's Treasury. But, Palgrave mistook the comic intention of “Come away death” for that of a pathetic love song.

Comments from the characters strongly suggest that it is comedy. When the music is heard again in this scene, the Duke again feels “the sweet pangs” of love, and the same tune teases Viola almost into revealing her secret feelings. Shakespeare concludes it with a somewhat sarcastic joke:

There's for thy pains.
No pains, sir, I take pleasure in singing, sir.


Feste adds a mocking little prayer on leaving:

Now the melancholy good protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.


The song itself is as sickly-sentimental a love song as Shakespeare could invent, “Come away death” being roughly translated to mean, “Hurry up and bury me.” In Shakespeare's Use of Song (1923), Richmond Noble sensed its “humourously playful pity for the Duke's sad love-grief” (p. 83), but we also hear ironic laughter of the kind heard in Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida and other plays seen at the Globe in about 1600. Shakespeare's musical intention is to have us firmly reject the Duke's kind of loving.

Ironic counterpoint is a constant element present in Shakespeare's dialogue and action, and it should not surprise us to find it in the music too. One of the best examples occurs during Capulet's ball in Romeo and Juliet, I. v. The music he calls for to start the dancing at his party echoes his good-humored welcome to his guests:

Welcome, gentlemen, ladies that have their toes
Unplagued with corns will walk a bout with you.


Not a very good joke, but it suits old Capulet, and its intention is clear enough. His call goes out for what must be a lively tune:

A hall, a hall, give room! And foot it, girls!


It is possible, therefore, to make a good guess at the sort of dancing wanted—hardly a stately pavan. I'd suggest a courante or a galliard.’‘The nimble galliard,” as the Ambassador of France calls it in Henry V, I. ii. 252, would meet the occasion, “a gallant dance,” according to Sir John Davies in his poem “Orchestra,”

With lofty turns and caprioles in the air,
Which with the lusty tunes accordeth fair.

(stanza 68)

The galliard was a joyful affair in which the lady dances away and the man leaps after her, and it was one of the most popular dances of the sixteenth century. Yet in the midst of all this gaiety we hear Tybalt's threat to kill Romeo, foreshadowing the tragedy to come. Unlike Franco Zeffirelli's film version of 1968, in which the syrupy music seems to accompany the action of the ballroom scene, Shakespeare's music works against the force of the dialogue, and has the extraordinary power of making the ominous threat to the lovers seem more painful.

We are but a step away from the dance as yet another art form making its contribution to Elizabethan drama. A performance customarily ended with a dance, although this was not always mentioned in the text (as it is in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado about Nothing). In Shakespeare, dances turn up in different places in all kinds of plays, and with increasing frequency towards the end of his career. He was by then one of the King's Men, and King James was especially fond of dancing.

The Elizabethan stage also had a wide range of dances to choose from: coarser, country dances like the roundel, the hay, and the jig were balanced by more courtly dances like the pavan, the measure, the canary, and the cinquepace, or “sink-a-pace” as Sir Toby Belch calls it. Some court dances could also be very vigorous, like the lavolta in which the man lifts the lady with his knee. Moreover, audiences were familiar with the differences, as is implied by Beatrice in Much Ado when she offers advice about marriage to her cousin Hero:

Hear me, Hero: wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the wedding mannerly-modest as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance and, with his bad legs, falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.

(II. i. 66-73)

In that folk dancing and courtly dancing were performed on the same stage, the playhouse was one of the rare places in sixteenth-century London that must have seemed classless. For the play, however, mixed dancing served to distinguish one group of characters from another, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream: if Theseus and Hippolyta dance a stately pavan, Titania and Oberon and their fairies may enjoy a round or a ring-dance; if the lovers dance a coranto, the running courtship dance, we know that the mechanicals settled for a rustic bergomask, possibly to the sound of Bottom's favorite music, the tongs and the bones. Thus the audience's sense of the dance could help it to leap the imaginative levels in the play.

One would expect Shakespeare to integrate his dances, like his songs, into the action of his play, and here are a few of their uses in performance. Love's Labor's Lost will be remembered for its masked ball at V. ii. 157, where we read, “Enter Blackmores with music; … and the rest of the Lords disguised.” The four noble lovers approach their ladies with a mask of Muscovites, and all the signs are that their dance is to be solemn and pompous. Thus speaks the King of Navarre, referring to the Princess of France:

Say to her, we have measur'd many miles
To tread a measure with her on this grass.


“Measure” was synonymous with “pavan,” which was the most formal of processional dances, its name deriving from “pavo,” peacock. Edward Naylor, that tireless student of Shakespeare's music, reported that the dance had reference to the peacock's majestic strut and gay feathers, and went on to say,

It was de rigueur for gentlemen to dance the pavan in cap and sword; for lawyers to wear their gowns, princes their mantles; and ladies to take part in the fullest of full dress, the long trains of their gowns being supposed to correspond in appearance and movement to the peacock's tail.3

The Muscovites are soon recognized as our four inept lovers in disguise, and each must strut back and forth before his disdainful lady, as she “refuses” to dance with him. Conveniently, each couple remains downstage on the Elizabethan platform until the progression requires that it makes room for the next pair (a trick of stagecraft that Shakespeare was to use again in the elegant pavan danced by the four couples seen in the masked ball of Much Ado about Nothing, II. i. 79.) Finally Navarre's men salute the ladies with a bow:

Farewell, mad wenches: you have simple wits.
Twenty adieus, my frozen Muscovites.


I like that “frozen Muscovites:” even if they didn't have snow on their boots, the dance would certainly have come across as a little frigid.

In All's Well That Ends Well, the mysterious fistula from which the King of France is dying is finally cured with a coranto (II. iii). Indeed, after Tyrone Guthrie's renowned productions of 1953 and 1959 in Canada and England, the scene actually came to be known as “the ballroom scene.” It begins with a key speech from Lafew: “They say miracles are past!” The news is out that Helena, the girl from out-of-town, has cured the King, and he has been tranformed. “Lustique” is Lafew's word for him. But how will Shakespeare muster the forces of the stage to project the change in him? The world is told, “Why, he's able to lead her a coranto” (43). A coranto, no less! And to prove his miraculous recovery, the old king dances in with his youthful preserver on his arm, executing one of the most vigorous dances in the repertoire. The coranto was a lively country dance that was later adapted for the court, and to dance it a couple sprang from left to right, running and jumping in [frac34] time. If you saw the BBC-TV production of All's Well, you had a glimpse of Donald Sinden prancing along with Angela Down at his side; for the Edwardian period chosen by Guthrie for his production, Alec Guiness and Irene Worth in Canada whirled on stage to a fast, old-fashioned Viennese waltz.

The Witches in Macbeth surely open their play with a dance:

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

(I. i. 1-2)

The idea that they sit cozily round their cauldron is belied by the insistent rhymes and rhythms of their tetrameters and quatrains. But there is also a good theatrical reason why the Witches do a dance. With the trap in the platform at centerstage, their dance would be performed in the round, so that the pattern of their movement would itself cast a spell, not only by marking out a circle into which the haunted characters of the play would step later on, but also by involving the whole audience in a widening circle: those who are to share the witchcraft of the play will become its haunted spectators.

Every dance seems to have its proper function in the plays. In Timon of Athens, the vanity of Timon's degenerate house is signalled by “a masque of ladies” performing as “Amazons, with lutes in their hands, dancing and playing” (I. ii. 126). Timon was entertaining his guests, and Shakespeare was no doubt entertaining his audience, even if we cannot today imagine what a masque of Amazons looked like. Nevertheless, the play's choric commentator, the “churlish philosopher” Apemantus, also hints at what is to come:

I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me.


Unlike Ben Jonson, Shakespeare wrote no masques, although his most musical play, The Tempest, seems to be made up of visionary, masque-like units. These episodes both sing and dance to us, as do the goddesses, nymphs, and reapers of the fourth act. (Here they probably danced the French “branle,” anglicized as “brawl,” a term describing different kinds of ring dances in which everyone linked arms and moved sideways in circles.) The idea that this play is a kind of masque in itself is not new, and goes back to scholars like A. H. Thorndike in Shakespeare's Theater in 1916 and Enid Welsford in The Court Masque in 1927; it supports our sense of the extraordinary capability of the Elizabethan stage to exploit the sister arts. The dance of shepherds and shepherdesses during the sheep-shearing feast, which helps to change the mood of The Winter's Tale at IV.iv.167, would have been an immediately recognizable country dance, perhaps a “hay” with its winding pattern of steps, for we remember Florizel's refreshing description of Perdita's dancing:

                              When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that. …


Nevertheless, why would Shakespeare have introduced into his great Whitsun pastoral scene “a dance of twelve satyrs” (343)? What exactly were twelve hopping, jumping, hairy men doing in this play—unless merely gratifying the wenches with “a gallimaufry of gambols” (329)?

This review of the arts of music and dance in Shakespeare could be pursued a stage further into something more speculative. Just as there are countless places where his verse speech merged smoothly with song and incantation, both for tragic heroes like Romeo (“O my love, my wife. / Death that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath …,” Romeo and Juliet, V.iii.91-2) and for comic heroines like Viola (“Make me a willow cabin at your gate, / And call upon my soul within the house …” Twelfth Night, I.v.272-3), so there are many where the nature of the gesture and movement implicit in Shakespeare's verse comes close to dance. We are talking now about what may be called Shakespeare's unique “choreography.” In a theatre of non-illusion, where the controlling limitations of realism in speech and behavior did not obtain, we cannot be sure that dance was not also a characteristic of the artificial style of movement that belonged to the Elizabethan stage.

One or two well-known examples may encourage speculation. Everyone admires the first words shared by Romeo and Juliet at Capulet's ball, because they form a delightful sonnet:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. / …

(Romeo and Juliet, I.v.92-5)

As poetry this sonnet not only manages to sanctify their meeting, but it also contrives to carry implicit stage directions for kissing hands and lips: images of holy and profane love merge in one deft exchange. Yet all the while music is being played for a courtship dance like the galliard, so that the pretty sonnet may also be a cue for a flirtatious dance by the lovers, their bodies swaying forwards and backwards with the music and the verse, a gallant advance by Romeo succeeded by a coy retreat by Juliet.

If dancing to a sonnet is unacceptable, what about the intricate mixing of poetry and movement in the scene of “choosing a husband” danced in All's Well, II. iii? Helena has cured the King of France, who now invites her to choose the man she wants to marry from among the eligible officers and courtiers present. There is no specific direction for her to dance with all the men, but it is evident from the pattern and rhythm of the verse that she dances with four of them, so that some form of choreography is called for.

Now, Diane, from thy altar do I fly,
And to imperial Love, that god most high
Do my sighs stream. [To First Lord] Sir, will you hear my suit?
And grant it.
Thanks, sir, all the rest is mute.


Helena dances a foot or two with each man and passes to the next, rejecting each one. A delighted audience sees Bertram's turn getting nearer and nearer, until there is only him left, and it is he whom she leads in astonishment to the King:

This is the man.
Why, then, young Bertram, take her; she's thy wife.


In the Guthrie productions the orchestra stopped and a deathly silence fell upon the assembled company. Reality returned with a rush, and Helena's fantasizing came to an abrupt end. Bertram turned away in disgust: what did he want with this person whose only virtue was that she knew how to cure a fistula? Performance completely justified the use of dance, and for the first time Guthrie was able to show that in this play Shakespeare fully intended a dramatic use for his rhyming couplets; he used rhyme, not because he didn't know any better, but in order to control his audience's perception of the action and its mood.

One more puzzle. What did the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe do with the gathering of unhappy lovers in As You Like It, V.ii.? Here is a sample of their lines:

Good shepherd, tell this youth what 'tis to love.
It is to be all made of sighs and tears,
And so am I for Phebe.
And I for Ganymede.
And I for Rosalind.
And I for no woman.


This pattern is repeated four times. I have heard these lines spoken with the actors sitting forlornly around an oak tree, but they cry out for some kind of round dance. This is a play in which different kinds of amorous behavior are wildly juxtaposed in order to illuminate one another. It seems eminently appropriate that its spirit of fantasy and burlesque should be capped at the end by a song and a dance that draws on all the performing arts. When the climax of the comedy arrives and everyone is at sixes and sevens, an amusing little square-dance serves to mock the confusion of the four unhappy lovers.

Music and dance traditionally suggest the possibilities of harmony and reconcilation implicit in comedy, just as Ariel's music pacifies the storm in The Tempest; but harmony need not always be the intention. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby's drunken singing serves to touch off mayhem in an orderly household. And in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairies hardly conduct their moonlight revels peacefully. In Shakespeare and the Dance (1981), Alan Brissenden points out that although dancing was one of the chief occupations of Elizabethan fairies, they were creatures who rarely walked if they could get from one place to another by hopping and skipping, tripping and gambolling, in “paroxisms of antic corybantic jollity”.4

In his famous theory of music-drama and the “total art-work,” Wagner argued in The Art-Work of the Future (1849) that Beethoven had taken music to the point where speech should follow, and that Shakespeare had taken poetry to the point where music should follow. It would not be unfair to say that Shakespeare may have had his own ideas all along about a total art-work for the stage, one which mixed the arts in a very digestible dramatic pie.


  1. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1930), p. 74 note.

  2. The text used in the paper is the Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1955), p. 80.

  3. Shakespeare and Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1931), pp. 129-30.

  4. Shakespeare and the Dance (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1981), p. 142.

Gary Schmidgall (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 populated by “visual mode” dominants, and a symphony concert will largely attract “aural mode” dominants. These modes not only affect powers of appreciation but are thought to play an important part in the emergence of creative and executive talent. Applying and refining this theory in his study, Performing Power, Wesley Balk has amusingly suggested that the perfection of the facial/emotional mode dominant actor will be a Ronald Reagan, while perfection of the aural/vocal mode dominant actor will be a Sir John Gielgud.1 Indeed, the director Peter Brook, in his analysis of Gielgud's career, described just such an outstanding performer without the psychologists' jargon: “His tongue, his vocal cords, his feeling for rhythm compose an instrument that he has consciously developed all through his career in a running analogy with his life. … His art has always been more vocal than physical: at some early stage in his career he decided that for himself the body was a less supple instrument than the head. He thus jettisoned part of an actor's possible equipment but made true alchemy with the rest.”2

Since, as Shaw asserted, the ear is the sure clue to Shakespeare, this was the obvious repertory a Gielgud could excel in. Shakespeare's is a thoroughly and preeminently aural theater. So, of course, is opera. An opera audience may applaud a pleasing stage picture when the curtain rises, but it will not stay happy long if the ensuing vocalism is inadequate. It has come to listen, as William Meredith charmingly explains in his poem “At the Opera.” In its last stanza he describes our response to the prima donna's “repetitious furor” and “rallies to applause” (the emphasis is his):

But no one minds her sawing
The air and looking perfectly unreal,
Or remembers what he's seen.
In the foolhardy ordeal
We are brought through by her being
Every decibel a queen.(3)

The consequences of being foremost an aural theater are significant and various. It is thus worth pausing here to explore how, over the centuries, the fundamental aurality of the two dramaturgies has been expressed, exploited, and (not infrequently) perverted or travestied. From this common foundation arise many of the remarkable similarities between Shakespearean and operatic style.

That Shakespeare's plays were intended more to be heard than seen has been observed by many—among them Ian McKellen, noted for his one-man program on Shakespearean acting: “I think that Shakespeare should on the whole be aural primarily rather than visual. If you don't get the language, then you've lost the heart of the matter.”4 He adds, on another occasion, “We can take comfort from the fact that people who come to a theater are called an audience … audio … ‘hear.’ People who watch television are viewers.5 Several decades ago Granville-Barker confronted the astonishing fact that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy played Cleopatra at the Globe Theater. He concluded that this boy had no choice but to put all his eggs, so to speak, in an aural basket: “With the art of acting still dominantly the art of speech—to be able to listen an audience's chief need—[the boy] could afford to lose himself unreservedly … in the music of the verse, and let that speak.”6 And the centrality of the actor's voice and musicianly delivery on the Elizabethan stage was even noted while Shakespeare was alive. His fellow playwright John Webster offered a thumbnail sketch of “An excellent Actor” in 1615 that includes this telling remark: “Sit in a full Theater, and you will thinke you see so many lines drawne from the circumference of so many eares, while the Actor is the Center. … He addes grace to the Poets labours: for what in the Poet is but ditty, in him is both ditty and musicke” (emphasis added).7

Some excellent hints that vocalism took priority over gesture and “production values” are scattered throughout Shakespeare's canon. “I will hear that play,” says Duke Theseus of “Pyramus and Thisby” in A Midsummer Night's Dream. “We'll hear a play tonight,” says Hamlet of “The Mouse-trap.” “Open your ears,” inveighs Rumor in the prologue to 2 Henry IV, and the prologue of Henry V asks the audience, “Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.” Hear also figures in the prologues to Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, while in the initial scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, characters speak of hearing a play three times. Only the oafish tinker Christopher Sly in the entire canon says of a play, “Well, we'll see it.” It is rather fleet-witted Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream who expresses the attitude of the typical Elizabethan theatergoer: “What, a play toward? I'll be an auditor.

I am inclined to think the aural bias of an Elizabethan theatrical event is hinted in Caesar's remark about Cassius: “he loves no plays, / As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.” This privileging of the aural over the visual is certainly expressed in Volumnia's acerbic observation, in Coriolanus, about the Roman plebeians (the sort who, in London, would be the groundlings in a Globe Theatre audience): “the eyes of th' ignorant [are] / More learned than the ears.” Hamlet, too, may be indicating to us the priority of vocalism on the stage of the day in his talk to the traveling players. For his very first concern is that they “Speak the speech, I pray you … trippingly on the tongue.”

“Language shows the man,” said Ben Jonson; “speak that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us. … No glass renders a man's form, or likeness, so true as his speech.”8 If there is a single key to Shakespeare's stagecraft, it is in this recognition. And it is no wonder that language—utterance of the “inmost parts” of passion's slaves—dominated the Elizabethan stage: elaborate costumes made finesse of gesture or carriage difficult, and the enormous platform—a thousand square feet or so, thrusting out among the standees, barren except for a few portable props—was both dwarfing and illusion-busting. Also, daylight at the Globe ruined the sometime cover of imagined darkness (several plays, like Macbeth and Othello, take place almost wholly at night). Within these constrictions there was but one great means of salvation: charismatic projection. A student of Shakespeare's stagecraft, J. L. Styan, has concluded, “It is probable that Shakespeare saw his actors as playing to their audience most of the time. … The Elizabethan actor was at all times vulnerable, and compelled to communicate with the audience, provoking it and provoked by it.” This approaches the ambience of the opera house, and Styan, in a discussion of “Shakespeare's aural craft,” does indeed use such musicianly phrases as “variation of tempo,” “staccato phrasing,” “use of tone and rhythm,” “crescendo,” and “orchestration of speech.” Almost inevitably, he is led to this conclusion: “At one extreme, Shakespeare's drama approximates to opera and its language to song.”9

From the very beginning, performers were likely to be subjected to “musical” criticism. A contemporary of Shakespeare's, Thomas Dekker, quipped that in theatrical “Consorts many of the Instruments are for the most part out of tune,” and he ridicules the typical miscreant thus: “let the Poet set the note of his Numbers, even to Apollo's owne Lyre, the Player will have his owne Crochets, and sing false notes, in despite of all the rules of Musick.”10 The era's greatest tragedian, Richard Burbage, was on the other hand praised for his musicality. Richard Flecknoe called his appearance on the stage “Beauty to th' Eye, and Musick to the Ear,” and explained that there was “as much difference betwixt him and one of our common Actors, as between a Ballad-singer who onely mouths it, and an excellent singer, who knows all his Graces, and can artfully vary and modulate his Voice, even to know how much breath he is to give to every syllable.”11

The primal musicality of Shakespeare's verse was acknowledged in succeeding eras, too. In the preface to Purcell's Fairy Queen we are reminded, “he must be a very ignorant Player, who knows not there is a Musical Cadence in speaking; and that a Man may as well speak out of Tune, as sing out of Tune.”12 In the following Augustan age, Colley Cibber—dean of Shakespearean adapters—set forth this musical idea: “The voice of a singer is not more strictly ty'd to time and tune, than that of an actor in theatrical elocution: the least syllable too long, or too lightly dwelt upon in a period, depreciates it to nothing.”13 Some years later Cibber's son Theophilus praised Barton Booth by noting simply that “the Tones of his Voice were all musical.”14 The Georgian period was dominated notably by Edmund Kean, whose point-making emotional violence and attempts to naturalize the blank verse became notorious. (He perhaps of all eminent tragedians took Hamlet's famous advice least to heart.) In 1829, toward the end of Kean's reign, a critic observed forlornly, “Shakespeare has his music as well as Handel, but where upon the stage do we find an actor who does justice to his melody? Might not Shakespeare, so far as his cadences depend for their effect on actors, have written Othello and Macbeth in prose? … Who among [current actors] studies the principles that regulate the music of passion, as singers do the principles of their art?”15 More recently, Granville-Barker began his famous series of prefaces on the production of Shakespeare's plays with this simple admonition: “The text of a play is a score waiting performance.”16

Except in Shakespeare's flattest, least tunable prose passages—which do not occur all that often—the actor must bestir himself to recognize and exploit the elaborate composition of sounds and convey not only the bare sense but also the various pleasures of vocalization for its own sake. That aural pleasure is to be had everywhere, even when a ghastly character like Lady Macbeth, Richard III, or Iago is in the limelight, is both a Shakespearean and an operatic principle. Mozart expressed this pervasive aural pleasure-principle in a letter explaining why he gave the comically bloodthirsty Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail an unusual key and tempo change in his first aria: “a man in such a towering rage exceeds all control, moderation and purpose; he does not know what he's doing—just so, the music mustn't know either. But … the passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed disgustingly, and music, even in the most terrible context, must never insult the ear, but even there must give pleasure, that is, must always remain music.”17 Iambic pentameter—even when it emerges as “Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell”—must, as Mozart urges, remain music and give aural delight. The opera repertory is full of examples of appalling evil musicalized gorgeously: for instance, the triumphal duet for that ghastly couple, Nerone and Poppea, at the end of Monterverdi's Coronazione di Poppea, most of Don Giovanni's role, or Count di Luna's “Il balen del suo sorriso” in Il Trovatore. This last villain is often asked to sing dolce (“sweetly”), a direction apt for many of the speeches of Iago and Richard III.

Getting at all the music in Shakespeare's text requires skill and attentiveness. The word that John Barton lands on in Playing Shakespeare by way of urging this challenge is relish. Quoting Hamlet, he says, “‘Words, words, words.’ The Elizabethans loved them: they relished them and they played with them.” Three of Barton's actors read a passage from Love's Labour's Lost that demonstrates this love of language, and he reiterates his theme: “Verbal relish … today we're a bit apt to fight shy of it. But until we love individual words we cannot love language.” Later he stresses “a tendency in our acting tradition to run away from verbal relish, especially of vowels.” (Incidentally, “relish” is the now-archaic musical term for the appoggiaturas or grace notes that ornament a melodic line: recall that Burbage was praised, singer-like, for knowing “all his Graces.” Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relishes—also called shakes, mordants, and accacciaturas—were one of a composer's principal means of eking ever more nuance from his melodic line. One might even paraphrase Barton and say that until a singer loves individual notes, he or she will be unlikely to relish music.)

At the end of Barton's session, “Making the Words One's Own,” he himself tackles a speech in heightened verse (the French King's list of knights in Henry V, 3.5.37-54), explaining, “I'll tend to pronounce every single sound within a word because I suspect that Elizabethan actors may have done that more than we do. So I'll overstress and over-relish the sounds.” The several responses to Barton's reading are worth quoting here, for they approximate the kinds of praise one encounters for an operatic aria finely interpreted:

LISA Harrow:
“There was this amazing thread that went right the way through from the beginning to the end. You never let it drop or let us flag for a moment.”
BEN Kingsley:
“It never lets us off the hook when it's done that way. It swept us along.”
“It's wonderful to hear something like that because so much of our literature and playwriting today seems to be obsessed with the lack of language. You know … the spaces and the pauses … the absence of text sometimes. To hear a bit of text so highly encrusted with all kinds of different shapes and movement in it and in the sounds is wonderful.”(18)

Making words in a promptbook or notes in a score resonate is a vocal responsibility; it requires a constant awareness and exploitation of lyric possibilities lying on the printed page. Actors who comes to Shakespeare Cassius-like, hearing no music, are doomed to defeat at the crucial moments when lyric levitation is both possible and necessary. When this defeat occurs, an audience will be left earthbound and of Samuel Johnson's mind; for he accused Shakespeare of often clothing “trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas” in “sonorous epithets and swelling figures” … and of creating “declamations or set speeches [that] are commonly cold and weak.”19 If an unmusical actor cannot “swell” sonorously, almost any Shakespeare will seem cold and weak indeed. His meaning alone is not enough. The more hostile critics of Shakespeare, too, almost always show evidence of a tin ear. Sounding for all the world like Emperor Joseph II, who complained of the “monstrous many notes” in Mozart's Entführung, was the infamous Thomas Rymer. In his Short View of Tragedy (1693) he fumed: “Many … of the Tragical Scenes in Shakespeare, cry'd up for the Action, might do yet better without words. Words are a sort of heavy baggage, that were better out of the way … especially in his bombast Circumstance, where the Words and Action are seldom akin.” And he adds perhaps the most screwball pronouncement in the history of Shakespearean criticism: “In a play one should speak like a man of business.”20 So much for verbal relish!

We can be thankful that very few Shakespearean characters speak like men or women of business. Not even his businessman of Venice speaks that way. They tend far more often to be creatures of verbal relish. This is most strikingly true of the earlier plays. Noting the “convention of word-spinning and thought-spinning” in which most of Romeo and Juliet is cast, Granville-Barker flatly asserts in his first sentence on the play, “[It] is a lyric tragedy, and this must be the key to its interpreting.”21 Samuel Johnson, not grasping this key, was repelled by the highly wrought speeches (“miserable conceit”) uttered by its “distressed” characters. Typically, he came to the exuberant little aria in which Romeo displays his puppy-love for Rosaline—

          O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms …


—and sourly commented in his note: of “all this toil of antitheses … neither the sense nor the occasion is very evident.”22 Far more appropriate to take Granville-Barker's hint and enjoy the play as a musical entertainment. Of the passage in which Juliet puns furiously on I, Ay, and eye (3.2.45-51) Granville-Barker coolly urges: “Shut our minds to its present absurdity (but it is no more absurd than any other bygone fashion), allow for the rhetorical method, and consider the emotional effect of the word-music alone—what a vivid impression of the girl's agonized mind it makes, this intoxicating confusion of words and meanings.” And he says of the “verbal embroideries” of the long “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds” speech (I think rightly) that they “owe their existence in great part to the bravura skill of the boy actress who could compass such things with credit.” In the subsequent speech, with all its exclamation points, we seem to be making the acquaintance of something very much like an operatic cabaletta:

Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!
Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!

About this speech, which runs for eight more lines in this superheated vein, Granville-Barker suggested, “The boy-Juliet was here evidently expected to give a display of virtuosity comparable to the singing of a scena in a mid-nineteenth-century opera.”23 I think Granville-Barker would not mind my adding that, as does many a treasured opera, Romeo and Juliet contains a few dreary verse “arias” (for example, Lady Capulet's lavishly extended simile comparing Paris to a book, 1.3.81-94) and the occasional overwrought ensemble that one would be perfectly happy to see cut in performance (see 4.5.34-90, which I think is Shakespeare's most awful scene).

All of which is not to say that the blank verse should be approached as thinly disguised vocalise. The ideal must always be to convey both the sound and the sense, trippingly on the tongue. Eric Bentley happened upon the rare ideal in a fine Macbeth: “Mr. Keith has few equals in this country as a speaker of Shakespearean verse; he does not yield to Maurice Evans in his eagerness to render the music but he succeeds also in delivering the sense. Voice and carriage take us back to the days of heroic acting.”24 The interpretive point, rather, is to know when sense and music exchange or share the lead as the action unwinds. Shakespeare knew very well the limitations of pristine, immediately comprehensible, plain-style syntax and expression, just as he also knew, as Iago does, the enormous rhetorical powers of nonsense. Lodovico asks of Othello, “Are his wits safe?” and Iago replies with magnificent but impenetrable assurance:

He's that he is; I may not breathe my censure
What he might be. If what he might he is not,
I would to heaven he were!


As in the passage from Titus we have examined, Shakespeare knew when the very complex meaning of lines might not be fully grasped as they are declaimed, and yet—because of a careful concatenation of sounds and placement of words—a very powerful effect can still be achieved. The purely aural bedazzlement in Shakespeare's plays, as is well known, covers a multitude of loose plot-threads, incredible non sequiturs, and major and minor expediencies of all kinds.

The most brilliant display of Shakespearean blank verse is thought by many to be in Antony and Cleopatra, and one speech from this play has drawn special attention as an example of the author's aural alchemy. Sir John Gielgud has said, “[Y]ou have to know that a great speech like Cleopatra's speech on the death of Antony is written for the sound and not for the sense.”25 Here it is:

O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fall'n! Young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.


Granville-Barker on the speech: “This, in analysis, is little more than ecstatic nonsense; and it is meant to sound so. It has just enough meaning in it for us to feel as we hear it that it may be possible to have a little more … it gives us to perfection the reeling agony of Cleopatra's mind; therefore, in its dramatic setting, it ranks as supreme poetry.”26 Shaw goes at this passage in a similar way, but, as might be expected, he drives home the parallels with musical performance more aggressively: “This is not good sense—not even good grammar. If you ask what does it all mean, the reply must be that it means just what its utterer feels. The chaos of its thought is a reflection of her mind, in which one can vaguely discern a wild illusion that all human distinction perishes with the gigantic distinction between Antony and the rest of the world. Now it is only in music, verbal or other, that the feeling which plunges thought into confusion can be artistically expressed. Any attempt to deliver such music prosaically would be as absurd as an attempt to speak an oratorio of Handel's, repetitions and all. The right way to declaim Shakespeare is the sing-song way. Mere metric accuracy is nothing. There must be beauty of tone, expressive inflection, and infinite variety of nuance.27 Shaw's views here, of course, are the perfect response to those who find opera librettos so hilariously lacking in “good sense.”

Such vigorous analyses make clear that signification in Shakespeare (as in opera) is not all. They also suggest the value of approaching the plays on the page as one might an opera score; that is, with a constant awareness that the words were never meant to exist in black-on-white. The actor Alan Howard unwittingly makes something like this point as he discusses the ways one can fail to do justice to Shakespeare on stage: “Obviously you need to comprehend as well as you can what the lines mean. But I think that the other aspect of the actual sounds, the textures and the rhythms, invoke a word which perhaps we don't understand so well today. The word is ‘apprehension’ as opposed to ‘comprehension.’ Something we sense. I think that ‘apprehension’ to the Elizabethans was a very palpable thing. They were sensually highly aware of how rhythms, sound, and texture could combine with comprehension to bring about something which goes beyond just the sense.”28 Getting beyond the sense (or nonsense) is what the reader of an opera libretto is often obliged to do, and Shakespeare's lines—even very memorable ones—require the same effort. Shaw points to Othello's tremendous speech, “Like to the Pontic Sea …” (3.3.453-462), and lays some Shavian flares about it: “The words do not convey ideas: they are streaming ensigns and tossing branches to make the tempest of passion visible … If Othello cannot turn his voice into a thunder and surge of passion, he will achieve nothing but a ludicrously misplaced bit of geography.”29 Granville-Barker singles out Cleopatra's speech as servants and soldiers gather around Antony's corpse (4.15.82-88). It lies a bit flat of the page, but, interpreted “musically,” it levitates in the end like Leonora's “Pace, pace, mio dio” or Aïda's “O patria mia”: “Note how actual incoherence—kept within bounds by the strict rhythm of the verse—leads up to and trebles the nobility of a culminating phrase. … The compelled swiftness of the beginning, the change without check when she turns to the soldiers, the accordant discipline of the line which follows, so that the last two lines [”Let's do it after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us”] can come out clarion-clear; here … is dramatic music exactly scored.”30

Boito wrote of the “inherent, powerful musicality” in Shakespeare's Othello,31 and it is worth allowing Shaw to reiterate this fact of Shakespearean drama in an operatic context, before we pass on to specific “musicological” aspects of Shakespeare's poetry. Shaw thought only one thing worse on the stage than the Elizabethan “merry gentleman,” and that was the Elizabethan “merry lady.” So he wondered out loud, in a review of Much Ado about Nothing, why Beatrice and Benedick hold the stage so damnably well:

Before I answer that very simple question let me ask another. Why is it that Da Ponte's “dramma giocosa,” entitled Don Giovanni, a loathsome story of a coarse, witless, worthless libertine, who kills an old man in a duel and is finally dragged down through a trap-door to hell by his twaddling ghost, is still, after more than a century, as “immortal” as Much Ado? Simply because Mozart clothed it with wonderful music, which turned the worthless words and thoughts of Da Ponte into a magical human drama of moods and transitions of feeling. That is what happened in a smaller way with Much Ado. Shakespear shews himself in it a commonplace librettist working on a stolen plot, but a great musician. No matter how poor, coarse, cheap, and obvious the thought may be, the mood is charming, and the music of the words expresses the mood. … Not until Shakespearean music is added … does the enchantment begin. Then you are in another world at once.32

Shaw's talk of a poor, coarse, cheap libretto and stolen plot saved by poetic music should put one in mind of any number of librettos for estimable operas … most infamously that of Il Trovatore. Add the music, though, and we are in another world at once.

Another odd libretto is that of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Julian Budden says it is “often held up as a prime example of literary incompetence,” but then he goes on to ask if this is evidence of Verdi's poor literary judgment as well: “Not at all. Verdi is writing music drama on terms which are strictly his own. What mattered to him above all was the power of the individual word to shape a situation, to act as a rocket firing the music across the footlights. He knew well enough that in any cantabile, as distinct from a declamation, a line of verse as such tends to become submerged, with only the important words standing out as landmarks. It was a matter of secondary importance that the sentences should make literal sense.”33 Budden's reasoning happily supports Shaw's and that of many others who have asserted that music often takes priority over mere syntax, coherence, and sense in Shakespeare. Play him any other way and the result is likely to be the equivalent of an evening of recitative in an opera house.


  1. Performing Power (1985), pp. 306, 309.

  2. The Empty Space (1968), p. 110.

  3. The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems (1964), p. 32.

  4. “On Acting Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1982), p. 140.

  5. In Barton, Playing Shakespeare (1984), p. 16.

  6. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series (1930), p. 209.

  7. Characters, Complete Works, ed. F. L. Lucas (1927), IV, pp. 42-43.

  8. “Explorata: or Discoveries,” in The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (1975), p. 435.

  9. J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (1967), pp. 75-76, 157, 163. In Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (1984), Jean Howard writes similarly of “shifts in tone and tempo,” “aural shifts and contrasts,” “changes of key,” and “crescendo/decrescendo” patterns. Wesley Balk broadens the musical comparison far beyond Shakespeare when, in The Complete Singer-Actor (1985), he refers to the “essentially musical language demands of Shakespearean, Restoration, Georgian, and Greek drama” (p. 28).

  10. The Whore of Babylon (1607), sig. A2v.

  11. “A Short Discourse of the English Stage,” in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. J. E. Spingarn (1957), II, p. 95.

  12. “Preface,” The Fairy Queen (1692).

  13. Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (1740), p. 62. Cibber's point is echoed in Betterton's History of the English Stage (1741): “in all good Speech there is a sort of Music, with respect to its Measure, Time and Tune” (p. 46).

  14. Quoted in Alan Downer, “Nature to Advantage Dressed: Eighteenth Century Acting,” PMLA 58 (1943), p. 1023.

  15. J. B., “On the Art of Acting,” The Spectator 2 (1829), p. 811.

  16. Prefaces to Shakespeare, first series (1927), p. xv.

  17. Letter to his father, 26 September 1781, quoted in William Mann, The Operas of Mozart (1977), p. 294.

  18. Playing Shakespeare, pp. 47, 48, 54, 65-67.

  19. Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), in Brian Vickers, ed., Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage 1765-1774 (1979), p. 67.

  20. In Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage 1693-1733, ed. Brian Vickers (1974), pp. 25-26. It is no wonder that Macaulay called Rymer “the worst critic who has ever lived.”

  21. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series (1930), p. 1.

  22. In Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage 1765-1774, p. 152.

  23. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series, pp. 19, 64.

  24. The Dramatic Event (1956), p. 131.

  25. In Actors Talk About Acting, ed. Lewis Funke and John Booth (1961), p. 32.

  26. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series, p. 186.

  27. Our Theatres in the Nineties (1931), III, pp. 80-81. Granville-Barker likewise often emphasizes the musicality of Shakespeare's writing: “To the last … he would write an occasional passage of word-music with a minimum of meaning to it (but of maximum emotional value, it will be found, to the character that has to speak it)” (Prefaces to Shakespeare, first series [1927], p. 8).

  28. Quoted in Barton, Playing Shakespeare, p. 195.

  29. Our Theatres in the Nineties, III, p. 155.

  30. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series, pp. 185-86.

  31. Quoted in Frank Walker, The Man Verdi (1962), p. 489.

  32. Our Theatres in the Nineties, III, p. 339.

  33. The Operas of Verdi (1979), II, pp. 374-75. Richard Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal about the loss of words in performance: “It's unbelievable, a great pity but true, how little of the text can be caught by opera-goers no matter what pains the composer takes” (letter of 20 April 1914, in A Working Friendship [1961], p. 192.

Leslie C. Dunn (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 one Shakespearean character by another, Ophelia's brother Laertes calls her a “document in madness.”1 The word “document” is usually glossed with its older etymological sense of “lesson” or “example.” In Renaissance terms, Laertes sees Ophelia as an emblem—an image for which he supplies the text, inscribing it with an apparently self-evident, unambiguous cultural meaning. Laertes is not alone in this tendency to emblematize Ophelia: Hamlet also is quick to construe her in terms of cultural stereotypes, as the “Woman” whose name is frailty. And, as Elaine Showalter has shown, the subsequent history of Ophelia's representation, not only on the stage but in the discourses of literary criticism, psychiatry, and the visual arts, has followed these first male readers in constructing her as an archetype of both woman and madness.2

In Shakespeare's dramatic construction of Ophelia as madwoman, the discourse of music has a privileged place: Ophelia's songs dominate her mad scene, not only in their profusion, but in their disruptive and invasive power. From her first entrance Ophelia uses singing to command attention and confuse response, frustrating Gertrude's attempts to contain her utterance within the bounds of polite conversation:

Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark?
How now, Ophelia?
(sings) How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.
Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?
Say you? Nay, pray you mark.
(sings) He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
O ho!
Nay, but Ophelia—
Pray you mark.
[sings] White his shroud as the mountain snow—


Claudius tries another strategy of containment, attempting to fix the singing's meaning by assigning it a cause: “Conceit upon her father” (4.5.45). But Ophelia again uses music as a means of resistance: “Pray let's have no words of this,” she answers, “but when they ask you what it means, say you this” (46-47). What she instructs Claudius to “say”—the St. Valentine's Day ballad—is something that cannot be said, both literally (because it is a song) and figuratively (because its sexual content makes it indecorous, inappropriate). Singing, then, functions as a highly theatrical sign of Ophelia's estrangement from “normal” social discourse, as well as from her “normal” self.

This essay explores the role of music, as embodied in a female singing voice, in forging what Showalter has called the “representational bonds” between gender, sexuality and madness in Hamlet.3 Generally speaking, Ophelia's singing has received short shrift in Hamlet criticism. Literary critics tend to stress the visual and verbal signs of her distraction—the loose hair, the flowers, the fragmented speech—while about singing they say little more than that it was “a frequent accompaniment of madness” on the Elizabethan stage; by implying that its meaning is obvious and conventional, they give it a Laertes-like emblematic reading.4 Others, emulating Claudius, reduce Ophelia's singing to a mere “symptom of her pathetic state.”5 The song texts, by contrast, have attracted considerable attention, much of it aimed at identifying to whom or what Ophelia's fragmentary ballad quotations refer, and thereby seeking to establish the causes of her madness.6 But such an approach, which focuses on the songs' words, assumes that their mode of performance is merely a carrier of meaning rather than a constituent. I wish to argue that Ophelia's singing is full of meaning—indeed, overfull—which is precisely what makes it such a potent signifier, not only of woman and of madness, but also of music itself.

I would like, then, to propose a new reading of Ophelia as a figure of song. My argument is that the representation of Ophelia's madness involves a mapping of her sexual and psychological difference onto the discursive “difference” of music. As female is opposed to male and madness to reason, so song in Hamlet is opposed to speech—particularly those modes of speech that serve to defend the patriarchal order from the threat represented by Ophelia's “importunate” (4.5.2) self-expression. Far from being a mere accompaniment of her madness, then, Ophelia's music actively participates in Hamlet's larger discourse on gender and sexuality. At the same time, this dramatic use of music reflects the broader discourse of music in early modern English culture, with its persistent associations between music, excess and the feminine.7

The discursive status of song in Hamlet is grounded in its differentiation from speech, the usual mode of oral communication in Western culture. What distinguishes them is the presence of something “extra”—music—which at once imitates and estranges spoken utterance, shaping it to a different set of rules. At the same time, the singing voice behaves differently from the speaking voice. The very process of vocalization is exaggerated or intensified; the voice seems to have a less mediated relationship to the body, perhaps because there is literally more body in the voice—more breath, more diaphragm muscles, a more open mouth.

Along with this greater materiality of language comes a greater indeterminacy of meaning. Kaja Silverman offers a psychoanalytic perspective on this aspect of vocality:

The voice is the site of perhaps the most radical of all subjective divisions—the division between meaning and materiality … The sounds the voice makes always exceed signification to some degree, both before the entry into language and after. The voice is never completely standardized, forever retaining an individual flavor or texture—what Barthes calls its “grain.”8

Silverman is referring here to Barthes' “The Grain of the Voice,” an essay in which he explores the dialectic of meaning and materiality in vocal production.9 Because his subject is song, however, Barthes locates the “grain” more specifically in the voice “when it is in a dual posture, a dual production—of language and of music.” He describes this voice-in-music as a space where the normative functionality of language is transcended, where signification gives way to signifiance:

[the “grain”] forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or depth) of production where the melody really works at the language—not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sounds-signifiers, of its letters—where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work.

According to Barthes, it is this signifiance that enables the singing voice to “escape the tyranny of meaning.”10

As his metaphor suggests, Barthes sees this escape as positive, liberating a suppressed voluptuousness in both language and listener. Through its identification with music in song, the linguistic “body,” the materiality of its sound-signifiers, is released from semantic constraint. At the same time, the listener, through his/her identification with music, enters into a relationship with the performer's body that Barthes describes as “erotic.”11 For Barthes, then, music's power lies in its capacity to produce jouissance, the intense, ego-fragmenting pleasure that originates in “an excess of the text.”12 Significantly, he associates the excess of the musical text with madness:

The body passes into music without any relay but the signifier. This passage—this transgression—makes music a madness … In relation to the writer the composer is always mad (and the writer can never be so, for he is condemned to meaning).13

Barthes' concept of musical signifiance finds some suggestive parallels in poststructuralist theory, particularly in Kristeva's opposition between the semiotic and the symbolic in language. The semiotic is linked to the pre-Oedipal phase of development, when the child is bound up with the mother's body, communicating with her through gestures, rhythms and nonrepresentational sounds. The sounds of the maternal voice, in particular, are privileged sites of pleasure and identification.14 This semiotic bond with the mother is shattered with the acquisition of language, which, in Lacanian theory, marks the child's entry into the symbolic order. And just as the child must transfer its identification from mother to father, so the maternal semiotic must be suppressed under the paternal law of the logos. According to Kristeva, however, the semiotic survives in language as a “heterogeneousness to meaning and signification” which “produces ‘musical’ but also nonsense effects.”15 Since such effects are ultimately related to the primal “music” of the mother's voice, they represent the return of a repressed maternal realm of linguistic pleasure, a subversive semiotic potential within the symbolic order.16

Of course, Kristeva is here using “music” and “musical” metaphorically, to refer to the rhythms and sonorities of language. The metaphor itself is conventional in Western literary criticism, familiar from recurring allusions to the “music of poetry.” Kristeva's use of it is also conventional insofar as it articulates what has always been implicit in those allusions, namely the Western tendency to position music among signifying systems not only by analogy with, but also in opposition to language: melos vs. logos; sound vs. sense; “music” vs. “meaning.” Thus such apparently innocent, usually celebratory metaphors of “musical” language reveal how music, whether as discourse or in discourse, becomes implicated in the binarisms that organize patriarchal thinking, and thereby associated with the unconscious and the irrational as well as with the feminine. Kristeva's semiotic encompasses all three; its “music” surfaces in the language of poet and psychotic alike. Other French feminist writers, notably Catherine Clément and Hélène Cixous, have pushed the Kristevan musical metaphor even further by claiming song as the archetypal feminine discourse, “the first music of the voice of love, which every woman keeps alive”:

The Voice sings from a time before law, before the Symbolic took one's breath away and reappropriated it into language under its authority of separation … Within each woman the first, nameless love is singing.17

They have further identified music with madness by linking that song to the hysteric's cry—another form of escape from the tyranny of patriarchal meaning.18

It is important to recognize that these theoretical identifications of music with a “mad” or “feminine” discourse, outside the structures of patriarchal signification, themselves remain firmly within those structures. In blurring the distinction between music and musical metaphor, they essentialize music itself; it becomes the discursive “other” through an act of linguistic appropriation. We must therefore be cautious in applying them to the interpretation of music within literary texts, lest our readings reproduce the same binary paradigms. Nonetheless, such theories remain useful in that they reveal how music has been constructed or, to use Susan McClary's term, “framed” in Western culture. McClary rightly insists that music is more like literature than some literary critics are willing to admit: it too is “condemned to” culturally constructed meanings. Yet she goes on to say that “to the very great extent that Western culture is logocentric, music itself always gives the impression of being in excess, of being mad.”19 In the same way, associations of music with the feminine are bound up with, and implicated in, ideologies of gender. The writings of Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, and Clément testify to the power and persistence of these constructions of music, and suggest what can be at stake in maintaining them. As such they offer a point of departure for reading the music, both literal and figurative, in Ophelia's madness.

Though their intellectual context was that of Christian humanism rather than poststructuralist theory, early modern English writers also associated music with the body and its libidinal energies. Specifically, they were preoccupied with music's affective power, its capacity to arouse desire. Yet their attitude toward this power, unlike Barthes', was ambivalent, reflecting the conflicting ideologies of music inherited from Platonic and Christian thought.20 On the one hand, Renaissance humanists saw music as the earthly embodiment of divine order, and believed that its expressive powers could be a positive ethical force, an agent in the formation of both the ideal courtier and the well-ordered state.21 In post-Reformation England, however, this humanist idealism was qualified by the longstanding Christian distrust of music's sensuousness, its unmediated appeal to the body and the emotions. If music was “so powerful a thing, that it ravisheth the soul, regina sensum, the Queene of the senses, by sweete pleasure,”22 then it could not only distract the mind from higher thoughts, but even unbalance it by arousing excessive and unruly passions. Defenders of music argued that “delight of the eares” might be the means through which “the weak soule may be stirred up into a feeling of godliness.”23 But as Richard Mulcaster observed,

to some [music] seemes offensive, bycause it carrieth away the eare, with the sweetnesse of the melodie, and bewitcheth the mind with a syrens sound, pulling it from that delite, wherin of duetie it ought to dwell, unto harmonicall fantasies, and withdrawing it, from the best meditations, and most vertuous thoughtes to forreigne conceites and wandring devises.24

The problem lay not only with music's sensuous immediacy but also with its semantic indeterminacy which, combined with the subjective nature of musical response, made music's meaning difficult either to define or to control.25 The most extreme critics therefore condemned virtually all music as conducive to various forms of psychic, social, and moral excess. In The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Phillip Stubbes warned parents:

if you wold haue your sonne, softe, womannish, vncleane, smoth mouthed, affected to bawdrie, scurrilitie, filthie rimes and vnsemely talking: brifly, if you wold haue him, as it were transnatured into a woman or worse, and inclyned to all kind of whordome and abhomination, let him to dauncing school, and to learn musicke, and than shall you not faile of your purpose. And if you would haue your daughter whorish, bawdie, and vncleane, and a filthie speaker, and such like, bring her up in musick and dauncing, and my life for youres, you haue wun the goale.26

Admittedly, Stubbes's attack is more hysterical than most, but it does reflect a widespread cultural anxiety about music, and reveals how that anxiety was rooted in patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. As Linda Austern has shown, Renaissance debates over the nature and uses of music bore striking similarities to contemporary debates over the nature and place of women.27 Like woman, music was associated with the body and female generativity—“as pregnant as Libia alwaies breeding some new thing.”28 Like woman, too, music was held to have an essentially changeable nature, unpredictable and sometimes irrational in its behavior. Behind such analogies between music and femininity lay the perception of parallel threats to masculine subjectivity. Music's sensuous beauty gave it power: its sounds could penetrate the ear and so “ravish” the mind. The fear was that masculine autonomy and virtue would be overwhelmed in an abandonment to “sweete pleasure”—that music, in other words, was a Siren.

Given this gendered construction of music, it is not surprising that some Renaissance writers associated musical performance with the transgression of culturally prescribed gender roles. According to Stubbes, men who make music are “transnatured,” made “softe” and “womannish,” presumably because music encourages them to indulge in “feminine” emotional excess. In women, music mirrors their own inherently excessive feminine nature; their musical pleasure thus generates monsters of unrestrained female desire, “whorish, bawdie, and vncleane.” In either case, music produces a breakdown in social order that is expressed, significantly, in unruly utterances: men become “smoth mouthed,” women “filthie speaker[s].”29 Here is the same nexus of associations between music, feminine vocality, and semantic excess that we saw in French feminist theory, viewed from the perspective of male sexual anxiety.

This negative vision of music's power may seem to contradict the more familiar Renaissance image of Pythagorean universal harmony, the “music of the spheres” that epitomized the order of God's creation. But these contradictory images in fact belong to the same discourse; they are but the two poles of another opposition. Jacques Attali has argued that music, like other signifying systems, is founded upon difference: it is ordered sound that is separated from un-ordered sound, or noise, by both formal and cultural boundaries. As a result, definitions of music are always ideological:

music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible … Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities. The code of music simulates the accepted rules of society.30

Applying this theory to the Renaissance discourse of music, we might say that Pythagorean harmony is music in its positive or “masculine” aspect: logos, reason, order. Its social analogues are those forms of musical practice that are sanctioned by Church and State, and serve the interests of hegemonic groups: the music played at weddings, for example, which symbolizes the containment of sexual desire within the hierarchical “concord” of marriage. Its negative or “feminine” aspect represents all the dis-orderly energies in soul or society, energies that are constantly threatening to escape from patriarchal control, even as musical signifiance threatens to escape from signification, or the semiotic to erupt into the symbolic. In this “feminine” aspect, music itself can become—to the ears of anxious male listeners, at least—a cultural dissonance, its “harmonicall fantasies” a kind of madness.

With Attali's opposition between music and noise we can return to Ophelia's mad singing and see how it functions as a discursive dissonance within the play. Paradoxically, Ophelia's music is noise in Attali's sense precisely because it is music. As discourse it is radically “other,” breaking the “accepted rules” of conversation and hence ambiguous in its meaning. Moreover, when Ophelia sings, she takes on a mask of performance: her personal voice is estranged, filtered through the anonymous voices of the ballads, multiplying and thereby rendering indeterminate the relationships between singer, personae, and audience. At the same time, these voices are doubly embodied in music's materiality—in the melody that “works” at the language, and in the “grain” of Ophelia's own voice—which causes a further surplus, and therefore slippage, of meaning. No wonder Gertrude can only reply to Ophelia's outburst with a bewildered question: “Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?” (4.5.27).

As social behavior, too, Ophelia's singing is “noisy.” It is disruptive, indecorous, defying expectations—particularly the expectation of appropriate feminine behavior implicit in the epithet with which Claudius attempts to stop her: “Pretty Ophelia” (4.5.56). But Ophelia in her madness refuses to be pretty, as she refuses to be silenced. The ballad that she sings to Claudius tells of a girl's sexual initiation; by the end of the second strophe her lover has “Let in the maid that out a maid / Never departed more” (4.5.54-55). Claudius's discomfiture is obvious from his interruption, but Ophelia is unfazed; she interrupts him and finishes her song:

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
          Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do't if they come to't—
          By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,
          You promis'd me to wed.”

He answers,

“So would I a done, by yonder sun,
          And thou hadst not come to my bed.”


For Ophelia to sing such a lyric, especially in front of her lover's parents, is shocking. My point, however, is that the fact that Ophelia sings is just as indecorous as what she sings, and in some ways even more disturbing, because of the surplus of meaning that inheres in her singing voice, and the power that voice-in-music gives her.

We are now in a position to understand the cultural resonance that Ophelia's singing might have had for Renaissance audiences. If music arouses excessive “feminine” passions, then it is also an ideal vehicle for representing feminine excess. If its meaning cannot be controlled, then it can signify a loss of control that is perceived as threatening, yet erotically exciting. Music is like the “madwoman” in language, releasing subversive powers of self-expression by embodying them in the expressive powers of the voice. As such it is an apt marker of the mad Ophelia: a frightening figure of female openness, of uncontrolled generativity, whose free-flowing and formless utterance threatens to “strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5.14-15).

In singing, then, Ophelia becomes both the literal and the figurative “dissonance” that “expresses marginalities.” The question remains: what has been marginalized in Denmark, besides Ophelia herself? The St. Valentine's Day ballad suggests that it is sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and the rest of the play bears this out. At its center is Hamlet, whose tormented awareness of his mother's desire turns him against all women. Laertes, too, is preoccupied with the unruly female body. When Ophelia tells him of Hamlet's love, he warns her to repress her own desires, using a musical image which, in light of Ophelia's fate, seems doubly charged: “Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain / If with too credent ear you list his songs” (1.3.29-30). Peter Seng has argued that Ophelia, in her madness, offers the male characters a dark mirror of their own sexual anxiety: “the heroine of the [St. Valentine's Day Ballad] is not the Ophelia that Hamlet knew, but rather the Ophelia that Polonius and Laertes, without real cause, had feared their daughter and sister might become.”31 I would add that it is not only the ballad's heroine who represents those fears; it is also Ophelia herself, who, in singing, embodies the cultural fantasy of the Siren, woman as eroticized voice-object.32

In this respect Shakespeare's representation of Ophelia draws on gender stereotypes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, where the sexually ambiguous eroticism of boy actors was exploited in scenes of feminine musical seduction. When Ophelia sings “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy” (4.5.184), the phallic pun recalls other women characters, many of them Siren figures in the moralized Renaissance sense—seductresses, if not courtesans or bawds—who use song to proclaim their own desires and assert their sexual power over men.33 But Ophelia's performance dislocates this stereotype: she sings not as a seducer but about one, reminding us that it was she who “suck'd the honey” of Hamlet's “music vows” and not the other way around (3.1.158). In doing so, she also forces the audience to confront the disjunction between her subjectivity and the “voices” assigned to women in her culture.

These cultural voices are rendered still more problematic by Ophelia's frequent shifts between voices. Not all of her songs are erotic; in fact most of them are laments, expressions of loss and grief:

And will a not come again?
And will a not come again?
          No, no, he is dead,
          Go to thy death-bed,
He never will come again.


Here again Ophelia's singing could be construed as reinforcing a gender stereotype, since grief, or indeed any strong emotion, is another form of excess identified as “feminine” in Hamlet. We saw how Stubbes feared that an abandonment to music would render men “softe” and “womannish.” The male characters in Hamlet express a similar fear of abandoning themselves to the figurative “music” of their emotions. After hearing the Player King describe the grief of Hecuba for her slain husband, Hamlet wonders, “What would he do / Had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?” (2.2.554-55). Yet, when he does express that passion, he feels effeminized:

This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion!


Similarly, when Laertes learns of Ophelia's death, he tries but fails to “forbid” his tears (4.7.185), then rationalizes them as a purging of what Claudius, early in the play, calls “unmanly grief” (1.2.94): “When these are gone, / The woman will be out” (4.7.187-88).

Ophelia's songs might be said to perform a similar function, on both the personal and the cultural level. As Charles Segal and Elizabeth Tolbert observe elsewhere in this volume, the lament is a form of song traditionally associated with women. In mourning the loss of both father and “true love” (4.5.23), Ophelia aligns herself with this tradition, not only through her own singing, but also through her implicit identification with Niobe and Hecuba, the legendary women evoked by Hamlet as icons of mourning. It is as if she is taking on the burden of all the unexpressed grief in the play, becoming the real thing of which the Player King's performance—and, according to Hamlet, Gertrude's—were but imitations, “fiction[s] … of passion” (2.2.546).

At the same time, however, the particularities of Ophelia's own performance disrupt this identification. As with her bawdy songs, what is foregrounded is not congruity with conventions but incongruity, not obviousness of meaning but ambiguity. In their fragmentary form, their fictive voices, and their shifts from first to third person, Ophelia's ballads are discursively disjoint; in their inappropriateness to their immediate context, their interruptions of conversation with song, they are both discursively and socially displaced. Moreover, compared to actual lamenting, Ophelia's ballads are emphatically not the real thing. As in the St. Valentine's Day ballad, she does not lament so much as sing about lamenting: “They bore him bare-fac'd on the bier, / And in his grave rain'd many a tear” (4.5.164-65). Her songs thus become ghostly echoes of rituals that never took place, griefs that were never articulated. Even in her madness she cannot attain the utter abandonment of Niobe's “all tears” (1.2.149) or Hecuba's “instant burst of clamour” (2.2.511). Far from being an excessive expression of feminine emotion, Ophelia's “broken voice” (2.2.550) is an implicit reproach to the society that has denied her full expression.

If Ophelia's singing lets “the woman” out, then, it does so in such a way as to problematize cultural constructions of women's song, even while containing her within their re-presentation. Her songs are like an inversion of patriarchal speech, a release of repressed psychic energies and unmet emotional needs. But according to the logic of patriarchal narrative, that release can be only temporary: Ophelia's disruptive feminine energy must be reabsorbed into both the social and the discursive orders of the play. The price that Ophelia herself pays is high; her moment of self-expression is, in Showalter's words, “quickly followed, as if in retribution, by her death.”34 Catherine Clément has argued that this narrative pattern is typical of opera, in which heroines are “undone” by a plot that climaxes in “their glorious moment: a sung death.”35 Indeed, Ophelia in her madness resembles another “noisy” heroine, Lucia di Lammermoor, whose mad scene is similarly framed by the reactions of an audience.36

Ophelia is unlike those operatic heroines, however, in that her death is not the play's climax. In fact it is not even represented on stage, but rather reported by Gertrude, in one of the play's most lyrical speeches:

Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.


This speech marks a crucial moment in the play's response to the threats of excess and disorder embodied in Ophelia's music. It recapitulates the earlier mad scene in its references to singing and flowers. This time, however, we get only a description of Ophelia's song, rendered in someone else's speech; the “grain” of Ophelia's own voice is inaudible. Moreover, Gertrude now defines her songs as “old lauds” (hymns), a lyric genre the cultural connotations of which are very different from those of her earlier ballads and laments. This narrative reframing renders the image of Ophelia singing less immediate, less dangerous: “she chanted snatches of old lauds” is a faint echo of “By Gis and by Saint Charity.

But this is only one aspect of the speech's larger project of restoring Ophelia to her original iconic role of modest and delicate virgin. Gertrude's description of Ophelia's drowning aestheticizes her madness, makes it “pretty,” and in so doing makes it safe for the easier, distancing responses of pity and compassion; the Siren has become merely “mermaid-like.” On the discursive level, too, Gertrude's verbal lyricism performs a crucial function: it re-appropriates Ophelia's music by inscribing it in the containing verbal structures, the metaphorical “music” of poetry. Instead of Ophelia's disjunct fragments of popular song, Gertrude gives us the blank verse of high court culture. Instead of Ophelia's laments, she gives us elegy.

It is fitting, too, that this task is given to Gertrude, who was herself the embodiment of unruly female sexuality earlier in the play. Here, she is merely completing a process that was initiated by Claudius's and Laertes's earlier readings of Ophelia, summed up in Laertes's comment that “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself / She turns to favour and to prettiness” (4.5.185-86). In telling her “pretty” story of Ophelia's death, Gertrude is implicitly submitting it to patriarchal authority, representing Ophelia the way the men want to see her. This submission is further confirmed at Ophelia's burial, where Gertrude performs a female role that even Hamlet would regard as entirely appropriate. The threateningly eroticized mother-bride is replaced by a mother-lamenter who symbolically places herself outside the sexual arena: “I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife: / I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid, / And not have strew'd thy grave” (5.1.237-39). In such mourning, not only Ophelia's “noisy” singing, but also the “music” of Gertrude's own maternal voice are reabsorbed into the symbolic order of speech, even as they are recuperated by the social order.

This final image of Ophelia silenced brings me back to my opening remarks about the tendency to emblematize her, to turn her into a “speaking picture” which, being visual rather than aural, can more easily be read. My own reading views this picturing process as a response to Ophelia's singing, which is perceived by the other characters as dangerous, not only because of the uncontrollable meanings it may suggest to others, but also because of the unruly emotions it provokes in them. Their anxiety is aroused not only because Ophelia is mad, but also because she is a woman, who becomes even more “Woman” when she sings. To draw another analogy from feminist theory, the excess of Ophelia's music intensifies the already excessive femininity of her voice—makes it, in Irigaray's term, even more “fluid.”37 It is as if Ophelia's singing plunges her auditors into the flowing current of a river, and they are desperately afraid of drowning. All their interventions are attempts to “freeze” that flow by containing it within some stable relationship between signifier and signified. Yet it is only when Ophelia herself has drowned that they can at last climb out and dry themselves off, making speeches over her voiceless body.

My own response to Ophelia's songs is to insist that her singing matters, and attend to her music's materiality—the more so because the discourses of criticism have too often written it out of hearing. In those dismissals of singing as a conventional sign of madness I detect a response not unlike those of Claudius and Laertes—an uneasiness when confronted with an alien discursive medium, a resistance to that which is perceived as textual “overflow.” Yet I believe it is possible to resist that tendency. We may not be able to avoid converting Ophelia's “noisy” singing into the “music” of our own speech or writing, but by making her singing our subject, we can at least acknowledge its significance. In doing so, we will move toward a critical language that can not only put singing back into the “picture” of Ophelia's madness, but also the voice back into the singing, and the body back into the voice.


  1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), 4.5.176. Subsequent citations will appear in parentheses in the text.

  2. Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 77-94.

  3. Showalter, “Representing Ophelia,” p. 80.

  4. Maurice and Hannah Charney, “The Language of Madwomen in Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 3, 2 (Winter 1977), 453; see also Bridget Gellert Lyons, “The Iconography of Ophelia,” English Literary History 44 (1977), 60-74. On Ophelia's mad speech, see Sandra K. Fischer, “Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet,Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Reforme 26 (1990), 1-11, and David Leverenz, “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View,” in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 119-21.

  5. F. W. Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Dover, 1963), p. 57.

  6. See, for example, Carroll Camden, “On Ophelia's Madness,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), 247-55. In a recent article, Carol Thomas Neely has critiqued such attempts to pin down the meaning of Ophelia's songs, arguing that her mad discourse has a “‘quoted,’ fragmentary, ritualized quality” that is both personal and communal; “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 323-36. For a survey of commentary on the songs, see Peter Seng, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 131-56.

  7. See Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘Sing Againe Syren’: The Female Musician and Sexual Enchantment in Elizabethan Life and Literature,” Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989), 420-48, and “‘Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England,” Music and Letters 74.3 (1993), 343-54.

  8. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 44.

  9. Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), pp. 179-89.

  10. Ibid., pp. 181, 182, 185.

  11. Ibid., p. 188.

  12. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Noonday Press, 1975), p. 19. Although Barthes' notion of jouissance originated in his analysis of literary pleasure, “The Grain of the Voice” specifically associates it with musical pleasure, speculating that the threat of loss entailed by jouissance is the source of “the old Platonic idea” that “music is dangerous” (“Grain,” 179).

  13. Roland Barthes, “Rasch,” in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), p. 308.

  14. On the privileging of the maternal voice in Kristeva and other feminist theorists, see Claire Kahane, “Questioning the Maternal Voice,” Genders 3 (1988), 82-91, and Domna C. Stanton, “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva,” in Nancy K. Miller, ed., The Poetics of Gender (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 157-82.

  15. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 133.

  16. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 63.

  17. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 93.

  18. On music and hysteria, see Cixous and Clément, The Newly Born Woman, pp. 19-22, 107; and Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 32-38.

  19. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 102.

  20. For an overview of English Renaissance attitudes toward music, see Walter L. Woodfill, Musicians in English Society from Elizabeth to Charles I (Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 201-46.

  21. On Renaissance musical humanism, see D. P. Walker, “Musical Humanism in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” The Music Review 2 (1941), 1-13, 111-21, 220-27, 288-308, and 3 (1942), 55-71; James Winn, Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of Relations between Poetry and Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 163-79; Gary Tomlinson, Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 3-30.

  22. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th edn. (Oxford, 1632), p. 297.

  23. John Case, The Praise of Musicke (Oxford, 1586), pp. 70-71.

  24. Richard Mulcaster, Positions wherein those primitive circumstances be examined, which are necessary for the training up of children (London, 1581), fol. 29v.

  25. On this point, see Elise Jorgens, “The Singer's Voice in Elizabethan Drama,” in Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Anne J. Cruz, and Wendy A. Furman, eds., Renaissance Rereadings: Intertext and Context (University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 35.

  26. Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583), sig. D5-D5v.

  27. Austern, “‘Sing Againe Syren,’” 420-27.

  28. Case, The Praise of Musicke, p. 4.

  29. On the sexualization of the mouth in Renaissance discourses about women, and excessive speech as a sign of sexual transgression, see Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 12.

  30. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 29.

  31. Seng, The Vocal Songs, p. 148.

  32. The Lacanian term “voice-object” is borrowed from Michel Poizat, The Angel's Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera, trans. Arthur Denner (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).

  33. For example, Franceschina in Marston's The Dutch Courtesan (1605) seduces a customer with a song in the voice of the nightingale, a bird traditionally associated with both women and lust: “My body is but little, / So is the nightingale's. / I love to sleep ‘gainst prickle, / So doth the nightingale” (1.2.150-53). For further discussion of musical seduction in English Renaissance drama, see Linda Austern's essay in this volume.

  34. Showalter, “Representing Ophelia,” 81.

  35. Clement, Opera, p. 45.

  36. My reading of Ophelia's mad scene is indebted to Susan McClary's analysis of the musical representation of madwomen in Feminine Endings, pp. 80-111.

  37. Luce Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 106-118. For a fuller discussion of voice, fluidity, and madness, see Janet Beizer's essay in this volume.

Leslie C. Dunn (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, Glendower, and Hotspur are about to launch their rebellion against the King; their ladies are brought in to bid them farewell. Frustrated in her attempt to communicate her love to her husband—Mortimer tells us that “My wife can speak no English, I no Welsh” (3.1.187)—Lady Mortimer resorts first to the inarticulate language of tears and kisses, then to a song in her native Welsh, a language which Mortimer, uncomprehending but enraptured, compares to “ditties highly penned / Sung by a fair queen in a summer's bow'r, / With ravishing division to her lute” (202-4).1 That mystified male vision of woman's song, and Shakespeare's dramatic use of it, are the subjects of this essay.

The choice of Lady Mortimer as a touchstone for my argument may seem strange, considering that of the three women characters who sing in Shakespeare (the other two being Ophelia and Desdemona) she is by far the least memorable. Indeed she is virtually effaced from the printed text of the play, her presence indicated only by stage directions that emphasize her linguistic exclusion: “The lady speaks in Welsh,” “The lady again in Welsh,” “Here the lady sings a Welsh song.” Nor has that song received much attention from modern critics, even when song is their subject. John Long's study of music in the history plays mentions the song but offers no commentary on its singer.2 Peter Seng's variorum Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare does not even include the song which, having no printed text, has for him no textual status.3

This omission never bothered me until the summer of 1990, when I saw a production of the Henriad at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I had been studying the representation of women and music in English Renaissance drama, so I was eager to see how Lady Mortimer's song would be staged. But I was not prepared for the impact that it had in performance. What had been virtually invisible suddenly became both visible and audible, compellingly so. I was made aware of the transformation that the human voice undergoes when it shifts from speech to song. Even more striking was the simultaneous intimacy and isolation of the solo singer—a state that the Guthrie production underscored by darkening the thrust stage and shining a spotlight on Lady Mortimer as she cradled her husband's head in her lap. I began to think differently about Glendower's suggestion that magical powers would attend his daughter when she sang.

That experience in the theater revealed a central paradox in Shakespeare's representation of women's song. When Ophelia, Desdemona, and Lady Mortimer sing their voices become stronger, both literally and figuratively. The shift to song focuses attention on them, moves them to a new center of dramatic power—one key source of which is the discursive “difference” of music. Yet at the same time these songs heighten our awareness of the women's own disempowering difference, their marginality in a male-centered world. Indeed it is the incomprehension or abusiveness of men that has driven them to sing in the first place.

In what follows I will attempt to offer a fuller articulation of the connection between gender, music, and marginality in Shakespearean drama. Lady Mortimer acquires a new significance in this context, for the very reasons that she is so easily ignored: she is the most emphatically marginalized of Shakespeare's women singers, as well as the one most decisively defined by music. The one scene in which she appears is a domestic interlude, set apart from the play's primary business of dynastic struggle. Her song, too, is set apart, almost a set piece, in contrast to Ophelia's and Desdemona's songs which are integrated into the dramatic action.4 And the song is all Lady Mortimer is able to “say” for herself; her father translates her Welsh speeches for Mortimer's benefit (and that of her English-speaking audience), depriving her of an unmediated voice.

Even within that marginalized dramatic space, Lady Mortimer is displaced still further by the fact that her poignant exchange with Mortimer becomes a foil for the dialogue between Hotspur and Kate, who hardly stop talking long enough to hear her sing. Their banter stands in comic contrast to the passionate excesses of the Welsh characters—the rhetorical extravagance of Glendower, the openly expressed desire of Lady Mortimer—creating a locus of plain-speaking, unsentimental “Englishness” with which the audience is encouraged, through laughter, to identify.

This comic framing reinforces our sense that the song, like the woman who sings it, is nothing but an interlude—of Welshness in the midst of Englishness, of women in the midst of men, of intimacy in the midst of public affairs, of music in the midst of speech. It further suggests that the discursive otherness of song might be read as a metaphor for the way in which women, and the emotions associated with them, are marginalized in the world of the play. As in Twelfth Night, music is here represented as an alternative language of the emotions, the “food of love.”5 But in contrast to that comedy, where erotic desires drive the plot and women have a correspondingly prominent role, 1 Henry IV has little time for either women or love, and uses the brief time of a woman's song to emblematize their displacement.

If we are to read this use of song in 1 Henry IV as more than a localized dramatic device, however, we must place it a larger context. The parallels with Shakespeare's other two scenes of women singing are suggestive. All three occur in histories or tragedies, genres which notoriously marginalize women, and which also contain far less music than the comedies and romances. Lyric expression in these plays is thus more pointedly associated with women characters, and with a private or domestic space, as opposed to the public arena which is marked by instrumental music of more clearly functional kind (e.g., trumpet flourishes). When we consider Shakespeare's dramatic use of song more generally, other intriguing patterns emerge. As John Long has pointed out, songs are usually given to secondary characters, many of them representatives of the lower classes: rustics, tradesmen, servants, fools.6 By contrast, men who occupy positions of power, or who have the role of sympathetic hero, almost never sing or even have songs sung for them, unless, like Orsino, they are temporarily self-displaced, having abandoned themselves to some passion, or, like Edgar, they are deliberately feigning such abandonment.

Song might thus be said to function as a discourse of marginality on the Shakespearean stage, assigned to characters who are displaced or disempowered within the patriarchal order. It can also be a gendered discourse, to the extent that the dramatic meanings of singing in a particular scene are bound up with the cultural construction of music and musical activity as “feminine.” In other words, there was a significant analogy between the “place” of song on the early modern English stage and the place of both women and music in early modern English culture—one that Shakespeare exploited in his representation of women's song.

Any construction of song as a discourse of difference must be grounded in its most obvious, but culturally significant, difference, namely the difference from speech, which is the usual way of doing things vocally. Words in song can do things, too, but their actions are conventionally confined to discrete cultural spaces—spaces defined by a context of performance, whether in the public spheres of ritual, ceremony, and entertainment, or in the more private spheres of work, prayer, and recreation.

In early modern English drama this division of discursive spaces is often represented through the distinction between lyric and other literary forms, chiefly blank verse and prose, which are used to represent speech and so constitute the dominant mode of dramatic discourse. The discursive distinctiveness of song is further implied through the framing of many songs as performances that are either set apart from the main action or extraneous to it.7 Even when songs are integral to the action, they create a textual “inner space,” temporarily suspending the forward motion of the plot, and requiring a different kind of attention from the audience. Songs thus tend to have a distancing function in relation to the narrative. The singer, too, is differently placed, both in relation to the other characters and to the theatrical audience, by taking on the role of performer.

Even more fundamental to the discursive difference of song is the internal displacement that musical performance effects on language. Words in song come to the ear dilated in musical time, their pronunciation altered by melodic curve and rhythmic beat. They also come charged with the expressive supplement of music, what the film critic Mary Anne Doane has called the “nonlinguistic register of the sign.”8 In Western culture since the Renaissance, this musical register has been particularly associated with heightened affect, with a passion that exceeds language. Referring to the soundtrack in cinema, Doane has written that

Music takes up where the image leaves off—what is in excess in relation to the image is equivalent to what is in excess of the rational. Music has an anaphoric function, consistently pointing out that there is more than meaning, there is desire.9

Applying this analysis to song in spoken drama, we might say that it takes up where speech leaves off, which enables song to function as an “other” discourse, opening a space for a “more than” meaning. In doing so, song can also open a space for representing elsewhere and otherwise.

In Shakespeare's plays this space is variously articulated, according to theatrical conventions that were grounded in contemporary musical practice and musical lore. Generally speaking, representations of song performance on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage were realistic in the sense that, to quote Elise Jorgens, “the turn to song [was] a conventionally accepted response to a predictable situation,” reflecting “if not actual daily practice, at least the common wisdom about when and where music should be present.”10 Hence Shakespeare's use of song also reflects prevailing social conventions, matching the type and function of the song to the appropriate character, class, and situation: peddlers and mechanicals sing popular ballads; soldiers sing drinking songs; pages and fools sing for their masters.

In other instances, however, the dramatic use of song alludes not so much to cultural practice as to what might be called cultural myths of music. Music and song are often used, for example, to evoke a “world apart.” This can be a magical realm inhabited by musical spirits, such as The Tempest's isle “full of noises” or the fairies' forest in Midsummer Night's Dream, both of which draw on traditional associations of music with natural and supernatural forces.11 Or it can be a liminal place within human society such as Portia's Belmont, where the “touches of sweet harmony” evoke the symbolic music of the harmonia mundi; here the underlying musical metaphor comes from the philosophical tradition of musica speculativa.12

The displacement represented by song did not have to be geographic; singing could also mark the individual singer as inhabiting a different social or psychological space relative to that occupied by dominant groups. In fact, most of the characters who sing in Shakespeare are marginalized in some way, either by their class (servants, fools, mechanicals) or their psychological state (drunks, lunatics, besotted lovers), or because they are a different sort of being altogether (spirits, fairies, “monsters” like Caliban). Their singing often involves a third type of lyric displacement as well: the revelation of an “inner world” of subjective feelings. Bottom sings to conquer his fear; Mariana calls for a song to express her grief; Caliban sings in the elation of revolt. In these instances music points, as Doane suggests, to an excess; it serves to release emotions that could not be so fully or freely expressed under the constraints of ordinary social discourse.

Returning to Lady Mortimer's singing, we can see that it functions as a displaced and displacing discourse in all of the senses just mentioned. Her song does not literally transport its auditors to a world elsewhere, but Glendower plays upon the associations of music and magic by suggesting that as his daughter sings “those musicians that shall play to you / Hang in the air a thousand leagues from hence, / And straight they shall be here” (3.1.218-20). As a form of cultural expression, Lady Mortimer's singing extends and intensifies the linguistic difference that signifies her otherness and positions her between father and husband in a figuration that Karen Newman, following Michel Serres, has called the “tiers exclu”—the excluded third, over and through whom the exchange between men takes place.13 As an intimate performance for her husband, Lady Mortimer's singing locates her in a domestic space that is directly contrasted to the political arena from which the three conspirators have temporarily withdrawn, and to which they are about to return. As a signifier of erotic passion song sets her apart from both the political aggressions of the men and the marital sparring of Hotspur and Kate. And as an expression of her love for Mortimer it has an effect analogous to that which Susan McClary has attributed to the music of operatic arias: it “delivers a sense of depth and grants the spectator license to eavesdrop upon the character's interiority.”14 As in opera, too, that effect, bound up with the mystification of the woman's voice, is only enhanced by the fact that her words cannot be understood.

The question remains whether this musical discourse of displacement is also a gendered discourse—or to put it another way, whether Lady Mortimer's song signifies “woman” as well as “Welsh.”15 The answer is implicit in the commentary on Lady Mortimer's song offered by her onstage male auditors, who exemplify what might be called patriarchal thinking about music. I have mentioned already how Glendower tries to infuse the song with an aura of magic. He does so not only by alluding to spirit musicians, but also by describing the effect of his daughter's music as a kind of enchantment:

She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down,
And rest your gentle head upon her lap,
And she will sing the song that pleaseth you,
And on your eyelids crown the god of sleep,
Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness,
Making such difference 'twixt wake and sleep,
As is the difference betwixt day and night,
The hour before the heavenly-harness'd team
Begins his golden progress in the east.


The word “charming” is doubly significant here. In recalling the Latin carmen, the common etymological root of “song” and “spell,” it evokes ancient beliefs in music's power to influence human behavior. But Glendower further identifies Lady Mortimer's song with two types of charm that are associated particularly with women: the lullaby and the seduction song.

Through Glendower's mediating language, then, the adoring wife is transformed into an enchantress, at once sensuous and maternal, using music to hold Mortimer in her power as she holds him in her lap. The responses of the two men to this fantasy of feminine seduction are revealing. Glendower's celebration of the power of his daughter's music seems designed primarily to display his own power, not only by appropriating her literal music into the “music” of his own speech, but also by confirming his own connection to supernatural forces. His earlier boast that he could “call spirits from the vasty deep” was mocked by Hotspur: “Why, so can I, or so can any man, / But will they come when you do call for them?” (3.1.50-52). Now he turns his daughter's music into an apparent proof that they do.16 As for Mortimer, he is careful to put an acceptable construction on his submission to his wife by setting limits to it: “With all my heart I'll sit and hear her sing, / By that time will our book I think be drawn” (216-17). Yet the song apparently makes him forget the time, because the scene ends with Glendower remarking on the contrast between Mortimer's reluctance to leave and Hotspur's eagerness for battle, implying that it is unmanly to be so affected by a woman's music: “Come, come, Lord Mortimer, you are as slow / As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go” (257-58).17

This image of a man lulled into passivity, losing the name of action in an abandonment to the charms of song, recalls one of the archetypal Western narratives of the seductive but dangerous female singer: the myth of the Sirens. As Linda Austern has shown, allusions to the Sirens occur repeatedly in English Renaissance writing about music, usually in the context of warnings about music's power to arouse sexual desire—a power that was thought to be even further intensified when music was embodied in the voice of a beautiful woman.18 Some sixteenth-century conduct books went so far as to suggest that girls should not be taught to sing or play an instrument lest they become Sirens themselves. In The Mirrhor of Modestie (1579), Thomas Salter wrote:

I wish our Maiden, wholie to refrain from the use of Musicke, and seeyng that under the coverture of Vertue, it openeth the dore to many vices, she ought so muche the more to be regarded, by how muche the more the daunger is greate, and lesse apparent. … It is saied, that from the false sweeteness of the Sirens songes. Ulisses a Prince famous emong the Grekes, and saied to be nourished with heavenly foode, in the verie bosome of Sapiencs Jupiters doughter, could hardly escape, and shall wee then without feare, give so muche trust to a young Maiden, daintely and tenderly trained up, that she not onely by hearyng, but by learnyng so wanton an Arte, wil not become wanton and effeminate.19

A survey of women singers in early modern English drama reveals that a striking number of them are constructed as siren figures—if not literally whores or bawds, then certainly seductresses, or at least women whose musical performances, like those of Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl and Ann Frankford in A Woman Killed with Kindness, are directly associated with unruly female sexuality.20 The pervasiveness of the siren figure suggests that underlying the cultural stereotype of the feminine is a cultural anxiety about music. I would argue that this anxiety is projected onto female figures because it is fundamentally a male anxiety—a fear of being “unmanned” not only by sexual desire, but by any strong emotion, both of which can be aroused by music. To put it more generally, patriarchal thinking constructs music as the irrational other among signifying practices, its melos a “feminine” signifier that exceeds the semantic containment of the logos. And in exceeding rational control, music, like woman, threatens the male subject with a loss of autonomy and power. If he abandons himself to his emotional response he risks becoming passive, defenseless, “effeminized.”21

This cultural fantasy of music as woman accounts, I believe, for the commingling of erotic and maternal language in Glendower's description of Lady Mortimer's song. It also accounts for Hotspur's energetic resistance to it. In fact it is Hotspur rather than Glendower who most vividly exemplifies patriarchal thinking about music, both by alluding to prevailing cultural attitudes, and by revealing to what extent these attitudes are bound up with gender ideologies. Early in the scene there is a brief exchange between Glendower and Hotspur on the subject of song. Glendower boasts that

          being but young, I framed to the harp
Many an English ditty lovely well,
And gave the tongue a helpful ornament—
A virtue that was never seen in you.


Hotspur replies with a characteristically impatient outburst: “Marry, and I am glad of it with all my heart! / I had rather be a kitten and cry ‘mew’ / Than one of these same meter ballad-mongers” (122-24). Music is thereby associated not only with national and class differences, but also with gender roles. Being a soldier, a man of action, Hotspur has no use for poetry and fine language, any more than for fair queens in their summer's bowers, singing with ravishing division to their lutes. When Kate orders him to “lie still … and hear the Lady sing in Welsh,” his answer is, “I would rather hear Lady my brach howl in Irish” (229-30).

There is an intriguing parallel here with another of Shakespeare's rebels, Richard III, who opens his play complaining that the peacetime world is out of joint and uses music as an index of his own displacement:

Grim-visag'd war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front:
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasings of a lute.
But I, that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
.....Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity.(22)

Such anti-musical bias reflects the cultural construction of music as “feminine” mentioned earlier. Elizabethan and Jacobean writers were ambivalent about the role that music should play in a man's life.23 A musical education was generally held to be a sign of social status and cultural literacy, yet a gentleman was expected to have only a limited degree of musical skill and to make music only in private, during his leisure time, as a refreshment from the serious business of public affairs.24 Even as a “pleasant pastime for peace” music ranked well below the more stereotypically masculine athletic pursuits, as indicated by its placement in Roger Ascham's list of skills that are “necessary for a courtly gentleman to use”:

to ride comely, to run fair at the tilt or ring, to play at all weapons, to shoot fair in bow or surely in gun, to vault lustily, to run, to leap, to wrestle, to swim, to dance comely, to sing and play of instruments cunningly, to hawk, to hunt, to play at tennis. …25

The fear that excessive indulgence in music would lead to effeminacy seems to have been connected as much to this location of music in a “feminized” sphere of leisure and courtship as to its association with the body and the passions.26 Richard III's point of view is echoed in one of the most influential Elizabethan courtesy books, The Book of the Courtier. Arguing that the ideal courtier should be a musician, the Count explains that music is especially valued “in Courtes, where (besides the refreshing of vexations that musicke bringeth unto eche man) many things are taken in hand to please women withall, whose tender and soft breastes are soon pierced with melodie, and filled with sweetnesse.” To which Lord Gaspar replies:

I believe musick … together with many other vanities is meet for women, and peradventure for some also that have the likeness of men, but not for them that be men in deede: who ought not with such delicacies to womanish their mindes, and bring them selves in that sort to dread death.27

In Shakespeare's plays we find abundant representations of such masculine anxiety about music, often associated with anxieties about masculinity. From Petruchio, who uses a parody of a wedding song as part of his campaign to assert his dominance over Kate; to Mercutio, who taunts the Nurse with a bawdy song just as she is bringing Romeo news of Juliet's love; to Othello, who dismisses the musicians hired to serenade him on his wedding morning; to Antony, whose drunken singing signifies his abandonment to Egyptian luxury and his passion for Cleopatra, there seems to be a pattern of association between surrendering to the powers of music and “giving in” to women and, conversely, between mocking, denying, or disliking music and defending patriarchal power and autonomy.

In this regard Glendower's and Hotspur's speeches take on a further dramatic significance, as well as a deeper cultural resonance. Like the Hotspur-Kate exchanges mentioned earlier, Glendower's and Hotspur's comments function as a kind of framing—a distancing or controlling strategy, activated in response to the perceived power of Lady Mortimer's music. As a representational strategy this framing is analogous to what Kaja Silverman has called the “diegetic containment” of the female voice in cinema.28 According to Silverman, the urge to contain or control the female voice is related to a fantasy of the maternal voice as a “sonorous envelope,” a blanket of sound that encloses the newborn infant in a prelinguistic, interior space dominated by the mother.29 From the perspective of the fully constructed subject this maternal voice becomes “an emblem of impotence and entrapment” that must be strenuously resisted—the psychoanalytic equivalent of the myth of the Sirens.30 The cinematic response to this potential crisis of subjectivity is to displace that image of impotence and undesirable interiority onto the woman who is imagined to be its source, and then to contain her voice in a recessed or interior textual space, conversely aligning the male voice with exteriority, objectivity, and discursive potency.31

Among the representational procedures cited by Silverman as means of effecting this containment, three have particular relevance to the scene from 1 Henry IV. The first is the voice-over which, like Glendower's translating for his daughter, substitutes the authority of the man's voice for that of the woman. The second is the enfolding of the female voice into a “recessed space within the story” such as a “song-and-dance performance.”32 We have already seen just how recessed the space of Lady Mortimer's song performance is made to seem, both in its immediate dramatic context and in the larger context of the play as a whole. The third is “depositing the female body into the female voice in the guise of accent … timbre or ‘grain.’”33 This is precisely what is done to Lady Mortimer by confining her to speaking in Welsh and to singing—two modes of vocalization that intensify the “grain” of the voice because they foreground its materiality while simultaneously estranging it from meaning.

To sum up, I read the scene of Lady Mortimer's singing as one in which the “feminine” powers of music are displayed for the pleasure of both the onstage and the theatrical audiences, yet are simultaneously contained and controlled by their embodiment in the figure of a woman whose every attempt to express herself is mediated, framed by the discourse of men.34 I do not want to let those male voices have the last word here, however, for it is my argument that, while they may control the representation of Lady Mortimer's song, they do not finally contain its meaning. I would like to conclude, then, by recalling the performance I described earlier, and using it to caution against reading women's song only as a sign of women's marginalization.

In performance, the very strategies that work to contain and displace Lady Mortimer's singing voice—its enfolding in the “otherness” of music, the “interlude” of lyric—also enforce a silence around it, making the other characters her audience. The theatrical spectators are allowed to position themselves differently as well, even as they are made to hear differently. Lady Mortimer's singing thus can be considered another form of what Jean Howard has called the “linguistic polyphony” in the history plays, the “multiplication of subject and class positions” that makes it possible to read the Henriad in resistance to the interests of privileged classes and gender.35 Paradoxically, Lady Mortimer's confinement to song, a mode of discourse that in this context signifies femininity, becomes a means toward the temporary privileging of a feminine subject position: for the brief time that Lady Mortimer sings she holds the stage, and everyone in both her onstage and her offstage audiences attend her. Even more importantly, Hotspur, Mortimer, and Glendower are temporarily silent, allowing Lady Mortimer's song to speak (sing) for itself. This creates a space in which spectators may, if they choose, listen to her singing and ascribe to it a meaning other than the ones dictated either by the voices of the male characters or the cultural voices that speak through them.36

I use the term “singing” here rather than “song,” not only to stress the difference between performance and text, but also to stress the fact that the discursive “difference” of music also produces a compelling difference in the dramatic construction of the woman's voice. No listener to Lady Mortimer, or to Ophelia or Desdemona, can fail to sense that their words acquire a new power when embodied in musical sound. Early modern English culture associated that embodiment with sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and so projected onto it sexual anxieties—anxieties it then attempted to control through representation. Ironically, however, the very medium of dramatic representation released the powers of music, sometimes in direct contradiction to its narrative designs. Kate and Hotspur do stop talking long enough to hear the Lady sing.37


  1. All quotations are taken from the Arden edition of The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London and New York: Methuen, 1960). Subsequent citations will appear in parentheses in the text.

  2. Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Histories and Tragedies (Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. of Florida Press, 1971), 74-75.

  3. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Critical History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967). In his introduction Seng explains that “there are so many lyrics of various kinds embedded in the texts of Shakespeare's plays that I have found it necessary to define the meaning of ‘song’ rather rigidly,” excluding, among others, “songs for which no certain texts exist” (xix).

  4. This fact has led some critics to speculate that the scene was inserted into the play primarily to provide the occasion for a song. According to W. J. Lawrence, the character of Lady Mortimer reflects Shakespeare's response to the “craze for Welsh colour” in the Elizabethan drama and his desire to take advantage of available talent: “The lines on which he conceived Lady Mortimer show that he had a Welsh singing-boy at his command” (“Welsh Song in Elizabethan Drama” [1922], qtd. in 1 Henry IV, the New Variorum edition, ed. Samuel Burdett Hemingway [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1936], 194). John Long also comments that “the song sung in Welsh by Glendower's daughter seems to be a conscious effort to display the talent of an actor in Shakespeare's company” (Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Histories and Tragedies, 75). While this theory seems plausible, it does not account for the dramatic meanings that accrue to Lady Mortimer's song, either in the specific context of the play or in a broader cultural context; those meanings are my concern here.

  5. Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1975), 1.1.1.

  6. Shakespeare's Use of Music: A Study of the Music and its Performance in the Original Production of Seven Comedies (Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. of Florida Press, 1955), 3; hereafter cited as Shakespeare's Use of Music, vol. 1.

  7. John Long has observed that these extraneous songs, which he defines as songs “inserted by the dramatist or the players for the sheer amusement of the audience,” were more common in academic and court plays than in the public theater, possibly because the latter had fewer musical resources (Shakespeare's Use of Music, vol. 1:11); see also L. B. Wright, “Extraneous Song in Elizabethan Drama after the Advent of Shakespeare,” Studies in Philology 24 (1927): 261-74; and John R. Moore, “The Songs of the Public Theaters in the Time of Shakespeare,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 28 (1929): 166-202.

  8. The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987), 85.

  9. Doane, The Desire to Desire, 97.

  10. “The Singer's Voice in Elizabethan Drama,” in Renaissance Rereadings: Intertext and Context, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Anne J. Cruz, and Wendy A. Furman (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), 45; emphasis in original. See also Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music, vol. 1:1-15; and Seng, Vocal Songs, xiii.

  11. On the association of music with magic see Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘Art to Enchant’: Musical Magic and its Practitioners in English Renaissance Drama,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 115 (1990): 191-206. On music and magic in Shakespeare see Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Final Comedies (Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. of Florida Press, 1961); and F. W. Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Dover Publications, 1963), 79-97.

  12. The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1964; repr. 1984), 5.1.57. For commentary on the use of music in this scene see Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music, vol. 1:111-13; and John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), 150-53. On symbolic music in Renaissance literature generally see Hollander and Gretchen L. Finney, Musical Backgrounds for English Literature 1580-1650 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, n.d.).

  13. “Englishing the other: ‘le tiers exclu’ and Shakespeare's Henry V,” in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991), 105-106.

  14. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, Sexuality (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), 85.

  15. In this respect both Lady Mortimer and her music come to represent all that is disturbingly “other” about Wales. In Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), 170-75, Phyllis Rackin discusses this connection, arguing that as the enemy borderland, “a world of witchcraft and magic, of mysterious music, and also of unspeakable atrocity that horrifies the English imagination,” Wales in 1 Henry IV “is defined in terms very much like those that define the woman” (170).

  16. There has been some debate among critics as to whether this passage is meant to imply that Glendower actually possesses magic powers or whether he is only producing the illusion of magic, having arranged for offstage musicians to begin playing at his signal; see the notes to 3.1.228 in The New Variorum 1 Henry IV, 200-201. This ambiguity does not affect my point, which is that Glendower is manipulating his daughter's musical performance to enhance his own status among the men.

  17. On Mortimer's emasculation in this scene see Matthew H. Wikander, The Play of Truth and State: Historical Drama from Shakespeare to Brecht (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), 21-25; and Rackin, Stages of History, 170-75. Rackin's reading of the Welsh scene parallels mine, but does not discuss in detail the role played by music in constructing Wales as land of seductive, effeminizing pleasures.

  18. Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘Sing Againe Syren’: Female Musicians and Sexual Enchantment in Elizabethan Life and Literature,” Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 420-48.

  19. A Mirrhor mete for all Mothers, Matrones, and Maidens, intituled the Mirrhor of Modestie (1579), ed. Janice Butler Holm (New York and London: Garland, 1987), sig. C6-C7.

  20. This pattern is not unique to Renaissance drama; as Susan McClary points out, it also informs Bizet's representation of Carmen: “Like her erotic power, her ethnic exoticism and her pop culture songs are seen as grounded in the body, as alluring yet treacherous, as feminine and effeminizing to those like José who fall prey to them” (Feminine Endings, 65; emphasis in original).

  21. On the persistent associations between music and effeminacy in Western culture see McClary, Feminine Endings, 17-18 and 151.

  22. King Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1981), 1.1.9-15, 24-27.

  23. For a survey of Elizabethan attitudes towards music see Walter L. Woodfill, Musicians in English Society (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), 201-39.

  24. On music as a sign of social status and class identity in early modern England see David C. Price, Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), esp. 14, 71.

  25. The Scholemaster (1570), ed. Lawrence W. Ryan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1967), 53.

  26. See Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England,” Music and Letters 74 (1993): 343-54.

  27. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (1561), introduction by J. H. Whitfield (London: J. M. Dent and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975), 75.

  28. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington and London: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988), 45.

  29. Silverman, 72.

  30. Silverman, 73.

  31. Silverman, 74-79.

  32. Silverman, 56.

  33. Silverman, 61. The term “grain” is Roland Barthes's; see “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1977), 179-89.

  34. According to Mary Anne Doane a similar effect occurs in Hollywood cinema when music “as the bad object, as the site of overindulgent or excessive affect is constrained by its confinement to female subjectivity” (The Desire to Desire, 103).

  35. Jean Howard, “The English History Play and the Problem of Female Resistance.” Paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago, Illinois, 29 December 1990.

  36. I owe the term “cultural voices” to Elise Jorgens; see “The Singer's Voice in Elizabethan Drama,” 45.

  37. I began work on this essay in an NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers directed by Professor Richard Leppert of the University of Minnesota, and continued under the auspices of an NEH Summer Stipend; I am grateful to the Endowment for supporting my research. I would also like to thank Richard Leppert, Susan McClary, Nancy Jones, and Peter Antelyes for inspiration and encouragement.

Jacquelyn Fox-Good (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. Auden “Prospero to Ariel” The Sea and the Mirror

Prospero, tu es un grand illusionniste:
le mensonge, ça te connaît.
Et tu m'as tellement menti
menti, sur le monde, menti sur moi-même,
que tu as fini par m'imposer
une image de moi-même:
Et je sais qu'un jour
mon poing nu, mon seul poing nu
suffira pour écraser ton monde!
Le vieux monde foire!
On entend au loin parmi le bruit du ressac et des
piaillements d'oiseaux les débris du chant de Caliban
                    La Liberté Ohé, La Liberté!

—Aimé Césaire Caliban to Prospero Une tempête

Most recent criticism of The Tempest has insisted upon the play's “worldliness,” its status as a production of an imperial culture that was—at just the time (1611) the play was written and first performed—colonizing islands like the one Prospero inhabits and subjecting natives like Caliban. As is now quite familiar, these readings foreground the play's ideological and historical contexts, which have both “written” the play and “been written” by it. This emphasis is a crucial value of this approach, which must be seen, at least, as an interrogation of the long-dominant “idealist readings” of the play and of Prospero “as an exemplar of timeless human values,” of the “profit” of language, “civilization,” forgiveness, all of which finally achieve (in this humanist vision) “a harmoniously reconciled new world” (italics mine).1

“Harmony” (and related musical metaphors like “concord” and “resolution”) occur frequently in such humanist readings, and may even epitomize—by virtue of their “idealism” and apparent “aestheticism”—the kinds of assumptions most subject to ideological critique. According to a colonialist reading, interpreting the play with such metaphors amounts to complicity in the play's strategic “effacement” and “euphemisation” of Prospero's power. Paul Brown, whom we might take as representative of the colonialist position, argues that The Tempest's music mystifies and thus tacitly justifies Prospero's power over his subjects, drawing an aesthetic veil over his colonial “project.” According to Brown, the play's use of “harmonious music to enchant, relax, and restore,” along with its “observation of the classical unities” and its “constant reference to pastoral,” underline the play's “aesthetic and disinterested, harmonious and nonexploitative representation of power.”2

It is The Tempest's music that I wish to foreground and investigate in this essay, and it seems useful to begin by noting that music has been rendered subordinate by the two most prominent threads of critical treatment of the play. Humanism conflates “harmony” and music with social “concord” and reconciliation; new historicist/materialist readings make the same conflation but are critical of it, regarding music in its presumed “aestheticism” as a colonialist tool for masking and reproducing the dominant discourse.

At the heart of both arguments lies a naive claim about music, one that has only recently come under scrutiny, even within the academic study of music, where one might expect to find such scrutiny undertaken. Susan McClary, a musicologist who has been at work to develop a feminist criticism of music, would say that it is especially within the academic disciplines of music scholarship (history, theory, ethnomusicology) that such scrutiny has failed to develop, the result of tight “disciplinary” and ideological “control” over the study of music.3 Until very recently, none of these disciplines within music scholarship had seriously raised any questions about musical signification.4 Music has been analyzed structurally, its “history” told chronologically and positivistically, but it has generally been assumed to float free of its historical contexts, to be transhistorical, transcendent (a “universal language”), so meaningful as to be inscrutable, meaningless.

These assumptions about Western music in general have of course been manifest in criticism of music in Shakespeare. The “reading” (hearing) of Shakespeare's music that I shall argue for in this essay developed initially as a response to the inadequacy of the critical response to Shakespeare's music that has prevailed—in literary criticism and music scholarship—for most of this century. A brief outline of these responses will suggest not only the critical context for my own argument but will reveal some of the assumptions (or failure to recognize assumptions) that this essay will critique. Music—and particularly music in drama—has been insufficiently theorized; I will offer some theoretical observations here, using them as the basis for some new ways of hearing Shakespeare's music, particularly in The Tempest.5

Shakespeare's music has by no means been ignored; it has, rather, long been the topic of much literary and music scholarship. In addressing music in Shakespeare, however, literary critics have made two basic errors. First, they have regarded Shakespeare's songs not as music but chiefly as poems, more noticeable, perhaps, but as mainly continuous with Shakespeare's written texts. Shakespeare's songs are routinely anthologized as poems; if the music of the songs appears at all in printed editions of the plays it generally does so only in appendices. Critics who avoid this first difficulty usually fall into the second: they consider the songs as music, but music not enacted but abstracted, as an idea, and one that always connotes or symbolizes essentially the same things or performs the same function. The materiality of music dissolves, is made to point to a transcendent signified. Thus W. H. Auden, in an influential interpretation, says Shakespeare uses instrumental music “as an auditory image of a supernatural or magical world.”6 Similarly, music is often said to denote a feeling like joy or peace or, most commonly, a concept metaphorically associated with music. This concept is summarized in the word “harmony” (variously articulated, as in musical/spiritual/political/social/cosmological harmony) and sometimes appears in other terms that employ musical metaphors, such as personal “resolution” and social “concord.” Thus in a 1965 book, Clifford Leech concludes that the music of Feste's final songs in Twelfth Night counteracts its “negative” images (“tosspots and their drunken heads”). Although the song offers, he says, a “painful narration,” “we leave the theatre with a tune in our ears, and the harmony of Twelfth Night is after a fashion maintained.”7

It is this simplistic equation of music with “harmony” that enables different critics to offer virtually identical comments about different songs in different plays. A song's words may be about happiness, sadness, love or pain or loss, but such states are invariably either undercut or reinforced by the song's always “harmonious” music. Thus, Charles Frey, writing nearly twenty years after Leech, can say that all the songs in As You Like It

are dialectical in that, on the one hand, against leisure and love, they admit rough weather and faithlessness but, on the other, they are all occasions for merriment. … Despite winter, feigning friendships, foolish loves, the songs insist [partly through their “lyric art”] that “This life is most jolly. …”

Frey sees the centrality of song in the play as one aspect of its larger movement toward reconciliation, the “possibility of harmonizing a shifting of likings” (italics mine).8

Interpreting Shakespeare's music as a univocal symbol, frequent in response to the comedies, has been even more insistent in response to the last plays, where the significance of “harmony” appears to expand from the social into the supernatural realm, and where music on stage is heard as “music of the spheres,” the earthly register of divinity. As Shakespeare's “most musical” play, The Tempest is clearly the best case in point. G. Wilson Knight found in the play the key polarities around which he organized his long-influential book, The Shakespearean Tempest (1932). In all of Shakespeare's plays, he argues, the tempest (symbolizing disorder) opposes music (symbolizing order), which is invariably “harmonious” and “positive.”9 In a 1958 essay, John P. Cutts, a major contributor to the scholarship on music in Shakespeare, particularizes this view: The Tempest's music is “equivalent to music of the spheres” heard on a “golden-age island …, where strife and friction are allayed and everything is wrapped in a serene air of celestial harmony.”10 As David Lindley has pointed out more recently, despite

the general revaluation of The Tempest which has seen the older view of it as a celebration of reconciliation replaced by a critical consensus stressing its inconclusiveness, ambiguity and doubt, the music has consistently been accepted as imaging and enacting ideals of harmony and concord, whether or not those ideals are finally attained.11

As I have already suggested, little has changed in what there is of music scholarship on Shakespeare, either. The major contributors mainly emphasize bibliography and history, about which they have provided much crucial information (about sources, manuscripts, instrumentation, use in the theater), but they offer limited and relatively unsophisticated commentary on music's dramatic function within the plays.12 Critics who strive for a more interdisciplinary approach, a more markedly “literary” criticism of the play's music, take so broad a view that they are unable to say much in detail about particular songs or plays.13

Against the view of Shakespeare's music as transhistorical, transcendent, univocal, more signified than signifying, more soul than body, I take a different theoretical approach. This approach is informed by a body of related theoretical work: by Roland Barthes's theories of signification in music and, more fundamentally, by the response of French feminism and post-colonialism to music as (an)other discourse, a language constituted in the “wild zone” occupied by a “muted” group (that of the female or racial other).14 The view I develop here has partly derived from but also suggests a reading of The Tempest. It presents a new way of understanding the effects of its music and also of assessing several of the play's most problematic aspects, including the extent of Prospero's power and his relation to Ariel and Caliban.

In basic outline, my premises are these. Music is, in general, a construction of (and itself participates in constructing) the sociocultural order of which it is a part. It is, in complex ways, representational, and by means (style, texture, harmony, rhythm) that can be described, although such description should not be reductive, should not give the impression that music is transparent or can be “fixed” by the word. Thus I presuppose not that music expresses feeling but that it is “expressive of it.”15 Such feeling as music is expressive of is affiliated, especially in the Renaissance, with specifically sexual feeling, desire, eroticism, the body. Music, particularly vocal music, gathers this expressiveness in part from its mode of production, which may be writing but is mainly performance, embodiment. Music's expressive capacity is inflected, moreover, by a range of contexts, a range that must obviously be extended when music is heard within a nonmusical (“literary”) text.

These premises can be distilled to two essential emphases: first, music's materiality, its sounds, and second, music's expressive capacities. These suggest to me that music is a “signifying process,” in Julia Kristeva's complex sense, a sense useful in this context because Kristeva invokes music in order to articulate it. That is to say: Music must itself be regarded as a kind of “language”—subject to the Law of the Father, to what Kristeva calls (following Lacan) the Symbolic Order. Yet music, nevertheless, more nearly approximates (and is more porous, more open to) the instinctual drives organized in/by the semiotic order, or the chora, which is nonverbal, prelinguistic, nonexpressive, “full of movement,” yet articulated, “regulated” by the body of the mother.16 Kristeva borrows “chora” (Gk. for “enclosed space” or “womb”) from Plato (Timaeus), but the word of course also bears musical associations (“chorus”; “chord”) with it; Kristeva defines the chora partly by analogy with music: “the chora is analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm.”17 Music, then, does not “float” in an endless play of signifiers, nor does it simply point to a transcendent signified. Rather, it (especially vocal music) passes through a voice, a body, one shaped and constructed—like music itself—by dramatic, political and cultural contexts.

The music that “passes through” the “air” of The Tempest helps explain why anyone who has seen even a mediocre performance of the play has felt what can be loosely described as its “atmosphere.” Indeed, reference to this atmosphere, and attempts to characterize it, amount to something like a standard feature of Tempest criticism, especially in its precolonialist phase. Hazlitt wrote that the play had the wildness of a dream”;18 Coleridge called it “this almost miraculous drama”19—a mood captured more recently by Michael Goldman in the play's own language as the “strange and wonderful Tempest.20 Colonialist readings of the play also acknowledge these qualities, although of course not to valorize but to expose them, as part of a “strategy by which sovereign power might at once be praised and effaced as power in a colonialist discourse.”21

“Atmosphere”—dreamlike, magical, and thereby either wonderful or tyrannical or the latter by means of the former—is central to the experience of this play, and music is, and was for Shakespeare, too, one of the essential means of producing that atmosphere. As is well known, Shakespeare's stage, although it relied on various means of visual representation (costume, properties) employed little or no scenery, so that what one “saw” depended a great deal on what one heard in the “infinite variety” of Shakespeare's language. Music must have been for Shakespeare a highly effective means of dramatizing the atmosphere The Tempest requires. At court, where the play was first performed in 1611, he certainly possessed the means of producing the music he wished to use.22 More importantly, he could use music to give to his play's atmosphere a more material presence than his flexible stage or his language alone could provide, yet not so much materiality as to limit or falsify what the language did want audiences to imagine.

In any case, considering music in its theatrical context requires an emphasis on its materiality. As I have already made clear, however, what has been advanced, instead, has been its supposed transcendence and immateriality. To some extent, this view has followed from the fact that for the Elizabethans, music was, at least in part, “transcendent.” It functioned as a potent symbol, a component of the complex ancient traditions of Plato and Pythagoras and later of Boethius. These traditions do read music as harmony, within and between the heavens (“music of the spheres”), the elements (musica mundana), and the body and soul (musica humana) and as possessing—by means of its connection to the divine—emotional effects and curative powers.23

But The Tempest radically deconstructs this kind of musical symbolism by several means, which I shall explore in the middle sections of this essay. It does so, first, through the particular ways in which characters and stage directions refer to and describe music in the play; secondly, through the play's actual songs (words and music);24 third, by means of the space music occupies in the text; and finally, through the broad, often contradictory range not just of philosophical meanings but also of sociocultural constructions and practices of music. These meanings still resonate for twentieth-century listeners and have been articulated and deepened by post-structuralist theory, particularly by the responses of French feminism (especially those of Kristeva and Hélène Cixous) to music and song.

There is indeed much music in The Tempest, including Stephano's “scurvy tunes” (2.2.45-52) and Caliban's freedom song (2.2.175-182),25 Ariel's “songs” (2.1.375-87; 397-406), his “solemn music” (2.1.183) and “music and song” (2.1.298), and his tune played on tabor and pipe (3.3.123); the singing of goddesses (4.1.106-17); various instances of “solemn” and “strange music” (2.1.183; 3.3.22) or “soft music” (3.3.83 and 4.1.58) or “heavenly music” (5.1.52). Much of the music comes to the human characters mysteriously; they hear it distinctly but often cannot say where it originates. The characters do, however, suggest how the music sounds: it seems frequently, as in Ariel's first song (“Come Unto These Yellow Sands”) to come “dispersedly,” from all over the stage/island (1.2.382, 384), eliciting Ferdinand's questions: “Where should this music be? I'th'air, or i'th'earth?” (1.2.388-89). The characters frequently describe the island's music simply as “sound” (1.2.406) or “noise” (2.1.324) or “humming” (2.1.315). Caliban's description is the most memorable and expressive: “Be not afeard,” he tells Stephano and Trinculo,

                                                  the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ear; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.


Caliban's description is elusively suggestive, but at least one thing it should make clear is that The Tempest's music is not simply, as so many have said, harmonious, the “very symbol of order.”26 For one thing, this conclusion would seem to require that the play end with a consort (or some similar enactment of “harmony”). It does not; indeed, for so musical a play, music is apparently absent at its close. But even if these distinctions between “harmony” or “concord” and “discord” are not pressed into claims about the play's harmonious ending, they remain too simple to account for the felt experience of music in the play. The island's music is pleasing, “marvelous sweet,” (3.3.19) and often “harmonious” (4.1.119); it frequently crystallizes into recognizable forms—“ditties,” tunes,” and “solemn airs.” The pun spoken by Ferdinand and by Caliban—“sweet airs”—connects music in the form of “airs” with the air itself. Thus, the island's music is in part what makes Adrian feel that “the air breathes upon us here most sweetly” (2.1.49), and this sweet “air” can also assume the shape of “airs,” the songs Ariel sings and the “solemn music” Prospero sometimes commands. Yet the play's music is chiefly characterized not by order but by dispersion. Most often, it is not orchestrated or given form; rather, it is everywhere, seeming to constitute the very air of the island.

What makes music, especially song, a medium particularly suited for these effects of dispersion, shiftiness, explosiveness is suggested in Roland Barthes' discussion of singing (music and language) in his “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973). In trying to conceive an “aesthetic of textual pleasure,” Barthes invents a category he calls “writing aloud,” which is “not expressive” (not, that is, in the “service of communication, representation”) but is carried by the “grain of the voice,” an “erotic mixture of timbre and language.” What Barthes hears in the grain is “the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language,” but of materiality and sensuality. In such “writing” / hearing, the signified is “shifted” a great distance, and the “anonymous body of the actor is thrown into [Barthes's] ear.”27 The grain is, for Barthes, a “dual production” of language and music, and it is just this duality, or rather the space, the site where its parts encounter or rub against each other, that produces signifiance, jouissance.28

Barthes helps shift attention to the “playing” of music, to how it sounds (not to what it “means” or “says”) and to how it makes the hearer feel. And as we shall see, this emphasis on the body, on the voluptuousness of the signifiers and the erotic relation between singer and hearer does a great deal to account for our response to the material “sounds and sweet airs” of The Tempest, to the music that composes and decomposes itself in the island's “sweet air.”

Our response derives not only from the way music is described in the play but from the songs themselves. An excellent example is Ariel's “Full Fathom Five,” the play's most famous song and one of only two in the play for which original music survives and which thus allows us to consider its musical effects.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
                                                                      (Burden) Ding dong.
Hark, now I hear them, ding dong bell.(29)

The song has been read as a virtual epigraph for the play, a summary of Shakespeare's chief thematic preoccupations, with suffering, change, rebirth.30 Heard not just as words but as words and music and voice, however, the song has more complex effects. In what follows here, I hope to suggest how the song exemplifies the “dispersed” or multivalent quality that characterizes so much of the play's music, in a way that begins to suggest what the effects of this dispersion might be.

David Lindley has argued that “Full Fathom Five” catches us in a “double response” between our awareness of music's “emblematic significance” in Renaissance drama—its potential for pointing to a Platonic “truth”—and our awareness that the words of the song are untrue (Alonso is not really dead). Music symbolizes truth; the song's words are untrue. Thus the song makes us conscious (in Lindley's words) “of the compromise with truth that Prospero's designs necessitate.”31 There is more than doubleness here, however, and it arises not from a contradiction between verbal untruth and musical truth but from the complex interplay of feelings created by the song's words and actual music.

Johnson's song begins decisively in G major (with five iterations of the tonic note in the first two measures), lending it a full, open quality not suggestive of trouble or death. Its rhythms move smoothly, not heavily; as its words speak of death, it remains steady and soothing. The song begins also to speak not just of death but of change, and although the effects of this change are to depersonalize and dehumanize Alonso (“father” becomes “bones” become “coral”), they are also to render him beautiful, like pearls, “rich and strange.” It is the song's music that enacts and seems to provide a medium for this transformation, pulling against the verbal statements of death and stasis (however lovely its forms). It does this by moving within and against its own formal harmonic constraints. In the fourth measure (“of his bones”), the melody seems to be shifting its ground to D, moving from the tonic to a secondary dominant to the dominant (“made” in m. 5), thereby suggesting a brief tonicization of the dominant key (D Major) before the next two measures continue in G. The allusion to D (m. 4) would amount to little, but it recurs; measure 5's “nothing of him” which begins in G, then again suggests D major, this time more strikingly (by means of the sharp-# in the melody). The more substantial shift here creates the expectation that the song has modulated to the dominant key, a modulation that coincides with the apotheosis of Alonso into coral and pearls. The song's next section (m. 10-18) begins again in G, but then introduces chords that sound, especially to modern ears, first like part of G but then like C Major.32 What results, however it is described, is a striking harmonic change, even more so because it sounds at precisely the moment that Ariel sings of suffering a “sea change.”

The music of “Full Fathom Five” partly enacts, and so elaborates, interprets, and extends the song's words; but it also pulls against them—that is, it differentiates the experience of the song from its words alone. Although both words and music make “assertions” about death and transformation, the words seem to define transformation primarily as what moves us from bones to coral, eyes to pearls, what precedes or leads us from death to another kind of finality. But the music seems rather to catch us up in the process of transformation, as something opposed to finality, as an “end” (without end) in itself, and not merely as a means to an end. The song's music does not refer to or summarize “sea change” but rather enacts it (melodically/harmonically) involving the hearer in that process with more immediacy.33

The song's words and music can be said to create a multivalence of feeling that is not resolved (something Coleridge called a “hovering between images”), suspending us in a gap, of the kind Barthes seems to have in mind when he writes of “displacing the fringe of contact between music and language.”34 The song's words emphasize death, intensify and beautify its finality; its music enacts transformation, change, possibility. “Full Fathom Five” sings about “sea change”; it is itself, by means of its music, a kind of sea change, inhabiting a middle realm, in neither air nor earth, but in the sea Ariel is singing about—a liminal, fluid, shifting medium with continuous potential for change and rebirth.

This hearing of music as “dispersed,” even fragmented, as a locus of instability, complicates significantly the account of music's function in The Tempest. First, it particularizes the point I have already made about music's offering Shakespeare a means to constitute his play's “atmosphere.” The play's particular kind of music, which is “dispersed” and “humming” and then takes formal shape as an “air” or “ditty,” is one powerful reification of a world in which all manner of things—spirits, banquets, goddesses—take shape and then disperse, seem present then absent, appear and disappear at will.

The will in question, of course, is presumably that of Prospero, for whom music also serves a complex function. The play's “humming” sometimes seems an externalization of the “beating” (4.1.164) of Prospero's mind. Beyond this, many have regarded the play's music chiefly as the expression and the instrument of Prospero's power. This seems a curious statement, however, for although he sometimes “commands” or “requires” music, Prospero never performs or sings it himself. And although this might be taken as more evidence of his mastery (his power to enslave others to perform his “work(s)”), it nevertheless means that music is not wholly identified with him, but inhabits a separate space, possesses, perhaps, a separate “identity.”

It does so by two means. First, the songs, as music, possess a substantive difference from the verbal text that surrounds them. This difference frequently generates the impression that songs and music exist in the margins (or between the lines) of this and others of Shakespeare's plays. (Music did often serve in medieval and early modern drama as or as part of an “interlude.”) This effect is powerfully reinforced by the marginal status of those who usually sing: in his earliest plays, Shakespeare usually brings on stage singers who serve only that role, who are not characters more fully implicated in his plots. Even later, as this practice begins to shift, songs are still more frequently sung by “others”—by women (Desdemona, Ophelia), fools (Lear's, Touchstone, Feste), spirits (Puck, Ariel), servants/slaves (Caliban). It is in part this marginality that enables these voices to exert the pressure of critique, even subversion, against the dominant even oppressive “central” figures in these plays (Othello/Lear/Prospero, for example). What results is a “marginal discourse”; The Tempest's music, dispersed, fluid, marginal, approximates Kristeva's conception of the semiotic chora, a conception that can further clarify its function, especially in relation to Prospero. Music is “a jouissance which breaks the symbolic chain, the taboo, the mastery,” which resists, finally defies, Prospero's attempts (in the drama that often seems his monologue) to appropriate, control, or repress it.

Yet Shakespeare's music gathers subversive energy not only from its marginal position in the text but also from the fact that it is music, given the way in which music's substance and meaning have been so consistently constructed in the Western tradition. In this construction we can glimpse one reason that Shakespeare's singers are female or feminized—for song and music are themselves thought to be of a “feminine nature.” As Susan McClary and others have observed, Western music shares with women a social construction of “irrationality” and the either divine (ineffable) and/or bestial (mad, unreasonable, or unreasoning) status which that irrationality confers. Such irrationality, of course, is irrevocably bound to the body, making music, like women, dangerously erotic and seductive.

This bond between music, women, and the body was especially strong and explicit in the English Renaissance. Recent Renaissance scholarship has become increasingly interested in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan anti-theatrical tracts, full of warnings about the dangerous seductiveness of the theatres, which were rife with eroticism and seductive temptations to sin—off stage, in an audience that included women, and on stage, in boy actors whose female disguises violated biblical injunctions against cross-dressing and titillated male viewers with a disturbing homoerotic appeal.35

But additionally, these writers regarded the theaters as the sites of numerous moral dangers—“dicing, dancing, plays, and interludes”36—and of those who performed them—“poets, pipers, players and jesters.”37 Among these dangers, music may have posed the most insidious threat, because it possessed, in Stephen Gosson's characterization, for example, the most “goodly outside.” For Gosson, music's beauty and its “right use” reside in a Platonic idea[l] which has become disfigured in the process of “descending,” both epistemologically (from essence to existence) and historically (from ancient purity to modern “abuses”). Regarding epistemology: they who wish to profit well in the “arte of musicke” will not debase it (or themselves) by wrenching it from the metaphysical into the physical realm, but “shut [their] fidels in their cases and looke up to Heaven”:

the order of the spheres, the infallible motion of the planets, the juste course of the yeere, the varietie of the seasons, the concorde of the elements and their qualities … concurring together to the constitution of earthly bodies, and sustenaunce of every creature.38

And regarding history: the ancients (Chiron, Homer, Apollo) practice “right musicke,” “perfect harmony”;39 the moderns have broken the ancient rules, exceeded all bounds, “coin[ed] strange precepts.”40

To represent the fall of music Gosson introduces the example of “Phaerecrates, a comicall poet,” who personifies (modern) Musicke as a woman “with her clothes tattered, her fleshe torne, her face deformed, her whole bodie dismembered.” When Justice asks her “howe she came in that plight,” she replies that

Melanippides, Phrynis, Timotheus and such fantastical heads had so disfigured her lookes, defaced her beautie, so hacked her and hewed her, and with many stringes given her so many woundes, that she is stricken to death, in daunger to peryshe.41

The figure itself (of music as woman), along with the rape implied by its use in this passage, suggests the dense matrix within which music and woman are bound, including of course the “woman's part[s],” both her sexuality and her emotion. First, music is itself a temptation, especially to women, for whom Gosson expresses particular concern, not only because “[they] are citizens,” but also “because [they] are weake.”42 In one part of the book, Gosson directly addresses the “gentlewomen” in his audience, for fear that in going to the theater, they will be corrupted, seduced, lose “credit.”43 Yet “woman” is simultaneously endangered, (“weake”) and the danger itself. She is the hearer whom music can tempt, and she is Music “herself,” a repository of ideal virtue and beauty that has been “defaced,” ravished because it/she is beautiful. That which chiefly defines, gives value to woman—her sexuality—makes her, at once, powerless (able to be seduced) and dangerously powerful (able to seduce and destroy virtue, including her own). Women and “female nature” or qualities, then, are not just likened to but located within the deadly, seductive center of music, which thereby becomes as well, both effeminate and feminizing. “Plutarch complayneth,” reports Gosson,

that ignorant men, not knowing the majestie of auncient musicke, abuse both the eares of the people, and the arte it selfe, with bringing sweet comfortes into the Theaters, which rather effeminate the mind as prickes unto vice, then procure amendement of maners as spurres to vertue

(italics mine).44

Thus in what Barthes calls the “grain”—“the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs”45—and in which he takes his (erotic) pleasure, these Renaissance moralists also feel this physical, sexual power. But they account it, like “Woman,” dangerous.

In The Tempest this context lends additional significance to Ferdinand's response to Ariel's first songs. As so often in Shakespeare, the death (symbolic or real) of a parent permits the transfer and transformation of a character's affection to a lover, involving, not least of course, the awakening of sexual desire. Ariel's songs, especially “Full Fathom Five,” are both the occasion and the impetus for this awakening in Ferdinand, an awakening that is polarized, like music, between the divine and the sensual. The song seems at first to “allay” his “passion,” leading him to think it is “no mortal business” (1.2.406) and that Miranda is “the goddess / On whom these airs attend”: but it also incites (or least coincides with) his sexual desire for Miranda, his “wondering” about her status not only as a goddess but also as a mortal, sexual being, a “maid” and a “virgin” (1.2.448).

More significantly, despite the impression the text may give that the play's songs are sung by a disembodied voice (an “invisible” Ariel), they are, rather—in performance—nearly always sung by the “airy spirit” that the audience can see. (M. C. Bradbrook notes the use on the Elizabethan stage of special costumes to signify a character's invisibility46; in my own experience of seeing performances of this play, attempts to make Ariel more “spiritlike” or “airy”—by costuming him in dance leotards or see-throughy gauze—usually produce the contrary effect, of making him seem all the more physical and bodily.) In any case, the overall result is that nearly all of The Tempest's songs are sung not by a disembodied but by an embodied voice; and the body is that of an “asexual boy,”47 or, rather, of a body whose indeterminate gender feminizes “him,”48 affiliates him more nearly with the female body.49 What strengthens this affiliation, as Orgel observes, is that all the roles played by Ariel (for Prospero) are feminine ones: sea nymph, harpy, Ceres.50

This means that the songs and music in this play occupy not just a textual but also a physical, even sexual space, one that is separate and also different from the space occupied and controlled by Prospero. Although music may appear to be an expression and instrument of Prospero's power and is one of the many things he attempts to “require” (5.1.51) control, and command,51 music and sound exceed his grasp, constitute a significant constraint upon, even a subversion of his considerable power. We may further understand the workings of this process by two means, which are linked in the way that both have been used, especially by recent readers and rewriters of The Tempest, to speculate about what is missing from, suppressed or subjected in the play: the absent mother of Miranda (Prospero's absent wife), and the colonized other (Caliban). For both, music becomes a means of figuring, if in a ghostly, decomposed, “humming” way, what is dead, absent, suppressed, and of giving voice to it, to what remains (like “woman” in Western culture) outside representation.52

A suggestive way to theorize this connection in The Tempest (between music and an apparently absent female or maternal body) is suggested by French Feminism, specifically in Hélène Cixous's account of l'écriture feminine. She defines this, in one instance, as writing that privileges the voice, whose source is the mother, the maternal body, a nameless voice which Cixous nevertheless names as “a song before the Law, before the breath [le souffle] was split by the symbolic, reappropriated into language under the [phallogocentric] authority that separates.”53 For Cixous, the song both flows from and is the mother's body; this Voice is the fluid(s) that flow from that body: “Voice: inexhaustible milk.”54 This description conjoins the feminized singer of The Tempest's songs with the dispersed, fluid quality of those songs, by which means they become strongly suggestive of what Coppélia Kahn has termed “the maternal subtext” located beneath (or alongside) the “patriarchal structures” on the “surface” of the text. What Kahn locates as the “psychological presence of the mother [in the text] whether or not mothers are literally represented as characters”55 becomes manifest in The Tempest and in Prospero in a number of ways. To be clear, I should emphasize that I speak here not specifically of Prospero's mother (or even only of his wife, whose absence from the play is conspicuous) but in Kahn's more general sense of the Mother, whose psychological, social and biological functions constitute her power, a power patriarchal Renaissance culture sought to control and to bring into the service of lineage and primogeniture.

In this play, Prospero works, in effect, to “reconceive”56 both his child and himself, by means of appropriating the female (pro)creative act of childbearing, labor, delivery. He praises Miranda for helping him to endure his suffering at sea. “Thou didst smile,” he tells her,

Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have decked the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned, which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.

(italics mine)


Stephen Orgel and Janet Adelman have similarly interpreted Prospero's appropriation, one driven in part by the common suspicion about women's infidelity, which Prospero invokes obliquely in this same scene to assure Miranda that he is her father: “Thy mother,” he says, “was a piece of virtue” (1.2.56) It would have been more likely, this implies, that she was not. This anxiety about women's virtue receives its fullest expression in the representation of Sycorax, the play's evil mother, now dead, yet alive in Prospero's memory, an embodiment of “all the negative assumptions about women that he and Miranda have exchanged.”57 Prospero's attempt to become and (as Adelman reads the play) to control the Mother,58 then, depends upon his demonizing and banishing her (as Sycorax) from the island. Kahn, Orgel, and Adelman all address the inevitable failure of such control, but they find this failure at the play's end, when Lear (like Prospero) must weep “women's weapons—water drops” (King Lear, 2.4.279) and when Prospero (like Lear) must yield to the “women's emotions”—forgiveness, kindness, “virtue”—that those tears signify. Yet the failure to suppress or control the female, or, rather, her irrepressible power, manifests itself throughout The Tempest. Miranda's mother is powerfully absent partly because the Mother is struggling to be present, her presence displaced onto Prospero's childbirth metaphor; fragmented into the “four or five women” that Miranda re-members once “tended [her]” (1.2.47); dissolved into the fluids—tears, tempest, sea—so central to the experience of this play, into the medium of music and song, the maternal voice, that beats and hums in the island's air.

Given this emphasis on the maternal, the most significant song Ariel sings (the original music for which does not survive) and the most significant role he plays may be that of Ceres in the masque. Ceres is of course the primal mother, goddess of nature and fertility, who here sings of

Earth's increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines with clust'ring bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burden bowing;
Spring come to you at the farthest,
In the very end of harvest!
Scarcity and want shall shun you;
Ceres' blessing so is on you.


Ceres is, as Prospero tells Ferdinand, one of the “spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines called to enact / My present fancies” (4.1.119-20). The interruption of the masque by Prospero's sudden memory of the “beast Caliban”'s “conspiracy” has usually been understood to suggest the failure of Prospero's art to construct a barrier against “reality” or his own failure as he again (as in Milan) becomes too “rapt in secret studies” (1.2.77) to attend to “government” in the political realm.

But Prospero's masque—as it in effect reconstitutes the Mother in the figure of Ceres and in the medium of song—is not dissolved by “outside realities” but from internal pressures: although he “calls” upon Ceres, her power exceeds his rational, artistic control, both the “confines” in which he has held her and the art by means of which he now tries to represent her. She has come to bestow a marriage blessing, yet she also speaks of having undergone precisely the experience that Prospero is here attempting to prevent, partly by means of the masque itself: the seduction and abduction of a daughter, the result in Ceres's case of a “plot” by Venus and Cupid. The word “plot” (4.1.88) uttered by Ceres during the masque is reiterated by Prospero when he refers (as the masque dissolves fifty lines later) to the “plot” of Caliban. The two plots are linked by the “beastliness” of appetite, desire and lust. The masque, then, cannot enable Prospero to overcome his anxiety about Miranda's sexuality or to forget Caliban and his conspiracy; rather, it ensures that he remembers them. And what presses in upon Prospero here is less the “plot” itself and more what drives it: the body, which here most obviously assumes the “deformed shape” of the “beast Caliban.” The body of the “beast” is linked with that of the female, by this scene, and more fundamentally by sound.

The character in the play who most loudly sings against Prospero and his power to suppress or subjugate is the slave Caliban. Rereadings of the play, and various rewritings from the point of view of Caliban, have within the last couple of decades made Prospero and Caliban an almost standard trope59 of colonization, “figures portrayed as self-and-other, the West and the Rest of Us, the rationalist and the debunker, the colonizer and the indigenous.”60 What in the text has given these writers a position from which to respeak or rewrite Caliban's story is in part his position in relation to Prospero, who subjects him by means of paternalism, assumptions of racial superiority, linguistic conversion, “art,” and violence. Yet although Caliban has learned Prospero's language (his “profit on't is [he] know[s] how to curse”), it is not only within the discourse of colonialism that Caliban can speak. He possesses an(other) language of his own, as well: music. It is Caliban's distinctive sound, the grain of his voice, that empowers him in ways even Prospero cannot subjugate.

Caliban's experience and knowledge of music include not only the “sweet airs” that Ariel sings but also the island's more unmediated pre- and extra-linguistic “sounds” and “noise,” the humming of its “twangling instruments,” its “voices.” It is partly this knowledge of his native place that enables Caliban to exceed the limits or constraints of his subjected status. For Caliban's world thereby possesses what Stephen Greenblatt has called “opacity,” Shakespeare's acknowledgement of “independence and integrity” in “Caliban's construction of reality.”61 Greenblatt finds this quality in the words Caliban uses;62 I locate it, rather, in the sounds (among them musical ones) that he makes and that he understands or is “in tune” with.

Caliban's distinctive sound is one he possessed when he was “his own king” and that he does not relinquish even when he knows Prospero's language, which he then uses in order to curse his master. This sound, then, is clearly separate from Prospero, as seems demonstrated partly by the way in which Caliban plans to overthrow Prospero, not just politically but linguistically—telling Stephano first to “possess his books,” the play's metonym not only for Prospero's art and cunning but for language, the word itself. Without Prospero's language, Prospero will be “but a sot as [Caliban is],” but Caliban's sound will persist: after Caliban soothes Stephano's fear of the island's sound, Stephano is pleased to discover that he shall “have [his] music for nothing.” “When Prospero is destroyed” (3.3.150-51), replies Caliban. When Prospero is destroyed, music shall remain.

Caliban's sound is thus not merely “opaque” and self-preservative in Greenblatt's sense but is also a sound of protest and resistance, asserting “a potent force … that can not be comprehended or controlled by Western philosophy.”63 This last statement is that of Houston Baker, who relies on “the sound of Caliban”64—for Baker, the first representation of a “vernacular” voice in Western literature—in order to characterize two strategies of expression by African-Americans: “mastery of form” and “deformation of mastery.” The first of these depends on the mask (a “cryptic” one), a disguise worn to conceal, inside the master's forms, one's political task. Deformation wears a different mask (“phaneric”), “meant to advertise, to display in the manner of a go(ue)rilla,” whose “deformation is made possible by his superior knowledge of the landscape and the loud assertion of possession he makes.”65 Caliban deforms. He knows, has always known the “form” of his “indigenous vale/veil”66: as he reminds Prospero, “I did show thee all the qualities o'th'isle, / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (1.2.339-41). Caliban's “loud assertions” sound alien, but only to intruders, who regard as “crude hooting” what is, in Baker's view, really “racial poetry.”67

Baker's praise of Caliban's vernacular sound is part of a theoretical polemic that urges the use of African-American vernacular as a means of “deforming,” of speaking outside and beyond the traditional Western dualism still inscribed in critical discourse. The explicitly political aim of Baker's reading, like that of other post-colonial readings, suggests the cultural basis of his theory; in this it differs from the biological or psychoanalytic bases within which French feminists have theorized what is distinctive about the sound of the other. Yet Baker, too, shifts his position toward a kind of essentialism by asserting the primacy of Caliban's sound: Caliban is thus an “instructor in a first voice,” in “tune” with “first meanings” and “‘natural’ forms,” with sounds that are “truly foundational” (italics mine).68 This formulation recalls Cixous's virtually mythic “song before the law.” Both Baker and Cixous oversimplify song and music, which are not merely primal sound, but the oversimplification reveals a more crucial point of connection: both Baker and Cixous wish to identify, or invent, a language of/for the colonized; both discover this (l'écriture feminine; “racial poetry”) in sound or music. Yet this conception risks confining music's signification to the “natural” in much the way it has long been confined to the “divine.” What is needed, again, is to regard music as a signifying process and to listen to the grain of its voice.

By Caliban's “sound,” for example, Baker seems chiefly to mean his “hooting” tone and the native knowledge that gives him the confidence for that tone, but there are more precise ways to characterize Caliban's sounds. The one song Caliban sings himself is sung “drunkenly,” evoking from Trinculo just the response—“A howling monster! A drunken monster!” (2.2.187)—that Baker argues the “intruders” will have. The original music for this song does not survive, but the song's words and their sounds are both deformational and transformational, creating a song of protest and of freedom.

No more dams I'll make for fish,
Nor fetch in firing
          At requiring
Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish
Ban Ban Ca-Caliban
Has a new master. Get a new man!

The first four lines assert “no” or “nor” four times; Caliban is refusing to serve and, in the fifth line, to be named. He deconstructs his name, fracturing it into its hardest (labial and glottal) sounds and emphasizing the negation and the curse contained in the meaning of “ban.” (Caliban's name literally contains a curse—“ban,” which was used in the Renaissance to mean “to curse” or “to anathematize”69—and might therefore be said to be a curse—one he here lets loose and so partly frees himself from). In the sixth line, “no/r” becomes, by way of alliteration and near rhyme, “new”; refusal to serve, to be named, to speak the (old) master's language thus begets a “new man.” For the other, negation of the master and his signs is a form of affirmation. “Freedom, high day!” The song's message of “freedom” becomes comic, of course, given Caliban's expressed intent to “get a new master” (the drunken Stephano). Still, the song's effect, on the events of the play and on Prospero, nevertheless remains disruptive and transformational.

Such disruption is one particular realization of what I have been arguing is music's more general function as a signifying process in The Tempest: as, itself, a language that is nevertheless differentiated from the word and thus seems pre- or extra-linguistic and therefore separate from language and, more specifically, from Prospero's rational control. As Caliban most strikingly shows, music exerts pressure on such control, on resolution, especially through its dispersed grain and through its evocation of the body in its most threatening forms, as sexual, as female, as beastly, or deformed.

Because these assertions about the function of music, particularly in The Tempest, significantly revise the conventional thinking about Shakespeare's music, it might be sufficient to conclude with them. But the more particular argument here, concerning the “pressure” that music exerts on Prospero, raises questions about consequences: does Prospero respond to or even feel this pressure? Does music's subversive energy participate in any way in the apparent “change” in Prospero at the play's end?

There is no question that Prospero speaks of yielding, in many ways, by the play's end: he chooses “virtue” rather than vengeance (5.1.28); abjures his art and his “book,” (5.1.33-57) and is thus left with his “own” “strength” (5.1.320); passes his dukedom to his daughter and Ferdinand even as he repossesses it; contemplates his own death (5.1.311). The first of these shifts, the decision to forgive his enemies, is precipitated by Ariel:

Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
                                                                      Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
                                                                      And mine shall.

This is significant, for it is Ariel that most nearly embodies music as I have been describing it here. The voice of the other makes itself heard, and it seems, finally, to be registered within Prospero in some way. There are other indications of this: in the “female voice” that emerges when Prospero abjures his art, using the words of Medea from Ovid's Metamorphoses. And finally, in Prospero's epilogue, spoken in a meter used elsewhere in the play only by Ariel, in his short speech before the masque (4.1.44-45) and in his songs. The meter is catalectic trochaic tetrameter, conveyed in the songs' rhythms by the relatively longer note values accorded to accented beats (as in “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”) There is no “heavenly music” or conclusive “harmony” at the play's end; there is only, in the rhythms of the epilogue, vestigial music, suggesting that music's rhythms have in some way left their traces in Prospero's words.

Music compels Prospero to hear it, but it retains, finally, an “other” location in the play. This separation is felt rather keenly in the play's concluding moments, especially in Ariel's last song and in Prospero's final meeting with Caliban. As Prospero “discases” himself, exchanges his magic robe for that of his dukedom, Ariel is once again singing, but not—this time—at Prospero's command:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch while owls do cry;
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.


The simultaneity of Prospero's change of “identity” with Ariel's song suggests, on the one hand, that Prospero participates in the music's shifting, transformational energies (its fluidity, his “changing”); on the other hand, it reasserts separation (Ariel sings of nature in which he will soon be free; Prospero re“encases” himself). Ariel's freedom song recalls Caliban's but has moved beyond protest for freedom to what such protest has led to: an unsubjugated living within one's native place (with bees, cowslips, an owl's cry, bat's back, blossoms, boughs) and native sounds. “When Prospero is destroyed” (3.3.151) (or removed), music remains, and it remains, like Ariel, in motion. The song's words help evoke this sense of movement, by reference to Ariel's flight and to his constantly changing position (from “cowslip” to “bat's back” to “under the blossom”). The song's music—its “lively” tempo, rhythms, harmonies—materializes this movement.

The song's first section moves rapidly between tonic and dominant both within and between phrases, a vacillation that opens up to one of the possibilities within it. (This occurs, for example, in measure 4, in a modulation to the dominant, which has already been used so prominently in relation to the tonic.) The song generates a sense of movement between possibilities that are essentially constituted of the same materials, such that transformation is always immanent (and imminent). In measures 8-10, for example, the chord set to “af” (in “after”) can function in either D or G major; we hear a kind of magical transformation take place within it, as one thing becomes another (we hear it first in D, the key in place during the second phrase, and almost at once in G, to which we are returned by the C natural in the chord set to the word's second syllable [“ter”]).

Movement is heightened in the song's second section, partly with a quickened tempo and a shift into a more rapid-seeming triple meter. Moreover, Johnson now takes the harmony more swiftly from one key to the next, beginning again in G, modulating to D, briefly suggesting D minor, then returning to G. These successive and now more rapid movements between tonic and dominant intensify the feeling that the song/singer is opening up, pressing against and breaking out of the established key. This sensation—of energies breaking out—helps realize Ariel's longing for release. And it is this sense of release, a movement outward, that resists the play's (and Prospero's) final attempts to maintain control. For although Prospero has relinquished his power in some ways, he seems in others to be reasserting it, shifting to another kind of rational, logocentric control. He predicates his forgiveness, for example, on a decision to “take part with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury” (5.1.27-28). He stages the end of his “project,” drawing everyone into a circle, an emblem of his wish to make all one at the play's end, to incorporate them, to achieve resolution. The wish for such incorporation (related to the urge of the text and perhaps of Shakespeare for comic closure) is manifested in Prospero's taking Ferdinand into the family (thereby also marrying two dukedoms), in the physical “embrace” of Alonso (5.1.109), in the forgiveness (and acceptance, albeit somewhat forced) of Antonio and, most significantly for my purposes, in the “acknowledgment” of Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76).

The most benign reading of this line is that Prospero “owns” or owns up to Caliban, in the sense of admitting Caliban is part of Prospero's party on the island (not of the ship's, in distinction from Stephano and Trinculo, whom Alonso “must know and own”). He may also of course be testifying that he “owns” Caliban in the economic sense, as his slave, property. The line is frequently read psychologically, as Prospero's acceptance of that within himself (his own “darkness,” his destructive, vengeful appetites, especially sexual ones) which Caliban (“misshapen,” “demi-devil,” “bastard,” unregenerate, inhuman “thing”) is seen to externalize and embody. (Shakespeare's line break is suggestive here: “This thing of darkness I /”). Now, when Caliban speaks, he does not curse, but says he will be “wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (5.1.294-95). Yet the deformational power of Caliban, the grain of his voice—as this has resonated with the play's dispersed and humming music—continues to resist, to pose its opacity against Prospero's wish to appropriate it.

Shakespeare was never, of course, the only author of his plays: some were clearly written in collaboration; all become collaborative work in the course of theatrical production. In The Tempest, “Shakespeare's music” was mainly Robert Johnson's—not wholly outside Shakespeare's artistic control, but nevertheless the work of another. It is tempting to speculate that Shakespeare came increasingly to regard music, which appears most prominently in the last plays, as a means of figuring that which could not be “figured,” that which seemed to him beyond his power to represent: the force of the body, the experience of women, of the alien or the other, the imponderable depths of his “own” physical, sexual, and mortal being, this thing of darkness which he could acknowledge but never really know.


  1. Meredith Anne Skura, “The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly, 40, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 42-69; rpt. in Caliban, ed. Harold Bloom (New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1992), 221-48. Skura's essay contains a useful summary of historical and new historicist approaches to the play, and a well-selected bibliography.

  2. Paul Brown, “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 64.

  3. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), especially 3-7, and “Reshaping a Discipline: Musicology and Feminism in the 1990s,” Feminist Studies 19, no. 2 (Summer, 1993): 399-423; see also McClary's earlier essay, her “Foreword: The Undoing of Opera: Toward a Feminist Criticism of Music,” introd. to Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), ix-xviii.

  4. McClary is not the first from within academic music to make this complaint. Joseph Kerman makes a plea for a real music criticism, complaining that musicologists are respected “for the facts they know about music …, not for their insight into music as aesthetic experience” (Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985], 12-14). For another suggestion about what an “interpretive criticism” of music might be (and a bibliography of works by some who attempted it), see Anthony Newcomb, “Sound and Feeling,” Critical Inquiry 10 (June, 1984): 614-43. McClary also wants interpretation of music, but of a particular kind, emphasizing ideological and cultural critique. A few recent examples of such work include McClary's Feminine Endings, Richard Leppert's Music and Image: Domesticity, Ideology and Socio-cultural Formation in Eighteenth-Century Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), and Rose Subotnik's Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

  5. The theoretical discussion I present here extends arguments I have made elsewhere, in “Ophelia's Mad Songs: Music, Gender, Power,” in Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (University of Delaware Press, 1995), 332-66, and also in “‘Ringtime’: Sexual and Musical Play in Shakespeare's As You Like It,” forthcoming in Ars Lyrica (Journal of the Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relations).

  6. W. H. Auden, “Music in Shakespeare,” in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), 507.

  7. Clifford Leech, “Twelfth Nightand Shakespearian Comedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 55.

  8. Charles Frey, “The Sweetest Rose: As You Like It as Comedy of Reconciliation,” in Experiencing Shakespeare: Essays on Text, Classroom and Performance (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988), 20.

  9. G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearean Tempest (London: Oxford University Press, 1932). Knight's comments on Love's Labor's Lost and Twelfth Night typify his overall approach. In the former, the song “When Daisies Pied” moves significantly, he thinks, from spring to winter, “yet song is, nevertheless, music. The pain is dissolved in music” (83). Similarly, in Twelfth Night, “all tragic and tempestuous things are finally blended in the music of Feste's final song, with its refrain. … Which song presents a microcosm of the play: tempests dissolved in music” (127).

  10. John P. Cutts, “Music and the Supernatural in The Tempest” (1958); rpt. in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, ed. D. J. Palmer (London: Macmillan, 1968), 196.

  11. David Lindley, “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest,” in The Court Masque, ed. David Lindley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 47.

  12. For history and sources, the two most useful books in this category are Peter J. Seng's standard work, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Critical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) and F. W. Sternfeld's Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Dover, 1963). See also Edward Naylor, Shakespeare and Music, rev. ed. (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1931) and other work by John P. Cutts, “Jacobean Masque and Stage Music,” Music and Letters 35 (1954): 185-200; “Robert Johnson: King's Musician in His Majesty's Public Entertainment,” Music and Letters 36 (1955): 110-25; “An Unpublished Contemporary Setting of a Shakespeare Song,” Shakespeare Survey 9 (1956): 86-89; “The Original Music of a Song in 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 385-92; “A Reconsideration of the ‘Willow Song,’” Journal of the American Musicological Society 10 (1957): 14-24; ed., La musique de scène de la troupe de Shakespeare (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1959; rev. 1971). (Cutts has also written on the masque more generally and on Ben Jonson.) John Stevens's book, Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (London and New York: Methuen, 1961, 1978) is generally regarded as the standard work on the topic for this period; his “Shakespeare and the Music of the Elizabethan Stage” (in Shakespeare in Music, ed. Phyllis Hartnoll [London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1964], 3-48) provides a useful summary, particularly of stage practice. Stevens's work falls into the broader category of “studies in poetry and music,” of which Louise Schleiner has more recently provided a bibliography in “Recent Studies in Poetry and Music of the English Renaissance,” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (Winter, 1986): 253-68.

  13. In this category see especially the multi-volume work by John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music, 3 vols. (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1955-1971), Winifred Maynard's Elizabethan Lyric Poetry and Its Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), especially chapter five, “Ballads, Songs and Masques in the Plays of Shakespeare” (151-223), and Mary Chan's Music in the Theatre of Ben Jonson, with some consideration of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980). The most comprehensive attempt to organize what's known about music and Shakespeare (a connection broadly defined) is the recent Shakespeare Music Catalogue, ed. Bryan S. Gooch and David Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

  14. This terminology is Edward Ardener's, from “Belief and the Problem of Women,” in Perceiving Women, ed. Shirley Ardener (New York: Halsted Press, 1978); qtd. in Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 262-63.

  15. This distinction comes from Alan Tormey's Concept of Expression: A Study in Philosophical Psychology and Aesthetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 39-40 and 106-110). I owe its application to music to Peter Kivy's important work on musical aesthetics. See especially The Corded Shell: Reflections on Musical Expression (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1980).

  16. Julia Kristeva, “The Semiotic Chora Ordering the Drives,” in Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, 1974; rpt. in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 93-98.

  17. Kristeva, “The Semiotic Chora,” 94.

  18. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays, ed. Ernest Rhys. (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1906), 89.

  19. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Ninth Lecture,” Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 2, ed. Thomas Raysor (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1961), 138.

  20. Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 137-39.

  21. Brown, 63.

  22. One of Shakespeare's chief resources there would certainly have been the composer of The Tempest's songs, Robert Johnson. There is ample evidence of his connection with the court of James I and the masques and plays that were an integral part of it. The son of John Johnson (a lutanist in Elizabeth's court), Robert Johnson (c. 1582-1633) became a lutanist in James's court in 1604. As John Cutts has detailed, extant settings from 1607-1617 show that during this period, Johnson was writing music continuously for Blackfriars' productions of the King's Men (“Robert Johnson: King's Musician,” 110). He composed music not only for Shakespeare's plays (Cutts discusses songs from The Tempest as well as from other late plays), but also for plays and masques by Jonson, Chapman, Beaumont, Fletcher and Middleton.

  23. For a summary of these ideas about music, see Catherine M. Dunn, “The Function of Music in Shakespeare's Romances,” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 390-405. Mary Chan provides a more thorough account of these ideas in her Music in the Theatre of Ben Jonson.

  24. I restrict my discussion of actual music to that which is original—that is, to Robert Johnson's settings of two of Ariel's songs, “Full fathom five” and Where the bee sucks.” (More information on the sources of these songs follows in later notes.) I exclude from discussion a piece that some regard as original to the play: a dance entitled “The Tempest” in a collection of masque music (British Library Add. MS 10444). I side with those who disagree with W. J. Lawrence's assertion (Music and Letters 3 [1922]: 49-58) that this music belongs to Shakespeare's play. For a summary of information about this controversy, see Orgel, 221.

  25. All references are to The Tempest of the Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  26. Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo, “Form and Disorder in The Tempest, Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963), 50.

  27. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1973), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 66-67.

  28. Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image, Music, Text, selected and trans., Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 182, 185.

  29. As Seng reports (257), Johnson's music for “Full Fathom Five” survives in two manuscripts and one collection of songs: in Birmingham City Reference Library MS. 57,316; in Folger Library MS. 747.1 (fols. 9v-13v); and in John Wilson's Cheerful Ayres or Ballads, 1660 (sigs. B3v-B4). The Arden edition gives a facsimile of the song as it appears in Wilson's collection (157). For my analysis I have used Ian Spink's edition of the song (reprinted in Orgel's Oxford edition), which appears in Johnson's Ayres, Songs and Dialogues, vol. 17 of The English Lute-Songs, 2nd ser., 2nd rev. ed. (London: Stainer and Bell, 1974), 24-25.

  30. For a representative article, see “The Mirror of Analogy: The Tempest, by Reuben Brower, in Fields of Light (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951); rpt. in The Tempest, ed. Robert Langbaum (New York: Nal-Signet, 1963), 182-205, esp. 182 and 184-85.

  31. Lindley, 49.

  32. A slightly more technical explanation of what happens here is that the section begins (in m. 10) in G major, then introduces a flatted viio chord of that key (the diminished F-sharp AC replaces the major FAC). Johnson may have conceived of this as a shift from Ionian to Mixolydian mode, but to modern ears the shift produces for two bars (m. 11-12) what sounds first (in relation to G) like a flatted viio of G, then like C major (in which FAC is the subdominant chord).

  33. There is, of course, formal, harmonic resolution at the song's end, but I suspect that this is undermined at least in effect by the singing of the burden at the song's end. Johnson's text doesn't indicate this, but the burden may be performed as is indicated by the stage directions for Ariel's first song, “dispersedly”, which may mean either not in harmony or not synchronized (i.e., it's not sung by all singers at the same time).

  34. Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” 181.

  35. Among the most provocative uses of this material is that of Lisa Jardine, Chapter 1 of Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 9-36; and Madelon Sprengnether, “The Boy Actor and Femininity in Antony and Cleopatra, in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 191-205.

  36. John Northbrooke, A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Interludes With Other Idle Pastimes (1577), ed. J. Payne Collier (London: Shakespeare Society, 1843).

  37. Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (1579) (London: Shakespeare Society, 1841).

  38. Gosson, 16.

  39. Gosson, 16.

  40. Gosson, 18.

  41. Gosson, 18.

  42. Gosson, 48. Northbrooke similarly instructs women to absent themselves from plays (95).

  43. Gosson, 48-51.

  44. Gosson, 18-19. Linda Phyllis Austern has done very helpful work on music in relation to women and the feminine in early modern culture. Especially germane in this context are “‘Sing Againe Syren’” The Female Musician and Sexual Enchantement in Elizabethan Life and Literature,” in Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 420-48 and “‘Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England,” in Music and Letters 74 (1993): 343-54.

  45. Barthes, “Grain,” 188.

  46. M. C. Bradbrook, Elizabethan Stage Conditions: A Study of Their Place in the Interpretation of Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 110.

  47. Orgel, Introd., 27.

  48. Ariel is referred to as “him” in the text.

  49. Most who have taught this play to undergraduates will acknowledge the frequency with which they refer to Ariel as “she,” against information given in the text. The play's performance history is also interesting in this regard: Ariel's part was played only by men through the seventeenth century, then became exclusively a part for women, until the 1930's (Orgel, 70).

  50. Orgel, 27.

  51. Paul Brown links it to James I's use of music in masque—as an “harmonics of power”—to celebrate his coercive power. Interestingly, Brown also discovers through Caliban's own speech about music (“sounds and sweet airs”) a “quality in the island beyond the requirements of the coloniser's powerful harmonics,” but this quality, this “site of resistance” can only be represented in the discourse of the colonialism it is resisting (Caliban may be cursing but is still speaking Prospero's language). My point is that music in this play constitutes a truly other discourse, one that resists not only Prospero's control, but his language as well. See Brown, 63-65.

  52. The phrase summarizes the concept suggested by Luce Irigaray in referring to women as interdit, “in between signs, between the realized meanings, between the lines.” See Speculum of the Other Woman; (1974), 20; I have quoted from Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London, New York: Routledge, 1985), 133.

  53. Hélène Cixous with Catherine Clément, La Jeune Née (Paris: UGE 10/18), 172. See also Cixous's related text, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” where she writes that “in women's speech as in their writing, that element which never stops resonating … is the song: first music from the first voice of love which is alive in every woman” (trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1:4 [1976], 881).

  54. La Jeune Née, 173.

  55. Coppelia Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear,” in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 35.

  56. See Orgel, 19.

  57. Orgel, 20.

  58. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers (New York, London: Routledge, 1992), 237-38.

  59. Houston Baker has termed it “the venerable Western trope” (“Caliban's Triple Play,” in “Race,Writing and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 389.

  60. Baker, 389.

  61. Stephen Greenblatt, “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century,” in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiapelli, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 2:575.

  62. Greenblatt thus finds it fitting that no one, still, is certain of the meaning of Caliban's word, “scamels” (575).

  63. Houston A. Baker Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 45.

  64. Baker, “Caliban's Triple Play,” 389.

  65. Baker, 390.

  66. Baker, 391.

  67. Baker, 394.

  68. Baker, 391-92.

  69. OED.

Pierre Iselin (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 form of a local ‘O tempora, O mores’, which is not altogether devoid of personal frustration or innocent of erotic meaning:

                                                                      The sly whoresons
Have got a speeding trick to lay down ladies.
A French song and a fiddle has no fellow.
The devil fiddle 'em! I am glad they are going,
For sure there's no converting of 'em. Now
An honest country lord, as I am, beaten
A long time out of play, may bring his plainsong,
And have an hour of hearing, and by'r Lady,
Held current music, too.

(Henry VIII 1.3.39-47)

The characteristic reduction of music to an object of discourse, the use of the musical double entendre, with the implicit equation of music and love making, and the superior efficacy of French—and now fortunately illicit—music as erotic recipe, thus estrange the musical material in a threefold manner, making it simultaneously improper, foreign, and alien. Music's potential for seduction is held dangerous to courtiers and puritans alike, and its Trojan horse status, on the stage and elsewhere, raises issues of limits and transgression, both semiotic and ideological, not to mention the Mercurial roles of spies, plotters, ambassadors, messengers, regularly ascribed to musicians in the court and on the stage.1 Whether it is performed by an aerial spirit acting as informer or by a man of mode, music has a taste of the foreign. Is not Sir Andrew Aguecheek one who ‘plays o' th' viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or four languages word for word without book’ (Twelfth Night 1.3.23-4)?

More often than not ridiculed as inappropriate and ineffectual—not to say incongruous—stage music is also the butt of institutional criticism in the Puritan attacks on entertainment. An extreme version of artistic ‘abuse’, the former constitutes a territory hardly defensible even to the warmest apologists of art and music. This, The Praise of Musicke—one plausible reply to The Schoole of Abuse (1579)—posthumously2 and anonymously published in Oxford seven years after Gosson's tract, makes a single passing remark on what is presented as the object of an ethically, culturally, and politically heated debate. In non-committal, rather cautious terms, the hybrid, ‘depraved’ form of art—to follow Quintilian3—is rhetorically given up through paralipsis and ideologically held at a distance, in order not to contaminate more respectable and safer grounds:

For I dare not speak of dauncing or the theatrall spectacles, least I pull whole swarms of enimies upon me […] I confesse I am accessory to their injurie against Musick in bereaving it of these so ample, notable provinces, because I doe not by open resistance hinder their riot. For howsoever obscenity may bring the stage in suspicion of unchasteness and incontinency, make dauncing disfavorable and odious, I am sure that neither of them keeping themselves under saile, that is not overreaching their honest and lawful circumstances, can want either good groundes to authorize them, or sufficient patronage to maintain them.4

The vocabulary of war, of territorial loss, confirms that in the period's controversy over art and entertainment in general, music in the theatre is a fragile, nearly untenable outpost. This indeterminacy of strategic status may partly account for its interstitial, front-line position in the field of theatrical representation and inscribes it in the topography of warfare. The military metaphor is not fortuitous, as is evident in the notions of ‘penetration’ and ‘appropriation’, two neoplatonic concepts central to the definition of music's efficacy. Not only the power of music per se, but also the comparative power of music and drama are at stake in this cultural confrontation. It is no accident that The Tempest—a play itself largely concerned with issues of power(s)—makes several species of power, the musical, the magical and the political, coalesce in the character of Prospero, conferring on him a complex status as artist, magus and ruler through the unifying discourse of myth, and that of praise, the epideictic.5 A song, even if not sung in parts, may thus be viewed as a virtual cultural polyphony, a potential form of debate.

In the Shakespearian canon, a significant change may also be traced in the clearly discernible shift from verbal allusion and complex musical polysemy to a more and more abundant inscription of actual music and songs in the plays; this possibly reflects the growing expectations of the audiences in terms of stage-music, making the latter an economic as well as an artistic stake in the commercial rivalry between the theatres and the dramatists. It is significant, for instance, that the play in the canon in which most is said about music, The Taming of the Shrew, is paradoxically one in which the scanty stage music holds very little meaning.6 Conversely, The Tempest represents the terminus ad quem of an evolution and has the position of an ultimate crossroads of dramaturgical and musical channels, with a considerable amount of music and song, quite a few significant verbal commentaries on the music actually heard on the stage, and few—altogether commonplace—conceits of musical tenor. The inclusion of music and song can therefore be seen as part of an implicit cultural and economic transaction between the dramatist and his audience.

Concluding her study of the singer's voice in Elizabethan drama, Elise Bickford Jorgens develops this idea of an implicit polyphony contained in any stage music:

in these songs, the singer's voice provides us with many voices, carrying on, at several levels, the period's cultural debate about the physical, spiritual, emotional, and moral efficacy of music. The voice of the dramatic character, […] the voice of the playwright […]. And beneath these a multitude of other voices from the culture sing out: the Gassons and the Cases, the Mulcasters and the Elyots and the Lodges and the Brights, and the members of the audience who—whatever their private response to the songs they heard from the stage—were all in some way party to the debate.7

Even though The Tempest does not characteristically echo the debate raging in the late 1580s, as the play is—even if problematically—related to the Jonsonian Court masque8 and the sphere of private theatres, still it will be shown how the praise of music constitutes a discursive pattern, ‘un schème de culture’ in Jean Jacquot's words,9 which has late representatives at the beginning of James I's reign,10 and above all which is contrapuntally related to another discourse of encomium, the panegyric of the Prince. In the discursive polyphony on the theme of power, musical myth and political allegory will thus be shown to represent two closely connected parts in The Tempest.

Inherent in stage music is therefore a set of discourses making up an implicit system of exchange, one obvious aspect of which is the variety of the responses of stage audiences, in the form of verbal commentaries, and those of the paying audience more or less ironically anticipated or echoed on the stage. Nevertheless, the polyphony is not only to be construed as the superposition of voices of varying actantial relevance, but also as a dialectical relationship of mutual framing—the coalescence/confrontation of two mutually dependent sign-systems—, since on the one hand music is the indispensable gambit of theatrical representation, on the other no musical piece is left unframed by language, the variety of these verbal commentaries and responses inducing in turn one more polyphonic construction to the whole.

A crossroads of media, verbal and nonverbal, the theatre is also a crossroads of discourses. For the isle in The Tempest is not only ‘full of noises’, as Caliban has it, but also full of voices and discourses. Variously defined in the text as manipulative, civilizing, maddening, magical, rapacious—like Prospero-as-ruler—music has a particular significance in The Tempest as it features as a metonymic version of Prospero's power, while at the same time it is also the figure of the challenge to this very power in its discordant, anarchic dimension. Its plural meanings in the play do but reproduce its contested meanings in the culture of the period, and The Tempest's music(s) may thus be said to articulate several discursive voices: those of myth and praise, that of furor, but also those of disruption and scepticism.

The isle appears as a nautical magnet and a place full of acoustic oddities even before the landing of Prospero; the transaction between Ariel and the wrecked magician has immediate acoustic resonances: the groans of the imprisoned spirit, which ‘Did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts / Of ever-angry bears’ (1.2.288-9) are turned to playing and singing throughout the play. Musical (ex-)change in politics has become a trope with the usurping brother Antonio, who, ‘having both the key / Of officer and office, set all hearts i'th' state / To what tune pleased his ear’ (1.2.83-5). Both categories of subjects therefore comply musically with their respective prince's likings. In the economy of power, music regularly appears as an asset, an object of implicit or explicit transaction, as well as a tool of metamorphosis and manipulation. Prospero promises a musical show to reward Ferdinand's chaste resolution—and possibly, as will be seen, to cool the heat of physical desire; similarly, all the retributive and elective music in The Tempest is part of the political deal, when some are granted sleep through ‘solemn music’, and others given warnings; virtually an opiate for the people, the acoustic wealth of the isle is oneirically transmuted into ‘riches ready to drop upon [Caliban]’ (3.2.144-5). Another form of exchange takes place when Ariel amends the tune of Caliban's catch, learnt from Stefano (3.2.119-29), the ‘three-men's song’ literally becoming a ‘free-men's’ one. Another complex form of musical negotiation is reflected in Caliban's song of rebellion. ‘No more dams I'll make for fish’, which has been seen to contain a reference to those artificial fish weirs which were a traditional skill of the aborigines of Virginia, described by Ralph Lane on his visit to Virginia in 1586. These dams, whose construction was intricate enough, represented an important source of sustenance for the colonists—hence a fear that the Indians might destroy them.11 Travel literature thus provides a credible context for Prospero's resigned confession to Miranda that, villainous as Caliban is (1.2.311), they ‘cannot miss him’, so indispensable are his practical skills—a discourse clearly resonant with colonial anxieties:

                                                                      He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us.


It is not too far-fetched, I think, to see in Prospero's beast of burden a local version of Zethus, the more pragmatic of the two mythical twins, the one who did lift the stones to build the walls of Thebes, whereas the new Amphion, Prospero, can raise and dissolve in a single breath ‘cloud-capped towers’, ‘gorgeous palaces’, and ‘solemn temples’ to boot (4.1.152-3). The allusion to the wonderful musician is ironically made by the two usurping brothers, Antonio and Sebastian, while debunking the generous and visionary chattering of Gonzalo:

His word is more than the miraculous harp.
He hath raised the wall, and houses too.
What impossible matter will he make easy next?


Ironically enough, the powers thus derided by the two ‘auro-sceptics’ are effectively at work, much of the action in the play being attributable to the workings of the air and musical sound. The figure of the mythical hero is thus exploded into two dramatis personae, Prospero and Gonzalo; besides, the Amphion myth itself is fragmented and displaced, giving birth to the confrontation of two attitudes towards language, the magic and poetic view of the natural origin of language as opposed to its conventional definition. Characteristically, the usurpers and the boatswain question the magical and the tropical senses, deride their inconsistencies at a literal level, and use blasphemous idiom. In the initial scene, which stages an acoustic competition between Prospero's loudspeakers and the characters' voices, the boatswain exclaims: ‘What care these roarers for the name of king?’ (1.1.15-16). Here not only do the topical and the tropical meanings superpose—‘roarers’ referring both to the billows and the street rioters—but while the name of the king proves an ineffective talisman to ‘command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present’ (1.1.20-1), it is precisely not the name, but the word of ‘wronged duke of Milan’ that is commanding. The debate on the status of language thus seems to be ironically blurred by dramaturgical strategies, or even truncated perspectives, as the irony only appears retrospectively, when we are told in the following scene that it was by his ‘art’ that Prospero ‘put the wild water in this roar’ (1.2.2).

Conversely, traces of verbal realism12 or auralist magic are to be found among the other school of thought, the two attitudes being represented in Gonzalo's winning remark in the last scene:

                                                                                                              … Now, blasphemy,
That swear'st grace o'erboard: not an oath on shore?
Hath thou no mouth by land?


or in Prospero's address to his brother:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault.


A burlesque, literalized, rendition of the cult of the word can be seen in the parody of a traditional scene of dubbing staged by the mock-usurpers, with Caliban kissing what Stefano blasphemously calls ‘the book’. The parallel with the serious magical attitude goes even further, as the object of their cult is unwillingly drowned in the pool, and this ‘infinite loss’ (4.1.210) operates a grotesque anticipation of the deliberate drowning taking place within a hundred lines, that of the instruments of the ritual, the staff and the book (5.1.54-7). The last page perused by Prospero may well have been concerned with musical charms as described by Ficino,13 judging from the proximity of the two statements: ‘when I have required / Some heavenly music […], I'll drown my book’ (5.1.51-7). This drowning, and its grotesque double, thus cast a problematical, fragmented, light on the mythical, unnamed, exemplum of Amphion. Disruption, construed both as interruption on the part of the Magus and as insurrection on that of the rebels, threatens the unifying discourse of myth, which happens to be equally that of empire, since the musical powers of the hero are subservient to the political ambition to wall in the city of Thebes.

Another musical myth lurks beneath the surface of the text, as its hero tries to survive above the surface of water; one can catch a glimpse of the figure of Arion, one associated with theft, treachery and watery death, in Prospero's account of his voyage in exile:

There they hoist us,
To cry to th' sea that roared to us, to sigh
To th' winds, whose pity, sighing back again,
Did us loving wrong.


Life does not depend here on the legendary dolphin charmed by the musician's valedictory song, but on the ‘rotten carcase of a butt, not rigged, / Nor tackle, sail, nor mast’ (1.2.146-7), a mere ruined barrel then, which had been ‘prepared’ for that purpose. The notions of premeditation, of nightly plotting and of political usurpation, the lexical oddity of ‘butt’ as an unrecorded trope for ‘boat’, and the merging of the discourses of statecraft and music already observed, may be seen to constitute a network of hermeneutic signs and suggest the palimpsest vision of a living monarch, equally ‘rapt in secret studies’—a new Arion—who had recently been threatened by a plot involving gunpowder barrels in 1605.

An interesting verbal parallel can here be established between Ferdinand's commentary on the ‘effect’ of the isle's music,

This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air


and the Arion fable as told in the text of The Praise of Musicke:

Arion seeing no way to escape the furie of his cruel enemies, tooke his Citterne in his hand, and to his instrument sang his last song, wherewith not only the dolphines flocked in multitudes about the ship readie to receive him on their backes, but even the sea that rude and barbarous element, being before roughe and tempestuous, seemed to allay his choler, waxing calme on a sodaine, as if it had bene to give Arion quiet passage through the waves.14

Another evident association of Prospero with the arch-musician, Orpheus, may be perceived in the definition of iatromusic,

A solemn air, and the best comforter
To an unsettled fancy, cure thy brains,
Now useless, boiled within thy skull.


Perspective—a visual, elective device introduced into the dramaturgy of the court masque in 1605 by Inigo Jones, that creates ‘another focus for the show of royal power’15—operates here: if one can see an Orphic magus and pedagogue in Prospero, then the same royal perspective makes it possible to

Behold how like another Orpheus, Amphion, and Arion, he draweth to the true knowledge of God, very salvage Beasts, Forrests, Trees and Stones, by the sweet Harmony of his harp: the most fierce and wilde, the most stupid and insenced, the most brutish and voluptuous, are changed and civilized by the delectable sound of his Musicke.16

The epideictic discourse therefore seems to unfold an implicit two-part polyphony: the praise of art and music being the plain-song, the praise of the inspired sovereign the descant, with the addition of the discourse of disruption, a burden distinctly audible at times too.

The common denominator between the first two discourses is obviously the notion of ‘power’, which appears in the related form of ‘effects’. In his Apologia Musices (1588), John Case, the Aristotelian scholar, declares he will refrain from resorting to mythology in his defence of music; still it is only a few pages later that he comes to list not only the classical mirabilia, which are as many topoi, among which those ‘nymphs Islands’, in Lydia, ‘which at the sound of the trumpet forthwith come into the middle of the sea …’,17 but also lists the modern analogues of acoustic mirabilia so as to establish the continuity between the classical and the contemporary worlds:

[…] in the much renowned church of Winton, a choir—as it were—of the sweetest harmonies, with no human voice, was distinctly heard, and with no little admiration, for many years: […] at the sepulchure of a Scottish nobleman dead for few years, some kind of music—shall I say celestial or terrestrial, doleful for sure—could be heard.18

The uncertainty Case identifies is probably of the sort expressed by Ferdinand, who wonders about the origin and the destination of this non-human harmony:

Where should this music be? I' th' air, or th' earth?
It sounds no more; and sure it waits upon
Some god o' th' island.


This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.


But the discourse of myth, which articulates that of power, is here brought to its limits: the deceptive ‘ditty’ of Ariel's song does have political implications in that it furthers the dynastic premeditation of Prospero, but simultaneously its potential for seduction and erotic allurement contradicts the father's anxious concern with chastity. In playing with music, Prospero more than once proves to be a sorcerer's apprentice rather than a full-fledged magus. He even seems to trap himself in his own stratagem when the beauty of the masque makes him forget the ‘foul conspiracy of the beast Caliban’, and causes the much debated ‘interruption’. It is indeed through the channel of ‘noises, sounds and sweet airs’ that access is given to the ‘artificial paradise’ of golden dreams (3.2.138-46); yet the musical fable is unambiguously annexed by the theatre when musical transe becomes simultaneously a process both purifying and introspective—merging the characteristics of the two aristotelian notions of catharsis and anagnorisis:

                                                            O, it is monstrous, monstrous!
Methought the billows spoke and told me of it,
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper. It did bass my trespass.
Therefor my son i' th' ooze is bedded, and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded,
And with him there lie mudded.


Musical furor is here conducive to a forced anamnesis, a painful recollection, the mise en scène of guilt: it operates as an acoustic ‘mirror of truth’ held up to Alonso to purgatory ends. Shakespeare—or Prospero—here merges the two meanings Aristotle gives of catharsis, one referring to the tragic, the other to the musical experience.19 The alchemical meaning of the word tempest, ‘a boiling process which removes impurities from base metal and facilitates its transmutation into gold’,20 only adds a further symbolic significance to the process of change and exchange, metamorphosis and negotiation, at work in the play's musical dramaturgy. If music is a tool for political manipulation, it can be equally asserted that it is in turn the object of theatrical manipulation. For if music in The Tempest can be ascribed the two definitions of the Aristotelian catharsis, and if nemesis follows the path of forced recollection, anamnesis, still this version of the musical furor is a downgraded one. To neo-Platonic philosophers, from Ficino to Parrizi, ‘furor was nothing other than a forced anamnesis, a celestial raptio, by which individual planetary Muses recalled to themselves the souls most like them’.21 In The Tempest, poetic justice has turned into musical retribution, the powers of music have become those of Prospero and these powers are precisely those of ‘penetration’ and ‘appropriation’, two notions which partake both of the aural and the political, two versions of imperium applied to the spheres of the physical body and the body politic. Plato's simple definition in The Republic,

Rhythm and harmoniai penetrate most deeply into the recesses of the soul22

is extrapolated by Ficino, who gives of it a quasi-imperialistic definition in his commentary on the Timœus:

Musical sound moves the body by the movement of the air; by purified air it excites the airy spirit, which is the bond of body and soul; by emotion it affects the senses and at the same time the soul; by meaning it affects the mind; finally by the very movement of its subtle air it penetrates strongly; by its temperament it flows smoothly; by its consonant quality it floods us with a wonderful pleasure; by its nature, both spiritual and natural, it at once seizes and claims as its own man in his entirety.23

Ficino here defines a form of prerogative that does not altogether differ from Prospero's virtually violent desire of aural appropriation of Miranda:

Dost thou hear?
Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.


A run-of-the-mill version of ‘furor’ is offered in the scene where Ariel charms the three drunkards' ears only to drive them into a ‘filthy-mantled pool’, their quasi-‘swinish’ behaviour being reminiscent of Circe's metamorphosis of Ulysses' companions on the isle of Aeaea,24 and of the German myth of the ‘Rattenfänger von Hameln’,

I told you, sir, they were red-hot with drinking;
So full of valour that they smote the air
For breathing in their faces, beat the ground
For kissing of their feet; yet always bending
Towards their project. Then I beat my tabor,
At which like unbacked colts they pricked their ears,
Advanced their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music. So I charmed their ears
That calf-like they my lowing followed, through
Toothed briars, sharp furzes, pricking gorse, and thorns,
Which entered their frail skins. At last I left them
I' th' filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell,
There dancing up to th' chins, that the foul lake
O'er-stunk their feet.


Soul loss, ‘alienatio mentis’ to use Ficino's phrase, is parodied here in grotesque manner, human beings being brought to the level of ‘brutish beasts’. It is interesting to note that the exact tune of Stefano's catch played in tune—musical exact truth—deceives more than alcohol itself: the play literalizes and dramatizes the adage: ‘musica multos magis dementat quam vinum’.25

This bacchic context seems to be poles apart from the discourse of praise. Nevertheless, Ariel's recital bears more verbal resemblances to Shakespeare's own version of the encomium musicæ, in The Merchant of Venice:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music.


The classical source for this topos is certainly Ælian,

But the mares of Libya … are equally captivated by the sound of the pipe [aulos]. They become gentle and tame and cease to prance and be skittish, and follow the herdsman wherever the music lead them; and if he stands still, so do they. But if he plays his pipes with greater vigour, tears of pleasure stream from their eyes.26

But the passage immediately following in Ælian is occulted in most texts of praise, as it describes the erogenous power of music—a moot point which encomiasts would rather not tackle. They would not readily cite exempla demonstrating the diametrically opposed effect of Dorian music, of which Clytemnestra's story is the paradigm:

Touching the first effects of musick we read that Agamemnon going to the war of Troy left behind him Demodocus, an excellent musician, skilfull in Modo Dorio, to keep chast his wife Clitemnestra, whom he nicely had in suspicion of wantonness and levity with Ægistus.27

One may wonder in this light if what Prospero calls a ‘trick’ of his, a ‘vanity of [his] art’ does not partake of this manipulative policy of desire which inscribes ‘the contract of true love’ in the frame of cultural, dynastic and erotic exchange. The masque, or rather the ‘allusion’ to it (in David Lindley's words28)—or the citation of it—thus seems to explore the limits of power at several levels: musical, mimetic, ethical and imperial. Its interruption, apparently due to local amnesia and the musical show's potential for seduction, might be seen as the term of a particular type of exploration, the ‘artistic correlative’ of the final drowning of the book.

Another instance of how myth, music and politics merge in the play's dramaturgy is the way musical messages are either semanticized, or de-semanticized: Alonso perceives the name of ‘Prosper’ in the thunderous celestial organ; conversely, Gonzalo recollects the awakening song (2.1.305-10), whose allegorical meaning is transparent (‘Open-eyed conspiracy / His time doth take […] Awake, awake’), as first a mere ‘humming’ (322), then a ‘noise’ (325) which obviously contrasts with the ‘hollow burst of bellowing’ that Antonio and Sebastian pretend they have heard. The inarticulate sound Gonzalo alludes to, and the visual spectacle of the two men with their swords drawn, looking ‘aghast’ (313), dramatically juxtaposed here, are evocative of another emblematic confrontation: if Gonzalo's ‘humming’ be construed as the sound of bees, then one is entitled to perceive in Gonzalo's acoustic reception the attributes of the Golden Age as represented by Cesare Ripa, an age ‘without winter’ in which ‘pearls grew under the water’29 (Malherbe), whereas the visual tableau of the ‘false’ brothers is characteristically that of the Iron Age, emblematized by a ‘shield, in the midst of which fraud is represented in the figure of a monster with a man's head and a serpent's body, or, if you like, of a siren alluring passers-by to devour them.’30 The allegorical reading of Ripa thus telescopes Ariel's discriminating, elective musical process: verbalizing one's response to music is tantamount to defining the symbolic age one belongs to. The co-existence of ages and their problematical dialogue is the emblematic version of the play's multidiscursive, polyphonic construction.

The ‘noises’ of the island, because they are perceived in such an individualized, differentiated manner, and induce such discordant commentaries, contribute to the æsthetic uncertainty of the play, and to the spectator's own doubts as to the validity of his or her own experience. The efficiency of music, represented verbally and dramatically, is indeed regularly ‘taken over’ by that of the theatre. Not a single musical citation is innocent of a mise-en-scène in the play—possibly except Ariel's last song: ‘Where the bee sucks …’, which nevertheless is to be found in the vicinity of a highly theatrical scene of magical dressing. In the musical utopia of The Tempest, music can hardly be said to be given ‘for nothing’: the terms of the exchange, if implicit, are made clear by the action of the play itself. Not only does music give access to the intimate theatre of the self, or such experiences as dream, trance, phantasm, madness, sleep or traumatic recollection, but it can be said to be an actual agency.

The general tenor of this paper is that the play may be viewed as a series of dramatic variations on and explorations of the limits of authority. The following remarks are a tentative attempt at mapping the discursive ‘maze’ of the play, and the problematical inscription of music in its economy. Translated into musical idiom, it is the notion of ‘effect’ which is at issue for at least six reasons.

(1) The notion of effect, and its extreme form, that of ‘furor’, is distanced, not to say alienated on the stage by its individualized, highly differentiated, reception. For instance, Ferdinand perceives the first song as ‘music’, the second one as ‘ditty’, though we have heard both as songs; Gonzalo is the only one to perceive Ariel's song, but does not understand or remember its verbal message.

(2) The Ficinian definition receives both a serious treatment and a farcical, grotesque one. This contrapuntal development is itself complicated by its correlation with the notion of power. It is in the course of an insurrection that musical dissonance appears in the form of the drunkards' canon. If the catch is a regular emblem of inebriation on the stage, here the song becomes a song of a free thought, as its burden claims, as well as a failed attempt at perfect equality—the three voices being in perfect imitation. It is probably far-fetched to read a precise ideological or allegorical meaning into this scene; still the exclusion of this part from Prospero's harmonious scheme is precisely the cause of its failure. As Yves Peyré suggests in his brilliant analysis of Ariel's masques, ‘the final chord of The Tempest integrates wrong notes: it depends on the lucid integration of the discordant elements, not on their exclusion’.31

(3) The musical ‘effect’ is regularly distanced or even undermined by the recurrent allusion to the illusory and transient status of the representation. The staging of musical deceit partakes of this strategy, whether the text of a dirge convincingly tells lies, or the right tune of a song allays the drunkards' fury only to deceive them the better. Musical truth may thus turn to dramatic lie. The contest between the two media turns to a spectacular encounter.

(4) Owing to the fickle nature of music, the ‘furor’ theme receives an all but univocal treatment. The discourse of praise, which extols the power(s) of music, is debunked by the numerous Circean, Siren-like episodes which the play offers, as if to warn against the excess of power. The discourse of abuse paradoxically surfaces here.

(5) Music is not only an agency; it operates in the play as correlative of other discourses, those of desire and authority being the most prominent.

(6) The final remark far exceeds the scope of this discussion and is utterly tentative: can one not see in the fragmented discourse of effect and its correlates the unstable interplay of two orders of knowledge at a particular moment of history, the shift from magic, auralist thought to a more analytical, visualist type of representation, which the final ‘vision’ of the two young princes ‘playing at chess’ may emblematize? The drowning of the book, which a long tradition has made to mean the poet's farewell to the stage, might thus be viewed as a farewell to a particular approach to poetics.


  1. For the roles of the musicians William Kinlock and James Lander in Scotland, see Helena Mennie Shire, Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under James VI (Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 71 and 77; for those of William Byrd, Alfonso Ferrabosco and Thomas Morley in England, see Alan Haynes, Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Service, 1570-1603 (Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, 1992), pp. 12, 71, 79, 84.

  2. The text of The Praise of Musicke (anon., Oxford, 1586) is presented by its publisher, Joseph Barnes, as ‘an Orphan of Musickes children’, a statement which, in the absence of contrary evidence, must allude to the death of its author.

  3. Quintilian, De institutione oratorica, I.X.9-33.

  4. The Praise of Musicke, pp. 79-80.

  5. In this connection, see Donna Hamilton, Virgil and The Tempest: The Politics of Imitation (Ohio State University Press, Columbia, 1990), pp. 7-10.

  6. See T. M. Waldo and T. W. Herbert, ‘Musical Terms in The Taming of the Shrew: Evidence of Single Authorship’, Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959): 185-200.

  7. Elise Bickford Jorgens, ‘The Singer's Voice in Elizabethan Drama’, in Renaissance Rereadings, Intertext and Context, ed. M. C. Horowitz, A. J. Cruz and W. A. Furman (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1988), p. 45.

  8. The many parallels between Shakespeare's play and Jonson's Masque of Union, Hymenæi, performed on the fifth of January 1606 to celebrate a dynastic marriage, are numerous and clear enough not to necessitate a full-length demonstration here.

  9. Jean Jacquot, ‘L'éloge de la Musique: grandeur et décadence d'un schème de culture’, Revue Belge de Musicologie, XX, 1-4 (1966): 91-110.

  10. See in particular The Praise of Musicke and the profite and delight it bringeth to man […], Ms. Roy. 18 B XIX, British Museum, which was written in the very first years of James I's reign in an attempt at praising both music and the monarch for the sake of corporative interests.

  11. ‘Thy Kynge [of the Indians] was disposed to have assuredly brought us to ruine in the moneth of March 1586. himself also with all his Savages to have runne away from us which if he had done wee coulde [not] have bene preserved from starving. For wee had no weares of fish, neither coulde our men skill of the making of them. [But finally we] wanne this resolution of him, that out of hand he should goe about, and withall, to cause his men to set up weares foorthwith for us’. Hakluyt's Voyages, ed. Hakluyt Society (1903-5), VIII, pp. 334-6.

  12. Other instances of verbal realism can be found in the play, in particular at 1.2.266-9, 2.1.112-13, 3.2.70-1 and 4.1.10-11.

  13. See his De vita coelitus comparanda, III, 21, 32, 42; the last two passages mentioned refer to the role of music in the evocation of certain demons and the spirits of the dead, which may represent aspects of Prospero's ‘rough magic’.

  14. The Praise of Musicke, pp. 57-8.

  15. K. R. McNamara, ‘Golden Worlds at Court: The Tempest and its Masque’, Shakespeare Studies, 19 (1987): 185.

  16. George Marcelline, The Triumphs of James the First (London, 1610), p. 35, cited by Robin Headlam Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies, Studies in Poetry, Drama and Music (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 69.

  17. John Case, Apologia musices, p. 3 [my translation].

  18. Ibid., p. 4. J. Cardan similarly reports: ‘In Caledony, a region of Scotland, on a hill called “mournful”, one can hear by night voices sounding like those of tormented human beings—either demons or souls of the defunct.’ (De subtilitate, Opera omnia, Lugd., 1663, p. 301) [my translation].

  19. Aristotle, Politics, 8.7.1841b37.

  20. John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare (Lincoln & London: Nebraska University Press, 1989), p. 181.

  21. Gary Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1993), pp. 213-14.

  22. Plato, Republic, 401 d, A. Barker ed. (Cambridge University Press, Greek Musical Writings, 1984), vol. I, p. 305.

  23. M. Ficino, In Timœum Commentarium, Opera Omnia, Basileae, 1576, p. 1453 [my translation].

  24. Odyssey, 10, 135 and 210ff.

  25. ‘For many people, music inebriates more than wine.’

  26. Aelian, On the Nature of Animals, tr. A. F. Scholfield, 3 vols. (London: Loeb, 1958-9), XII. p. 44.

  27. The Praise of Musicke, p. 57.

  28. David Lindley, ‘Music, Masque and Meaning in The Tempest,The Court Masque, ed. David Lindley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 47-59.

  29. L'on n'avoit plus d'Hyver, le iour n'avoit plus d'ombre,

                                  Et les perles sans nombre
    Germoient dessous les Eaux au milieu des graviers.

    (M. de Malherbe, cited in Ripa, II, p. 43)

  30. Cesare Ripa, Iconologie où les principales choses qui peuvent tomber dans la pensée touchant les vices sont representées, trans. J. Baudoin: 1643 (repr. Paris: Aux Amateurs de Livres, 1989), II, p. 44.

  31. Yves Peyré, ‘Les Masques d'Ariel: Essai d'interprétation de leur symbolisme’, Cahiers Elisabéthains, 19 (1981): 65.

Marc Berley (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 a nation hungry for musical language, he dramatized not only individual poetic aspiration to a heavenly tune but also the complex aspiration of an entire nation at once to enjoy the music he could give them and examine their proper enjoyment of it. The importance of music—both practical and speculative—in Shakespeare's plays is rooted in an intense need both to engage people in their aspirations toward musical merriment and show them how pursuits of merriment might come to either harmonious or clashing ends. Shakespeare made it possible, indeed necessary, at once to enjoy the inscrutable magic of poetic music and contemplate its potential dangers. Enjoyment of the wrong kind of earthly music, many in Shakespeare's England knew, could lead one away from the heavenly tune. But dissonance, Shakespeare consistently shows us, is part of the rich harmony we may know on earth.

The conflict between speculation and practice is related to the grandest themes in Shakespeare's plays—a way of speaking about the mediation of appetite and reason, frenzy and self-rule, evasion of shame and painful self-reflection. An insuperable champion of “the sweet power of music” and musical language, Shakespeare was also critical of naive (Neoplatonic) assertions of that power. He was unique in using the charms of music and musical language subtly to involve audiences in complex speculative debates about their power and value. With an abiding interest in the conflict between speculative and practical music and his ability to complicate or resolve it with his honeyed tongue, Shakespeare fashioned the condition of music to which future poets could aspire.

Shakespeare's interest in speculative music is most famously represented by Lorenzo's dazzling speech about heavenly harmony in the last scene of The Merchant of Venice. With Lorenzo's speech, Shakespeare offers, as he often does, his uncommon treatment of a Renaissance commonplace.

James Hutton first identified Lorenzo's speech as merely a conventional mixture of speculative (chiefly Neoplatonic) musical theories in praise of music.1 “Much has been written … about Lorenzo's almost too familiar lines,” Hutton writes. “Everyone recognizes that the topics are traditional, but, if I am not mistaken, it is always assumed that Shakespeare himself has brought them together. … [I]t has not … been made clear that this speech not only contains traditional topics, but that the arrangement is traditional. … [I]n short,” Hutton concludes, “we have here to do with a coherent literary theme that Shakespeare has taken bodily into his play … [s]o familiar a theme, indeed, that Shakespeare permits himself to treat it in a kind of shorthand.” As Hutton writes:

The following topics appear in this order, though much expanded, in Gioseffo Zarlino's Institutioni harmoniche 1.2-4 (1558): The Pythagoreans said that the world is musically composed, the heavens produce harmony, and that the human soul, formed on the same principle, is moved and vivifies its virtue by music; music is an important ingredient in the other arts and disciplines … and is the only art practiced in Paradise; the earth is full of natural music; man the microcosm should respond to music, since even insensible things do so, and Linus and Orpheus tamed beasts and birds, moved rocks, and checked streams; the Pythagoreans and others cured ills of mind and body with music; one who does not delight in it must be of base character, and nature has failed to provide him with the organ that judges of harmony.

Quoting Ronsard on the subject of the “unmusical man,” Hutton concludes that “It is as one more of these laudes musicae that an Elizabethan audience would hear Lorenzo's familiar words.”2

Lorenzo's speech is rightly the locus classicus for discussions of speculative music in the Renaissance, but it is so for a number of wrong reasons. Scholars have long agreed that Lorenzo's speech is merely a traditional (Neoplatonic) praise of music that enacts dramatically the play's fully harmonious resolution. But the musical and dramatic meanings of his speech are more complicated than scholars have suggested. Lorenzo's speech is doubtless filled with Neoplatonic elements, but it is not a disembodied summary of Neoplatonic treatises that “Shakespeare has taken bodily into his play.”

Hutton's valuable study influenced the criticism of Lorenzo's speech, and Shakespeare's allusions to speculative music in general, in two important ways. First, scholars—John Hollander, S. K. Heninger, and Lawrence Danson, among others—furthered Hutton's reductions: of Lorenzo's speech to Neoplatonic “shorthand”; of Lorenzo to Shakespeare; and of Shakespeare's view to Lorenzo's speech.3 Second, they followed Hutton's assumption that Shakespeare's “shorthand treatment” typifies the thought of an age that extends from Ronsard to Milton.4 Such readings of Lorenzo's speech fail to account for the considerable innovations not only of Merchant, but, more generally, of Shakespeare and Milton.5

Shakespeare's interests and “views” go far beyond what Lorenzo says, or what has been said about Lorenzo's speech. Lorenzo speaks for neither Shakespeare nor the play. Lorenzo, we will see, speaks for himself, not for Shakespeare. For too long, many fine critics have based their interpretations of Merchant on a fixed Neoplatonic reading of Lorenzo's speech. C. L. Barber asserted long ago that “No other comedy, until the late romances, ends with so full an expression of harmony as that which we get in the opening of the final scene of Merchant. And no other final scene is so completely without irony about the joys it celebrates.”6 This is still a standard reading of Lorenzo's speech and the final scene. The play, however, does not fully support it, for a number of reasons this chapter will examine. A harmonious resolution “completely without irony” requires the harmonious assimilation of Jessica in Belmont, but Jessica perhaps excludes herself from the celebration with her response to Lorenzo's speech: “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (5.1.69).7 The meaning of this line rests, ultimately, upon the context of discussions about music and merriment that take up much of Merchant to this point. Either Jessica is hinting, darkly, that she is never “pleased,” or “joyous,” when she hears music that should make her so, or she is asserting with ironic humor that she is never “facetious,” or merely “amused,” when she hears music that should make her contemplative. Either way, we will see, Jessica's last line presents us with an engaging problem that centers on the conflict between practical and speculative approaches to music.

Critics have been hesitant to see the darker aspects of Jessica's last line, hearing it as mere prattle in a playful relationship. But there is much more to Jessica and her response. Shakespeare built into Merchant a pattern of responses to music that culminates in Jessica's response to Lorenzo and the celebratory music. In a number of ways, the play is a less-than-merry, troubling comedy that questions with ironic dissonance the joys most of its characters celebrate too forcibly.

The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo and the pattern of allusions to music and merriment throughout Merchant provide, we will see, the larger context in which not only Lorenzo's speech but also the general harmony of Belmont and resolution of Merchant must be considered. The harmony of Belmont must be examined, moreover, within a theoretical musical context: the conflict between speculative and practical music on which Shakespeare bases a number of the play's dramatic tensions.

What exactly does Jessica mean when she says, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music”? What, generally, is the relationship between music and merriment—and between speculation and practice—within the play? And what is the relationship between these questions and the central issues of the play? On these important matters, Jessica, as much as Lorenzo, speaks for the play. In Merchant, men attempt to control women by controlling their reactions to music. Shylock and Lorenzo live according to competing theories not only of religion and life but also music. By living with both, Jessica learns more about their competing truths than anyone else in the play.

One of many reactions to music and talk about music within Merchant, Jessica's last line is the most important; for too long it has been attuned by scholars to the dazzling speech that surrounds it. During the last 40 years, various critics and diverse schools of criticism, paying little attention to Shakespeare's interest in the conflict between speculative and practical music, have either ignored Jessica or fit her into their readings. Even recent feminist studies do not give Jessica the attention she demands.8 Some critics have suggested that the harmony of Belmont is suspect, but the matter—like Jessica—has still not been adequately considered, in large part because the speculative context has not been fully examined. The aspiration to a condition of song brought Shakespeare to remarkable insights for which commonplaces would not do.

Shakespeare was, among other things, a brilliant and subtle orchestrator of dramatic form, and by the time of Merchant he was already getting very good. He was beginning to write comedies in which problems resist the dramatic resolution of the play, using not only dramatic but also thematic tensions to involve his audience in its own moral and cultural dilemmas. Throughout Merchant, reactions to music form a coherent pattern, building tensions that climax in Lorenzo's speech and Jessica's reaction to it. Shakespeare, we will see, not only develops and complicates the idea of harmony within the history of ideas; he does so with complex theoretical and dramatic contextualizations.

As Cynthia Lewis points out, taking further the observations of Norman Rabkin, “a sensible reading of [Merchant] begins not with formulating quick judgements that reduce its meaning, but with observing ‘patterns,’ like those in a ‘dance,’ which recur throughout the work.”9 Reactions to music in Merchant reveal a large, coherent pattern that helps us to understand the play. Reactions to music—and talk about music—reveal the quality of merriment achieved by its characters. Finally, the reaction of an audience to Lorenzo's speech reveals a good deal about the quality of merriment that audience may achieve for itself.

Although Shakespeare never reveals directly his desire to sing with the angels, even in his sonnets, he everywhere exhibits it. What is perhaps most important, he often plays with our aspiration, sometimes delighting us with the heights of his music just after he has warned us of the power of false music to delude and corrupt. So, too, he often tells us about the power of music to heal by bringing us to truth. A study of Merchant, … will help us better to appreciate Shakespeare's innovative articulations of the “sweet power” of music and poetry, as well as the ways they shaped profoundly both the opportunities and limits of future poets who would aspire to turn poetry into song.


One can say with good reason, along with Frank Kermode, that Merchant is a play about justice, but it is also chiefly a play about characters who seek, in their various ways, merriment.10 The pursuit of merriment—and its relation to a Platonic sense of justice, or temperance—is the subject of the first three scenes. Antonio begins the play by saying, “I know not why I am so sad,” confessing wisely that he has “much ado to know myself.” His friend Solanio offers tautology as counsel, “Then let us say you are sad / Because you are not merry …” (1.1.47-8). In the second scene, Nerissa has to tell Portia, who has long been seeking merriment, to be careful not to let eagerness to achieve it keep her from striking a happy mean: “It is no mean happiness … to be seated in the mean; superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer” (1.2.6-8). With her choice “curbed by the will of a dead father,” which requires certain reactions to music, Portia reveals that such pressure can further thwart one's judgement. Musing upon two bad choices and rejecting “mean happiness,” Portia proposes an intemperate choice, “I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth than to either of these. God defend me from these two” (1.2.47-49). In the third scene, Shylock sets up the extreme requirements of his “merry sport.”

In the first three scenes, Shakespeare quickly establishes the context in which we must see the choices characters make in their attempts to be merry. Whether merriment is to come from within or without is a central question, and it is related to the difference between Platonic and Neoplatonic approaches to the power of music.

The question whether “sweet music” should make Jessica “merry” contains within it the larger question on which the play is centered: what does it mean to be “merry”? Merchant is a play about conflicting attempts to be “merry”—and the antipodal worldviews on which these attempts are based. The crux of the play is that Antonio and Shylock cannot both end the play “merry.” There is the further suggestion that Christians and Jews cannot simultaneously be merry, and this is why Jessica's last utterance carries so much weight.

The Christians are, as Bassanio himself exclaims to Gratiano, “friends / That purpose merriment” (2.2.189-90). For Shylock, who rejects such purposing, the possibility for merriment exists only in the “merry sport” of his “bond” (1.3.139-47). It is clear that the “sport” of Shylock's bond is not “merry.” It is less clear, although clearly as true, that forcible conversion of “the Jew” is another form of “merry sport” that is not truly “merry” or “gentle.”

Merchant is a play about polarizing worldviews causing people to assert one as true and the other as the false pursuit of merriment. No character, moreover, is willing to be content with “mean happiness.” But, as Maynard Mack observes in his essay “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” the “usual lesson of comedy” is that “overengagement to any obsessive single view of oneself or the world is to be avoided.”11Merchant depicts merciless Christians purposing merriment as well as a merciless Jew. The play considers not why one of the two pursuits is true, but why both are potentially destructive. And it is Jessica, a willing convert, I am suggesting, who most comes to understand the reasons why.

The pun on gentle and gentile made consistently in the play suggests that Shylock could improve his fortune by assimilating: by being gentle (by becoming a Christian). The plot requires that we accept not only Shylock's forced conversion as a comic resolution, but also his forced response to Portia's question: “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” Shylock says, “I am content” (4.1.391-92), but we know he is not. Jessica, in stark contrast, not only converts willingly but twice accepts the promise that a change of religion will bring a change of fortune: “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife”; and “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian” (2.3.20-22; 3.5.17-18). The first time we see her, Jessica says: “Our house is hell” (2.3.1). Jessica looks to conversion for salvation and merriment, for an alternative to her life “of tediousness” (2.3.3) with her repressive Jewish father. Whereas Shylock is forced to convert, Jessica is willing—but her willingness is a repressive flight from curbed choices more than it is a faithful leap to a good life. She gives away her father's turquoise ring, voiding with this gesture the union that made her a Jew, trading, symbolically, a rigid world of law for a lascivious world of choice. But the question of self-knowledge complicates her embrace of choice.

Whereas Shylock is forced to convert, Jessica is seduced by the offer of a merry life. Shylock's penultimate utterance in the play—“I am content”—is ironic. Jessica's last line—“I am never merry when I hear sweet music”—is also ironic. She cannot say never. Or can she? Is she saying she was not merry the first time she heard Lorenzo's sweet music? Or is she saying she will follow Lorenzo's speculative lesson with requisite seriousness? We know what Portia demands of Shylock when she asks, “Are you content, Jew?” But do we know exactly what Lorenzo demands of Jessica when he says, “Mark the music”?

The dramatic counterpoint created by the last utterances of father and daughter is significant. Lorenzo's “resolution” in Belmont hinges on whether or not Jessica is “merry” at the end of the play—and whether any failure to be merry is a result of a failure in her (a natural failure of her impenetrable Jewish soul?) or a failure in Lorenzo. Anyone interested in Merchant must arbitrate these matters, and this means taking a fresh view of the play, and of the dramatic and thematic contexts of Lorenzo's speech.

The immediate context of Lorenzo's famous speech is the echoic exchange of “In such a night …” that precedes it. The exchange centers on classical stories of love-turned-bitter; the subject speaks against the harmony of the echoic form. Lorenzo speaks of Troilus and Cressida, which turns Jessica to Thisbe. Lorenzo mentions Dido, which turns Jessica to Medea, and Jessica's insinuation that she has risked everything for him leads Lorenzo to their case:

                                                                                In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.

Jessica speaks directly to the core of what seem to be real troubles:

                                                                                In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne'er a true one.


If the other exchanges can be excused as playful literary allusions, Jessica's last charge—a direct one—cannot. Lorenzo responds: “In such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrow / Slander her love, and he forgave it her.” But Jessica appears unforgiving, concluding the exchange by remarking her unwillingness to conclude it: “I would out-night you, did nobody come: / But hark, I hear the footing of a man” (5.1.23-24). By 5.1, real trouble appears to be afoot.

The exchange ends with Jessica promising to “out-night” Lorenzo, interrupted by Portia's servant Stephano. Before Stephano is gone, Lorenzo begins his speculative speech about musical harmony. Rather than an isolated piece of Neoplatonism, Lorenzo's speech is part of Shakespeare's intricate dramatic context. It appears to be an attempt to make Jessica merry once again. Lorenzo's speech is a seductive praise of the power of music, spoken by the play's hottest lover at a time when Jessica appears, with reason, to be getting cold.

The serious subject of the exchange pushes the limits of playful banter, signaling a conflict between beautiful form and ugly content, between the charm of sound and the trouble of its meaning. Lorenzo attempts to effect a transition to a better, more harmonious aspect of “such a night.” He tries to get Jessica to see that “such a night” becomes “soft stillness” and “the touches of sweet harmony” rather than the will to “out-night.” Any movement from embittered discussion to “sweet touches” would be good, and Lorenzo, an astute rhetorician, uses what he knows of musical theory to refashion the night.

Rather than mere Neoplatonic shorthand, Lorenzo's speech is a conspicuous translation of a lover's lofty new promises into exalted musical terms:

Sweet soul, let's in, and there expect their coming.
And yet no matter; why should we go in?
My friend Stephano, signify, I pray you,
Within this house, your mistress is at hand,
And bring your music forth into the air. [Exit Stephano.]
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
                                                                                          [Enter musicians.]
Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.
                                                                      Play music.


Lorenzo first promises “the touches of sweet harmony,” which appears, at first, to refer to actual music to be played (off stage) by the musicians—seductive sounds that might make Jessica happy to become soft and still, and receptive to Lorenzo's “sweet touches.” But six lines later Lorenzo links “the touches of sweet harmony” to the heavenly harmony they cannot hear: “Such harmony” refers back to the “sweet harmony,” but “whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in,” Lorenzo says, they cannot hear.

Six lines after offering Jessica some tangible music, he redefines it as heavenly harmony, only to explain one line later that they cannot hear it. In short, Lorenzo promises Jessica something he cannot provide, and the exchange of “In such a night …” suggests he has done this before. The speech is dazzling, but it reveals what appears to be a habit of breaking vows.

The “sweet power” of speech and music were deeply linked in Shakespeare's day. Both were considered modes of seduction, and in 5.1, Lorenzo has a need for grander, “sweeter” promises, bigger vows that might make Jessica forget about broken ones. Lorenzo, it appears, must elicit harmony from discord. After he tells Jessica that we cannot hear the music of the spheres, the musicians enter, and Lorenzo gives them specific directions. Speaking to Portia's musicians at Portia's house, Lorenzo tells them, literally, to draw her home. But he is also speaking, in Neoplatonic terms, about the theory according to which the actual “sounds of music” can pierce the ear, touch the soul, and reattune it, thereby drawing it home to the heavenly harmony. The Neoplatonic theory of the “sweet power of music,” namely that music can penetrate one's soul and draw it to heaven, merely complicates the matter of wooing with false vows, for it is deeply related to seduction by false music, as well as, more generally, to penetration of Jessica's body.

Lorenzo attempts to placate Jessica not by winning an old argument, as in the exchange of “In such a night,” but by dazzling her with beautiful new promises and lascivious music—both of which had worked well before. As Robin Headlam Wells observes, “a man of eloquence is capable of persuading people to do whatever he wishes. However, the real mark of his power is not his ability to force people ‘to yeeld in that which most standth against their will,’ but rather,” as Thomas Wilson asserts in his influential Arte of Rhetorique, “his skill in inducing them ‘to will that which he did.’”12 Using the common association of music and rhetoric, Shakespeare juxtaposes the forced conversion of Shylock with Lorenzo's attempt to re-seduce Jessica in the final scene.

It is only within this dramatic context that we can appreciate the significance of Lorenzo's speech. It is not merely a traditional (Neoplatonic) praise of music. And it is surely not “the most purely religious utterance in the play,” as John Gross suggests.13 Shakespeare gives Lorenzo a seductive speech, but he also subtly reveals Lorenzo's purpose. Lorenzo not only applies the “sweet power” of speech; he exposes his motives by seizing every opportunity to throw in the adjective sweet. In Shakespeare's plays, such excess serves to mock precisely the subjects most relevant here. To be excessively “sweet” is to be not “sweet” at all. Music, like rhetorical seduction, can be an illusion, and the love it induces becomes a foible. The best example of such acrid sweetness is Troilus and Cressida 3.1, where Shakespeare links the hyperbolic use of the word sweet with excessive appetites that lead to “broken music.” As Ulysses says, “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (1.3.109-10).

In Cymbeline, Shakespeare has Cloten mock the hyperbole of both the Neoplatonic idea of penetration and the literary conventions derived from it. Cloten—like Lorenzo, but in direct language—alludes to the musicians as surrogate seducers: “Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we'll try with tongue too.” After the musicians play, Cloten hedges: “So, get you gone. If this penetrate, I will consider your music the better; if it do not, it is a vice in her ears which horsehairs and calves' guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to boot, can never amend.”14 Comically rendering the difference between deceptively false and beautifully true music, Cloten razes the system of musical powers affirmed by Neoplatonists such as Ronsard. Music shall prove good and powerful, says Cloten, only when it shall have enabled him to penetrate his lady.

Shakespeare's interest in mocking Neoplatonic theory is part of his larger interest in the pursuit of merriment and its relationship to the conflict between speculative and practical aspirations to music. It is evident as early as Love's Labor's Lost, which exalts an austere course of speculative musical study in the Platonic tradition only then to undercut it with Neoplatonic sublimations of rampant appetite. The King decrees that he and his lords will be “brave conquerors … / That war against your own affections,” devoted to a contemplative life: “Our court shall be a little academe, / Still and contemplative in living art.” Berowne, however, troubled by the prospect of there being no ladies, voices his doubt about the austerity: “But is there no quick recreation granted?” Offering a substitute, the King answers that in lieu of ladies the men shall recreate themselves by means of musical language:

                    Our court you know is haunted
With a refinèd traveller of Spain,
A man in all the world's new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One who the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony;
A man of complements, whom right and wrong
Have chose as umpire of their mutiny.


Such a man is a rhetorician. He may be an umpire of mutiny, but his skill points to another mutiny: between “quick recreation” (wine, women, and song) and slow moral re-creation (“contemplation in living art”), between “purposing merriment” and enduring the “much ado” it takes to achieve the happiness of self-knowledge.

Merchant is a play that centers on this conflict. Neoplatonic theory promises momentary ecstasy, but, in the end, Jessica offers, in the manner of her father, rough idiom to Lorenzo's mellifluous “vows of faith.” At first, Jessica engages in the echoic exchange of “In such a night,” showing that it cannot contain and beautify ugly truths. But, finally, she returns blunt prose to Lorenzo's dazzling blank verse: “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.”

Jessica's unmusical last line induces Lorenzo to deliver a stock Neoplatonic answer that, rather than resolve the matter, shows that he is in deeper trouble than commonplace (Neoplatonic) sweet-talk can get him out of:

The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood:
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.


Lorenzo's reply, his Neoplatonic theory of the “unmusical man,” suggests the seriousness of Jessica's reply. He glosses Ronsard: “The man who, on hearing a sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice, is not delighted and is not moved and does not tremble from head to foot, sweetly ravished and transported, gives proof thereby that he has a crooked, vicious, and depraved soul, and is to be guarded against as one not happily born.”15 Lorenzo darkly suggests that Jessica has no music in herself, for the reason that she is “not happily born.”

In both parts of his speech, Lorenzo speaks not for Renaissance humanism, not for Shakespeare, but for himself. At first, trying to make a smooth romantic transition where none seems possible, Lorenzo applies the grandeur of Platonic talk. Pressed by Jessica's response that what he offers her does not make her merry, however, Lorenzo shows the meaner side of the man who stole “her soul with many vows of faith.” In the first part of his speech, Lorenzo tells Jessica that heavenly harmony—much like true love?—is impossible to experience in this life. But after Jessica speaks, Lorenzo demands, with the hyperbole and illogic common to Shakespeare's hot lovers, that she—hence they—experience it. In the first part, while he is trying to charm Jessica, Lorenzo blames a universal human nature, the “muddy vesture of decay.” What they have, he appears to be saying, is as good as can be had, given the “gross” nature of the world. But after Jessica says she is not merry, Lorenzo, shifting to a Neoplatonic argument, blames Jessica specifically.

Shakespeare has Lorenzo allude to two traditions (or conflicting aspects of a larger one). Whereas Plato maintains the unmusicality of all human souls (even Socrates'), Neoplatonists maintain that only unmusical souls are incapable of being pierced.16 According to the strict speculative tradition developed by Plato, the soul must reattune itself.17 According to Zarlino and other Neoplatonists, in contrast, instrumental music possesses the “sweet power” to refresh or “recreate” the human soul, to induce ecstasy, to lift the soul temporarily out of the body—to “draw it home.”18 Revealing the limits of Neoplatonic powers—especially the “sweet power” of “sweet music”—is part of the drama of the last scene.

Merchant is a play about contrary systems of values, and competing theories of music—like competing religions—are central to its dramatic structure. Lorenzo and Shylock offer competing theories of music, as well as competing beliefs about what will make Jessica merry. Lorenzo speaks the grandest, most eloquent speech about music in Merchant, but Shakespeare places it among plainer voices, voices he arranges to achieve the grand counterpoint of his dramatic logic. Despite his contempt for Christians and misplaced passion for his daughter, and despite the vile language in which he issues it, Shylock early offers Jessica what turns out to be a useful warning about music.

Sensing “some ill a-brewing towards my rest,” Shylock warns, “Jessica my girl, / Look to my house” (2.5.15-17). Informed by Launcelot about “a masque,” Shylock warns, more specifically, about the danger of music:

What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:
Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;
But stop my house's ears—I mean my casements;
Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house. By Jacob's staff I swear
I have no mind of feasting forth to-night;
But I will go. Go you before me, sirrah.
Say I will come.


Fearful of the sexual allure of a Christian fool, Shylock commands Jessica not to “thrust” her “[maiden]head” into “the public street.” The music played by Christians, warns Shylock, is like the “vile squealing” of pigs. Shylock commands Jessica to “stop [his] house's ears.” Jessica's ears are the doors to her maidenhead, and such doors are his, for “Jessica [his] girl” is part of his house. With words that anticipate, in both form and matter, the first words of Lorenzo's speech in act 5, Shylock gives his daughter his last command: “Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter / My sober house.”

Music has power, according to Shylock—not the deep, true power claimed by Neoplatonists, but the shallow power to corrupt decried by Puritans. That Shylock the Jew with his emotive Jewish music should make this charge only shows how complex the musical discussion in Merchant is. Shakespeare leaves us much to mark. Shylock has no “mind of feasting” on the “vile squealing” of “sweet music.” Jessica does. But after feasting, she says, in her last line, that she “is never merry” when she hears “sweet music.”


Unlike Lorenzo, Shakespeare is not one to tell us simply to “mark the music.” Shakespeare urges us to examine ourselves—to know what music we mark and how we mark it. We should not be surprised that Merchant, a comedy that plays on an audience's willingness to side emotionally with one tradition against another, concludes not with a traditional praise of harmony (laudes musicae) but rather with an ambiguous speech that borrows antithetical views from opposing traditions. Much like Measure for Measure, a play with which it has much in common, Merchant juxtaposes not only Judaism and Christianity but also Platonism and Neoplatonism. Both Merchant and Measure depict the opposition of merciless appetites for merriment and law, and both depict mediation by a Duke whose power it is either to be too merciful or too severe. Just as justice depends on temperance, as Measure shows, so does merriment. The way one listens—the expectations one has—determines how one will hear the music, and what kind of power it will have to make one happy.

That Shylock cannot be happy is a basic fact required by the plot of Merchant. But Jessica's happiness is a different matter: its uncertainty is a central part of the play. One reason “Shylock's enforced baptism is disconcerting,” as Gross observes, “is that it is contrary to predominant Christian tradition. … The treatment meted out to Shylock belongs at the harsh end of the spectrum.”19 Jessica's unhappiness, if the result of a seduction that belongs at the kinder end of the spectrum, stands as a significant, ironic counterpoint to Shylock's defeat. Jessica converts willingly, yet still Lorenzo accounts early for the possibility of her eventual misfortune. Indeed, the likely failure of Jessica's assimilation is registered with irony in every scene in which she appears before 5.1.

In 2.4, even before the two appear together in the play, Lorenzo warns that Jessica might come to misfortune even as his bride:

If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,
It will be for his gentle daughter's sake;
And never dare misfortune cross her foot,
Unless she do it under this excuse,
That she is issue to a faithless Jew.


The “excuse” will be Jessica's Jewish nature, which, despite Jessica's hope that marriage and conversion will change it, Lorenzo says plainly cannot be changed. Similarly, Launcelot helps Jessica to leave her father, but not without telling her that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” and “truly I think you are damned” (3.5.1-6).

Long before it seems that something has changed for the worse between Jessica and Lorenzo in 5.1, the play hints consistently at the likelihood of such trouble. As early as the elopement scene, the first scene in which Jessica and Lorenzo appear together, Gratiano and Salerio preface the elopement with foreboding truisms about love. As Salerio says, “O ten times faster Venus' pigeons fly / To seal love's bonds newmade than they are wont / To keep obligèd faith unforfeited” (2.6.5-7). Gratiano replies with his speech on the effects of “the strumpet wind,” including his maxim “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (2.6.12-13). And as soon as Jessica reenters, Lorenzo confirms that, as Gratiano had said, “lovers ever run before the clock” (2.6.4): “What, art thou come? On, gentlemen, away! / Our masquing mates by this time for us stay” (2.6.58-59). It is time, says Lorenzo, to be in time for music and merriment.

The elopement scene shows Jessica too eager for merriment. It imparts misgivings about Jessica's self-knowledge, as well as deeper matters of shame and conscience that might come to her one day when she knows herself better. Jessica has expected Lorenzo to change her Jewish identity and thus her fortune, as she says to Launcelot before leaving Shylock's house:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child.
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife!


Jessica puts all her hope for future merriment in Lorenzo's “promise” and the associated promise of her conversion. Jessica confuses strife, which can end, with facts about her nature that cannot be erased—facts which, if she refuses to acknowledge them, would seem to promise to increase her strife.

In saying farewell to her father, Jessica tries to change her identity, and hence her fortune: “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crost, / I have a father, you a daughter lost” (2.5.54-55). But in the elopement scene, Jessica shows herself to be very much “to his manners”: while trying to rid herself of the shame of being her father's child, Jessica “gilds” herself with her father's ducats.

Whether a Jew can change her fortune by assimilating, by changing her manners, is a question central to the play. Jessica's “Here, catch this casket” (2.3.33) suggests her possession of an unburdened, merry spirit. She thinks she is trading tedium for merriment. The rest of what Jessica says in the elopement scene, however, is laden with dark meanings: “I am glad 'tis night—you do not look on me—/ For I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2.6.34-35). She then offers a truism that hints at future troubles: “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit” (2.6.36-37). Since Jessica sees the shame of cross-dressing (“my exchange”), the lines register a latent concern that what she does not see might in the future be of greater consequence.

Jessica uses the word shame twice in this scene, and both times it resonates with her earlier mention of the “heinous sin … To be ashamed to be my father's child”:

What, must I hold a candle to my shames?
They in themselves, good sooth, are too too light.
Why, 'tis an office of discovery, love—
And I should be obscured.


The lines have their obvious as well as a deeper meaning. Clearly, Jessica wishes to hide her cross-dressing from her lover—and this seems natural. But Jessica appears more generally concerned with her “shames.” There is disparity between Jessica's worry “I should be obscured” and Lorenzo's playful assurance, “So are you, sweet, / Even in the lovely garnish of a boy.” Lorenzo knows what he is getting—a pretty Jewish girl who is wearing pants and sporting the ducats of her “father Jew” (2.6.22). What Jessica seems anxious to obscure, rather, is a general need to obscure herself. Lorenzo tells Jessica to “come at once,” but Jessica—thinking her shames “too too light”—delays, risking, in effect, a greater light, the sun: “I will make fast the doores, and gild myself / With some moe ducats, and be with you straight” (2.6.49-50). Jessica appears worried about the exchange she makes with Lorenzo; to gild herself further with ducats is worth the risk. Jessica's identity—as a woman, as a lover, as a convert—appears to be in flux in 2.6. One problem is that she knows too little about the nature of “exchange” (her father's hated skill).20 She does not know the true value of what she is giving in “exchange,” and worries too little about what she is getting in Lorenzo.

Gilded in her father's ducats, Jessica endeavors to close forever behind her the doors of her father's house. But the scene suggests that Jessica may not quit her father's house with the mere consequence of the shame that comes from one episode of cross-dressing. On a deeper level, Jessica is ashamed to be ashamed of shame. This is a common proto-Freudian theme in Shakespeare, and it usually means trouble.

The notion that love is an “office of discovery” suggests that in time, through the foibles of blind love, there is truth to be known by Jessica—both about Lorenzo and about herself. Jessica also stands to learn about two very important subjects about which Launcelot proffers his clownish wisdom: the practical concerns of leaving one's Jewish master and the conscience that attends an attempted flight from one's identity as one's father's child. Launcelot has an easier time than Jessica, for the two concerns are not one for him. “Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master” (2.1.1), he says in his first line. He then encounters his father, Old Gobbo, and proceeds to ask him “Do you know me, father?” The Launcelot-Gobbo subplot suggests, however glibly, that where identity, conscience, shame, and fathers are concerned, “Truth will come to light … in the end truth will out” (2.2.74). Not only is love an “office of discovery”; music is a means toward revelation.

The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo develops off-stage. Shakespeare tells us little about them, but he composes what he does tell us with his consummate ability to use themes to build dramatic conflict. Jessica and Lorenzo appear together in only three scenes: 2.6, 3.5, and 5.1. The first two establish a pattern of hinting at trouble that is sure to come, at truth that is sure to come out. In 2.6, Salerio ends his discussion with Gratiano about the fickleness of lovers. In 3.5. Lorenzo appears ready to defend Jessica from the charge he himself makes in 2.4, namely “that there's no mercy for [Jessica] in heaven because [she is] a Jew's daughter,” as Launcelot says. Evading the serious charge against his wife, Lorenzo chooses instead to defend the comic assault on his own reputation, namely that he is “no good member of the commonwealth” (3.5.29-33) because by converting Jews he raises the price of pork. Lorenzo's tone with the clown is appropriately playful, but Lorenzo's focus on himself is suspect. He spends very little time talking with Jessica. Finished with Launcelot, Lorenzo asks, “How cheer'st thou, Jessica?” The question is central to our understanding of the banter in act 5. Lorenzo does not, however, wait for an answer. Instead, he elicits her opinion of Portia. When Jessica replies that “the poor rude world / Hath not her fellow” (3.5.75-76), Lorenzo takes her answer as an opportunity to assert his opinion of himself: “Even such a husband / Hast thou of me as she is for a wife” (3.5.77-78). The ensuing dialogue is the only conversation between the couple since 2.6, and it is the last we hear from them until 5.1:

Nay, but ask my opinion too of that!
I will anon. First let us go to dinner.
Nay, let me praise you while I have a stomach.
No, pray there, let it serve for table-talk; Then howsome'er thou speak'st, ‘mong other things I shall digest it.
Well, I'll set you forth.


The banter is playful, but the talk about appetite broaches darker matters. The transformation of appetite to dyspepsia is a common theme throughout Shakespeare, most notably in Troilus and Cressida, the play in which, not coincidentally, Shakespeare shows with the greatest detail the way excessively “sweet” music and speech become sour. In Merchant the theme is initiated by Nerissa—“they are as sick that surfeit with too much” (1.2.5)—and continued, as we have seen, by Gratiano and Salerio in 2.6. The short dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in 3.5 alludes to the correlation between moving from appetite to digestion and from opinion to knowledge. It registers hints of difference between the lovers that begin to seem serious in 5.1.

And there are significant differences: Lorenzo would eat first; Jessica would praise him while she has a stomach. Jessica appears set on giving her opinions; Lorenzo appears ready to digest them, “among other things.” Digestion, like the calculated rendering and shifting of opinions, is the stuff of lovers after they have ceased to “run before the clock,” after they have “feasted,” as the excessive urge to taste gives way to disgust. Music sounds different when the stomach is full of food and the ear full of compliments. As Shakespeare's Cleopatra knows, the ear is lusty. But it also gets full.

The two brief discussions between Jessica and Lorenzo in 2.6 and 3.5, along with the exchange of “In such a night …” at the beginning of 5.1, compose the context of Lorenzo's famous speech about harmony. The pattern is vital. Just as there is irony in Jessica's last response to Lorenzo, so is there irony in Jessica's first response to Lorenzo in the play, in the balcony scene: “Who are you? Tell me for more certainty, / Albeit I'll swear that I do know your tongue” (2.6.26-27). As the play goes on, it appears that Jessica knew the tongue, the dazzling vows, but not the man. By 5.1, there is the strong suggestion that something has happened since 2.6, that a shrewd woman (shrewd like her father) confronts a sweet-talking man who appears to have failed to keep his vows, that Lorenzo is the main reason Jessica is not merry when she hears “sweet music.” Self-knowledge and conscience appear to be other reasons.

Shakespeare develops a pattern showing that blame is to be placed on both Jessica and Lorenzo. On Jessica, not because her soul is Jewish, but because she intemperately avoids the truth that it is. Jessica is an inversion of Antonio. Antonio considers self-knowledge a precondition for merriment and merriment a necessary precondition for love. Jessica, in contrast, has less need to hide her shames from the public street than from herself. Antonio knows enough to reject Solanio's suggestion that repression leads to happiness: “Then let us say you are sad / Because you are not merry; and 'twere as easy / For you to laugh and leap, and say you are merry / Because you are not sad” (1.1.47-50). Jessica thinks that because she is unhappy in her father's house she will be happy if she leaves it—with Lorenzo. With an “unthrift love,” she goes as far as she thinks she has to (“As far as Belmont,” as Lorenzo says), which turns out, it seems, to be at once not far enough and too far from home.

Following the description of the serious consequences of failing to be made merry by music, Lorenzo speaks his last words to Jessica: “Mark the music.” These last words, in the form of a command, do not suggest mere playful banter. Recalling Shylock's commands when he senses trouble with his daughter, Lorenzo's last words to Jessica suggest that there is, and is going to be, trouble between him and his wife. By the last scene of the play, Jessica appears to know that merriment is not determined according to religious dogma or musical theories but according to the faith of one's lover.

Just when Lorenzo's vows may turn to lies, his seductive exhortations turn to commands. Lorenzo's commands replace Shylock's. They are more subtle, made mellifluous by the music of his speech, but they are commands: “Sit, Jessica. … Mark the music.” Jessica's reaction to Lorenzo's speech and the music of Portia's musicians is her form of resisting once again the man who commands her, her rejection of a worldview that would govern her reaction to music, and thereby her reactions to all things. Jessica's answer that she is “never merry” when she hears “sweet music” reveals, moreover, that Shylock's view of music turns out to be more nearly true for her than Lorenzo's view.

Jessica must not only choose between the antithetical views put forth by her father and her lover; twice she is called upon to see through the discrepancy between form and content apparent in the articulation of each view. In the first instance Jessica shuns her father's disharmonious “manners” and is led to a kind of merriment by the “vile squealing” of Lorenzo's music. Finally, however, at Belmont, music—and musical speech—lose their formerly seductive power. Lorenzo's speech about “the sweet power of music” becomes a useless lesson about harmony, for an untrue lover cannot teach it, having already taught a lesson about discord.

Whether or not Merchant expresses a cogent theory in which Shakespeare himself believed may not be determined from Lorenzo's speech alone. What is clear from Lorenzo's speech is that Shakespeare was learned enough to make Lorenzo speak in a way that fit his clear dramatic design.21

The question whether “sweet music” should make Jessica “merry” contains within it the larger question on which the play is centered: what does it mean to be “merry?” Jessica may perhaps seem too “attentive” to discord, but contemplation, as Antonio declares at the beginning of the play, is the only means of achieving true and lasting merriment. This antithesis—between Platonic speculation and Neoplatonic magic—is a central theme of the play. Whatever the mystery of Antonio's sadness, Antonio's conception of merriment is Socratic in its basic terms: one needs to reattune (re-create) one's soul morally before one can achieve merriment (recreation). Jessica, in contrast, had thought that merriment might come as freely as the music of a tabor—as a result of the easy conversion from Judaism to Christianity. At first Lorenzo provides her with recreation; but eventually, it is clear that neither conversion nor marriage will re-create Jessica. She must do that herself. One has to mark not only the seductive music of another but the speculative music of one's life.


Jessica's response to Lorenzo's speech and the music of Portia's musicians in act 5 raises questions crucial to the resolution of the drama. Does Jessica's response confirm that a Jewish soul is “not unhappily born?” Or is Jessica's failure to be merry a good thing? Does she exhibit a noble melancholia that distinguishes her from those flighty wenches who, when they hear the strains of a lascivious lute, giggle, roll their eyes, and fall wholly for the man who brings the strains about—as Jessica once did? Do we listen to a woman who promises, after merely playful banter, that she will not be facetious in response to her husband's philosophical speech? Or do we listen now to a young woman who has by now “discovered” herself through “love,” a woman who is ready to register a view about music and theories about music that dissents from her husband's? And, if so, might we be listening to a woman who speaks loudly within the play? Or is Jessica's view marginal, as dismissible as her father's?

Jessica's response to Lorenzo's speech confronts, in musical terms, the complex systems of values—Jewish versus Christian, Platonic versus Neoplatonic—in which the play more generally involves its audience. Lorenzo's two-part speech and Jessica's response raise questions that further, rather than resolve, these dramatic tensions. How, precisely, does Lorenzo conceive the problem of hearing the heavenly tune (musica mundana), the nature of the human soul (musica humana), and the ability of instrumental music (musica instrumentalis) to tune the soul? Does Lorenzo think the relationship is different for him than for Jessica?

The musical accompaniment to Lorenzo's speech—from 5.1.65 to 5.1.88, throughout Jessica's reply and the second part of Lorenzo's speech—raises other vital questions: How is the effect of the music on Jessica related to the effect the music may have on Shakespeare's audience? Are we merry as we hear the music playing in Belmont? If so, what kind of merriment is it? Do we have cause to be truly merry? Or do we “purpose merriment” too much? Are we being too facetious? too serious?

Most of the critics who pay close attention to the music of Merchant ignore most of the questions that Jessica's experience raises. Writing about Jessica and Lorenzo in The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice, Lawrence Danson—following Hollander in assuming that Lorenzo speaks for Jessica—concludes that “[it is] this pair of lovers who speak about that music of the spheres which the play's other harmonies imitate.”22 Danson's conclusion is based on his assumption that the talk about false vows is merely “easy banter and serious intimacy.” Danson sees Lorenzo's speech and Jessica's reply as plainly celebratory, a clear instance of dramatic “fulfillment and reconciliation”:

Now, in act 5, a sweeter sort of unheard melody is invoked by Lorenzo for the benefit of the attentive Jessica: the heard music that sounds throughout much of the last part of the play is a sensory approximation of that heavenly music which (as Lorenzo explains) sounds just beyond the threshold of our gross mortal perceptions.

Danson dismisses Jessica's reaction to Lorenzo's speech as that of a “gentle newcomer”: “because Jessica is a newcomer, and because he loves her, Lorenzo tells Jessica about the musical wonders of this peaceful night.”23

Danson concludes that “the intellectual history of the ideas out of which Lorenzo's speech on celestial music is made” is “embarrassingly rich. … But it is not necessary to dwell on it in order to appreciate the speech, so tactful is Lorenzo's pedagogy.” According to Danson, “Lorenzo's treatment of music's role in human and in cosmic nature is at once description and demonstration: it enacts its meanings. It leaves us, as audience, as it does Jessica, prepared to mark the music.”24 Concluding that Lorenzo speaks for the play and for Shakespeare, Danson, it appears, is not prepared to mark what Jessica says. Nor does he allow an audience to feel ambivalence in its experience of the play. According to Danson, we, like Jessica, remain naive to our genuine feelings because Lorenzo is so “tactful” a pedant.25 Charles Mosely offers a similar reading: “Lorenzo gives Jessica some elementary instruction in what her father, who was deaf to music and blind to Christian Grace, never told her.”26

As we have seen, however, Lorenzo's Neoplatonic musical theory itself offers the darkest hints about Jessica's nature. Jessica's response that she is not merry is not a confirmation of her salvation—not even a playful one. We are reminded, rather, of the County Palatine, who “hears merry tales and smiles not” (1.2.44-45), whom Portia therefore deems unfit to marry. By the time Lorenzo speaks the second part of his speech, Jessica has already proven herself “fit for … stratagems,” and there is the deep suggestion that she is unmusical, “not happily born.” As Launcelot says about Jessica, she is “damned both by father and mother” (3.5.13-14).

In addition to these serious questions about Jessica's nature, there is also the question of Lorenzo's “moral fitness,” which is, as Danson knows, crucial to “our response to teasing banter at the opening of the fifth act.” Danson concludes that Lorenzo's fitness has “been established,” but the only proof he adduces is the encomium of a hot lover, Lorenzo's praise of Jessica in 2.6.52-57. In Danson's view, Lorenzo “enacts” his moral fitness with harmonious words. This ignores the running conflict between speculation and practice, as well as the irony that the words of a vow-breaker make a mockery of those who believe in verbal enactment. It is for precisely this reason that Cordelia makes a dramatic point of acting before she speaks in King Lear. Too many people, she knows too well, manipulate the human desire to mistake mere words for the accomplishment of deeds.

Danson bases Lorenzo's moral fitness on an assumption that his famous speech in act 5 is itself an enactment of religious harmony: the “union of the Gentile husband and the daughter of the Jew suggests the penultimate stage of salvation history described by St. Paul.”27 But a Christian's theft of a soul “with many vows of faith / And ne'er a true one” speaks, ultimately, not for the “harmony in his immortal soul” but for the impenetrable “grossness” of his “muddy vesture of decay.”

Many critics have provided intelligent arguments for the dominant reading represented by Barber and Danson. Merchant, writes Kermode, “begins with usury and corrupt love” and “ends with harmony and perfect love.”28 And although Gross sees the darker aspects of Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo, and of the troubles broached in the dialogues preceding Lorenzo's speech, even he suggests “[o]ne should not make too much of” them.29 But if troubles exist, I am suggesting, they must be accounted for, and examined more deeply than scholars intent on seeing harmony have been willing to go. Any harmony in Belmont must, if not resolve, at least include these discordant elements.

In “Love in Venice,” Catherine Belsey appears ready to reverse the sway of the “harmonizing habit” that critics have brought to the play.30 But while she questions the assumptions of Barber and Danson, Belsey offers a sweeping description of love in Venice that leads her to reduce Lorenzo's talk about the “muddy vesture of decay” to putatively historical truths about the body and desire. Belsey writes that “the older understanding of love leaves traces in the text, with the effect that desire is only imperfectly domesticated” and the “consequence” that “Venice is superimposed on Belmont.” Belsey identifies the consequence accurately, but she ignores Jessica's important reactions to music and love in Belmont—as well as the exclusion of Jessica from the harmonies described by Lorenzo and effected by Portia.31

Scholars have for so long thrown Jessica over to the side of the Christians, despite what she says—and does not say.32 Jessica's answer to Lorenzo's speech is central to the theme of merry resolution at Portia's house in Belmont, but Jessica's voice, like her father's, is curiously absent from the final celebration. Shakespeare subtly highlights the problem posed to the harmony at Belmont by Jessica's silence. Jessica is addressed by Portia, but Jessica never speaks again. Portia addresses Jessica precisely on the subject of exclusion, of “being absent”:

                                                                                Go in, Nerissa.
Give order to my servants that they take
No note at all of our being absent hence—
Nor you, Lorenzo—Jessica, nor you.


Jessica does not say a word. Shakespeare taunts us with the disparity between harmonious form and real discord. The chiastic word order addresses a couple; but the repetition and reversal of word order (“Jessica, nor you”) suggests, with incongruous neatness, the afterthought one gives to what remains.

Silence indicates trouble here, as does an unwillingness or inability to confront the roots of discord head on. Shakespeare clearly understands the implications, and value, of allowing unresolved tensions to threaten the larger dramatic resolution. Scholars such as Hutton, Hollander, and Danson see Lorenzo as a Neoplatonic philosopher. But although Lorenzo's speech raises many serious philosophical questions, Shakespeare clearly does not make Lorenzo a speculative musician capable of resolving the troubles he brings.33

As Rabkin has written, “As the entire critical history of the play has made equally apparent, the play's ultimate resolution of [its] conflicts is anything but clear or simple.” But even Rabkin sees the critical challenge as a demand for allegiance on one of two sides. He, too, reads Lorenzo's speech as the signal of harmonious resolution of Lorenzo's side: “On the one side, as we have seen, we find Shylock, trickery, anality, precise definition, possessiveness, contempt for prodigality” as well as “distrust of emotion and hatred of music, bad luck, and failure.” “On the other,” writes Rabkin, “we find Portia, but also Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Gratiano; freedom, metaphorical richness of language, prodigality” as well as “love of emotion and music, supreme trickery, a fondness for bonds, good luck, success.”34 In this common reading, Jessica is thrown in—here just before Gratiano—as Lorenzo's happily instructed wife.

Building on the insight of Rabkin, Keith Geary articulates the burden we confront in seeing or reading Merchant: “We must, critics tell us, take sides either with Shylock or with Portia and the Christians, and stand by our choice.” But such “black-and-white judgement seems peculiarly inappropriate to a play that argues the falsity of such neat and absolute distinctions.” Merchant, as Geary writes, “deals in shades of grey and continually raises the problem of appropriate response and judgement, most acutely, of course, in relation to Shylock.”35

Jessica, I am suggesting, is the character who most feels and portrays what becomes the obvious falsity of neat distinctions. For Jessica, the differences between “sweet music” and “vile squealing” appear to resolve, finally, to the differences between true and false vows. Music is “sweet” only if degree holds.

Merchant forces its audience to focus on the human tendency—regardless of sex or religion—to “purpose merriment.” The play centers on a conflict between people who “purpose merriment” without mercy (Shylock and the Christians alike) and people with “attentive spirits.” Jessica begins the play by purposing merriment and ends it with “attentive spirits.” Whereas Shylock is compelled to say he is content, Jessica feels free enough—finally—to speak her truth. And we must not dismiss her dissenting opinion. It is a woman's merry sport with language, one Christian's ability to out-interpret a Jew, that brings about the comic resolution that keeps Shylock from the “merry sport” of his bond. Against Portia's ability must be seen Jessica's confidence at the end of the play that she can “out-night” Lorenzo.

For every question in Merchant, Shakespeare poses a counterquestion that is even more important and more difficult to answer. He also makes it easy for us to fail to see the latter. This problem, our problem, is in large part what Merchant is about.

Merchant considers the burden of choosing “a love song, or a song of good life” (2.3.32), as Feste puts it to Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. In Romeo and Juliet, both are possible at once, but parents do the choosing when the lovers should. In Twelfth Night, the parents are out of the way; but the lovers at first have trouble with the burden of choosing. In Merchant, Shakespeare considers the ways in which two fathers attempt to control their daughters by controlling their reactions to music. Both daughters are hampered by their father's rules for choosing men, opposing sets of rules that specify different reactions to music, reactions that are central to the resolution of the play. Children prevailing against parental error is one aspect of comedy. Merchant, however, concerns the extent to which parents may be right, as well as wrong, in trying to check urges to be merry their children do not yet fully understand. Launcelot's theft of the doves from old Gobbo shows the importance of this theme within the play.36

Portia's father has seen to it that his daughter's suitors are unable to seduce her with sweet-talk; rather, they must show their good nature in their reaction to music. It is a Neoplatonic test: it determines if one is “happily born.” The case of Portia is a precise inversion of Jessica's: Portia secures her man with the help of music. But these facts alone do not assure her future merriment. Bassanio appears to be a good match for Portia, for he chooses the right casket, but the words to Portia's song provide him with hints. It is possible her father's trust in music could fail to prove true. But if Portia cheats with her hints, her father's wisdom—like Shylock's—might prevail, and therefore not her love.

Portia's success must be examined alongside Jessica's failure. Showing a knowledge of the need to temper Neoplatonism with Platonism when Bassanio chooses the right casket, Portia knows she will be merry only if her love may “be moderate” and “allay thy ecstasy, / In measure rain thy joy, scant this excess! / I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less / For I fear I surfeit” (3.2.111-14). Seen against Shylock's fear of music, Portia's fear of “surfeit” is perhaps the most healthy feeling in the play. It is precisely what Jessica lacks. Here the play points to Portia's success, which we are to weigh against Jessica's failure—not because Portia is Christian, but because she, unlike Jessica, early understands the danger of music. Nevertheless, even Portia is susceptible to its corruptive powers. And knowledge of Jessica's experience could help her.

Jessica early speaks against the character of Bassanio, and in the beginning of act 5 speaks generally, and from experience, against trusting the “sweet power of music.” But Bassanio's speech about a world “still deceived with ornament” does show his value. He could perhaps turn out to be Portia's fellow, just as Lorenzo, if he would “keep promise,” could turn out to be Jessica's fellow. During the celebration at Belmont, however, there is the suggestion that Jessica might be right in her early appraisal of Bassanio, correct that the poor rude world hath not Portia's fellow. The final scene broaches the possibility that “the sweet power of music” has helped to bring together another pair of lovers who do not know each other well enough; and one—or both—may purpose merriment too much. Portia, like Viola in Twelfth Night, remembers her lover from long ago. But whereas Orsino “unclasped” to Viola “the book even of my secret soul” (1.4.12-13), Portia has no access to Basanio's secret soul. It is clear Portia loves Bassanio, but it is not clear what he offers her. To this point, he has offered only deceit.

Portia, like Jessica, must deal with a man's inconstancy, and however well she fares, the lesson is that “the pledge to a woman,” as Harry Berger, Jr. observes, “can be superseded by the debt of gratitude owed a man.” Whereas “Shylock practices usury, Portia is the master mistress of negative usury,” which Berger defines as “giving more than you get.” I do not agree that “in her own way, Portia is no less an outsider than Shylock” because “her ‘I stand for sacrifice’ is finally not much different from Shylock's ‘I stand for judgement.’”37 But Berger's point about Portia's troubles is just—made larger when we consider the plight of Portia and Jessica as women, whether in Venice or Belmont. Portia is the character in the play who appears most capable of controlling her fortune. But Portia's superiority deflects attention away from her vulnerability.

More generally, the conflict between Christians and Jews deflects attention away from the problem between men and women that arises when one or both have insufficient knowledge of themselves. This problem is a large part of the intricate relationship between music and merriment the play addresses. As Portia returns home in the final scene, she hears the music of her own house without recognizing it. The music, Nerissa has to tell her, “is your music, madam, of the house.” The error is comic, but also serious. Portia responds, “Nothing is good, I see, without respect” (5.1.99).

As Antonio says at the beginning of the play, there will be no merriment without “respect.” It takes Jessica some time to learn what Antonio announces in the first lines of the play. Portia knows enough to handle Shylock and Bassanio, but it is not a good sign if Portia needs Nerissa to identify the music of her house. Likely there remains “much ado to know [her]self.”

Self-knowledge and reactions to music are linked, moreover, to the crucial subject of Merchant: mercy. In Measure for Measure, a play with a trenchant message about the virtue of moving from Hebrew justice to Christian mercy, Shakespeare links concisely, in speculative terms, the Christian capacity for mercy and the subjects of self-knowledge, merriment, and temperance. Asked to describe the “disposition” of the Duke, Escalus says that he is “One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself. … Rather rejoicing to see another merry, than merry at anything which professed to make him rejoice: a gentleman of all temperance” (3.2.217-23). Such temperance constitutes being “contemplative in living art”—not being prone to “quick recreation” by wine, women, and lascivious song. But so, too, such temperance necessitates not being too rigid, whether in the manner of Angelo or Shylock. Vincentio, the Duke, is reputed, if only by Lucio, to have “some feeling” of the merry “sport” of getting bastards. The Duke's temperance supports Lucio's claim, if not its truth. Angelo, in contrast, is a Christian version of Shylock. Exhibiting trickery, anality, precise definition, contempt for prodigality, distrust of emotion and hunger for justice, his sin is not so much the corruptibility of the Christian soul as his merciless ability to cover up his sin by imputing it to others. If Portia can force Shylock to purpose merriment falsely (“I am content”) and derive from such force her own “merry sport,” does not her lack of mercy speak not only generally against a lasting Christian merriment but also specifically against her understanding of what makes one truly merry? Hatred of “the Jew” can help, in this respect, to make the harmony of Belmont seem real, durable—indeed, blessed.38 But there is the hint that Portia is susceptible to dangerous forms of displacement.

In many ways, Merchant is a precursor of Measure for Measure—a comedy with a troubling comedic resolution; a comedy about the virtue of moving from Hebrew justice to Christian mercy; a comedy about the difficulty Christians can have in being merciful as they seek merriment; a comedy about the difficulty an audience will have when a merciful Duke pardons a Christian scoundrel. Only a few years after Merchant Shakespeare would begin to write what we call his “problem plays.”39

Merchant not only examines large speculative musical debates, but also their practical value in life. The play demands that we distinguish musical sweet-talkers who “purpose” but displace merriment from plain-talkers who are attentive to the preconditions of true merriment. Merchant contrasts the Christians' gift for musical speech with the rough idiom of Shylock. Lorenzo is dazzling. Shylock is blunt. Shylock's nasty “contempt for prodigality” and “hatred of music” is merely an extreme antithesis to the dangerous trust in music shown by the Christians. The Italians are puffed with rhetoric; they are prodigal with words because they can use them so well, and they demonstrate a Neoplatonic trust in music and musical language that becomes suspect. And so is their conception of merriment suspect. With Jessica's final words to Lorenzo, Merchant suggests that the “sweet power” of “sweet music” is a potentially destructive illusion for Christians as well as Jews.

In Merchant, as in other plays, Shakespeare induces us to distinguish between eloquence and truth, between form and content, between words and deeds. Merchant, in this respect, is complex, for it offers no explicit speeches on the subject; rather, it subtly pits the harmony of form (“In such a night …”) against the force of real discord. At the same time, however, the play reveals—and involves—our inability to distinguish them. Similarly, the play also involves our ability—or inability—to discern true merriment.

When Lorenzo asks her opinion of “Lord Bassanio's wife” Jessica focuses on the two ways of defining and achieving merriment that are at odds in the play:

Past all expressing. It is very meet
The Lord Bassanio live an upright life
For having such a blessing in his lady;
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth,
And if on earth he do not merit it,
In reason he should never come to heaven.


Jessica suggests that Bassanio achieves a merriment he may not merit. He “finds the joys of heaven here on earth,” but “the poor rude world / Hath not [Portia's] fellow.” Portia, that is, may be settling for an illusive merriment that will not last. The Christians manifest, as Bassanio reveals (2.2.188-91), the human tendency to “purpose” a kind of merriment, aided by music and musical speech, that turns out—in its stubborn clinging to earthly judgements of divine things and pseudodivine judgements of earthly things—to be false.

Given her high view of Portia, it cannot be that Jessica flatly rejects the merriment of the Christian world as her father tried to teach her to do. In her last line, Jessica seems to remark not her unmusical Jewish soul but the unmusicality of a “poor rude world.” This theme is common in Shakespeare. In this respect, Jessica speaks for Shakespeare as much as, if not more than, Lorenzo.

It is Shakespeare's genius to center the closure of Merchant in his audience's opinion of the power of “sweet music”—and to center our opinion of the power of “sweet music” in the speculative connections between music and merriment. It takes an openness to the possibility of drama to see that “ambivalent signals” are “built into the play,” as Rabkin has observed: “one element or another in the play can come to seem like the center of the play's values and the focus of its allegiances is paradoxically the source of both its inexhaustible complexity and its vulnerability to powerful productions in which the play seems to belong completely to Shylock or to Belmont.”40 Lorenzo's speech is the last starkly “inexhaustible complexity” before the festivities at Portia's house. By failing to attend to the character of Jessica, to her important responses to music in the play, and to her significant exclusion and silence, one may dismiss the way in which Lorenzo's speech reproduces many of the “ambivalent signals” of the play, not in a traditional way, but with Shakespeare's ability to use a commonplace subject to effect uncommon and decided dramatic meanings.

In Merchant, Shakespeare involves the audience in the moral dilemma of the play. He compels us to take sides even as he warns of the dangers of doing so. He gives us a character whose middle position is, even more dangerously, easy to ignore. By living between “Antipodes,” by reacting nakedly to music, Jessica learns the most in the play, and yet she is the least pedantic character in the play. She is, moreover, the least likely to seduce us: as a Jew, Jessica is eclipsed by her father; as a woman by Portia; as someone who might tell us something about being merry, she is eclipsed by Antonio; as someone who might tell us something about the “power of music,” by Lorenzo. By the end of the play, Jessica can neither be dissociated from nor identified with her father—or Lorenzo.41 Jessica's is the strange suffering of one who dares to live between the “Antipodes.” A tug on the audience from two sides can make for great drama, but Shakespeare does even better in Merchant. If all the other characters demand our taking one side or another, Jessica does not, for she herself is tugged by both. Launcelot says her mother and father are Scylla and Charybdis: “Well, you are gone both ways” (3.5.15-16).

The wonder of the play, I am suggesting, is its ability to bring the audience around to Jessica's experience as it keeps Jessica's view in the middle of what are depicted as undesirable extremes. In Merchant, one character, a minor character, Jessica, tries unsuccessfully to arbitrate the merciless extremes of Jewish rigidity and Christian frivolity, as well as Jewish frivolity and Christian rigidity. Shakespeare gives Shylock, not Jessica, the moving argument for the humanity of the Jew, for the essential identity of the Jewish and Christian soul (3.1.46-64). But if Shakespeare does not inspire much sympathy for Shylock because he so ably depicts his thirst for Christian blood, he does inspire sympathy for Jessica; and he gives her final view of music a competing authority.

The sympathy one has for Antonio precludes the sympathy one might have for Shylock; but one is likely to have similar sympathy for Antonio and Jessica. Shakespeare sets up the glaring antipodes of Antonio and Shylock, but he suggests the deeper similarities and differences between Antonio and Jessica.

Whereas Shylock and Antonio are the blatant “Antipodes” of the play, Jessica converts willingly, moving from one pole to another in an attempt to make herself “merry.” This willingness makes Jessica a compelling case. Whatever the viciousness of the victory, the defeat of Shylock's “merry sport” is comic resolution. But it is not comic when Jessica, who willingly converts, must say “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” Shakespeare centers the great mystery of Merchant—what makes one “merry?”—in the minor character of Jessica.

Putting her stock in the salvation offered by a Christian husband, Jessica is a character whose attempt to be merry becomes a touchstone. Shakespeare gives us a neutral character to offset any sympathy we might feel either with Shylock or with the purposed and vengeful merriment of the Christians.

It is difficult not to side with Jessica in this play. Siding with Jessica, however, one does not know where one stands, for one may feel a particular sympathy for everyone. One may see that every individual may have a desire to let music creep in her ear, may put her trust in a seductive if, may depend upon a vow—may have a misfounded scheme to “purpose merriment” that is sure to go awry.

Act 5 begins (and Merchant ends) by developing the problems the play presents, not by fully resolving them in a traditional praise of musical harmony. Shakespeare offers the forced resolution of the conversion of Shylock, but not without subtly implying, in the case of Jessica, questions that the conversion of Shylock too-forcibly resolves. Lorenzo offers a dazzling speech by which we, like Jessica, are liable to be seduced. Thinking themselves to be seduced by Shakespeare himself, scholars have for a long time been seduced instead by Lorenzo, hearing his speech as an enactment of the univocal resolution of the play. But Shakespeare allows us to see through Lorenzo, and forces us to consider large and important questions raised both by Jessica and the dramatic themes and tensions within the play.

Merchant is a difficult play, and has long been a divisive one. Most critics, siding with Lorenzo, have praised a pristine harmony; only a few have remarked hints of discord.42 A number of critics have argued intelligently for a complete celebration of joys without irony, but that requires an explicit and fully resolved harmony between Jessica and Lorenzo. And that is not what we get. Shakespeare appears to leave the matter of harmonizing to us, and we will each, he seems to suggest, do it in our own ways. Some of us will not hear Jessica fully. Merchant is a much deeper play, less purely enjoyable, but more ripe for ongoing contemplation, with Jessica as its dissonant center. It is not that Shakespeare is pessimistic here, but rather that he appears to be telling us that the achievement of harmony on earth is a process, not the celebration it will be one day in heaven.

Merchant demands that its audience mark both the music to which we aspire and the means we employ to mark it. To that end, Jessica's last line—like the second part of Lorenzo's speech—competes for our attention with the seductive sounds of Portia's musicians. Merchant is a play that pushes its dramatic content to the limits of comic form, a play that juxtaposes the harmony of form with the reality of discord and coerced harmonies. At its conclusion, we must enjoy with a hungry ear the seductive music of both Lorenzo's speech and Portia's musicians, with our soul bent all the while toward deeper, more speculative matters. Such temperance is, after all, the universal condition of aspiring toward the heavenly tune. …


  1. James Hutton, “Some English Poems in Praise of Music,” English Miscellany 2 (1950): 1-63.

  2. Hutton 1-5.

  3. See John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961); S. K. Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1974); Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of the Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978).

  4. See, for example, Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972) 147.

  5. See Marc Berley, “Milton's Earthy Grossness: Music and the Condition of the Poet in ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso,’” Milton Studies, ed. Albert C. Labriola, Vol. 30 (Pittsburgh: U Pittsburgh P, 1993): 149-61.

  6. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959) 187.

  7. I quote throughout from William Shakespeare, The Complete Plays, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1969).

  8. Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding and Power (New York: Columbia UP, 1981), mentions neither Jessica nor Merchant; in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1983), Jessica is mentioned in only one essay, and only once, in a typical sentence linking her choice of Lorenzo to her father's misfortune; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (1983; New York: Columbia UP, 1989), mentions Jessica only once, to remark only the matter of her cross-dressing; Women's Re-Visions of Shakespeare, ed. Marianne Novy (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1990) is a collection in which Jessica is not mentioned at all; in the few allusions to Merchant throughout the volume, it is Portia who is the subject.

  9. Cynthia Lewis, “Antonio and Alienation in The Merchant of Venice,South Atlantic Review 48 (1983) 20.

  10. Frank Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) 210-15.

  11. Maynard Mack, “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” reprinted in Everybody's Shakespeare (Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1993) 25.

  12. Robin Headlam Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 5.

  13. John Gross, Shylock: A Legacy and Its Legend (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992) 99.

  14. Shakespeare, Cymbeline 2.3.11-31.

  15. Hutton 4.

  16. Hutton and Hollander do not not consider how Capella and Zarlino differ from Pythagoras and Plato on the subject of music. See Hutton (36-37), where he observes an abruptness but fails to remark its significance; also (6-7), where he does not distinguish the writings of Plato from the work of later writers such as Aristotle, Quintilian, “Heraclides Ponticus, Theophrastus, and others [who] had further extended the subject,” for according to Hutton, “the whole was reduced by the Hellenistic schoolmen to simple statements illuminated by suitable exempla.” A weakness of Hutton's “sketch” is the irrelevance of many of the exempla he adduces to a meaningful dramatic analysis of Lorenzo's speech. Hutton considers neither Jessica nor the important questions raised by the dramatic context.

    Similarly, the conclusion of Hollander's analysis of Lorenzo's “troping of the doctrine” (151-52), fails to take Jessica into account: “This is the vision of Plato's Er and Cicero's Scipio. It is significant that the one instance of Shakespeare's troping of the doctrine is Lorenzo's explanation of the inaudible character of the heavenly music. Neither of the traditional reasons (acclimatization, or the physical thresholds of perception) is given. Instead, the unheard music is related to immortality, and by extension to a prelapsarian condition, a world which, like heaven, need not conceal its ultimate gold, which even Belmont must do. This approaches Milton's treatment of the subject in At a Solemn Music.” Hollander points to Ronsard and then, remarking no difficulties in Lorenzo's exchange with Jessica, writes that “Lorenzo retorts with a traditional disquisition on music and the affections, ending on a note of musica humana with all of its ethical and political connotations.” Hollander concludes his analysis without stating what the connotations are: “Innuendoes of musica mundana, golden, silent, and inaccessible, are intimated at Belmont, where actual music is heard, and where the Venetian incompatibilities of gold and love are finally reconciled, almost as much in the golden music as in the golden ring.”

  17. See Plato's Phaedrus, especially 247c-d.

  18. See Marsilio Ficino, The Book of Life; also Gary Tomlinson's study of Ficino in Music in Renaissance Magic.

  19. Gross 91.

  20. The subject is too large for the length of this chapter, but I would turn the reader to the recent articles and books written from Marxist, Cultural Materialist, and New Historicist perspectives that might shed further light on Jessica's “exchange.” I would point out, however, that even these studies do not give Jessica the attention she commands. See, for example, Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 1987 (38) 19-33. Newman offers intelligent analysis of the role of Portia's ring, as well as of “exchange” more generally. But Newman does not even mention Jessica's “exchange” as a point of comparison or contrast.

  21. Shakespeare's learning has always been in question. But his ability to take commonplaces from various traditions and make them both his own and dramatically relevant suggests not only more learning than we can account for but also a kind of learning it is impossible to quantify. Cf. E. M. W. Tillyard, “The Cosmic Background,” Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1944). Tillyard argues that Shakespeare was “learned,” but he qualifies what is meant by “learned.” “For proofs,” Tillyard writes (3) “take for example Lorenzo on music. …” Tillyard quotes lines four to eleven and makes the following argument: “This has been called ‘an unlearned man's impression of Plato's sublime dream’. … Shakespeare, it is alleged, gets Plato wrong. … It is true that he garbled the above passage from the Republic by substituting cherubim for sirens and vastly enlarging the revenge of the heavenly music, but Lorenzo's general doctrine shows an accurate knowledge of a part of Plato's Timaeus. … Shakespeare reproduces the gist of this doctrine.”

  22. Hollander 151-52; Danson 177.

  23. Danson 170, 175, 186.

  24. Danson 188-89.

  25. See Danson 186.

  26. Charles Mosely, “Portia's Music and the Naughty World,” The Merchant of Venice, Eds. Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey (Essex: Longman, 1992) 22.

  27. Danson 178-84.

  28. Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne 215.

  29. Gross 72.

  30. Catherine Belsey, “Love in Venice,” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991): 41-53.

  31. Belsey 43. Belsey writes that all of the characters in the play look “back to a world, fast disappearing in the late sixteenth century, where love was seen as anarchic, destructive, dangerous.” Belsey does not uphold, apparently, Jessica's distinction between false and true vows, between destructive and true love. She argues instead that the play—hence Shakespeare, hence Lorenzo—speaks nostalgically (historically) about a desire that, in accordance with historical indicia, can no longer be fulfilled. In Belsey's view, Jessica and Lorenzo, an otherwise harmonious couple, are deprived of an allegorical harmony, or granted only a trace of it—for in the late sixteenth century, just as now, one may get no more than a trace of anything. It is certainly true that Merchant reveals a dark side of love in Venice, as Belsey writes—true, too, that Shakespeare is an expert on the subject of desire. But Merchant does not concern a general crisis in the history of desire as much as it treats the particular problems that the women in the play have with particular men.

  32. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996) 158-59, remarks briefly the possibility that Jessica “might revert to her Jewish nature.” The possibility, of course, is only hinted at, and it is part of Shakespeare's skill here to resist closure. To consider the matter fully, one has to pay more attention to the dramatic structure of the play than Shapiro does.

  33. He has Lorenzo himself mock his claim to such a title: “I must be one of these same dumb wise men, / For Gratiano never lets me speak” (1.1.105-06).

  34. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1981) 28-29.

  35. Keith Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55.

  36. See Michael W. Shurgot, “Gobbo's Gift and the ‘Muddy Vesture of Decay’ in The Merchant of Venice,Essays in Literature 10:2 (1983): 139-148.

  37. Harry Berger, Jr., “Marriage in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 32:2 (1981): 161.

  38. On this general subject, see James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews.

  39. Even before his “problem plays,” Shakespeare likes to set up patterns that suggest the closure the play refuses to provide. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London: Longmans, 1961), offers a general discussion of the reasons “problematical” plays might be given the title “Problem Plays” and suggests that perhaps we ought “no longer be content with an eternal triangle of three “Problem Plays.” The matter is beyond the scope of this chapter, but I am suggesting a number of problems, as well as a central one large enough to include Merchant in the general discussion.

  40. Rabkin 28.

  41. One exception to the “harmonizing habit” is offered by John Picker, “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure,” Judaism 43:2 (1994): 174-89, who considers with insight the dramatic context that forces us to consider Jessica's response to Lorenzo's “musical illusion of happiness.” Picker's consideration of music, however, is general and brief, for his subject is the more general one of closure. He concludes, moreover, by bringing Jessica too close to Shylock's worldview.

  42. Cf. Newman 32.