Music in Shakespearean Tragedy

By F. W. Sternfeld | Go to book overview

I
TRADITION OF VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN TRAGEDY

TRAGEDY demanded less music than any other genre on the Elizabethan stage. The tradition of the theatre favoured an abundance of song in comedy but little or no lyric relief in tragedy. This custom pertained primarily to the companies of adult players such as the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Lord Admiral's Men and, to a lesser extent, to the companies of juvenile players such as the Children of Paul's and the Children of the Chapel. The differences between a tragic drama performed by adults and one performed by boys will occupy us later. Shakespeare's plays were written exclusively for performance by the Chamberlain's Men (after 1603 the King's Men).

In endeavouring to explain the Elizabethan opposition to song in tragedy one might advance several reasons, among them the classical precedent of Senecan tragedy. But more vital to the tradition of the theatre was the very nature of the tragic experience. We are inclined to posit with Aristotle that one of the essential ingredients of the tragic genre is magnitude, provided it can still be grasped as a whole. To interrupt the drama by divertissements would destroy, or at least endanger, that magnitude. Only too often a song in spoken drama was nothing more than an ill-concealed diversion, rather than an element integrated into the dramatic structure. Perhaps there was some

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