Shakespeare and Music
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Vocalists and Instrumentalists Had Noteworthy Roles in the Plays
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Englishmen in the Age of Shakespeare loved music. They played it, sang it, danced to it, or simply sat and enjoyed it, as they did when they attended performances of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare composed song lyrics for his plays and called for vocal and instrumental music in his stage directions. Music and dancing abounded in his comedies. But even in some of his darkest dramas, such as Macbeth and Othello, there was music. For example, when Hecate enters in the first scene of the fourth act of Macbeth, she tells her three sister witches,
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in. (4.1.44-46)
The stage directions that follow say, "Music and a song, ‘Black Spirits,’ &c."

The dialogue in Shakespeare's plays suggests that he highly appreciated music. In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo observes,
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. (5.1.93-98)
Consider also this passage:
Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.154-159)
Music helped Shakespeare underscore a theme, alter or maintain a mood, herald the entrance of important persons, or create the right atmosphere for an event or occasion, such as war, a dance, or a banquet.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a song sung at the court of the palace of the Duke of Milan underscores the theme of love.
Who is Silvia? what is she?      
That all our swains commend her?      
Holy, fair, and wise is she;      
The heaven such grace did lend her,      
That she might admired be. (4.2.40)
In The Tempest, solemn music that invisible Ariel plays makes Gonzalo, Adrian, Francisco, and other crewmen from the wrecked ship fall asleep. Moments later, when Antonio and Sebastian begin plotting against Gonzalo, Ariel sings this song into Gonzalo's ear:

While you here do snoring lie,      
Open-ey’d Conspiracy      
His time doth take.      
If of life you keep a care,      
Shake off slumber, and beware:      
Awake! Awake! (2.1.306)

In Henry VIII, Queen Katherine asks one of her attendants to cheer her up by playing her lute and singing. The attendant then sings these lines:
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart (3.1.5)
In As You Like It, Amiens sings a song comparing the ingratitude of man to biting winter wind.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,      
Thou art not so unkind      
As man’s ingratitude;      
Thy tooth is not so keen,      
Because thou art not seen,      
Although thy breath be rude,      
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:      
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.      
Then heigh-ho! the holly!      
This life is most jolly. (As You Like It, 2.7.184)
Characters in the plays sometimes sing drinking songs to accompany revelry. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, Octavian, Lepidus, Pompey, and others drink wine while a boy sings the following song:
Come, thou monarch of the vine,      
Plumpy Bacchus, with pink eyne!      
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,      
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d:      
  Cup us, till the world go round,      
  Cup us, till the world go round! (2.7.114)
Shakespeare generally wrote the lyrics of his songs in rhyming lines, like the songs quoted above and like the following one that the sprite Ariel sings in The Tempest:
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:        
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell. (1.1.457)
Shakespeare's Stage directions for music are sometimes general, as in the following direction at the beginning of the seventh scene of Act 2 in Antony and Cleopatra: "On Board Pompey's Galley off Misenum. Music. Enter two or three servants, with a banquet." At other times, Shakespeare gives specific directions, as in this direction between lines 31 and 32 of the fourth scene in Act 5 of Coriolanus: "Trumpets; hautboys; drums beat."

On occasion, a character calls for music. For example, after Hamlet stages his play before King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, he is heartened to see that his production has had the desired effect on the king
namely, that it caused Claudius to react with signs of a guilty conscience. Feeling triumphant, Hamlet tells Horatio, "Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders."

Vocalists generally performed on the stage as actors. Instrumentalists performed on or off the stage, depending on whether they were part of the cast or were simply providing background music. Musicians playing background music may have been stationed on a platform above the stage or in a room beneath the stage. Sometimes a character sang onstage while accompanying himself on an instrument.

Musicians in the Age of Shakespeare used woodwind, percussion, stringed, and brass instruments. In Shakespeare's plays, musicians relied mainly on basic instruments such as lutes, drums, horns, and hautboys (early forms of oboes.)

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Other Music-Related Quotations

Following are additional music-related quotations from Shakespeare's plays. The source for the quotations is the 1914 edition of The Oxford Shakespeare.

'Tis a plain case: he . . . went, like a bass-viol, in a case of leather. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.3.20)

The Lords rise from table, with much adoring of Timon; and to show their loves each singles out an Amazon, and all dance, men with women, a lofty strain or two to the hautboys, and cease. (Timon of Athens, stage directions, 1.2.108)

The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries and fifes,
Tabors and cymbals and the shouting Romans,
Make the sun dance. Hark you! (Coriolanus, 5.4.32-34)

Therefore, I say 'tis meet we all go forth
To view the sick and feeble parts of France:
And let us do it with no show of fear;
No, with no more than if we heard that England
Were busied with a Whitsun morris-dance. (Henry V, 2.4.24-28)

The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge. (Hamlet, 1.4.11-15)

             There's nought in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won. (Henry V, 1.2.259-260)

For I the ballad will repeat,
Which men full true shall find;
Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind. (All's Well That Ends Well, 1.3.24)

              I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion.  (All's Well That Ends Well, 2.1.67-70)

My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember’st           
Since once I sat upon a promontory,           
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back           
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,           
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres           
To hear the sea-maid’s music. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.153-159)

To sing a song that old was sung,           
From ashes ancient Gower is come,           
Assuming man’s infirmities,           
To glad your ear, and please your eyes.           
It hath been sung at festivals,           
On ember-eves, and holy-ales;         
And lords and ladies in their lives           
Have read it for restoratives. (Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Prologue, 3-10)

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. (Richard II, 5.5.44-46)

Preposterous ass, that never read so far            
To know the cause why music was ordain’d!     
Was it not to refresh the mind of man            
After his studies or his usual pain? (The Taming of the Shrew, 3.1.11-14)

If music be the food of love, play on;            
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,  
The appetite may sicken, and so die. (Twelfth Night, 1.1.3-5)

This music crept by me upon 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. But 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.(The Tempest, 1.1.451-455)

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,           
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps. (Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.29-30)

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the
knave jowls it to the ground,as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that
did the first murder! (Hamlet, 5.1.34)

Glossary of Instruments

Following is a glossary of instruments available in Shakespeare's time:

Bell: Hollow metal instrument with a flared opening. When struck, it vibrates with a tone.
Bombard: Large shawm.
Chittarone: Large lute.
Cither: Another name for cittern.
Cittern: Small instrument resembling a lute. Unlike a lute, it has wire strings.
Cornet: Wooden wind instrument shaped like a tube with a cuplike mouthpiece.
Crumhorn: Wooden wind instrument with a tube-like body that curves into a hook shape. The player blows into the instrument. Its size varies according to the sounds it produces: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and great bass.
Cymbal: Concave plate of brass that makes a clashing sound when struck with another cymbal or a drumstick.
Drum: Percussion instrument with a membrane stretched over a hollow cylindrical body. It is played by beating the membrane with sticks or hands.
Dulcimer: Stringed instrument held on the lap and plucked or strummed.
Fife: Small flute generally used in marching bands.
Flute: Wooden wind instrument shaped like a tube. The player blows through a mouthpiece while fingering holes or keys.
Gittern: Another name for cittern.
Harp: Large instrument having a triangular-shaped upright frame with strings that are plucked.
Hautboy (pronounced OH bwah): Wooden wind instrument resembling an oboe.
Kettledrum: Large drum shaped like a bowl with a parchment membrane stretched over the top. It rests on a tripod or another supporting device.

Lizard: S-shaped horn. 
Lute: Plucked stringed instrument with a body resembling a sliced pear. The strings were made from sheep gut.
Mandora: Stringed instrument resembling a mandolin.
Opharion: Large stringed instrument resembling a lute.
Organ: Keyboard instrument that forces air through pipes to sound tones.
Pandora: Lute with three strings.
Pipe: Basic flute-like instrument with only three holes.
Psaltery: Stringed instrument resembling the lyre (in the harp family).
Rebec: Early violin.
Recorder: Flute-like wind instrument with a mouthpiece resembling a whistle.
Sackbut: Early trombone.
Shawm: Wooden wind instrument that was an early type of oboe. The end opposite the mouthpiece opened up like a horn.
Tabor: Small drum.
Tambour: Another name for a drum.
Tambourine: Small percussion instrument with a membrane drawn over a circular frame. While it holding with one hand, the player beats the membrane with another. Tiny metal disks around the rim jingle when the tambourine is beaten or shaken.
Theorbo: Large lute, but smaller than a chittarone.
Timbrel: Another name for tambourine.
Triangle: Triangular metal bar struck with a wand. One angle is left open so that the two bars forming the angle do not touch.  It is held suspended from a loop or wire at the top to allow it to vibrate.
Trumpet: Brass wind instrument with a mouthpiece at one end, a tube with a loop in the middle, and a flared mouth at the other end.
Viol: Stringed instrument played with a bow while placed between the legs.
Viola da Gamba: Another name for a viol.
Violone: Large viol with a deep bass range.
Virginal: Instrument resembling a small piano with strings plucked by a quill.


galliard: Lively dance.
morris: Folk dance in which costumed participants act out a story.
canary: Improvised dance.