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Music in Shakespeare

Shakespeare, like most playwrights from the Elizabethan era used music in his plays to add to the entertainment value of the performance. Instrumental music at this point of history was still an integral part of the play and the separation between drama and music fif not yet exist. Therefore, it was only natural to Shakespeare to have music and musical sound effects as part of his performances. The main instruments of the time were lutes, citterns, viols, violins, rebecs, shawms, flutes, fifes, cornets, recorders, sackbuts, trumpets, regals and drums. Bells, birdcalls and other instruments to create a musical sound effect were also used but were not considered real instruments then and are still not today. Plays in the Elizabethan era traditionally contained one song, but the use of songs in Shakespeare's plays like Hamlet, Othello and King Lear surpassed their use by his contemporaries. Compared to the other writers of Shakespeare's times his songs are typified by a brevity of expression and a rapidity of development. His songs have the mark of seeming to be written spontaneously and the art behind their creation is skillfully but modestly hidden. Shakespeare is famed for using puns in his work and they are also present in his songs, especially by Pandarus in Twelfth Night.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream music is used skillfully by Shakespeare to separate the world of the mortals from the world of the fairies. Throughout the play music is used to separate the supernatural world of the fairies from the natural world of the human characters. The play was probably written originally for a noble family and Shakespeare knew that he would have musicians on hand to be able to play the music, so he was therefore able to add musical elements into the performance. In general, compared to other playwrights of the time, Shakespeare had the Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames which ensured he had talented musicians available to be able to play the music for his other plays. In A Midsummer Night's Dream there is no musical or written cue for music to start being played at the point where Titania's lullaby would begin, which gives more evidence for the theory that Shakespeare had at his disposal skilled musicians.

In Shakespeare's plays the clown or jester character normally performs the role of the chorus and in doing so breaks the fourth wall and comments on the follies and pretences of the other characters in the play. For example, in King Lear the professional fool and Edgar are both King Lear's philosophers. The technique of the character of the fool who uses song as a means to outwit other cleverer characters is seen in lots of Shakespeare's other work such as The Merchant of Venice. In Hamlet, however, the title character, Hamlet, is himself the philosopher and does not need a clown to guide him. Therefore, like in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet sings a song about death which fits in well with the drama of Hamlet, and Shakespeare cleverly makes sure that a song about such a serious and dramatic nature, such as death, is sung by a serious rather than a comedy character. In King Lear the gravedigger is allowed to show his singing talents as he is presented as a comedy character in contrast to the king. This shows that Shakespeare knew which characters to let sing songs and also the nature of the songs in Shakespearian plays is normally, with a few exceptions, a chance for a comedic interlude.

While Shakespeare normally uses song for dramatic or narrative purposes there are a couple of times in his work that he just adds song in due to the Elizabethan expectation that there would be a musical performance in a play. The two best examples of this are in As You Like it, where the songs have been inserted into the play for no other reason than for the benefit of the Duke who commissioned it, and in instances like this Shakespeare makes no attempt to hide his scorn for their unnecessary addition.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Shakespeare's Use of Music
John H. Long.
University of Florida Press, 1955
Music in Shakespearean Tragedy
F. W. Sternfeld.
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963
Shakespeare's Use of Song: With the Text of the Principal Songs
Richmond Noble.
Oxford University Press; H. Milford, 1923
Shakespearean Music in the Plays and Early Operas
Frederick Bridge.
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1923
Shakespeare's Use of Off-Stage Sounds
Frances Ann Shirley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1963
Pursuing Shakespeare's Dramaturgy: Some Contexts, Resources, and Strategies in His Playmaking
John C. Meagher.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Sound and Music"
An Outward Show: Music for Shakespeare on the London Stage, 1660-1830
Randy L. Neighbarger.
Greenwood Press, 1992
The Matter of Sounds
Tomlinson, Gary.
Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000
Music from the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History
David Brinkman; Suzanne.
Greenwood Press, 2003
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