Music in Shakespeare

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Today we’ll discuss a quite uncommon and interesting topic, namely the role of music in Shakespeare plays. Along with this we also look up to the famous music composers of Shakespearean plays like Verdi, Britten, Purcell, Berlioz.

Music during the reign of Elizabeth I:

English art and culture reached to its excellence during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This era experienced a shift from sacred music to more secular one and the rise of instrumental music. Music had become a profession itself and professional musicians were being hired by the Church of England, the aristocrats and also by the rising middle class. Elizabeth herself was very fond of music and used to play the lute. During her reign, Elizabeth I employed almost 70 musicians. The two most popular musical instruments of her time were the Virginal and the Lute. The most popular musician of the lute and the lute songs were John Dowland and after him the greatest was Henry Purcell.

Elizabethan Music:

The professional companies, who used to put on plays during this era, used much reduced musical resources. Generally one adolescent boy actor used to sing and play one instrument and the clowns also used to sing. The Jigg, a special musical-comic genre was the domain of famous Shakespearean comedians like Richard Tarlton, William Kempe. Jiggs refer to the bawdy, low comedy burlesques, which were used to be put on at the conclusion of historical plays or tragedy. They involved two to five characters and were sung to popular melodies and accompanied by the cittern or the fiddle.

It was a regular custom to include at least one song in every play in Tudor and Stuart drama. The tragedies were the only exceptions. Shakespeare however denied this tradition by including songs in his later tragedies like ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’. Most of the plays by other dramatist had a tendency to include a lament to be sung by high-pitched or shrill voice and accompanied by consort of viola. Shakespeare parodied this genre through the interlude performance on Pyramus and Thisbe in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Shakespearean Music

Shakespeare used to assign most of his songs to the characters like servants, clowns, fools, rogues and minor characters. Most of the songs were used to be addressed to the protagonists themselves.

Songs and Music in Shakespearean plays:

In William Shakespeare plays like ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ the boy musician of the company, was showed to sing a song about drinking. Shakespeare in his plays used both the songs of Shakespeare times as well as the songs composed by him.

  • Shakespeare used songs to invoke various moods. In ‘Twelfth Night’ the song ‘O mistress mine’, sung by Robert Armin in the role of Feste the fool, is directed towards Sir Andrew Aguecheek and also it hinted towards Viola’s androgynous nature, as we can see in the line, ‘that can sing both high and low’. The songs, used in ‘Macbeth’, ‘Othello’, ‘The Tempest’ also help to set the mood right. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the song, ‘you spotted snakes’ has been sung by the fairies as a lullaby, in ‘The Tempest’, ‘come unto these yellow sands’ sung by Ariel reassures the arrival of the shipwrecked travellers in the magical island.
  • The Ritualistic songs have been used as conclusion of plays like at the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Titania, the fairy queen asks the fairies to “First, rehearse your song by rote/ To each word a warbling note/ Hand in hand, with fairy grace/ Will we sing, and bless this place.”
  • Songs have been used to establish character or mental state too. Iago in ‘Othello’ sang songs to give himself the appearance of a tough man. In ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet’ Edgar and Ophelia acts as a mad person through singing folksongs.
  • Shakespeare also used instrumental music of viola and lutes in order to produce the setting, mood of the play. The instrument Hoboys or the Ill wind was used to set the sombre mood, as in ‘Hamlet’, ‘Macbeth’. Viol and lute were used to ease melancholy.


Shakespeare’s plays inspired musicians like Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten, Barlioz, Verdi and so on. Purcell composed an orchestra on ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream for his opera, ‘The Fairy Queen’. Britten too composed a musical version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Giuseppe Verdi composed musical opera on ‘Macbeth’. Berlioz too, made several musical adaptations of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Hamlet’ and so on.